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Selling the Market : Educational Standards, Discourse and Social Inequality
James Collins Critique of Anthropology 2001 21: 143 DOI: 10.1177/0308275X0102100202 The online version of this article can be found at:

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Selling the Market
Educational Standards, Discourse and Social Inequality
James Collins
Department of Anthropology, University at Albany/SUNY

Abstract Ⅲ The call for national and state-level educational standards has swept across the American educational scene in the last 15 years. Using a language of competition, fair play and equal treatment, standards advocates have captured a broad spectrum of both conservative and liberal support. Drawing upon journalistic reports, advocacy documents and interview data, this article presents an analysis of interconnected aspects of the evolution of educational reform discourse, in particular, advocacy from the leadership of a national teachers’ union and classroom teachers’ situated responses to ongoing changes. Critically appropriating from Fairclough’s analytic schema and commensurable concepts in Silverstein and Urban, I analyze interactional figures and socio-political themes involved in the elite and non-elite discourse of standards, with particular focus on the neo-liberal trope of a ‘new era of work’ and associated fears of increasing inequality. I conclude by assessing the differing strengths of the two frameworks as well as the role of discourse analysis more generally in critical social inquiry. Keywords Ⅲ discourse analysis Ⅲ neo-liberalism Ⅲ teachers’ unions Ⅲ United States

A call for national and state-level educational reform has swept across the United States for the last 15 years. It has not been a narrow pedagogical debate but instead has had general political resonance. As an article in the Atlantic Monthly noted:
During the 1980s the idea of raising standards in public education emerged as a national cause and as an establishing issue for a certain kind of centrist politician. It provided the opportunity to demonstrate that the liberal impulse to offer opportunity to all and the conservative impulse to demand high performance could be joined. Among the people who used education reform to get onto the national stage were Bill and Hillary Clinton, in Arkansas, and Ross Perot, who was the head of a state commission on the subject, in Texas. (Lemann, 1997: 128)2

It remains to be seen whether ‘opportunity to all’ can be provided in pedagogies and assessments which ignore social differences; new standards may
Vol 21(2) 143–163 [0308-275X(200106)21:2; 143–163;016275] Copyright 2001 © SAGE Publications (London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi)

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In short. all states in the USA have implemented some form of ‘higher standards’ for curriculum and assessment. 1995) propose three analytic levels. is whether discourse analysis provides privileged theoretical and analytical guidance to our search for understanding. The important question. wellknown facts of increasing social inequality and on the ways in which writers and speakers position themselves in an ongoing debate. Despite skirmishes over whether there should be national achievement testing or national standards. Although there is a substantial critical literature about the standards movement. it is an elite consensus. the discursive and the society-wide (the postulation of such levels is distinct from the epistemological concern with interpretation and explanation which Slembrouck and Verschueren address elsewhere in COA 21[1]). the idea that there should be some mandated common framework for curriculum and assessment in all schools – at the state if not the federal level – has wide appeal in the United States. and the resonance of standards rhetoric with broad socio-political developments. It is an appeal that crosses party lines. of course. can contribute to our understanding of the nature of the appeal of standards. little attention has been given to the forms of language used in constructing the new consensus or to the problem of relating alternative perspectives to the dominant view. In what follows I will present such an analysis. 2013 . especially grammatical Downloaded from coa. examining standards advocacy documents and grassroots teachers’ responses. especially the AFT. a notable feature of the standards movement as it has developed over time is that initial commitments to ‘resource equity’ – resources necessary to create ‘a level [educational] playing field’ – have been abandoned as particular initiatives have been developed and implemented (Natriello.sagepub. The textual level involves interpretation of words. Fairclough’s schema calls for analysis of the textual. it has the active endorsement of the leadership of national teachers’ unions. uniting Democrats and Republicans at the national and state level. the diffusion of influential arguments.144 Critique of Anthropology 21(2) simply reinforce the familiar inequalities of educational achievement by income and race. their sense. the other two from contemporary social analysis. in particular critical and anthropological frameworks. Although the terms have shifted over the years. 1996). focusing on the contradiction of a rhetoric of equality vs. one of which derives from traditions of linguistic analysis. connotation and metaphorical associations. Indeed. analysis of certain syntactic by guest on February 10. Analytic frameworks Fairclough’s well-known arguments about language and power and about critical discourse analysis or CDA (1992. and it garners praise from nationally syndicated columnists such as arch-conservative Thomas Sowell and liberal Gary Wills. and it has resulted in sweeping changes: in the last 15 years. I will argue that discourse analysis.

