Education and the Surveillance State

Not to feed anti-government paranoia or anything, but the panopticon is in full symbolic effect in most public school classrooms and schools. Here I write specifically of one area of surveillance: testing.

security camera

It was a quote from Foucault related to “examinations” in an article lead authored by Michelle Fine that opened me up to the vision of state control possible through the current testing regime, which has the potential to haunt students, teachers, and principals. Here’s the quote:

[The art of punishing] measures in quantitative terms and hierarchizes in terms of value the abilities, the level, the ‘nature’ of individuals…. The perpetual penalty that traverses all points and supervises every instant in the disciplinary institutions compares, differentiates, hierarchizes, homogenizes, excludes. [1977:183]”

Fine et al. say that this quote was meant by Foucault to show that tests were exercises of power that helped the powers that be categorize people into normal vs. abnormal and citizen vs. foreigner. As I was discussing the quote with my students one day in class, I was overwhelmed with understanding. The thought of these students of mine, future teachers, being judged year after year based on cheap state tests left me reeling.

I wondered if students picked up on my state or just thought I was weird or what. I didn’t ask if they were at all afflicted by the thought of being tracked through test scores that sometimes had something (but not a lot), to do with how well they taught students what the state told them to.

If you’re unfamiliar with how most states judge teacher effectiveness, there’s one common element that you likely have not heard much of: value-added measurement. VAM as it’s known, is a statistical manipulation of data that attempts to measure how much “value” a teacher adds to a student. Value in VAM assumes that test scores are valuable. That requires an assumption that tests are valid measures of what kids know. That validity rests on the arbitrary decisions of a handful of education experts and politicians that decided what should be included in state curriculum. And those assumptions, bad as they may be, would be considered wise compared to the final, perhaps most important assumption of VAM: that the teacher bears sole responsibility for any greater (or lesser) than expected achievement score of their individual students.

To return to the chain of surveillance, VAM establishes expected growth of a student based on their previous test scores. All the students’ test scores follow them throughout their schooling.

The idea of tracking expected achievement score growth is clever: it is intended to control for variables like socioeconomic status. The problem (at least one of them) is that children and youth can never outrun their history of testing. Also widespread use of VAM around the country has shown that teachers in low-income schools tend to have poorer VAM scores. So much for controlling for socioeconomic status.

One more problem is that all teachers receive VAM scores, but not all teachers teach tested subjects. You’re a Spanish teacher? Your VAM score is based on your colleagues’ scores.

So from student test scores the state derives teacher VAM scores. These scores are tracked year after year and can determine licensure, promotion, raises, tenure, etc. You might think this is all sound scientific management. We have to have some way to determine what teachers are doing with tax money! But VAM is highly unstable: small variation in inputs (student test scores) can have dramatic effects on outcome (teacher VAM scores). The American Statistical Association has actually come out against the current use of VAM.

But there it is, in teacher files for the principal to see (and sometimes other people!). But principals aren’t off the hook either. Just as student scores are used to judge teachers, teacher scores are used to judge principals.

It was this pyramid of surveillance that made me shudder that day in class. I continue to learn and fret over the ways in which teachers are surveilled and controlled. But I’m heartened lately by the fact that the good principals are focusing less on test scores and more on creating better school climates for teachers and students. Maybe some of the apparatus could even be dismantled.

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