The Rationalization of Secondary Education by Clio Grillakis

This semester, the newsletter is highlighting the outstanding work of one undergraduate student, Clio Grillakis. A sophomore Anthropology and Art History double major, Clio took Lester Andrist’s SOCY 100 course in Fall 2011. This piece is a revision of an assigned essay she wrote on rationalization and McDonaldization in the United States.

Clio Grillakis
Whether we know it or not, we are part of a social structure that, while allowing certain opportunities, systematically enacts restrictions and controls the flow of information. Everyone is a member of some bureaucracy that enables or constrains him or her in different ways. According to George Ritzer, a bureaucracy is composed of a hierarchy in which “people have certain responsibilities and must act in accord with rules, written regulations, and means of compulsion exercised by those who occupy higher-level positions.”[1]  Today’s bureaucracies often employ Max Weber’s concept of rationalization in an effort to establish the most efficient ways to achieve a given end.[2] Ritzer developed the term McDonaldization, which draws on the same principles as rationalization while emphasizing the presence of capitalism and efficiency in Western society, as evidenced by the huge corporation of McDonald’s.[3] A prevalent bureaucracy comes in the form of secondary education. Rationalization is present in secondary education as exhibited by individual high schools, the government, and companies’ efforts to make teaching and learning more efficient with required courses, GPAs, formulaic essay formats, standardized tests, and textbooks.

As Weber asserts, “bureaucratic administration means fundamentally domination through knowledge.”[4] High school is an essential step in our education in the United States. However, it is necessary to acknowledge how the process of secondary education and the knowledge it provides is strictly regulated. As a bureaucracy, public secondary education is a hierarchical organization that controls rules and regulations. First, we can focus on how the individual schools themselves employ formal rationality; second, how the federal government uses it to control education nationwide; and finally, how organizations and companies control the public school system through the pursuit of profit. As shown below, these factors are intertwined and influence each other in various ways.

The purpose of high school is to get as many students to graduate as possible. Graduation requires
that students meet curricular requirements and achieve certain grades. Required coursework is one
form of rationalization; we want high school students to know certain facts and skills when they
graduate, so we make the courses that teach this knowledge required, and we give them four years to
complete the required courses. This is an efficient way of producing knowledgeable and capable
members of society: reduce all the students’ hard work into a few letter grades, then reduce those
further to a quantifiable GPA number, which determines graduation, as well as admission into college. This rationalization of education makes high school graduation efficient, calculable, and
predictable. If a student gets a certain number of credits, he or she will get a diploma. Offering
these courses and ensuring that each student learns the same information aims to produce high
graduation rates. Nearly every high school student is aware of which classes are the “important”
ones, and which are not as important. The latter tend to be electives, which allow students to pick
from an array of optional knowledge bases, including art, music, and more. Consequently, the
important courses, which receive the most funding, require the most work, and are almost always
required to graduate, tend to be math, science,English, and history classes.

A more specific example of rationalization in high schools can be found in the strict essay format that students learn. This format control occurs on the individual school level, though it is taught in high schools across the country. We all learned to write in a “five-paragraph” format, with three body paragraphs in between an introduction and conclusion. This format gets more detailed with the requirement of the thesis being the last sentence in the introduction, as well as having introductory and concluding sentences in each body paragraph. Teaching all students to write the same way offers a good introduction to formal writing; additionally, it streamlines both the teaching and the grading processes. If all students are writing in the same style, it is easier and faster to find strengths and weaknesses and subsequently apply a final grade. In some cases, teachers make this format absolutely required, or else the student would be deducted points. This format, drilled into our brains over years of education, is often criticized because it encourages all students to write the same way, which may stifle creativity, an idea further developed below. Thus, control over students’ writing makes grading and teaching more efficient because all students are writing the same way.

Secondary education is further rationalized through the use of textbooks in classrooms across the country. Information from many different sources is all compiled and summarized into one book, making teaching the material easier and faster. This method is not inherently defective; nevertheless, we must still ask ourselves where these textbooks come from. They are written by people and published by companies, all trying to make a profit. We have to consider where these companies are based, and to which schools they primarily market their products. A fundamental discrepancy in this process appears in history textbooks, which include only certain aspects of, for instance, American history, and leave out everything else. Though rationalization in secondary education is necessary when assessing huge numbers of students, we must also consider how it affects the kind of information taught in schools, students’ individuality across the country, and the intrinsic worth of knowledge.