2013 . and paying attention to very general social-semiotic processes. it is interesting that Natural Histories of Discourse (NHD) (Silverstein and Urban. with real or construable sources (speakers and writers. NHD contains many contributions which are concerned with the dynamics of authority and power in language use and several (including one by this author) concerned with analysis of bureaucratic institutions in the United States or Europe. It concerns the complex positioning that potential interlocutors can take vis-a-vis ‘what is actually inscribed or spoken’ and. and analysis of interactional features such as turn-taking. COA 21[1]. The society-wide level involves analysis of institutionally defined personae in typical encounters (such as the doctor and patient. interactional and metadiscursive levels. and which is useful as a general overview of the approach taken. the interpretation of pervasive if somewhat indistinct discourse genres (such as therapy/counseling talk. conversely. it has to do with ‘what a text actually says’ in everyday parlance. Silverstein and Urban present a tripartite schema of analysis. and it entails the analysis of lexical and syntactic contributions to some extended stretch of discourse deemed a text. Its weakness is that actual analyses are often removed from ethnographic or institutional context and thus vulnerable to extensive counter-interpretation (Verschueren. Since it comes from a tradition of linguistic anthropology that has had little engagement with CDA. 1986). Widdowson. interactional text. advertising and officialese).com by guest on February 10. The denotational text is roughly equivalent to Fairclough’s ‘text’. I will refer to these as denotational text. 1998). 1996) shares analytic affinities with Fairclough. interpretative analysis of social practice and macrosociological concerns with structure. Metadiscursive frames are authoritative guides – Downloaded from coa. In the introduction to this book. authors. extending beyond the lexical and syntactic to explore what other traditions call ‘context’: participants’ social and communication-event roles. literal or referential meaning. such as ‘marketization’. This schema distinguishes between referential. audiences.145 Collins: Educational Standards and Inequality voice. for a thorough discussion). the combining of linguistic analysis. interactional text has to do with speech-event or communicative-act personae.sagepub. the policeman and suspect). 1996. The interactional text is approximate to Fairclough’s ‘discursive practice’. and the actual or presumptive distribution of texts (Gumperz and Hymes. Following the terminology of Silverstein’s chapter (1996). As its name suggests. inter-textual associations in discourse. situated practice and society-wide development – that is. receivers of communications). The discursive level involves analysis of conditions of production and interpretation of text. It comprises strict. which various contributors exemplify in their particular case studies. how ‘what is actually inscribed or spoken’ is affected by those real and potential interactants (see Irvine. and metadiscursive frame. The value of the CDA approach is that it calls for and provides some guidance for simultaneously investigating textual detail. bearers of the word) and addressees (hearers and readers. An edited volume which self-consciously grapples with the role of text in social and cultural analysis. that is.

com by guest on February 10. the response of classroom teachers to the call for standards. 1986). because the developing AFT line on standards was intended to negotiate a consensus. The American Educator is the flagship publication of the AFT. of both the virtue and inevitability of standards reform. say. and problems of scale. or they may be officially sanctioned bureaucratic concepts and practices in. in the words of one of my interviewees. say. the documents produced by political or corporate elites. situational or ethnographic analysis. Bloch. ‘kept up a steady drumbeat for standards’. with proposals for national teacher testing and certification boards. Metadiscursive frames are. as they develop a consensus about the need for educational standards of a certain kind. roughly comparable to Fairclough’s social practice or society-wide level of analysis. rather than. In the pages of the Educator in the mid-1980s we find initial articles about the need to reform schooling and. the strength of the culture-as-discourse approach as articulated in NDH is that it also devotes attention to linguistic detail. articles in the American Educator. 1975. It sought to persuade the highly organized workforce of US primary and secondary teachers. the analysis of ‘societywide’ ideologies and institutions. leaving society-wide analyses historically and sociologically ungrounded.D. the modern normalization of sexuality or intelligence (Mehan. 1996). notably some of E. I chose this focus. In order to gain a sense of perspective on how the mid-1990s consensus in the Educator emerged. that is. It has. from 1984 to 1997. more especially. and second. Brenneis and Myers. Such frames may comprise the interlinked sense of genre and authoritative tradition found in many small-scale or traditional social formations (what is often called ‘ritual language’. I looked at 13 years of the publication. the official magazine of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). But we also find articles openly critical of the content of teacher tests. In the analysis that follows I will focus on two primary sources: first. Case I: American Educator articles Let me now turn to the issue at hand. those who would (and will) bear the brunt of putting the textual proposals into practice. and we find initial positions taken in what was to become the debate about a common knowledge base for schooling. Although this summary is also very schematic. Its shortcomings are the converse of Fairclough’s: many contributions give short shrift to the relation between social theory and the project of discursive-cum-ethnographic analysis. Hirsch’s (1987) early arguments about cultural literacy.146 Critique of Anthropology 21(2) or struggles to impose authoritative guides – for interpreting unfolding communicative events and their text-artifacts. the profession of teaching.sagepub. 2013 . many articles concerned with aspects of student-centered Downloaded from coa. the call for educational reform that has unfolded in the United States in the last two decades. in their generality. which has been the national teachers’ union most vocal source in support of the standards movement.

1996). had embraced the education reform movement that emerged during the first term of Ronald Reagan. we see the outlines of a new AFT agenda forming around the banner of standards: there are articles calling for curriculum standards. 2013 . proposed standards are presented as providing both equality of opportunity and accountability. In the analysis that follows. such as the President Bush-initiated and Clintonimplemented Goals 2000 program and the governors-led National Education Summit (Summit. productivity and the labor market. particularly the use of pronouns and reported speech. a combination of Downloaded from coa. what we might call the AFT consensus on standards has emerged. the essay also makes an interesting use of personal pronouns such as ‘I’. Albert Shanker was an influential public intellectual. Our Schools: The Case for Fundamental Reform’ (Shanker. ‘we’ and ‘you’. ‘Our Profession. These pronouns play a central role in constructed quotations. It is an early article by Albert Shanker. there are articles making invidious comparisons between US education and that of the nations that are the US’s primary economic rivals ( Japan and the lead nations of Europe). It is largely in reaction to and agreement with other national summits and documents. In this essay the AFT leader continues an earlier argument about the need for the AFT and its more than 1 million members to join the elite-led movement for reforming schools by raising educational standards. and. there are articles arguing for a tight link between education. 1986).147 Collins: Educational Standards and Inequality learning. By the late 1980s and early 1990s. By the mid-1990s. ‘Our Profession. and the new. ‘Once in a great while. which are interspersed through this and other essays. the president of AFT. both Shanker’s and those of other labor leaders. decrying the low state of American student performance. I will examine in detail one early essay on school reform. In order to explore the discursive aspects of his advocacy for educational standards. In these articles there is an incessant linking of school performance to adult jobs. In addition to the overt content. in the early 1980s. who. and he wrote and spoke extensively on the subject of educational reform and standards. I will attend only briefly to the content of text. Our Schools’ begins in a prophetic vein by announcing. for they reveal a specific and savvy orientation to the ‘voice of the other’.sagepub. and articles addressing the likelihood of decentralizing school and curriculum administration. I will focus instead on interactional features of text. which links school reform to economic transformation. In American Educator at mid-decade we find numerous articles promoting standards reform. in large part because he was president of the AFT for more than 25 years. and usually spurred by crisis. there are frequent international comparisons. related to this.3 Below I will examine in detail one particular article in the American Educator (AE) in order to give a sense of the particular rhetorics involved in the developing union platform. They also suggest a precise linkage to the general discursive by guest on February 10. which largely agrees with the summary of the AE position just given.

