Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Origins of Standardization in North American Schools

     As I walked into grade one of tiny, Crystal Springs School in north end Montreal, I saw a room exactly the same as every grade one in the whole province of Quebec. Indeed, it was same as every classroom all the way through high school. There were six rows of desks and seats, always exactly six, bolted to the floor. At the front was a chalkboard. The teacher's desk was at the head of the class, alway dead centre. Even for a six year old, it was clear that meant order, discipline, authority, sameness. Standardized education.

       I learned on my way through four schools that every day started at 9, and ended at 3:15. When, in grade six I arrived minutes late, I was suspended for a day. All text books were standard to produce us as standard products. We were, for example, trained to be loyal subjects of a British Empire that was on its last legs, and from which Canada had become independent a generation earlier. The History text, largely fiction, was titled, "Canada: A British Nation". (My class was largely made up of Italians, Syrians, and a scattering of East Europeans.)

    We learned to line up before going anywhere, and to go there in perfect rows without talking. We learned to keep our bowels under strict control except for breaks at recess and noon. We learned to obey. We learned to memorize. We learned to be on time. The school board knew we weren't going to university, or even going to finish high school.  Even we knew it. And not one of us from that grade one at Crystal Springs ever did finish high school. Some of us dropped out as early as grade four.

     But we were the standard products the board was aiming for. Each grade ground out a product that could be gauged by grade to perform at slightly varying levels as obedient and reliable robots to do low level jobs in factories and offices.

     After flunking out, then doing my turns as factory and office worker, I became a teacher. At teachers' college, we learned all about what was wrong withproducing standardized robots. So I looked forward to my first day of teaching at Parkdale School in a Montreal suburb. It was an almost new building. I went in, walked down the hall, walked early to room 22, and looked with excitement over my first classroom.

    Wow! The desks and chairs weren't bolted to the floor. They could be moved. I could put students in friendship groups or tutoting groups or private study groups. I could move the teacher's desk out of the way.  So we all had a great time that first day, moving things around, and seeing what worked best.  Then the principal dropped by.

     "Oh, no, Mr. Decarie. The desks have to be in rows. Straight rows. Six of them."
     "It makes it easier for the janitor."

      'Oh'" he said in parting (he was fond of "oh"), "talk to the other grade seven teachers to make sure you're always together on the same pages of the text books ."

       Standardized education goes back at least a hundred and fifty years in North America. At that time, the children of the rich, like the children of the rich today, went to private schools where they were groomed for universities which were largely playground/finishing schools for the rich.

       Lower down the scale, some would pay small fees so their children could get very basic education from a local, needy person who could read - perhaps a widow. The rest got no education unless they came from a religious tradition that encouraged reading for religious purposes - like Methodism or Judaism.

     Public school really took off in the provision of standardized and measured education for the masses around the middle of the century as industrialization took root, and as families left the farm for salaried work in the cities.  It's purpose was to provide low level workers with adequate reading skills to read simple signs, adequate mathematical skill to do what a Hollywood Hilllbilly used to call Guzintas, drilled to respect punctuality and orders, and trained in  the conventions of  knowing their social place. ("Not rising above their stations," as the old folks used to say.)

      Over the years, especially as the years after 1945 showed a growing demand for office workers, the system responded by requiring students to stay in school for more years, by offering a wider range of courses for everybody, and by raising grades to avoid the truth that too many people were failing in the standardized system,thus creating a glut of failed students. Any glut was too expensive in its demand for more space and teachers.

     From 1950 on, the universities became, in effect, a higher and expensive level of the public school system. They, too, raised grades and taught all sorts of things that would be forgotten within months of the final exam. In the process, the universities created a crisis for themselves. They needed more and more students to pay fees in order for the universities to maintain the research on which academic status and egos depended. They simply could not afford to let people flunk out. So the universities, like the high schools, taught measurable but largely useless information.

      Don't think so? Could you still pass a high school trigonometry exam? or that university course in itntroductory sociology? I had eight years of university education; and I don't remember even the names of most of the courses.

       Next, we'll take a look at how standardization causes damage to both students and teachers.


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