We may now turn to the involvement of the federal government in the public school system. In order to boost education statistics of the United States such as graduation rates and literacy rates, the government has been becoming increasingly involved in regulating the uniformity and predictability of high school education. This control is necessary due to the sheer number of students in the U.S. that attend high school: education needs to be quantifiable and reputable. However, the need to record facts and increasingly produce more students who have acquired the “necessary” knowledge has brought up some ethical questions, as secondary education becomes evident as just another product of capitalist efficiency.

Standardized tests are yet another example of rationalization in secondary education. Following the enactment of No Child Left Behind, high schools across the country are required to take standardized tests to assess how well the schools are doing. These tests are an incredibly efficient way of deciding what students should know by a certain age and assessing them all in a uniform fashion, regardless of individual differences. Intelligence is reduced to numbers, which can be assessed accordingly.

The pressure that the government puts on schools to perform well on standardized tests does not always lead to more productive teaching techniques. Ideally, teachers should value expanding students’ knowledge above all else. When required standardized tests are introduced into the picture, public school teachers may begin to prioritize students’ test proficiency in order to maintain their job security. In these cases, teachers begin to “teach to the test.” This practice leads students to memorize information rather than actually comprehending and internalizing the material. Merely memorized facts can be easily forgotten, and memorizing details does not reflect actual understanding. This leads to the “irrationality of rationality” that Ritzer describes as part of McDonaldization: when a process becomes so rationalized that it actually accomplishes the opposite of its original purpose it becomes characterized by “inefficiency, unpredictability, incalculability, and loss of control.”[5] The obsession with standardized test scores causes students to lose the inherent value of knowledge: students should learn for the sake of learning, not for the sake of doing well on an exam. The institution that initially sought to educate students actually ends up pressuring them so much with tests meant to increase efficiency, to point where they do not learn anything.

Education is further determined by organizations and companies working separately to achieve their own goals, but ultimately dramatically influencing the public school system. A prominent example of this is the College Board, an organization that administers the test that nearly every high school student takes to be admitted into college, the SAT. Though College Board is “not-for-profit,” it still needs to make money so it can uphold its duties and continue to provide services. The SAT test costs 50 dollars per student.[6] College Board also administers SAT subject tests, as well as Advanced Placement (AP) exams, which cost additional money. Furthermore, many students pay for classes just to learn how to do well on the SAT from corporations like Kaplan and The Princeton Review. These companies also write review books that students buy to study for the SAT and AP tests. All in all, many organizations and corporations are profiting from students’ efforts to perform well on exams and apply to colleges, and in their efforts to make money they serve to further rationalize teaching and assessment processes. The SAT and AP tests are yet another example of standardized tests referenced earlier; they are an incredibly efficient and predictable way to assess a huge number of people and compare them to each other quantitatively. However, the fact that there are now companies seeking to make money off of this efficiency makes the question of who creates these exams even more important. We must ask who establishes the criteria for being intelligent and how this affects education outcomes. The efforts to streamline and rationalize education place emphasis on certain material and information, which is based on the interests of the school itself, the government, and often corporations.

In conclusion, rationalization and McDonaldization are present in public schools in the form of required courses, GPAs, formulaic essay formats, standardized tests such as the SAT, and textbooks. These methods of teaching and assessing proficiency make educating students very efficient, and are determined either by individual public schools, the government, or organizations and companies seeking to make revenue. However, teaching students is not as simple as making a hamburger. Knowledge has inherent value, and rationalizing education can often result in the inverse of its intended effects. In many cases, the efforts to make public school education more efficient and predictable can lead to unintended consequences that include students learning the material inadequately, or not learning it at all, which entirely contrasts the primary goal of attending school. Streamlining education can also narrow students’ potential knowledge base and capacity for creative thought by emphasizing only a few subjects, encouraging uniform ideas, and omitting certain information. Because students are such an important part of our future, me must decipher how the bureaucracy of secondary education is determining what our students learn, and reevaluate whether this approach sustains the well-being and knowledge of students.


[1] George Ritzer. The McDonaldization of Society. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2004. P. 24.

[2] Ritzer, 25.

[3] Ritzer, 1.

[4] Swedberg, Richard. The Max Weber Dictionary: Key Words and Central Concepts. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005.

[5] Ritzer, 134.

[6] “SAT Services and Fees.” CollegeBoard.org. N.p., 2012. Web. 22 Mar. 2012. <http://sat.collegeboard.org/‌register/‌sat-fees&gt;.

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