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January 18, 2016 - WRECKING BALL EDUCATION: Paul Popenoe, Eugenics, and 'Accountability'

Nearing launch...

Here at Resounding Books, we're gearing up for the imminent announcement and launch of a project-based, citizen-led initiative to unmask the true nature of [false] accountability in education. We have already clinched a panel of remarkable individuals to assist us in evaluating project submissions. Guidelines have now been drafted and are being refined. Only a very few items remain to complete before we launch.

We're just about to invite you to unleash your creative powers and make a major impact with us. 

Today, it's Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, though. So, in this brief interim, it seemed appropriate to provide some valuable historical context around the reason that public engagement is so crucial in pushing back against [false] accountability. To that end, we offer the second installment of Wrecking Ball Education, a series we started a while back but had to put on the back burner for a while. If anyone deserved to have his ideas about education demolished with a wrecking ball, it's Paul Popenoe. 

Popenoe and the Meaning of Accountability

Paul Popenoe (1888-1979) was not an educator. He was an American eugenist who, in 1918, co-authored with University of Pittsburgh Professor Roswell Hill Johnson Applied Eugenics, a major treatise of the period. While it has fallen into relative obscurity today, the book's two editions had numerous printings and remained influential for years. At the time of the book's original publication, Popenoe was serving as editor for The Journal of Heredity, an organ of the American Genetic Association (AGA). Formerly the American Breeders' Association, the AGA was reorganized and renamed in 1915. Popenoe would go on to serve as director of the Institute for Family Relation and secretary of the Human Betterment Foundation (HBF), both of which had eugenic underpinnings. HBF, in particular, worked to establish compulsory sterilization laws. 

While more measured than some on sterilization initiatives, Popenoe was nevertheless quite bullish on the ways in which the American education system could further the eugenic cause. Take for example, this excerpt from pages 370-371:

The educational system should be a sieve through which all the children of the country are passed--or more acccurately, a series of sieves, which will enable the teacher to determine just how far it is profitable to educate each child so that he may lead a life of the greatest possible usefulness to the state and happiness to himself. Obviously, such a function would be inadequately discharged, if the sieve failed to get all the available material; and compulsory education makes it certain that none will be omitted.

There is far more to Popenoe's troubling view of mandated education, and we encourage readers to explore electronic versions of the work for themselves. We suspect they will be as alarmed by the place of such thinking in American history as we are. For now, though, let's focus in on this single passage, examining it again as it appears in the 1933 revised edition of the book. (NOTE: We've linked the 1949 eighth printing, testifying to the volume's sustained popularity and influence.) There, the passage reflects some changes, highlighted in boldface :

The educational system should be a sieve, through which all the children of the country are passed—or more accurately, a series of sieves, which will enable the school administration to determine just how far it is profitable to educate each child so that he may lead a life of the greatest possible usefulness to the state and happiness to himself. Obviously, such a function would be inadequately discharged if the sieve failed to get all the available material, and compulsory education makes it certain that all will be measured, provided the school system is efficient enough to make diagnosis and prognosis two of its major functions. 

For a publisher, such as we are, this set of edits is fascinating and deeply significant.

In the revised edition, Popenoe demonstrates a strong embrace of the managerialism that lay at the very heart of that model. It's immediately evidenced in his shift from speaking of teachers to school administration in relationship to discernment and decision-making. Perhaps teachers weren't entirely on board with the factory model. More to the point, however, relying on individual teachers would have been considered inefficient by a model that strongly favored centralization and standardization. In his essay "Learning with Leviathan: Objectification, Surveillance, and Control in a Concealed Command Economy" (in Common Ground on Common Core, 2014), data scientist and education activist Jeffrey D. Horn has written in some detail about the dubious triumph of the assembly line model of education in the early decades of the 20th century--and the ways in which it has been enforcing compliance ever since.

According to Popenoe, what's the component necessary to ensuring compliance?

Measurement, of course: DATA

What kind of data...?

Note that Popenoe makes zero mention of academic achievement in this passage. Instead, he speaks of "diagnosis and prognosis," terms that a medical doctor or a psychologist would use in speaking of a patient in need of healing...intervention...treatment...shaping.

Is it any wonder, then, that in an education system heavily influenced by eugenics, virtually all mandated assessments today are designed to capture significant amounts of psychometric data in at least equal measure to any information gathered about academics? Furthermore, should it be surprising that insistence on psychometrically based assessment has gone hand-in-hand with an explosion in the number of ways a child can be labeled or determined "at risk"? "At risk" has become a perpetual justification for a dogged insistence on identifying, ranking, sorting, and slotting children, based on personal traits that those running the system permit themselves the liberty of deeming acceptable or unacceptable. Note that Popenoe is not talking about aggregate data, either. The value lies in personal information that permits a "diagnosis and prognosis" for each child. No child is to escape measurement and evaluation.

