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Teaching By Numbers: Deconstructing the Discourse of Standards and Accountability in Education

reviewed by Arthur Costigan - November 30, 2009

coverTitle: Teaching By Numbers: Deconstructing the Discourse of Standards and Accountability in Education
Author(s): Peter Taubman
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 0415962749, Pages: 242, Year: 2009
Search for book at Amazon.com

There is a story behind this book.  Peter Taubman was the point person when Brooklyn College of the City University of New York (CUNY) needed to gain national accreditation through the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE).  As many readers will know, the process of applying for this accreditation is both intense and time consuming.  Particularly in public colleges serving diverse urban populations where resources are few, this process diverts these resources, most especially intellectual resources, to the NCATE process.  Nevertheless, Taubman and the other faculty did their jobs very well, and in the first instance in the CUNY system, the college passed unconditionally.  As the author tells it, although he took pride in getting the job done, something was bothering him about his participation in a process which he found was one of “intellectual and ethical hollowness.”  He writes, “I suspect, looking back, that my outrage had something to do with the knowledge of and guilt about how much I’d been complicit in the whole enterprise” (p. 198).  

This story is the background of a book whose purpose is to examine the current era when education has been taken over with business and corporate models of standards, assessment, and accountability.  The author first wants to understand how teacher educators allowed themselves to be overwhelmed by the values of neoliberalism and corporatism.  Second, he wishes to examine the larger contemporary educational scene and understand how it came to be that learning is now equated with standards, objectives, tests, and ultimately, mere numbers.  The title of the book refers to the “paint by numbers” kits the author experienced in his youth.  He sees “performance outcomes” being to education what paint by numbers kits are to art.  

In one impassioned passage, he makes his case:

As we teachers continue to be subject to abuse, like torture victims, we turn to our victimizers for respite from the pain.  We imagine that corporate lawyers and executives, accountants, millionaires and billionaires, men and women, although mainly men, who have championed the eradication of social security and unions, cutbacks in funding for social programs and the breaking of the New Deal have some insight into how we should educate the youth of this country.  What they offer are practices culled from business and the logics of the marketplace.  And out of shame, fear, fantasies of grandeur and worthlessness, and a profound sense of loss we are vulnerable to these. (p. 196)

A key aspect to this book is that we educators are very much in the middle of this emerging paradigm and have yet to find either our way or our voice.  There is no way yet to comprehend in any comprehensive way what has been happening.  This book, however, is an attempt to understand neoliberal reforms from various perspectives and paradigms available, and the author appeals to Lacanian theory, audit culture theory, Foucauldian studies of governmentality, and various sociological approaches—along, I might add, with the perspectives of those who know how to teach.   Taubman’s extensive citations reveal a widespread knowledge-base for his investigations.  Some readers may balk at this divergent approach, but this is understandable as investigations into neoliberal educational reforms are recent.  The work of Taubman, along with Berliner and Biddle (1995), Gabbard (2007), and Hursh (2004; 2005) really are the beginning of a strand of neoconservative criticism in the educational community.

The chapters of the book progress from the specific to the more theoretical and psychological.  After describing the contemporary education scene as he sees it today in chapters one and two, the author then moves in chapter three to the very real situation of testing in the United States today.  He examines testing from the overarching influence of such phenomena as NCLB and other neoliberal reforms, and then examines specific tests that teachers and students are made to take, attempting to show how specific test questions change the way we are made to conceive of knowledge.  In chapter four the author then engages in an examination of education policy and pays particular attention to the groups that have both real power and have created a hegemony of educational discourse.  In turn he examines AACTE, NCATE, and NEA, among many of the foundations and institutes now in power.

By the beginning of the second half of the book in chapter five, Taubman examines the phenomenon of “audit culture.”  This chapter addresses what to educators is perhaps the most foreign aspect of neoconservative educational reforms.  Here Taubman explains how the standards and accountability worldview works, and he attempts to deconstruct the thinking processes of those people and groups who reduce knowledge, learning, and experience to numbers.  This chapter uncovers the thinking behind phenomena such as NCATE and NCLB and uncovers how “performance outcomes,” and “performance standards” actually work, as well as how reformers want to create “standardized” teachers, students, and learning.  This is followed in chapter six by a more psychological discussion of how an entire profession could be seduced into this type of thinking.  The book ends in its most politically charged section.  The title of chapter seven says it all: “Intellectual capital:  How the learning sciences led education astray.”

I write this review from a biased perspective.  I teach at another CUNY college, and I am currently under the gun for a NCATE deadline to accredit my program.  As Taubman notes, an insidious aspect of test – and accountability – driven reforms is that resources are almost never allocated, particularly in the case of those of us who work in public academic settings which serve diverse urban communities.  Better funded universities have more resources to grant course releases and pay support staff to assist in achieving conditional or unconditional accreditation.  Ultimately, however, all educators are in the same situation.  Conditional or unconditional accreditation doesn’t matter.  NCATE will come back again and again, and it will never leave.  Its purpose is to first make educators acquiesce into a certain type of thinking, and then to see that this type of thinking is sustained.

However, NCATE is only a symptom of a type of thinking which has overtaken the educational landscape in the United States today.  This year in my hometown of New York City, the serial testing of children in kindergarten has begun.  As I write this, the mayor of the city, with Arne Duncan at his side, announced that teachers should be retained or fired based on their students’ test scores.  These types of scenarios are being played out in every state and school district nationwide.  For those of us who began teaching over a decade ago, this “audit” approach to education is both distressing and strange and, most unfortunately, shows no sign of going away during the Obama administration.

Taubman admits he does not have the answer to why this is so.  His attempt is simply to expose what has happened, to provide various paradigms by which to understand the standards and accountability phenomenon, and to provide an opportunity for conversations about alternatives.   


Berliner, D. & Biddle, B.  (1995).  The manufactured crisis.  New York:  Perseus.

Gabbard, D. (ed.) (2007).  Knowledge and power in the global economy.  New York:  Routledge.

Hursh, D. (2004).  Undermining democratic education in the USA:  The consequences of global capitalism and neo-liberal policies for education policies at the local, state and federal levels.  Policy Futures in Education 2(3/4), 601-614.

Hursh, D. (2005).  Neo-liberalism, markets and accountability:  transforming education and undermining democracy in the United States and England.  Policy Futures in Education 3(1), 3-15.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 30, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15851, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 10:17:08 AM

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About the Author
  • Arthur Costigan
    Queens College, CUNY
    E-mail Author
    ARTHUR COSTIGAN is Associate Professor of Education at Queens College, CUNY where he co-directs English Education programs. His most recent book is Teaching Language Arts in a Test-Driven Era (Routledge, 2008). His current research interests are the effects of neoliberal educational reforms and the resulting test- and accountability-driven realities of new teachers as they develop professionally in the hopes of providing empowerment for the development of authentic teaching practices.
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