Education and the tyranny of numbers

Stephen J Ball 

We are now, as Jenny Ozga aptly puts it, ‘governed by numbers’. Numbers in different aspects of our lives rate, compare and allocate us to categories. Numbers define our worth, measure our effectiveness, and in a myriad of other ways work to inform or construct what we are today. We are subject to numbers and numbered subjects. We also subject ourselves to numbers –  numerous apps are now available to monitor ourselves in real time in numerical terms – the mappiness app measures when we are happy. As the website explains: ‘The hedonimeters on the right display mappiness users’ happiness in real-time, compared against the all-time average’. From these data we can create a file, a case-history, make ourselves into an object of gaze and subject for improvement.

This is a relatively new form of governing which nonetheless has a long history. The word ‘statistics’, the representation of the social in numerical form, means literally, from its German origins, state numbers – the systematic collection of demographic and economic data by states. In the 19th century the state established its relation to and monitored ‘the population’ using numbers likes censuses (who, how many and where) and epidemiological records (Death Certificates – who died of what where). These were critical tools in the management of the new urban working class and brought ‘the population’ as a social and political phenomenon into existence.

Numbers were also fundamental to the constitution of the modern school in the form of the test or examination – a technology of classification, division and exclusion. As Hoskin (1990 p.31) puts it: ‘the examination is, of all technologies, the most obviously educational, more so even than discipline…’. Schooling was built on the contradictory bases of uniformity and individuality, a collectivist vision mediated within the methodologies of division and differentiation. Indeed, the very idea of the school, its materiality, its imaginary, its articulation within policy and theory came to be centred on and enacted in terms of a machinery of differentiation and classification, and concomitantly of exclusion. The learner is made visible and calculable, but power is rendered invisible, and the learner sees only the tasks and the tests which they must undertake and their ‘result’, position, ranking, category. They are made intelligible and manageable in these terms.

We are now perhaps in the second heyday of numbers as the neoliberal state re-works its form and modalities. Numbers as lists, ratings, league tables, benchmarks, targets, and performance indicators are constantly in evidence in TV talent shows, Rate my Teacher websites, journal impact indices, student course evaluations and of course PISA test reports and databases. Students, teachers, researchers, schools, cities and nations are all subject to the regime of numbers and forms of comparison and ranking and education policies are increasingly thought and spoken in these terms.

Measurement and monitoring as techniques for reflection and representation play a particular role within the contemporary the relationship between truth and power and the self that we call neoliberalism. As neoliberal subjects we are constantly incited to invest in ourselves, work on ourselves and improve ourselves – drive up our numbers, our performance, our outputs – both in our personal lives and our work lives. In teaching, the articulation of performance and improvement in terms of student test scores is more and more widely linked to another set of numbers – money – in the form of reward – that is, performance related pay.

We come to make decisions about the value of activities and the investment of our time and effort in relation to measures and indexes and the symbolic and real rewards that might be generated from them. In such articulations the social and the economic blur or converge as more and more of the social, the educational, the psychological, and the interpersonal is opened up to the possibility of enumeration and calculation. And such openings are at the same time opportunities for profit – coaching, mentoring, tutoring, evaluations systems, downloadable apps etc. are available for sale. The OECD derives a significant income stream from its testing services – countries have to pay to participate.

Indeed, the OECD is in the process of expanding PISA by broadening the scope of what is measured; increasing the scale of the assessment to cover more countries, systems and schools; and enhancing its explanatory power to provide policy-makers with better information. The OECD has also developed the Programme for International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) and PISA-based Tests for Schools, which draw on the PISA template to extend the influence of its education work to new sites. In addition, the construction and dissemination of tests and measures is now professionalised both in commercial and academic sectors both as a career and as a university discipline. There is an extensive academic scientometric community made up of bibliometricians who design evaluation measures for many purposes, and there is a European Network of Indicators Designers (ENID).

This may not all be bad but it might be dangerous. We are incited constantly to work on ourselves, improve ourselves, monitor ourselves, be responsible for ourselves – do the work of surveillance, and we may do it glumly or gleeful and revel in being better than we were, better than others – but it changes our relations to ourselves and to one another.

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Posted in Education policy, Social sciences and social policy
7 comments on “Education and the tyranny of numbers
  1. Ian Lynch says:

    We are indeed governed by numbers. The entire universe is mathematically based. Some even speculate that existence is just a gigantic numerical computer simulation.

  2. judechua says:

    Very well put.

  3. […] IOE blog is worth checking out link here […]

  4. Joanne Smith says:

    So frighteningly true., everything is about grades and measures not people…. Read Dave Eggers The Circle to see where it could all end…..

    • ingotian says:

      In fact grades and measures are about people. People as individuals, and people in groups. But only the things that lend themselves to measurement so it is the people using the measurements that is the problem, not the measurements. Remember that next time you look for qualifications as a filter for job applicants🙂

  5. […] researcher Stephen Ball suggests that there is a “tyranny of numbers” in the education system. From examining […]

  6. […] researcher Stephen Ball suggests that there is a “tyranny of numbers” in the education system. From examining […]

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