And who determines the basis for diagnosis and prognosis? Certainly not the teacher--not in any meaningful way. Definitely not the parent. No...It's those in a position to pull the system's levers (policies) and position its human gears (school personnel). 

True education--real teaching or learning in the classroom--becomes but a pale afterthought if one follows Popenoe's vision to its logical end. And that, in fact, is what we still appear to be doing in multiple respects. Again, this reality is hardly the fault of teachers, though they are regularly and wrongly blamed for it.

Why this system?

Because it ensures an insidious form of quality control over both operations and outputs. In a word: ACCOUNTABILITY.

Not accountability to parents. Not accountability to elected school board members. Not even accountability to taxpayers.

Rather, accountability to those running the system, and who achieve through it:

  • Enforcement by administration (management)
  • Subjugation of teachers (production)
  • Marginalization of parents (useless parts)
  • Engineering of children and their futures (final product, subject to inspection)

To be clear, the data used to accomplish all of these tasks doesn't have to be honest or accurate or valid. And in point of fact, it's often not. It just has to be in plentiful, in steady supply, and delivered in the right package to foster compliance--say, using scores on invalid assessments to label large swaths of students as failing; or subsequently using student scores on invalid assessments to assign meaningless grades to schools or teachers; or subsequently closing schools based on the meaningless grades they have been assigned. We won't get too much into the weeds here, but hopefully you take our point.

Data is the fuel that keeps the engines of such a system running: data gathered, data leveraged, and data "delivered." Accountabilty is not about ensuring that kids learn. That is only what the public assumes. Moreover, accountability measures are increasingly being used to ensure that all educational channels--not just public schools or those that take public dollars--will be forced to hand over student data. 

Popenoe was far from alone in viewing the education system as ideally suited to social engineering and management. In this respect, he had plenty of company. In fact, when one considers the formalization of career-tracking schemes now established or springing up across the nation, one might say that many of his ideas are still very much en vogue. Or perhaps de rigeur is slightly more apt.

Accountability to what or whom?

And who is running our system today? Who is insisting on a never-empty pipeline of student data via ever more standardized assessments, electronic devices used for daily assignments in the classroom, longitudinal studies, and more? To whom is accountability due?

Again, it's not parents. It's not teachers. It's not even most taxpayers. 

It's public-private partnership: Big Business holding hands with--and leveraging the force of--Big Government. It has been all along.

These are the corrupt parties that actually benefit from [false] ACCOUNTABILITY measures. 

How have things changed since Popenoe?

A few names and superficial concepts have changed. We've managed to accelerate the processes involved in perpetuating the assembly line. But not much else. There may be more children in classrooms today than in Popenoe's day. But, thanks to a perpetual stream of false education reforms, in many senses inspired by him, there's far less meaningful education taking place in the classroom. 

The continued embrace of this basic model means we're also still pretending that damaging reforms are somehow benevolent--that they "help." Some kids are more directly and immediately affected by false reforms and accountability; some communities are more starkly destabilized by them. But let's face it--"normal" kids, "gifted" kids, special needs kids, black, brown, yellow, olive, white, or green-with-purple-polka-dotted kids--there isn't a one out there whose data the system doesn't want, whose problems the system doesn't pretend it can fix, and whose future it doesn't now aim to shape in some manner.

The outcome-based workforce model of education that now dominates our schools is simply the current version of a factory/plantation model of which Popenoe and others dreamed. It aims to "breed" the most useful, compliant workers and citizen-subjects possible. It even frames children as human capital...chattel.

In accomplishing its ends the system and those who drive it are ever industrious. It continually evaluates our children at the expense of actual education. It demands ever more data for the sake of "diagnosis and prognosis." It uses loads of standardized assessment, with major psychometric components, to hold teachers, schools, and districts "accountable." It identifies, ranks, sorts, and slots children based on dubious data rather than allowing children simply to learn, grow, and choose in light of who they actually are. It labels children as disordered, pathologizes their individuality, and career-tracks them at younger and younger ages. It crushes their spirits and limits their future choices and opportunities in the process. To the greatest degree possible, it marginalizes or silences the voices of concerned parents, resistant teachers, renegade school officials, and uncooperative school boards.

But above all else, it "measures"--just as Paul Popenoe suggested it should. Never mind that most of the claims made for such measurement are impossibly false. Just keep the data flowing. Data for control. Data for money. Data, data, data. ALWAYS AND FOREVER...DATA.

Paul Popenoe played a distinct and historic role in creating a damaging system of [false] accountability. It's time the crooked word games that that system fosters came to an end so that they can no longer perpetuate the destruction of true education or facilitate travesties like this one.

Stay tuned...

Over the next few days, we'll be taking care of the last few details prior to the launch of our initiative. But look for some powerful memes on Facebook and Twitter over the next few days as we work to build momentum and awareness. Any help you can give us in passing this article and the coming memes forward would be deeply appreciated. 

Just a few more days....

We look forward to making a difference...together.


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