Citation: Baines, L. A. (2013). Ignorance is strength: Teaching in the shadow of Big Brother. In P. Thomas (Ed.), Becoming and being a teacher, (pp. 137-150). New York: Peter Lang.
“Ignorance is strength,” a slogan promoted by Big Brother in George Orwell’s novel 1984, serves as an apt description of the philosophy undergirding educational reform in the United States in recent years. In Oceania, the fictional, dystopian country of 1984, citizens belonged to one of three classes: The Inner Party, the Outer Party, or the Proles (proletariat). The most powerful individuals were the Inner Party, and although their power was vast, they only constituted 2% of the population. Below the Inner Party was the Outer Party, whose members served as the administrative staff or “hands” of the Inner Party. The Outer Party comprised just 13% of the population. The “citizens of the lowest class,” the proletariat, were the largest segment by far, with 85% of the population. If 6,000,000 members of the Inner Party constituted 2% of the population (as depicted in 1984), it can be calculated that the total population of Oceania was approximately 300,000,000, or roughly the population of the United States in 2007. The breakdown of social class in Oceania looked something like this:
Inner Party=6 million citizens who held most of the wealth and power
Outer Party=39 million citizens who comprised the professional class and implemented the policies of the Inner Party
Proletariat=255 million, the poor who had almost no wealth. The Proles were kept occupied with television, pornography, gambling, pseudo-events, and alcohol.
The division of wealth in the United States holds an uncanny resemblance to the three-tiered, unbalanced distribution of Oceania in Orwell’s novel. In 2007, the members of the Inner party of the United States, the richest 1% of the population, owned 35% of the wealth of the country, while the next 19% of richest Americans, “the outer party,” owned an additional 50% of the financial wealth. Thus, while the richest 20% of the population in the United States held 85% of the wealth, the bottom 80% held only 15% of the wealth (Domhoff, 2012; Economic Policy Institute, 2012; U.S. Census Bureau, 2012). Poor and middle-class people in the United States, who comprise this bottom 80%, share their powerlessness with the hapless Proles of brutish, bleak Oceania.
Linguistic Prestidigitation One of the defining features of Oceaniac society was the extent to which the Inner Party attempted to manipulate the thoughts and actions of the rest of the population. For example, the Ministry of Truth, which was a bureaucracy dedicated to propaganda, revised history to match the state’s perceptions of itself. Similarly, when American bombs began exploding in a country halfway around the world, the president of the United States spoke of “liberation” and referred to the citizens of the country being invaded as “insurgents.” Officially, the conflict ceased to be called “The War in Afghanistan” or “the Iraq War” and became “Operation Enduring Freedom” and “The War on Terrorism.”
Like the Ministry of Truth and the president, the U.S. Department of Education attempts to shape public opinion through propaganda and linguistic manipulation. A reform that has re-segregated students, has purged schools of arts and physical education, and has made standardized tests the sine qua non of schooling is called No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Another reform, designed to obliterate teachers’ rights, to mandate alternative routes for teacher preparation, to force corporatization of public schools, and to punish struggling schools is called Race to the Top. Recall that the original intent of No Child Left Behind was to insure a “highly qualified teacher” [HQT] in every classroom. However, because many states could not afford the expense of training and certifying highly qualified teachers, new legislation was introduced to insure that anyone with a bachelor’s degree in anything could qualify as HQT. Perhaps the most extreme example of the inverted interpretation of highly qualified is ABCTE (American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence, itself a nice bit of doublespeak), an organization that sells teacher certification over the Internet. Requiring no course work, no contact with children, no grade point average, and no practice prior to certification, ABCTE’s program has been ratified as “good enough” to constitute HQT in 11 states (ABCTE, 2011).
Through its extreme lobbying efforts, ABCTE has somehow persuaded legislators to allow its customers to be exempt from all teacher tests. If a student who wants to teach English in the state where I live goes to the university, requirements for the bachelor’s degree include: a minimum of 16 courses in English, 3 courses in English Education pedagogy, 3 courses based in local schools, and 15 weeks of teaching from 8 to 5 every day in a local school. The student at the university must maintain a 3.0 grade point average, get accepted to the Graduate College, and pass all three qualifying tests (Baines, 2010).
