Although we currently live in a world informed by George Orwell’s dystopian unmasking-as-novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, we seem unable to acknowledge that the Ministry of Peace is actually waging war.* In our current education reform debate, educators must come to terms with Orwell’s recognition of the essential nature of political speech:
I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought. Stuart Chase and others have come near to claiming that all abstract words are meaningless, and have used this as a pretext for advocating a kind of political quietism. Since you don’t know what Fascism is, how can you struggle against Fascism? One need not swallow such absurdities as this, but one ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language–and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists–is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind [emphasis added]. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase…into the dustbin where it belongs.
Currently, The U.S. Department of Education is the Ministry of Peace, and from the USDOE, we are facing doublespeak that thinly masks the de-professionalizing of teachers and the dismantling of public education—all in the name of reform under the banner of “hope and change.”
“One Need Not Swallow Such Absurdities as This”
One consequence of calling for educators to be apolitical is that the education reform debate remains in the hands of the inexpert and that reform is allowed to maintain and perpetuate the status quo. Here, however, I want to call for educators to expose and reject the doublespeak driving the education agenda under President Obama and personified by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan by addressing four key areas of that debate: (1) high-stakes standardized testing, (2) Common Core State Standards (CCSS), (3) expertise in education, and (4) claims based on ends-justify-means logic.
High-stakes standardized tests. The doublespeak around high-stakes standardized testing is one of the most powerful weapons used today by Duncan. The Obama administration has produced mountains of evidence that claiming to reject and decrease testing is a cloak for the inevitability of more testing and more corrosive accountability for teachers. But that debate is masking a deeper problem with confronting high-stakes standardized tests: Many educators are quick to reject the high-stakes element while adding that standardized testing is being misused. And here is where educators are failing the debate.
The high-stakes problem is the secondary problem with standardized testing. Yes, high-stakes create inexcusable outcomes related to testing: teaching to the test, reducing all course content to what-is-tested-is-what-is-taught, reducing teacher quality to test scores, reducing student learning to test scores, and cheating. But rejecting or even calling for removing the high-stakes ignores that standardized tests are flawed themselves. Standardized tests remain primarily linked to the race, social class, and gender of students; standardized tests label and sort children overwhelmingly based on the coincidence of those children’s homes.
The standardized testing debate is the cigarette debate, not the alcohol debate. Alcohol can be consumed safely and even with health benefits; thus, the alcohol debate is about the use of alcohol, not alcohol itself. Cigarettes are another story; there is no healthy consumption of cigarettes so that debate is about the inherent danger of tobacco.
Educators must expose the double-speak calling for less testing while increasing the testing and the stakes for students and teachers, but we must not allow that charge to trump the need to identify standardized testing as cancerous, to state clearly there is no safe level of standardized testing.
Common Core State Standards. Few moments of double-speak can top Duncan’s recent comment about the CCSS: “The idea that the Common Core standards are nationally-imposed is a conspiracy theory in search of a conspiracy. The Common Core academic standards were both developed and adopted by the states, and they have widespread bipartisan support.”
Among a few others, Susan Ohanian and Stephen Krashen have spoken against the CCSS movement. But as with the high-stakes standardized tests debate, many educators have rushed to seek how best to implement CCSS without considering the first-level question: Why do we need national standards when the evidence shows that multiple standards movements have failed repeatedly in the past?
The current dytopian-novel-de-jure is The Hunger Games. Like Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, this young adult science fiction (SF) novel offers insight into defiance against compliance to power. Before they are plunged into the Hunger Games (a horrifying reality TV show), the two main characters, Katniss and Peeta, confront their ethical dilemma:
“No, when the time comes, I’m sure I’ll kill just like everybody else. I can’t go down without a fight. Only I keep wishing I could think of a way to…to show the Capitol they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their Games,” says Peeta.
“But you’re not,” I [Katniss] say[s]. “None of us are. That’s how the Games work.” (p. 142)
One of the most relevant messages of Collins’s novel is that Katniss comes to understand Peeta’s critical nature, embracing that her agency is about rising above the Hunger Games, not simply winning the Games as they are dictated for her. For educators and professional organizations to justify supporting CCSS by demanding a place at the table, they are relinquishing the essential question about whether or not that table should exist.
And this is where educators sit with the CCSS: To implement the CCSS is for the Capitol to own us, to reject CCSS for our own professional autonomy is to be more than just a piece in their Games.
Expertise in education. The Los Angeles Times has now been followed by The New York Times as pawns in the USDOE’s games designed to label, rank, and dehumanize teachers the way our education system has treated children for decades. Again, the pattern is disturbing since publishing VAM-related data on teachers creates a debate about the publishing of the data and ignores first-level issues. But in this case, another problem concerns who has the expertise to frame these debates.
As the backlash mounted against the NYT’s publishing teacher rankings, Bill Gates inexplicably rejected publishing VAM-data, and quickly all over Twitter and in blogs, educators began citing Gates’s criticism. And here is the problem.
Gates is inexpert about education; he has no credibility whether his claims are flawed (most of the time) or accurate (although only on the surface since we must ask why he makes these claims). Thus, if educators wish to claim our rightful place as the experts on education, we must not embrace the inexpert, ever. (And this overlaps with the testing dilemma; we must also stop referring to test data when it serves our purposes just as we reject test data when they are harmful.)
Doublespeak (think Doublethink and Newspeak from Orwell’s 1984) as a weapon of the political and cultural elite depends on masking the value of expertise. To expose that to sunshine requires that the expert remain steadfast in honoring who determines our discourse and where we acknowledge credibility and judiciousness.
The ends-justify-the-means logic. The ugliest and seemingly most enduring double-speak surrounds the rise of support for Teach for America (TFA) and Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charters schools—both of which promote themselves as addressing social justice and the plight of poverty. These claims often go unchallenged because both TFA and KIPP keep the debate on the metrics (the ends) and not the “no excuses” ideology (the means).
As long as TFA and KIPP keep the argument about whether or not their approaches raise test scores or graduation rates, we fail to examine the essential flaws in each: TFA creating leaders at the expense of children and schools trapped in poverty, and KIPP (and many charters) implementing “no excuses” practices that are re-segregating schools and perpetuating classist and racist stereotypes.
And this may capture the overarching issue with all of the four points I have addressed here: The ends do not justify the means.
As Orwell has warned, however, politicians craft their words regardless of political party to mask the means with the ends—”to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
It is now ours as educators to expose the double-speak of the education reform movement while also taking great care not to fall prey to the allure of that strategy ourselves.
About two-thirds into the narrative of The Hunger Games, Katniss is forced to confront the earlier discussion between her and Peeta because she has come to love one of her competitors, Rue:
It’s the Capitol I hate, for doing this to all of us….Then I remember Peeta’s words on the roof….And for the first time, I understand what he means.
I want to do something, right here, right now, to shame them, to make them accountable, to show the Capitol that whatever they do or force us to do there is a part of every tribute they can’t own. That Rue was more than a piece in their Games. And so am I. (pp. 235-236)
Universal public education and the autonomy and professionalism of teachers in America are worth this same sentiment, and it is past time for our voices to be heard and our actions to matter.