com by guest on February 10. a higher and higher percentage of the American people gave low or mediocre marks to the schools’ (1986: 11). 2013 .’ This reported voice is. The political and economic elite had now. also among the ‘forces’ are Gallup polls showing that ‘Each year. they addressed the AFT in a catchy mixture of demotic and formal styles.148 Critique of Anthropology 21(2) forces and ideas come together in a way that makes real change possible’ (1986: 11). emphasis added) For anyone troubled by old reports of Reaganite class warfare. legislators and business interests earlier mentioned. as Shanker puts it. Tannen. which was followed by a dozen other reports in a few years. 1986: 12. Even more strikingly. Perhaps it represents the content of a conversation or set of conversations Shanker had with policy conference participants. The constructed quote is familiar to us also from the written sources. First among the ‘forces and ideas’ Shanker mentions is the national report. for example. or perhaps it is simply a pleasing device to advance his argument. thoughts immediately turned to the AFT. 1981. but it is presented as a voice directly rendered. it seems. The journalistic figure of the contrived Downloaded from coa. When reform conferences or task forces were contemplated. has ‘evoked a tremendously positive response from governors.’ (Shanker. a fiction. From now on we don’t want to make any moves without bringing you in as partners. this entire reform effort would have been destroyed or seriously hampered. This attitude. in turn. varying greatly in how and whether we mark or blur the line between our speech and other speech (Bakhtin. The exact source of the quote we are left to surmise. Or so it seems on the strength of Shanker’s first quote: (1) The rewards of partnership More often than not. This elite voice is pleased with the AFT. Note also how this elite voice speaks with conversational directness: it addresses the AFT leadership and by implication the entire membership as ‘You people’ and ends with the colloquial here-and-now of ‘From now on we don’t want to make any moves without bringing you in as partners. newspaper columnists. Rampton. embraced the AFT.sagepub. ‘an open and welcome attitude toward school reform’. 1989). this quote summons up a reassuring image of labor–management collaboration. is also familiar to us from everyday conversation: we all insert other voices into our discourse. state legislatures. but the voice who addresses the ‘we’ of the AFT leadership and membership must be the collective voice of those governors. we are now called in at the very beginning and we are told: ‘You people took a responsible and courageous position three years ago. This representational device. A Nation at Risk (NCEE. Without you. a quote. of course. that is. The response of AFT leadership was to join the debate with. COA 21[1]. 1983). and the business community’ (1986: 11). the made-up quote. attributing a central role in reform to the union. it seems. an opening salvo in the war for standards reform. and making firm commitments to partnership.

Our Schools’ the shop-floor story discussed below is not one of Shanker’s own devising. we didn’t say anything to anyone about it. If they knew how to fix it. In ‘Our Profession.’ ‘If something went wrong. a factory previously marked by adversarial relations between workers and management. If equipment broke down. fine. go to our work station. that wasn’t our concern. and stand there until the foreman came by and told us what to do. then redesigned to bring about a new collaborative spirit. then international secretary for the United Steelworkers of America when Ball. In other early articles advocating school reform. a Mike Royko. we shut the power off. If the foreman happened to come by and catch it. for example.sagepub. because we were subject to discharge if we didn’t do what he told us to do. that was his fault. Shanker and other national union leaders had met with a group of university presidents during a national ‘Roundtable on Labor and Higher Education’ (Shanker. we let it go. punch time cards. down-time was reduced by half. who frequently quotes to us voices. 2013 . We were being paid to do the few little things that were in our job description and that’s all we did. too bad. The first three months the plan was in effect. for the heart of Ball’s account is a long quoted exchange between himself and an unnamed group of factory workers. If he told us to do it wrong. he was the boss. As in example 1. and they had to decide to call maintenance. and if they fixed it wrong. I have excerpted the story in example 2 in order to show the quoted sections. If he wasn’t there enough. we didn’t tell them. following with a story that dramatizes the point about economic change. Shanker’s articles and essays use the faux quotes frequently. When maintenance got there. which we know are made-up. We didn’t call anybody. we didn’t do it. in humor and seriousness. Nor is Shanker the only labor leader to use such ventriloquism to enliven the message of economic change.’ Downloaded from coa. we did it wrong even if we knew it was wrong. Ball. the first and second person pronouns are in bold type. Ball’s story – recycled in Shanker’s essay – concerns an aluminum plant in the state of Arkansas. he uses a story told by Edgar L. If he didn’t. such as to present evidence for arguments in the form of stories involving ‘real people’ who engage the narrator in direct dialogue. If he didn’t tell us to do something that needed to be done. at times for quite serious rhetorical work. but the voices somehow add to the verisimilitude of the account and to the columnist’s persona as a ‘guy on the street’. Shanker (1985) links the need for educational reform to fundamental changes in the economy. 1986: 14).com by guest on February 10. We stood there until someone from management came by and looked at it. after we knew it was going wrong with the equipment or process. Rather. and within the next three months decreased by half again. We weren’t being paid to do those things. I asked them ‘Why? How did you do it?’ And this is what they said: ‘What we used to do was come to work. fine. (2) Excerpt of story about factory reorganization I talked to a group of employees in the first department that tried the new system. We know that this happy outcome occurred because the shop-floor workers tell us so. Or at least they seem to do so.149 Collins: Educational Standards and Inequality populist is well-known.