In contrast, the bachelor’s degree-holding ABCTE student does nothing—no courses in English, no courses in pedagogy, no classroom experience, and no internship. The ABCTE student must maintain no grade point average and is exempt from taking all three qualifying tests. Incredibly, it was the federal Department of Education that handed over millions of dollars in taxpayer money so that ABCTE could launch its profitable, quick-and-easy certification business over the Internet in 2001.
In Texas, a for-profit corporation has quickly become the largest producer of certified teachers in the state. The website for Texas Teachers (http://www.texasteachers.org/) claims that the process toward certification in Texas is “fast, easy, and affordable,” and, from the evidence provided, the description is accurate. In Mississippi, anyone with a bachelor’s degree who wants to become a certified teacher can get certified even if they repeatedly fail a basic skills test. If someone who cannot pass a basic skills test constitutes “high quality,” then is a person who passes a basic skills test considered a savant?
In the meantime, a corporation has claimed the name American Public Education, and shares of its stock are traded on the New York Stock Exchange. In 2011, American Public Education enrolled more than 83,000 students over the Internet and used only 250 full-time employees, yielding a cool student/teacher ratio of 332:1, a ratio that many of today’s reformers could learn to love. Because the emphasis is on quality education (please note sarcasm), the CEO of American Public Education pays himself a modest salary of only $1,700,000, far less than the CEO of the University of Phoenix, Charles Edelstein, who pays himself $11,300,000 (American Public Education, 2011; Chronicle of Higher Education, 2010). The salaries of CEOs of for-profit institutions are somewhat higher than the average starting salary for public school teachers in my state—$31,600. Yet it is the public school teacher who has received the most scorn and ridicule from reformers.
Mastering Doublethink To achieve their goals, today’s reformers have relied upon the general public’s apparently inexhaustible capacity for ingesting heavy doses of doublethink, the ability to hold two contradictory views in the mind simultaneously. For example, if the goal is teacher quality, then the reformer’s solution is to lower standards, to proscribe professional development, and to make teacher certification as effortless as possible. Obviously, to solve the crisis in teacher quality, schools need a flood of virtual strangers who have point-and-clicked their ways to certification without ever having to set foot in a real classroom.
If the reformers’ goal is the development of real-life skills and cutting-edge thinking for the 21st century, then the solution must involve a single, timed, multiple-choice test involving no human interaction (certainly, no teacher input) and no tools, save a #2 pencil. If the goal is developing individual talent, then class sizes need to soar, the role of the teacher must be diminished, and the group mean should be valued above all.
Perhaps reformers’ most unforgivable “oversight” has been the total denial of the role of poverty in student achievement. According to Reardon (in press), “A given difference in family incomes now corresponds to a 30 to 60 percent larger difference in achievement than it did for children born in the 1970s” (p. 2). Kornrich and Furstenberg (2010) found that rich parents now outspend poor parents on education by a ratio of 9:1, up from 5:1 in 1972. Twenty-two percent of all children in the United States live in poverty, the highest percentage in almost 50 years (National Poverty Center, 2012). Despite burgeoning numbers of poor children, little has been done to moderate the effects of poverty in the classroom.
To narrow the achievement gap and to address the complex, multifarious needs of American children, reformers have suggested and implemented (in many states) the following initiatives:
A uniform curriculum
Frequent standardized testing
Reduced teacher input on curriculum and assessment
No tenure for teachers
Evaluations based on test scores
Reduced per-pupil expenditures
Decreased funds directed toward improving the physical structures of schools
Few electives or extracurricular activities
Larger class sizes
Abandonment of poorly performing schools
Although none of these initiatives benefit children, they have made money for investors, testing companies, and corporations while lowering teacher salaries, teacher morale, and teacher autonomy.
Wrestling with Big Brother For a beginning teacher, it would be useful to know how Big Brother operates, but also how to survive in an educational bureaucracy that has been shaped by years of intensely misanthropic policy decisions. In Orwell’s novel, the dissident Emanuel Goldstein is a humanistic outlaw of the state who reveals the truth behind the propaganda.
