The Cult of Success

In reading Diana Senechal’s The Republic of Noise, I found a framework for thinking about the direction of Iowa’s education policy, including current reform efforts.  We, or at least Iowa’s education policymakers, are succumbing to, or have already succumbed to, the cult of success.

Senechal observes that the definition of success has been narrowed to focus on visible, external aspects of success.  Success and achievement are talked of without much mention of what we are to succeed at or what we are to achieve and whether those are meaningful successes or achievements; the important thing is to outrank others and earn money.  As a result, there is a great “devotion to metrics: the modern “science” of measuring everything we do, in order to increase our chances and our profits.”  (p.117)  Which, in turn, can cause us to focus too narrowly on only those aspects of education that can be measured.  This is unfortunate because, as Senechal notes, “we need a mixture of the visible and invisible, the measurable and the unmeasurable–and that the former sometimes gives us a glimpse of the latter.”  (p. 125)

This grasp of the mixture of the visible and invisible, the measurable and immeasurable, was at one point a central aspect of liberal education, part of every study and part of the spirit of study.  In mathematics, one wrestled with abstract concepts that did not translate immediately into practical examples; in literature, one tried to grasp what made a passage particularly beautiful.  Such efforts varied, of course, from school to school, teacher to teacher, and student to student, but learning went far beyond the literal and immediately applicable.  Teachers and professors delighted in the students who pursued subjects out of interest, not just for a grade.  A lecturer could make artful use of a digression, and at least some students would listen for the connections and the meaning.  Today the teacher who digresses is frowned upon; everything in a lesson is supposed to move toward a specific measurable goal.  Teachers are supposed to announce the objective at the start of the lesson, remind students of the objective throughout the lesson, and demonstrate attainment of the objective at the end.  (p. 126)

It isn’t difficult to find evidence of the influence of the cult of success on Iowa education policy.  Consider the vision, mission, goals, and guiding principles of the Iowa Department of Education.  Iowa students are to be “productive” and “successful.”  The Department is to champion “excellence” and students are to “achieve at a high level” and “pursue postsecondary education in order to drive economic success.”  How exactly students are to be productive and successful and what they are to be achieving at a high level is unclear, except that they are to be economically successful.

Current reform efforts have been driven by Iowa’s slipping rankings on the NAEP exams compared to other states.  The Education Blueprint  looks to set goals for graduation rates and top statewide performance on national standardized assessments and to focus on creating economically successful students:

Whether our children succeed in a global economy depends on whether we create world-class schools.

This blueprint is an urgent call to do just that. We must work together to transform schools so our youngsters are better prepared for a competitive international marketplace.  Setting higher expectations for all students is essential so they are equipped to someday meet growing demands by employers.

As many old jobs become obsolete, getting students ready for new jobs requires more than raising achievement in subjects like math and science. Students today also must learn how to quickly assimilate new knowledge, solve problems, and be innovative.

We are going to out rank other states (and nations) on standardized assessments and ensure economic success through measurement.  The plan is to add more assessments and evaluations: more standardized exams for students; personality tests, content tests, and new evaluations including value-added measurement for teachers; and new evaluations for administrators.  We are going to create new accountability measures for schools and data-driven decision-make ourselves to high standardized test scores and economic competitiveness.

Sadly, there is little concern for what actually happens in the classroom and little discussion of the content and skills that make for a well-educated person beyond what can be measured by current standardized exams or is likely to result in a paycheck.*  Will Iowa students graduate capable of signing their own names in cursive or having studied Shakespeare?  Who knows.  Current education policy is about measurable results and not the mix of measurable and immeasurable benefits of a liberal arts and sciences education.  Shouldn’t we expect more than a focus on rankings and job skills from “world-class” schools?

*For more evidence of the Department’s fixation on students as future workers, consider, for example, the Iowa Core: Birth to Five Essential Concepts and Skills (identifies employability skills for infants, toddlers, and preschool-age children) and I Have a Plan Iowa  (career interest quiz and career exploration for elementary-age children featuring an animated puppy as the children’s guide through Jobland).


2 thoughts on “The Cult of Success

  1. Chris

    This is a great post. Earlier today I ran across this article by Michael Sandel; the treatment of kids as nothing more than future employees, and of education as nothing more than job training, and the disregard of everything that can’t be measured and monetized, seems to be part of the commodification of everything that he’s describing.

  2. Karen W Post author

    Thanks for commenting and the link to the article. I am not in favor of paying children to read or for test scores. I hadn’t considered his other point though–if the study of literature and the liberal arts and sciences disciplines are driven out of the K-12 curriculum in favor of employment and 21st Century Skills–are we exacerbating wealth-driven educational inequalities?

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