Saturday, December 9, 2017

Standards, Testing and Determined Futures

Cover art for Nubes a Mi Alrededor:
Oral Histories from Horizon Academy,
Rikers Island
(M.A. Reilly, 2008)
In the finest classrooms I have observed/researched across the last twenty years, uncertainty was more the norm than not. That's right: uncertainty. This may seem unusual given the normalcy of educational standards and their accompanying high stakes assessments that have constrained learning these last thirty years. We have been told that named lists of things to know advantages learning. But does it? 

I can’t help but wonder if the standards movement so intimately tied to tests aren’t complicit in limiting learning by replacing wonder with codification. The tacit is hardly ever acknowledged in the rooms where standards are unfolded like predetermined paths that must be followed. The world beyond that path does not exist. Rather than following learners’ interests, we slavishly attend to narrow sets of standards and the lists of codified bits of knowledge as if these bits existed outside time, intention, ethics, and morals. In doing this we create classrooms where determined futures are the end point. And this is tragic.

Marching scores and scores of learners to already determined futures is less about living and more about following. In such schema ethics and creativity as Gary Saul Moroson (1994) has theorized is always lessened. The repeated practice dulls the mind. It is as if learning was more foreshadow and less lived practice.

In "Restoring Points of Potentiality: Sideshadowing in Elementary Classrooms," I wrote that a determined future is a knowable point in time that excludes other possibilities. Michael AndrĂ© Bernstein (1994) explained that foreshadowing relies on logic that “must always value the present, not for itself, but as the harbinger of an already determined future” (p. 2).  Getting kids to know point A is all that matters; the present moment where they stand has already been scripted, contained and limited. Standards and high stakes testing rest on the logic of an already determined future. One we have been told to believe must be privileged. The actual lived experience is reduced and in some cases deadened. Codification on such grand scales limits learning as it fails to allow for the present moment to emerge in favor of determined end points. Such logic reduces possibility and replaces it with certainty.

In the classrooms and schools where uncertainty was privileged, learners (students and teachers) demonstrated curiosity, wonder, error, persistence, accuracy, and an intellectualism that was generous and gregarious. There, paths were made, not followed. Middles emerged as natural. The present moment was very much alive.


Bernstein, M.A. (1994). Foregone conclusions: Against apocalyptic history. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Morson, G.S. (1994). Narrative and freedom: The shadows of time. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

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