Offered below are three rules for teaching, replete with notes on what Big Brother expects and how Goldstein might respond. A new teacher who wants to make no waves should understand how to kowtow to Big Brother’s expectations in an appropriately subservient way. A new teacher who wants to teach in the best interests of the child might consider the Goldstein response.
Rule one: The curriculum is what the State says it is. What Big Brother wants: Compliance, coverage, submission The Goldstein response: Teach how to think, not what to think
In some states, the following edicts have been signed into law: • Students must be tested on a predetermined body of knowledge • Teachers must be assessed according to student performance on the test • Teacher preparation institutions that prepared the teacher who taught the students who took the test must be judged by student performance on the test.
With these three laws, the State has mandated that a test score will determine the future career paths and life choices for a child, the amount of pay to be received by a public servant (the teacher), and the probability of survival for a public institution (the college or university where the teacher received his/her education). Under these conditions of vituperative accountability, child-centered teaching is often viewed as “weak” and “irrelevant.”
Clearly, what a teacher knows and feels about a child’s welfare must be subjugated to the will of the State. It is difficult to overstate the pressures to teach to the test. Recently I visited a kindergarten classroom where the first-year teacher ripped through a math lesson involving “hands-on learning” with wooden blocks in less than 5 minutes before transitioning into a lesson on phonics. Rather than listening to the teacher explain how to use blocks to count, most of the kindergartners seemed intent on discovering the myriad ways that blocks could be stacked one on top of the other to create towers. Of course, a few children were curious about velocity, so engaged in experiments to see how fast a block might travel if it were thrown or kicked across the room with sufficient force. Not a single kindergartner in the class of 22 paid attention to the math lesson at hand.
After my observation, I met with the teacher and her mentor about the lesson. When I suggested that the first-year teacher might consider slowing down and making sure that the students understood what was being taught before moving on, the mentor jumped in. “I guess you could slow down,” she said to the first-year teacher. “But, if you do, you probably need to tell the principal that you are going to be way behind and get approval first.”
Way behind in math in kindergarten?
Approval for improving a lesson?
An unfortunate side effect of teaching to the test has been that an enormous amount of material must be “covered” within a limited period of time. Curriculum must remain static so that a battery of assessments can be developed and deployed. As a result, it is the rare secondary social studies class that ever brings up recent events, such as the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, though they are the longest (the American invasion began in 2001) and most expensive wars in American history. It is the rare science class that includes reading and discussion of nanotechnology and genomics, though experts agree that these areas are the future of science (Kurzweil, 2005). It is the rare English class that includes literature written before 1960, although one of the purported aims of literature is to “provide a window on life and the world.”
Another problem with the State establishing the curriculum is that sagacity is far from guaranteed. For example, only recently has Texas decreed that theories of evolution can be included in science textbooks, much to the chagrin of that state’s governor (Williams, A., 2011). In Florida, where students get fined for taking too many courses in college, a law requires that all public school students declare a major by ninth grade.
For the unaware, the State forbids the following in the sanctioned curriculum:
• Any mention of sex or reproduction • Any image, event, or description that could be construed as unflattering to the State • Any suggestion of negative activity by a corporation • Any topic that could be considered controversial
A teacher who attempts to bring sex, current events, relevance, or controversy to the curriculum may be looked upon with derision by the State, because few of these topics show up on end-of-course exams.
Rule two: Money talks. What Big Brother wants: More money for Big Brother, less money for teachers and students. The Goldstein response: Always ask, “What is in the best interests of the child?”
The common vernacular is “money talks and bullshit walks,” which was derived from individuals who lived in the city but could not afford bus fare, so had to walk to work. The beginning of the “money talks” era of public education can be marked by the State’s decision to open up teacher preparation to big business. Today, for-profit online universities and colleges have the largest enrollments in the world. For example, the University of Phoenix enrolls over a half million students every year (National Center for Education Statistics, 2012), many of whom are intent on becoming teachers.