‘What are you doing now?’ Their reply: ‘We know how to run the plant. If one is having trouble.sagepub. we help. Tannen. I want to discuss how the interaction of pronouns and reported discourse gives a ‘poetic’ structure that orders the contrast of the bad old and the good new. we plan around that and we alert maintenance in advance and we have them there and we tell them what’s wrong. long ago noted by Jakobson (1960) and subsequently analyzed in a variety of vernacular conversation and narrative forms (Hymes. 1989). These I have schematized in example 3 using verbs of question and response to frame major units and organizing parallel series of commonsubject clauses and sentences: (3) Schematization of reported speech and we-clauses in story of factory reform: A I talked to a group . . 1996. ‘run maintenance even though its not [their] job’ and ‘help each other’. and we show them and we help them fix it. 2013 . By ‘poetic’ I mean the pervasive structuring of discourse by partial and complete repetition. emphasis added) What is appealing at the level of textual content should be clear enough in this representation. Interactional text In the case at hand. this aspect of form can be better discerned by emphasizing the patterning of question and response within the quoted sections. 1986: 14–15. by guest on February 10. . . We come to work. I asked them ‘Why? How did you do it?’ This is what they said ‘What we [workers] used to do [we] come to work [we] punch time cards [we] go to our work stations [we] stand there until the foreman came by and told us what to do if he didn’t tell us to do something we didn’t do it if he wasn’t there that was his fault Downloaded from coa. We help each other. I do not want to dwell on these thematic or referential-textual contrasts. The old.’ (cited in Shanker.150 Critique of Anthropology 21(2) I asked. . We are running maintenance even though it’s not in our job description. we start operating it. If we think something is going to go wrong. what to do’ is replaced by a new work order in which those workers ‘know how to run the plant’. wasteful intransigence of adversarial labor in which workers ‘punch time cards’ and ‘stand there’ until ‘told . However.

com by guest on February 10... we help If we think something is going wrong we plan around that we alert maintenance we have them there we tell them what’s wrong we show them we help them fix it’ Downloaded from coa. . we didn’t tell we didn’t help If they knew how to fix it. fine If they fixed it wrong. If something went wrong we didn’t say If the foreman caught it.’ B I asked ‘What are you doing now?’ Their reply ‘We know how to run the plant We come to work we start running it We are running maintenance We help each other If one is having trouble. 2013 . fine If he didn’t we didn’t If the equipment broke we shut the power off we didn’t call we stood there We didn’t call anybody We stood there When maintenance got there.151 Collins: Educational Standards and Inequality if he told us to do it wrong we did it wrong . too bad that wasn’t our concern We weren’t being paid to do those things We were being paid to do the few little things . .sagepub.

1989).com by guest on February 10. Hymes. a virtual interactional text unfolds. Shanker. This is followed by a long series of negative conditionals: sentences beginning with ‘if ’ are paired with a clause reporting some non-desirable behavior. is that the vernacular poetics is being used to dramatize and give voice to a vision of a new work order (Gee et al. Ball. and then lists their responses in a pair of three clause sets (We plan. show how. In this new economic era workers collaborate closely with management. ‘If he didn’t tell us what to do. . Such formal intricacy in language use is not uncommon. after the second ‘I ask’/‘They reply’ couplet. the before and after states (A and B) are framed by Ball’s query ‘I asked them’ and the collective workers’ response ‘This is what they said’ or ‘Their reply’. In the final section B. help them). 1986). often in sets of three pairs (e. however. . 2013 . The second of the worker response sections closes with a seven-clause sequence. 1987. ’. Hymes. this tale seeks a sympathetic reader/listener. In this story. ‘we’ are factory workers. we should ask: what is this story about? Why is it told as it is told? Why does it appear in the essay ‘Our Profession’? Do we have a case of the Downloaded from coa.g.152 Critique of Anthropology 21(2) In this example. in a low-key. ‘I’ is Ball asking and Shanker arguing. we tell. which suggests a ‘polished’. vernacular fashion (Gee. 1981). . I. but it is artful. In the workers’ first response. offering readers places as imaginary participants in a faux dialogue – I ask/They reply – about a brave new world of work. a form familiar from studies of myth (Collins. given Shanker’s recontextualization of the talk. rank-and-file teachers imaginatively join hands with the governors and business people of elite-led educational reform.’. productive new work relations. we-the-readers.sagepub.. as folklorists have shown (Bauman. the anonymous workers present several sequences of ‘we’ clauses which form a positive-contrast parallel to the conditionals and negative outcomes reported in the initial paragraph (compare the five-clause ‘we’ sequence that opens section B with the five-clause sequence that opens A). often-told tale. 1996) – and so we join interactional text with a metadiscursive frame of society-wide significance. managers. In short. By implication. Like all texts. we didn’t do it’). the AFT. it is a story told as a conversation. insofar as they would identify with those voices or grant them a special authenticity. Pursuing an analysis of metadiscursive frame and society-wide significance. . which begins ‘If we think something is going wrong’. It offers to draw in readers. What is distinctive in this case. Second. Tannen. A society-wide metadiscursive frame What are we to make of such represented discourse? First. we should note its formal symmetry. 1996. have them there. alert. readers-and-author. which specify the engaged. constructed out of imagined everyday voices. we should note that although it is presented as a direct quote there is little indication of how it was obtained in order to permit the presumed accuracy of ‘ . they begin with a fiveclause sequence ‘What we used to do . 1996. you and we are layered: workers. as with Shanker’s initial example.

