Tobey Steeves: Schools as sorting machines and the imperative of reform

I am pleased to offer a guest post from my comrade-in-arms, Tobey Steeves (@symphily). I think Tobey’s call to recognize the unique qualities of each student in the face of bureaucratic classification and stratification is imperative in today’s obsession with “reform”. Tobey points to a particularly egregious proposal regarding special education: as a sop to the judicial ruling against the Liberal government, the Liberals are proposing a new special ed. funding model that (1) comes nowhere near the money the Liberals had cut nine years ago, and (2) forces educators to pit themselves and their students against each other to access this funding. Even more than normal, educators will be obliged to classify and stratify in the name of helping young people.


If an educator may define another as a “slow learner,” a “discipline problem,” or other general category, he or she may prescribe general “treatments” that are seemingly neutral and helpful … [T]he educator is freed from the more difficult task of examining the institutional and economic context that caused these abstract labels to be placed upon a concrete individual in the first place … [T]he understandable attempt to reduce complexity … protects both the existing institution and the educator from self-doubt and from the innocence and reality of the child.” (p. 127)

Michael Apple’s (2004) Ideology and Curriculum has been cited as “one of the most important books in the history of Western education” (p. vii). Among the many provocative theses in Apple’s book is the claim that schools normalize dividing practices which naturalize and reproduce a stratified field of social relations. That is to say, in schools students are classified, diagnosed, treated, and sorted in accordance with externally-imposed classificatory grids of deviance, or – more aptly, difference. Apple also notes that many reforms which aim to ‘ameliorate’ inequities in schools – guided by the best of intentions – more often than not “ultimately harm rather than help, [and] cloud over basic issues and value conflicts rather than contributing to our ability to face them honestly” (p. 119). With Apple’s stern warning in mind, I will now link and extend his argument to the field of education policy in BC with a brief discussion on funding for special education programs and a snapshot of demographic data from BC’s classrooms. I will conclude by sketching an alternative mode of educational encounter guided by a foundation in ethics.

BC’s Ministry of Education (2011) recently released an updated ‘education plan’ which includes a promise of “tens” of millions of dollars in additional funding for students with special needs. This ameliorative policy can be put in sharp relief by considering that in 2002 the Liberal Party stripped $275 million in funding for students with special needs from the province’s yearly budget. In today’s dollars that amounts to around $330 million (Ehrcke, 2011). After a decade of ‘making due with less’, now schools will be asked to compete amongst themselves for arbitrarily scarce resources. I say ‘arbitrarily’ because it is important to remember that over the last decade the Liberal Party has enacted corporate tax cuts which tally to a minimum loss of $7 billion in provincial tax revenues (BC Federation of Labour, 2011). In this way, an ameliorative policy reifies schools as sorting machines while “protecting both the institution and the educator from self doubt” (Apple, 2004, p. 127). The Liberal Party can now appear magnanimous and teachers can more easily be corralled into advocating against their [students’] collective interests.

For a second example of problematic ameliorative treatments it may be helpful to highlight the ‘other’ end of the ‘spectrum’ – ‘high ability learners’. Side-stepping the thorny issue of defining ‘giftedness’, according to the BCTF (2011) in 2005/06 there were 11,582 designated ‘gifted’ students in BC. In 2010/11 there are 7,333, for an overall decline of 4,249 ‘gifted’ students. Where did they go? Would it be far from the truth to say BC’s government has ‘attempted to reduce complexity’ and has homogenized the “innocence and reality of the child” (Apple, 2004, p. 127) for the sake of political expedience? If so, at what cost?

To conclude I would like to complement Apple’s critique of the ‘sorting’ functions of public schooling with an ethic of hospitality. Ruitenberg (in press) argues that for teachers the “ethical challenge is to respond to [each] student in a way that lets her or him be in otherness, that does not seek to recognize or otherwise close the gap with this singular other” (p. 9). Phrased differently, whether ‘high’ ability or ‘special needs’, First Nations or ESL, privileged or poor, each student deserves an “opportunity to reimagine the socius and demos of which they, and unforeseen others, will be members” (p. 13). On the other hand, by affirming the Liberal Party’s “seemingly neutral and helpful” (Apple, 2004, p. 127) category-driven structuration of public schooling, social stratification becomes a matter of ‘efficient schooling’. On these grounds, educational reform in BC may be construed as an ethical and democratic imperative.

-Tobey Steeves


Apple, M. (2004). Ideology and Curriculum (3rd. ed.). New York, NY: Routledge Falmer.

BC Federation of Labour. (2011, July 18). Failed policies: Corporate profits soar, corporate taxes plunge, public services cut. Accessed November 6, 2011 at

BC Ministry of Education. (2011, October 4). Province tables proposal on Bill 28. Accessed November 6, 2011 at

BCTF. (2011). Education funding brief 2011: BC Teachers’ Federation. Accessed September 16, 2011 at

Ehrcke, T. (2011, October 4). BC government proposal for class composition is “rationing”. Accessed November 6, 2011 at

Ruitenberg, C. (in press). The empty chair: Education in an ethic of hospitality. In R. Kunzman (Ed.), Philosophy of Education 2011. Urbana, IL: Philosophy of Education Society.

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6 Comments to "Tobey Steeves: Schools as sorting machines and the imperative of reform"

  1. November 14, 2011 - 12:25 pm | Permalink

    You’ve posed some excellent questions here: On the one hand there seems to be a question of a non-localized application of schools-as-other-than-sorting-machines, and on the other there seems to be a question of direct local context.

    Re. broad application of schools-as-other-than-sorting machines, I think here you’re talking about a larger social reformation – bordering on ‘revolution’. It’s a question of macro-politics: “How can these ideas be re-positioned as politically legitimate and normative?” Here I like Eugene Holland’s notion of the ‘slow motion general strike’ – it’s a progressive and incremental escalation via micro-political resistance. This definitely breaches ‘curriculum theory’ and skirts social theory, and would definitely take more than a 1pager. 😉

    Re. the question of direct local context, I’m reminded of the power of hegemony and fascism: desire against itself. Students desire, but they desire against their own interests. And it’s also the case that if students have no desire to study, teachers can count on their resistance. So here one element of the question becomes “How do I inculcate the desire to study?” Try as I might, I can’t find a response to this question beyond: Curriculum structured as catalytic encounter. Fleshing that out would, of course, take another essay or two. 😉

    Finally, there seems to be a broader question of anti-intellectualism and how to mitigate it. I’ve got lots of references and ideas to share here, but no substantive ‘answers’. It’s a ‘problem’ that perplexes me too. If you find a strategy that works, pass it on. 🙂

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