Orwellian moments in state educationIf only words could make inequities vanish
In George Orwell’s masterpiece, Animal Farm, a group of farm animals led by pigs take over their farm from an abusive owner and decide to run it as a collective. They begin by writing a new set of laws, starting with “All animals are equal.” Later in the book, the pigs take over the farm, enslaving the other animals. One day, the other animals notice that the first rule has been changed to read, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
Orwell was making a point about the power of language and the ability of the powerful to twist language to turn night into day and black into white in order to maintain their power.
Here, in California, this approach has been perfected by those who have long run our education system and written its rules. A few months ago, one of those long-time Sacramento powerbrokers, a “consultant” to one of the largest state teachers unions, showed me the data that he had constructed to show that the state’s achievement gaps for black and Latino students had nearly disappeared. It was truly an Orwellian moment.
I’ve been having a lot of Orwellian moments lately. I especially love it when California’s achievement test results are released, and there’s a chorus of backslapping and handclapping about student performance levels and gains that should be a source of profound embarrassment. Moments after the scores are released, the education establishment crows, “Almost half of our students are performing at grade level in math and English! Two percent more are proficient than last year! The achievement gap between Latino and white students in mathematics is down to 30 points! Let’s celebrate!”
Then, there is the recent backlash against the impending release by the Los Angeles Times of data linking over 6,000 Los Angeles Unified elementary school teachers to the English and math performance of their students. The data reveals the effectiveness of each individual teacher at improving the overall English and math performance of their students in comparison to other teachers in the district.
Now, the last time I checked, it is the job of elementary school teachers to improve the performance of their students in English and Math. The only way to assess that improvement is by testing them in English and Math. And knowing how effective you are at your job relative to your peers is both professionally relevant and fundamental to your performance evaluation. Of course, you might not believe that any more after you listened to the critics of the Times.
When the scores were released, they argued, “A teacher’s performance should not be judged based on the math and English performance results of their students. The tests were not designed to assess teachers. Everyone knows what a good teacher looks like! They have the right things on their walls, and their students are engaged. Teachers should be judged on how hard they are teaching instead of the results of their teaching.”
Wow. If only our state’s students and our high school graduates could benefit from the same Orwellian logic when getting the results of their SATs or hearing back from employers about job applications.
But then, according to the powerful interests that control Sacramento on the anti-tax right and public employee union left, the problem really isn’t our education system but our “much too diverse” students and their parents. This has produced a whole new set of Orwellian laws written in stone in the corridors of power around the state. Some of my favorites are “Those children do not want to learn.” “Those parents are not invested in their children’s education.” “We must prepare those children for the lives we expect them to live instead of the lives they aspire to lead.” And for those who enter our schools speaking a different language: “One language is better than two!”
Children do not want to learn? Parents do not want the best education for their children? In our current politically polarized state, language of this sort serves both sides in their fights over resources. If the problem is the students and their parents, the answer for the public employee unions and their friends in the education establishment is paying people more money and lessening their burden at work in order to compensate them for having to teach those kids and deal with those parents. If the problem is the students and the parents, the answer for the taxpayer associations and business interests is starving the education system of money because those kids and their parents aren’t worth it, and besides we need cheap undereducated labor to keep costs down.
Either way, our state’s 6 million students – half of them poor, three quarters of them students of color – and their parents are caught in crossfire between two fundamentally “corporate” entities. The public employee unions and the taxpayers associations are locked in a zero sum game over maintaining resources for their longest tenured members and paying handsome salaries to Sacramento lobbyists to prevent any change, especially the long-term systemic change that our state’s children and their parents need. So much for the generational obligation of leaving our state and nation better off than you found it.
Of course, in Sacramento and school districts around California, some animals are more equal than others.