alliances and struggles – recall that Shanker heard this particular tale at a national ‘Labor and Higher Education Roundtable’. The analysis addresses text-content themes. workers and leaders. Case II: Teachers’ responses But who hears the happy stories and what do they make of them? Thus far I have developed an analysis of textual features and interactional dimensions of two written texts. as aspiring partners of university presidents. In discussing text content I select excerpts to illustrate themes.sagepub. from people I knew from having a child in the district. middle and high by guest on February 10. In analyzing interactional text. of course. participating in activities such as the city’s youth soccer program and teaching in a local university. then turns to interactional features. when classroom teachers were queried about standards reform and the national union. governors and the ‘business community’. the AFT and teachers.153 Collins: Educational Standards and Inequality workers’ voices at the service of a neo-liberal message about the virtues of deregulated workplaces and the irrelevance of class conflict? It would appear so. Interviewees were probably somewhat younger and more overtly concerned about education issues than their peers in the district. for factory workers and classroom teachers. Interactional text suggests a metadiscursive frame – ‘we’ are all equal participants in the new ‘smart’ economy. generalizing strategy is used because it provides straightforward accounts of what some teachers. from primary. I will Downloaded from coa. and also as the ‘voice’ of the working people they organizationally represent. What follows is based on interviews I conducted with six teachers. we are deprived of an obvious source of data on this question. The interviews were open-ended but structured around questions about the effects of standards on classroom practices. pointing to and telling happy stories about the contradictions of autonomy and control. before discussing the framing or society-wide resonances of the teachers’ accounts. In the indexically ambiguous reference of ‘we’ and ‘you’. the potential benefits and drawbacks of standards-driven curriculum and assessment. This conventional. are saying about standards. In this way textual form contributes to the social practice of disseminating a society-wide new consensus about possibilities. The interviewees were selected opportunistically. there is a rapid blending and doubling of labor leaders and business interests. A straightforward question is to ask ‘What about reader response?’ Since there is no provision for ‘letters to the editor’ in American Educator. Such leaders use the rhetoric of faux quotes to mediate their contradictory position. 2013 . in the City of Albany School District in New York State. at least in the deft rhetoric of national and international union leaders. However. Written texts. always leave open the question of how they are read. often left out of the debate. the question of ‘we’ grew more complex. and the interviewees’ sources of information about standards reform.

Of union publications she said. . currently they accepted the curriculum and testing changes as a fait accompli. This was because the pressure of new curricula and new tests raised teachers’ awareness of LEP issues and of the special needs of these linguistically diverse populations. That is. As she argued. however. . As this teacher put it: ‘When Shanker hears about Essential Schools all he says is “It’s too vague. [but] if they don’t show leadership. instead. which echoes a consistent theme of the literature advocating standards reforms. the new environment caused more teachers to realize ‘that these [LEP] students are intelligent. Teachers want respect as professionals . let’s have professional development” . All respondents. Whereas previously such publications had featured some debate about standards. these teachers provided a nuanced but consistent characterization of a reactive union stance. . can be held to high standards’. . but from his perspective. . . As one person put the matter when asked why the local union supported standards change: ‘It’s not gonna go away . For one respondent. also expressed the gains of standards-driven Downloaded from coa. She felt that the new state-wide curriculum frameworks and tests would encourage a change in teachers’ perspectives on Limited English Proficiency (LEP) students. about how someone in a classroom is doing [in response to new curriculum or assessments] . I will focus on the latter.” ’ When asked about potential losses as well as gains in standards reform – a topic frankly addressed in American Educator articles in the early 1980s but given scant attention in the 1990s – the interviewees were quick to identify losses and gains for teachers as well as for students. providing a contrast with the Shanker/Ball case just discussed. it was the wrong by guest on February 10. Denotational text In responses to questions about whether they read union periodicals such as the American Educator and where they heard about standards reforms. they joined the general rhetoric but were actually concerned with ‘practical stuff ’: ‘The [union] rhetoric is “Let’s have higher standards.’. A teacher of students from non-English speaking backgrounds held a similar view and provided an example of valuable change. 2013 . ‘Now it’s anecdotes . disrupting an academic ghetto of low expectations and classroom neglect in which such students languished. and so the union had to act.sagepub. In the interest of space. but who pays for it?’ According to another. the style of reporting in union publications had shifted in recent years. everyone will say “Where are the teachers?” ’. Only a teacher committed to a distinct educational alternative saw the AFT as providing leadership. . . the pressure for educational changes via standards was irresistible. . in which pronoun use will be analyzed. the gains for students included a potential increase in equality.154 Critique of Anthropology 21(2) note some shared practices but then focus on a particular interview. . Another held the opinion that unions were not leading standards reform.

2013 . since two-thirds of the freshman class are minorities (450 out of 700). The potential losses for students were also expressed in terms of the looming presence of social class. the Regents Diploma is to be required of all students.4 What such figures mean is that of the total LEP population. who wondered aloud about a new and demanding English test for fourth and eighth graders. asked ‘who the [new] test is for’. only 50 percent passed the exam. by guest on February 10. Second. and of those 40 percent. In the table enrollment rates for each grade are given (rounded to the nearest hundred). The first illustration. however. if the new. One interviewee. only 20 percent (50 percent ϫ 40 percent) passed the test that would qualify them for a high school diploma under New York State’s new criteria. it is striking that only 30 minority students received a Regents Diploma in 1999. four-year college-preparatory programs. the site of General Electric’s major research and development complex. there are two things to observe from these numbers. provided by an ESL instructor. only 40 percent of LEP-classified students took the exam. as are the graduation and Regents test-passing rates (rounded to the nearest ten). The ESL instructor argued that the change to mandated higher standards was primarily a ‘middle-class reform’ and that those who already ‘have it’ – ‘it’ being a solid academic preparation – would get a better education. consisted of the observation that in the 1999 Regents Exam in English. beginning in the year 2000. As one experienced teacher and long-term education advocate put it: ‘If you say “I’m putting the bar up higher” and don’t provide the resources [you will have] higher rates of kids who aren’t going to make it. newly required for all New York seniors but with a special dispensation for linguistic minority students. ‘high-stakes’ standards are put in place without a significant change in the preparation of these Downloaded from coa. there is a very low retention-and-graduation rate for those entering ninth grade class: only 220 out of 700 (31 percent) reach the twelfth grade and graduate. Important for making sense of these figures is that the ‘Regents Diploma’ used to be required only of those pursuing an ‘academic track’. What these numbers suggest is that if nothing changed – that is. that is. they are summarized in Table 1. Assume a worst-case scenario – little or no change in the preparation of linguistic minority students for the Regents Exam – and you would have catastrophic failure rates for this population in the near future The second illustration was provided during an interview with a high school instructor.155 Collins: Educational Standards and Inequality reform in terms of social class advantage. She later answered her rhetorical question with a single word. Because of their complexity. naming one of the area’s most affluent suburbs.sagepub. With that in mind. Under the new standards.’ Two other teachers provided statistical illustrations of how the new high school exit requirements would affect students who were from non-English-speaking backgrounds or who were members of ethnoracial minorities. He reported retention and graduation numbers for the city’s high school. ‘Niskayuna’.