Unregulated “market-based” strategies, which brought down the banking industry around the world and almost bankrupted the financial system of the United States, are being actively promoted as an essential innovation for public education by the State. For example, a stipulation for applying for funding from the federal government through Race to the Top is that schools must give businesses unfettered access to public schools. Schools in states that refuse to give businesses unfettered access to public schools are automatically disqualified from Race to the Top funds.
From the decision to count ketchup as a vegetable in school meals (Nestle, 2011) to the initiative to sell advertising on school property (buses, hallways, morning announcements), public schools are no longer perceived as providing services for the common good, but are seen as potential revenue streams for selective investors. The latest get-rich-quick scheme involves forcing public school students to take online courses in order to graduate from high school. As universities worldwide (including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) continue to put courses online and iTunes University and Ted.org continue to bulge with ever-expanding arrays of lectures and online courses, one wonders at the logic of forcing students to pay to take an online class through the local school.
However, by now, it should be no surprise that these new laws have been ratified at the same time that for-profit, virtual schools have been approved as providers of educational services throughout the nation. Basically, these new laws give corporations free reign to colonize any public school that is left unguarded in states where they have been adopted (Fang, 2011).
State departments of education, tired of decades of budget cuts, have seized upon virtual schools as a way to generate money for themselves. A few weeks after being elected, the commissioner of education in my state closed all school-based online providers and forced all students who wanted to take online courses to take them exclusively through the State Department of Education. Today, ads for the state’s “virtual school” pepper the Internet, and the Department of Education has launched a sales campaign to establish its virtual school “brand” worldwide.
As corporate and “non-profit” virtual schools proliferate, so do charter schools, vouchers, magnet schools, and private schools. This eclectic variety of schools has exacerbated the problem of segregation by class and race (Orfield, Siegel-Hawley, & Kucsera, 2011). Despite research that indicates that most charter schools perform no better and usually worse than the local public school (83% perform worse or “about the same”), federal policy continues to reward the most selective schools (charters) and to punish the most accepting (common schools) (Center for Research on Educational Outcomes, 2009).
Even the most celebrated charter schools, such as Knowledge as Power Program (KIPP), pre-select out more difficult students, such as those with limited English proficiency (LEP) or special needs. The act of requiring an oath of attendance and pledge of decorum, signed by parents and children prior to consideration for enrollment, precludes the participation of the neediest families (for example, students who may have a parent in prison). Even with its pre-selection process, recent research has revealed that 40% of African American males are kicked out of KIPP schools between grades 6 and 8 (Miron, Urschel, & Saxton, 2010).
One of the original purposes of the American public school was to welcome students of all classes and races. No more. The public that a public school wishes to serve can be as selective as its corporate sponsor wants it to be. Today, public schools in America actively discriminate on the basis of race, gender, social class, religion, and disposition and are rewarded for it.
Rule three: Obedience is expected. Disagreement is reprehensible. What Big Brother wants: Consistency, docility, economy The Goldstein response: Tell the truth.
A teacher who is autotelic teaches for the intrinsic rewards of teaching—helping students develop their intellectual, social, and emotional talents (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). An autotelic teacher does not decide to “start teaching” because the State offers an extra $100 per month for extraordinary efforts at teaching to the test. An autotelic teacher always teaches in the best interests of the child because that is what a teacher is supposed to do.
Despite the altruism at the heart of teaching, the State continues to use models of evaluation commonly associated with manufacturing industries of the early 20th century. Although research in the social sciences has established that incentivizing quotas with money (hauling more iron in a day=higher pay) is suitable for only unskilled jobs, teacher pay-for-performance (higher test scores=higher pay) has become an urgent, popular reform (Pink, 2009).
An elementary teacher in the Dallas Independent School District had received no support for professional development, no money for supplies for his classes, no time off during the day (he was forced to perform various tasks such as lunch duty, bus duty, and hall duty), and no help for the special education students in his overcrowded classroom. So when he was ordered by the district to teach 45 minutes longer every day, he wrote a letter of complaint to the school board. Rather than commend the teacher for his steadfast loyalty amid trying conditions, the school board promptly fired him (American Federation of Teachers, 2012).
