Capitalism calls for the accumulation and reinvestment of increasable profits. Corporations that don’t maximize profits so as to continuously augment and streamline their productive capacities go out of business on account of competitors that do.

Thus, we can define a “profit imperative” in the negative: entities that don’t maximize profits don’t endure the economic system.

I contend that a comparable incentive structure has taken hold of the education system. Test-based accountability measures have occasioned a “test score imperative” that governs educational actors in the spirit of the profit imperative.

Pursuant to the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001, K-12 public schools, in particular those in low-income neighborhoods, were subject to a series of deforming penalties when they failed to make “adequate yearly progress” as measured via “high-stakes” tests. Adequate yearly progress (AYP) called upon schools to increase annually the proportion of students that met or exceeded performance standards on state assessments short of one hundred percent.

Districts, schools, administrators, and teachers that consistently reported inadequate yearly progress faced one or more of the following prospects: public disrepute, dismissal, restructuring, closure, etc. In 2015, NCLB and AYP were superseded by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which upheld standards-based testing but left it to states to determine how schools would be held accountable for deficient scores.

In this way, there is a test score imperative that resembles the profit imperative: entities that don’t maximize test scores don’t endure the education system.

Consider this illustration: Just as a track record of profits is a precondition for being a CEO, a history of passable test scores is required of principals. Like unprofitable CEOs, in the event principals administer uniquely low scores they may lose their job.

Now, the quest for profits in economics has repercussions that are often blamed on such things as “corporate greed” and “humanity”, namely pollution, poisoning, worker exploitation, and so on. Marxist critique treats these consequences as structural features of capitalism and denies that they are expressions of human nature.

Of course issues arise, Marxists point out, the maximization of profits is incompatible with the maximization of well-being! In fact, the profit imperative compels businesspersons to do socially irresponsible things in an effort to increase their margins, such as disinform consumers, build-in obsolescence, and fly-tip waste.

It is likewise the case that the activity of maximizing test scores is incompatible with genuine teaching and learning. When the two come into conflict, teachers are compelled by the test score imperative to behave in ways they would rather not. For instance, teachers are disincentivized to entertain questions and introduce topics that do not align with tested materials, no matter how fruitful they may be.

I felt this tension while teaching fourth grade in a low-scoring public school in Massachusetts, at least. Students were scheduled for just ten minutes of recess per day because there was “post-pandemic catching up” to do — i.e., there were benchmarks to meet on tests. I could only give typical students limited breaks, even when extra hall-walks would’ve calmed or comforted them, because I had to make sure they didn’t miss tested lessons. I was explicitly disallowed to build classroom community (using a method in which I’m certificated) for more than ten minutes a day, because, I was reminded, I had to get through a certain amount of tested content before the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment.

The test score imperative precludes teachers from democratizing their classrooms, since tests prefix the academic content and methods that students are to be held responsible for, and function as deadlines by which students must master them. Thereby, tests guarantee that teachers cannot meaningfully include students in decision making processes concerning their schoolwork, nevermind give students the freedom to explore their own interests at their own pace. What’s worse, all of my lessons were “standards-aligned” and prescripted by for-profit education companies.

Just as the profit imperative coldly choreographs the economic encounter, the test score imperative reduces autonomy in the educational equation. The process of producing test scores deprofessionalizes teachers, disengages students, and mechanicalizes the art of teaching and learning. Teachers are tasked with transforming disimpassioned pupils into rote learners. Instruction becomes a means to the end of testing like the production of goods and services is a means to the end of profiting.

It must also be understood of capitalism that, in order to profit, corporate executives, or employers, must hire employees to produce x amount of value in return for a smaller portion of x — in the form of a wage — than is kept by the employers themselves, who contribute comparatively little to the production of x, but who own the means of producing it.

The defining feature of the relation of the employer to the employee is the arbitrary authority the former exercises over the latter. Non-union employees have little to no say in any of the decisions that affect the nature and purpose of their work, are hired and fired by their employers, and must sell their labor for less than it’s worth.

So how is this fundamentally undemocratic economic relation tolerated to the extent that it is in the supposedly democratic United States? Social scientists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis argue in their 1976 book Schooling in Capitalist America that schools help inure children to the conditions of capitalist employment. Schools succeed on this front because “the relationships between administrators and teachers, teachers and students, students and students, and students and their work — replicate the hierarchical division of labor.”

For instance, the stratification of subjects in schools reflects the departmentalization of production in workplaces. The school week, like the work week, consists of five, seven-hour days of working on assignments dictated by superordinates.

Pupils, like workers, do not find their work — learning — to be intrinsically worthwhile, because they have little to no creative control over it. Instead, they are extrinsically motivated by grades, as workers are by wages. The threat of failure looms like that of unemployment.

In sum, schooling embodies the social relations of working under capitalism and thereby induces bankable habits and attitudes. This observation is conceptualized by Bowles and Gintis as the correspondence principle.

Schools could be organized in any number of other ways — indeed alternative models exist. But the bulk of U.S. schools adhere to the correspondence principle because they operate under the umbrella of a capitalist economic system, which requires as a prerequisite the reproduction of existing class relations.

A truly meritocratic education system is not in the best interest of those with the greatest power to affect the system. Employers are interested in maintaining their position in society and use their outsized wealth to exercise institutional power in the domain of education policy and elsewhere.

Yet, I want to say nothing reciprocates or reproduces capitalist class relations in schools more than the program of high-stakes standardized testing, which is inherently uncooperative and competitive to begin with.

It is often argued that multiple-choice assessments are incomplete or unreliable measures of learning. Besides, scores have not improved since NCLB to the degree they were supposed to. For reasons like these, most critiques of standardization conceive of testing as a failed reform. But the opposite might just as well be true. Perhaps testing has succeeded, only in service of an unstated purpose.

Sure, the Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Ford foundations financed the development of academic assessments. Yes, profiteers exploit tests in their efforts to privatize education. What’s more, for-profit publishers such as Pearson make billions off of standardization. But, as it turns out, none of these economically-oriented entities foresaw the systemic upshot of high-stakes testing.

Namely, high-stakes assessment forces educators to organize around a test score imperative that is analogous to the profit imperative of capitalism, which in turn enhances and ensures the correspondence observed by Bowles and Gintis between schooling and working under capitalism. High-stakes testing mechanizes the correspondence principle. We can call it the “correspondence mechanism”.

Teaching and learning under the regime of test-based accountability approximates a capitalist mode of production, wherein teachers must extract test scores — as if profits — from the labor of the students they’re meant to educate. It is through and because of this process that students, as Bowles and Gintis put it, “are induced to accept the powerlessness with which they will be faced as mature workers.”

This is precisely why, I think, many of us are dissatisfied in our classrooms. It partway explains why nearly half of U.S. schools are short on teachers this year. Extending a Marxist analysis to the education system suggests that a number of the challenges, frustrations, and issues teachers face are systemic consequences of the test score imperative. High-stakes tests force us as K-12 educators to navigate contradictory and deprived capitalistic relations in our schools. Thankfully, in my experience teachers are skilled at, and committed to, doing this.

If nothing else, this analogy between test scores and profits points a way forward. Organized workers have historically counterbalanced the profit imperative by striking for more humane terms of employment. Teachers can engage in the correspondent fight against the test score imperative by collectively resisting standardization that greatly dehumanizes or automates their pedagogy.

Tyler Poisson taught fourth grade while obtaining an M.Ed. from 2020-2022. He is exploring options for doctoral degrees.

A fuller version of this article is due to be published in The Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies

Image: pxhere (CC0)