. . graduation and Regents Diplomas Total number of students 700 500 400 300 220 120 Total minority students 450 Grade level students 9 10 11 12 Graduation Regents Diploma 30 working-class. everyone will say “Where are the teachers? ” ’ ‘If you say “I’m putting the bar up higher” and don’t provide the resources [you will have] higher rates of kids who aren’t going to make it. that is. in example 4 they are listed by ostensible source and with reported discourse in italics: (4) The voices of others Generic voices who call for reform: ‘It’s not gonna go away .com by guest on February 10. minority students for the exams – then more than 90 percent would be expected to fail or drop out. [but] if they [and their organizations] don’t show leadership. though not actual. of how the term ‘standards’ was to be interpreted. .’ Unions and labor leaders: ‘The [union] rhetoric is “Let’s have higher standards. Teachers want respect as professionals . the concept and discourse of ‘raising educational standards’ has multiple meanings. the interviews always involved an initial negotiation of what the topic was. rigid reading program in a local elementary school. .5 Interactional Text I have thus far discussed certain themes in teachers’ ‘text’. . We have already seen a number of these represented voices. though in the interests of space I will have to treat these briefly.sagepub. let’s have professional development” . but who pays for it?’ ‘When Shanker hears about Essential Schools all he says is “It’s too vague. . among them (a) a new. (b) an effort to create an alternative high school. 2013 .6 Let me now turn directly to the teachers’ interactional text or discourse practice. Second.” ’ Downloaded from coa. I have viewed these teachers as the potential.7 Interviewees took my initial request to talk with them about ‘efforts and calls to raise educational standards’ as an opening to talk about various things. teacher interviewees also quoted the voices of others. Several features were salient. As should be clear by now. like the labor leaders discussed earlier. In doing so. ‘we’ of Shanker’s rhetoric of standards reform. in particular. their responses to calls for standards reform and the specific assessment and curricular changes resulting from those calls. First.156 Critique of Anthropology 21(2) Table 1 High school retention. and (c) a new state-wide curriculum.

y’know.’ General ‘we’ [teachers and schools in the project of education]: ‘Who are we creating them to be as people? I think that is much more important .” ’ In addition. . . . [JC: uh huh] . . But I also. . and we just like. . assessment that we have to do on each kid in our classroom . um [JC: Yeah] . do the test and we get on with our business.sagepub. . . for comparative purposes. Unlike the writerly use of royal or editorial ‘we’. . y’know. so it’s kind of like. . . . . y’know we just this last year we got this new language arts um . . . how one incorporates the standards [JC: uh huh] . which um . suggesting a smooth interaction. . when she used a generalizing ‘we’. teachers also used pronouns to summon an audience as well as restrict or widen the scope of their claims. for example. things pretty regularly about what’s up [JC: Ok] . . . I think mostly I’m informed through the district . 2013 . So. I subscribe to Rethinking Schools . in its use of ‘we’. whatever. . . . JC: Oh. for example . you do get that . in a classic bid to establish a common intersubjective ‘frame of reference’. AA’s interview is also interesting. what’s expected y’know the district created this um core curriculum the past couple of years. The only exception to this pattern occurred when she broached the issue of the general goals of education. . . the teachers in her district (she sat on a district-wide committee) and the children in her classroom. like “We’re gonna do a test” and . . Early in this interview the respondent. . . .157 Collins: Educational Standards and Inequality Other teachers: [of cynical colleagues’ response to the call for standards] ‘They just say “It’ll pass. AA: Yeah. AA always used the pronoun to refer to specific collectivities with which she was involved.’ Downloaded from coa. . y’know. .com by guest on February 10.’ Specific ‘we’ [members of the particular classroom]: ‘I just make like a game out of it. y’know they send out . (5) Situating self in interviews: y’know AA: Umm . . I get the district’s perspective on it . . This can be seen by examining excerpts from a particular interview. keep up on a couple of journals myself . So that’s very helpful Note that the ‘y’knows’ work: my backchannel ‘uh huh’s and ‘yeah’s are frequent and appropriately timed. the other side of things [JC: Yeah] . . . . . Both AA and myself had felt that the interview went well. AA. keep me informed too I . . . Both uses can be seen in example 6: (6) Expanding self: specific and general ‘we’ Specific ‘we’ [teachers in the district]: ‘Well. . I feel like building a community is a primary goal in here and that’s what we’re creating. uses ‘y’know’ extensively.