A newly certified teacher in my program just landed a job mid-year at an urban school that has been labeled “needs improvement.” In one of her classes, a remedial reading class, she has been ordered to teach from a script furnished by America’s Choice (a subsidiary of Pearson), which sold the urban district a variety of curricular materials. Part of the America’s Choice package is an on-site moderator who checks on teachers to insure that the America’s Choice script is being followed to the letter.
My student, insecure about holding onto her job, has been reprimanded numerous times by the America’s Choice moderator for not staying “on script.” However, because the class consists of a majority of limited English proficiency students, my student has been trying to develop lessons that better meet the students’ unique needs. However, the needs of her students do not always align with the America’s Choice lesson for the day or the end-of-course assessment (also provided by Pearson). The easy road is to stop teaching and to start reading the prescribed script. The hard road is to stop lying and to start teaching.
Common Schools as an Endangered Species School districts in America are increasingly identified by the demographics of the children they serve. Successful districts serve the very rich in the safest neighborhoods, while failing districts serve the very poor in the most dangerous neighborhoods. President Obama’s children attend the artsy, progressive, expensive Quaker school, Sidwell Friends in Washington, D.C. Parents who live in D.C. and lack the President’s income and connections, send their children to the institution that is free and closest to home.
Once upon a time, common schools were seen as the solution to income disparity, a place where Americans of all incomes, races, and religions met on equal footing. Horace Mann characterized common schools as the most important institution in a democracy.
Common schools in America have become an endangered species. The proliferation of “choice” has exacerbated the problem of separation (Baines & Foster, 2009). Where do rich and poor, majority and minority, meet in the 21st century? Participation in churches, synagogues, sanctuaries, and mosques is restricted to adherents of the faith; social organizations and clubs have been on the decline for years (Putnam, 2000). It was once thought that the Internet would help foster communications across class lines, but few of us use the Internet to meet and greet “the other.” Rather, we search the world in hopes of finding individuals who share our values and interests. Today there is no place where America’s simmering diversity of rich and poor interact. No place.
America is fragmenting into hermetically sealed fiefdoms. Uniformed security guards and iron gates restrict entry to both the ritzy Macmansions of suburbia and the blighted environs of the downtown high school. Rather than bring classes and races together, current educational policy rewards separation and penalizes equal opportunity. When a child never gets the opportunity to work with someone who is different, perspectives remain narrowed and understanding and empathy are more difficult. In a society as diverse as the United States, a lack of understanding can lead to intolerance, which, in combination with continuing disparities in income, can foster widespread social unrest. Any perusal of history or examination of recent events around the world attests to the eventual outcome of such inequity.
When a poor child struggles at a low-performing school, the curriculum becomes rigid and demanding; his teachers get publicly humiliated; the neighborhood becomes more toxic; finally, the school shuts down (Williams, C., 2011). This cycle of despair is far from inevitable and is, in fact, purposefully and relentlessly being driven by the policies of the State. Rather than continuing a policy of slash and burn, the State might consider (and I know this is a radical proposition) HELPING struggling schools, teachers, and students rather than punishing them.
In a recent experiment, Norton and Ariely (2011) asked Americans in which society they would prefer to live.
In Society A, the wealth is distributed like this:
The wealthiest 20% hold 36% of the wealth Second tier, next 20% hold 18% of the wealth Lowest tier, bottom 60% hold 46% of the wealth
In Society B, the wealth is distributed like this:
The wealthiest 20% hold 84% of the wealth Second tier, next 20% hold 11% of the wealth Lowest tier, bottom 60% hold 5% of the wealth.
In actuality, Society A represents the distribution of wealth in Sweden, and Society B resembles the distribution of wealth in Oceania…and the United States. Norton and Ariely (2011) found that 92% of Americans said that they would prefer to live in Society A. Despite this impulse for equity, American educational reformers in recent years have pushed the country ever closer to the nightmarish plutocracy of Oceania. If the Proles don’t begin fighting against the campaign of “ignorance is strength,” then the differences between America and Oceania will become indistinguishable. At that point, everyone will come to love Big Brother, because there will be no other choice.
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Lawrence Baines, PO Box 490094, Berry College Mount Berry, GA 30149