involve a complex work of orientation. 1998). seem to have intimations of this dystopian system potential. when discussing standards in a semi-formal setting – are parsimonious in their use of reported speech and generalizing pronouns. but in brief sayings. It includes a familiar and worthy call for greater equality. However. as a group. 1981). there is a notable difference between the union leaders and the teachers. often contradictory. the election of a conservative Republican governor in New York State in 1994 changed the terms of debate about educational reform.sagepub. They evoke the voices of social others. 1981). but there were numerous differences from elite standards advocacy. and the new. it was ostensibly ‘standards and educational reform’. 1997. or the diverse. 2013 . linked to apprehension of long-standing obstacles to such equality . and they did not view this relation as a fixed dichotomy. They cited particular programs and linked the history of standards reforms to state-wide political conditions – for example. they were quite sensitive to the stratifying implications of ‘raising the bar’ without providing ‘the resources’. They use pronouns to situate and to generalize. at least in this event – that is. like published documents. relation between efforts at ‘accountability’ and ‘equality’. standards rhetoric resonates with the language of ‘new capitalism’. however inserted into the labor process. they do not construct elaborate dialogues. A metadiscursive frame When we turn to consider a metadiscursive frame for the teachers’ talk. including the classroom teachers interviewed in this study. They were more attuned. these teachers did not emphasize the link between skills and the economy. Interviewees (and interviewers) must establish a place or position from which they speak.8 As noted. Downloaded from coa. neo-liberal work order also promises greater insecurity and inequality as society-wide features (Bauman. imaginary. The latter. Bourdieu. yet quotable ‘social others’ in terms of whom we align our utterances (Bakhtin. Unlike the AFT and government documents on standards. Nor did they talk about ‘standards’ as a unified set of ideas or processes. Many people. an image of skilled populations performing smart work in nonhierarchical arrangements. Conclusion: critique in an age of uncertainties The appeal of standards-driven reform is powerful but ambivalent. a joint respondent. indeed. others are always potentially co-present – as an interviewer. a footing (Goffman. In by guest on February 10. their statistical stories can be understood as alarms about just that possibility. to the complex. For elites dominating the discussion. but in ways attuned to the circumstances of speech and with more circumspection about speaking for others. But capitalism requires control of labor.158 Critique of Anthropology 21(2) What these interactional traits imply is that interviews.

students. variously mediated. the standards movement has led to extensive changes in curriculum and especially in the imposition of ‘highstakes’ testing. Michigan. as the preceding analysis confirms. 1999). stories told. New York. some. For example. 2000. Massachusetts. 1999.159 Collins: Educational Standards and Inequality Understanding an ongoing large-scale change. 2000).9 Across the nation. warnings given. Schmidt. have been quite dramatic (Gibson. Ohio and Texas – have begun lobbying legislators. And the state Commissioner of Education. Both the elite and non-elite discourses analyzed above show a preoccupation with the imaginable economic effects of schooling – with labor leaders and other elites Downloaded from coa. however. filing lawsuits and organizing test boycotts (Editors. senses of audience evoked and manipulated. Here we see a clear strength of the NHD approach over CDA: the former’s sense of interactional dimensions. who had led the drive for new standards. The justifications for. 2013 . such as the one in the Detroit schools this past by guest on February 10. I have tried in the foregoing to show how discourse analysis could offer a critical entrée to this dynamic social arena. This is significant because it reminds us. FairTest. and it has begun to generate a grassroots opposition. Karlin. is much richer and more sophisticated than CDA’s analyses to date. Proposing a schematic synthesis of two influential approaches to discourse analysis. was testifying on behalf of lawsuits seeking to redress glaring inequalities in local school funding. Troubled schools in New York City were exposed for inflating their test scores (Hartocollis. I have suggested a line of approach to a complex discursive formation. are the precipitates of complex interactional positionings. that all texts. an orientation to discourse should remind us that what we might abstractly understand as systemic processes or social-structural dynamics are expressed in familiar idioms: arguments made. written or spoken. Loose coalitions of parents. positionings which often evoke wider frames of interpretation. 2000. like that represented by numerous standards reform efforts in the US. Ross. there have been a series of reports about the unacceptably high rates of failure on the revamped New York State assessments. 2000). 1999. in the ten months since an initial draft of this article was prepared. civil rights organizations and independent teachers in various large states – Illinois. The issue of wider frames brings to light. 1999).sagepub. the real and virtual patterns of interaction they occasion. is an open-ended process. State legislators have met to discuss the standards and whether they should be amended (Brownstein. arguing that paying detailed attention to the rhetoric of standards in key institutional texts (essays calling for standards in national union publications) and to the response of members of the ostensible audience of those texts (in this case. a strength of CDA. fears about and apparent results of such changes are open to much debate and are part of a wider political-discursive field. Most basically. classroom teachers) can provide insight into the interplay of the content of texts. and the more general discursive frames and social practices they evoke and instantiate.

discourse is best understood as always-already entangled in the political and economic.160 Critique of Anthropology 21(2) telling tales of neo-liberal progress. and no certainty about the relation of critic and world (Anderson. be part of a critical orientation to the postmodern era we now inhabit – in which there appear to be no absolute foundations for knowledge. however. as critics contend (Bourdieu. NHD’s metadiscursive frame is a more neutral category as to historical or sociological position. It is in that spirit that the preceding argument has been offered. no sure programs for the future. even if we agree that neo-liberalism needs criticism and that analysis of texts and discursive practices can advance that critical goal. In addition. 1999). both nationally and internationally. teachers and diverse test-opponents giving warnings and citing figures. discourse is explicitly presented as something not separable from society. CDA’s constructs of social practice/society-wide analysis give more leverage. Put more sharply. Perhaps. In both frameworks. Neo-liberalism was the dominant political and economic orthodoxy in the 1990s and remains so today. Replying to the question raised at the beginning of this article. Notes 1 Based on a paper originally presented in the session ‘The Relevance of Critique in Discourse Analysis’ at the 98th Annual Meeting of the American Downloaded from coa. or it may be challenged as an elite political-discursive effort to hide the social fractures of a complacent late capitalism. it may be accepted on its own terms – as the vision of the only possible society. both NHD/linguistic anthropology and CDA are inadequate for a general account of the discursive-and-social. via concepts such as marketization. but offering less theoretical purchase in the case at hand. As the current hegemony.sagepub. Perhaps like the concept of culture (Kuper. that is. The theoretical and analytical tools we need for such tasks are not given in advance. CDA’s social practice orients us to overt and covert conflicts. Frankly drawing on concepts from the Marxian tradition. such as hegemony. by guest on February 10. 1997). 1998). involving the linkages of ideas. 2013 . gaining perhaps greater descriptive potential. Singer. 1998. that is how they are intended. Discourse analysis can and should. 1999). the contested terrain of public institutions – which are quite evident in the discourses of standards and school reform. we are left to deal with the complexity and dynamism of the social phenomena we would understand. Bauman. discourse analysis frameworks do not offer a privileged theoretical perspective on the contemporary world. a reformable if not perfect society (Giddens. economics and political positions found in the standards movement. In characterizing this tension between neo-liberalism and what the French call la fracture sociale. CDA attempts to theorize tendencies within late capitalist/late modern social formations – such as the pervasiveness of market processes and idioms. as insufficient ‘on its own’. 1998.

originally part of ‘Item for Discussion’ for the Board of Regents Committee on Elementary. that low-income districts must have more resources. Downloaded from coa. Performance. 14 October 1999. Secondary and Continuing Education. then the great majority who have heretofore chosen the less academically demanding Local Diploma will henceforth have to shift to the Regents. 20 November 1999. not fewer. (1986) Story. spring of 1996 devoted another special issue to ‘New Life for the Standards Movement’.sagepub. M. since no respondents appeared to read American Educator regularly. R. the American Educator had special issues in spring 1994 on ‘World Class Standards’. Of course. quite reasonably. Bauman. New York: Cambridge University Press. 1999). a term with relatively little inherent semantic content.161 Collins: Educational Standards and Inequality Anthropological Association. which allows contending parties to talk about different things while appearing to talk about the same thing. and Event: Contextual Studies of Oral Narrative. As the Regents Diplomas are required of all students. (1998) The Origins of Postmodernity. IL. Bush to those who ‘used education reform to get onto the national stage’. Office of Elementary. Middle. Karen Sykes and Jan Blommaert for comments on later written versions. He argued. to Mary Bucholtz for comments on the conference paper. The state AFT publication New York Teacher does appear to have been read more often. What the teacher’s statistics emphasize is how few are currently prepared to do so. the interviewee supplied a fax copy of her source for the figures: copies of figures from a report to the New York State EnglishLanguage Learners Advisory Group. Bakhtin. things will not remain exactly the same. London: Verso. Potential not actual. 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 References Anderson. I am indebted to Peter Johnston for initial impetus to begin this line of analysis. Subsequent to the interview. P. macht en identiteit’/Research Group on ‘Language. For example. Power and Identity’ for encouragement and conversation. than the affluent districts with which they are supposed to compete (Roy. a strategically deployable shifter. Secondary and Continuing Education (New York State). to members of the FWO Onderzoeks-gemeenschap ‘Taal. repeating and elaborating the arguments made in 1994 and providing a set of authoritative guidelines for state-by-state devising of standards. Kadamus. as Urciuoli (1999) characterizes the term ‘multiculturalism’. that is. Prepared under the signature of James A. we would now add the names of Al Gore and George W. in fall of that same year. (1981) The Dialogic Imagination. to the Albany school teachers who agreed to be interviewed. ‘[after the governor’s election] we went from “the compact for learning” to “standards” and from “standards” to “exams” ’. which presented what has become the magazine’s position on national curriculum frameworks. Rebecca Rogers. Indeed. and to Ben Rampton. it had another special issue devoted to ‘Revitalizing our Schools’. As one respondent put by guest on February 10. Austin: University of Texas Press. On the cusp of a US presidential election. invidiously comparing American college exams to European and Japanese exams. 2013 . Deputy Commissioner. Chicago. it may be. Middle.

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His recent publications include Understanding Tolowa Histories and Culture. Address: by guest on February 10. Applied Linguistics. 44–5. 12(3). American Educator. (1999) ‘School Inequity Admitted in Court’. B.. Dream. N. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Qualitative Studies in Education. (1998) The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism. (1999) ‘Producing Multiculturalism in Higher Education: Who’s Producing What for Whom?’. (1996) ‘The Secret Life of Texts’. D. Sennett. W. 10: 10–17. Singer. R. Silverstein. Shanker. (1998) ‘The Theory and Practice of Critical Discourse Analysis’. Ross. M. Ⅲ James Collins is Professor of Anthropology and Reading at the University at Albany/SUNY. in M. pp. Roy. 15. (1985) ‘The Making of a Profession’. eds (1996) Natural Histories of Discourse. 46–8. A. S. E. (2000) ‘The Spectacle of Standards and Summits: The National Education Summit’. New York: W. He is currently at work on a new book.sagepub. DC: The National Commission on Excellence in Education.163 Collins: Educational Standards and Inequality NCEE (1983) A Nation at Risk. University at Albany/SUNY. Z Magazine.: A1. Widdowson. and G. NY 12222. Times Union. Available: http:/www.summit96. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (1999) Whose Millennium?: Theirs or Ours? New York: Monthly Review Press. Urciuoli. H. an edited special issue of International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education. [email: collins@albany. 19: 136–51. A. M. American Educator. 12(3): 287–98. 14. 25: 1. 21 Oct. Our Schools: The Case For Fundamental Reform’. USA. (1996) Policy Statement. Urban (eds) Natural Histories of Discourse. Norton & Company. Silverstein. Power and Identity. Y. 9: 10– (2000) ‘Stop Test Tyranny!’. Summit. 2013 . 81–105. Washington. Literacy and Literacies: Texts.W. (1989) Talking Voices: Repetition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Dialogue. Silverstein and G. of Anthropology. Shanker. Tannen. and Imagery in Conversational Discourse. (1986) ‘Our Profession. Substance. Urban. A9. March: 45–8. and Political] Downloaded from coa. D. Schmidt. He is an anthropologist and linguist whose primary research efforts have been in critical studies of language and education and Native American languages and cultures.

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