How George Orwell might explain school reform

George Orwell

George Orwell

Here’s a piece that looks at school reform through the eyes of George Orwell by teacher Chris Gilbert. He has written for the Language Experience Forum Journal, the National Council of Teachers of English’s English Journal, and this blog. He teaches English at a high school and community college in North Carolina.

By Chris Gilbert

While discussing George Orwell’s novel “1984″, I asked my students why we read books written many years ago.

Breaking the silence, one student said that such works offer a glimpse of the past and a contrasting reference point for the present. This response excited me, as I had chosen this classic novel for this very reason: the old would provoke an examination of the new. My students learned that scrutinizing current paradigms is an essential, yet difficult, process; familiarity with surroundings frequently creates cognitive blind spots. Orwell spoke of how the past could be utilized to combat this critical blindness, but he also warned that the controlling majority knew this as well. History is malleable, and those who access and shape it possess power.

This idea is relevant because corporate education reformers deliberately mask history.  In fact, their reforms require a forced forgetting, as the public will only embrace irrational notions if opposing ideas are concealed. Orwell’s words (in italics) are used here, as they were in my classroom, to expose misguided narratives and the history they obscure.

 The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.

 

Market-driven reformers know that history can challenge their agendas, so they disavow past evidence testifying to the significance of poverty and the importance of out-of-school educational factors. The ultimate goal of this “amnesia” is to promote ideologies that weaken public education and create profit opportunities.

 Orwell: Myths which are believed in tend to become true.

 

Reformers such as Jeb Bush and Michelle Rhee relentlessly downplay the educational obstacles resulting from poverty, and they promote the mythic view of impoverishment as something that good schools and teaching can likely overcome. In a recent interview with TIME, Bush was asked, “What’s the role of poverty in education?” He responded, “I would reverse the question: education impacts poverty, not the other way around.” Michelle Rhee has consistently promoted a similar view, saying,

As a teacher…you have to be willing to take personal responsibility for ensuring your children are successful despite obstacles…You can’t say, ‘My students didn’t get any breakfast today,’…or ‘Their electricity got cut off in the house, so they couldn’t do their homework.’

These comments reveal a desire to minimize poverty’s effects, as deprivation is characterized here as an easily surmounted obstacle.

Unfortunately, this is false; poverty matters greatly. While numerous studies have shown that socioeconomic status profoundly influences student achievement, this body of scholarship is crushed under the weight of a new mythology that masks poverty’s importance; additionally, this mask conceals the inequitable funding of schools from property taxes, downplays the physical and emotional consequences of impoverishment, and disregards the interplay of social class, literacy skills, and educational outcomes. This mythmaking shifts the public’s gaze from history to fiction, and an erroneous “truth” is gradually created.

Orwell: Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful…and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

 Corporate reformers’ forgetting of out-of school factors, such as poverty, is accompanied by a fixation on teacher quality and an overestimation of teacher influence. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, while comparing education to the real estate industry, said,

[In the] real estate business, there are three things that matter: location, location, location…in education, it is: quality of teacher, quality of teacher, quality of teacher.

This statement promotes a reductive falsehood, as multiple factors aside from teacher quality also influence educational outcomes. Unfortunately, though, Mr. Bloomberg’s myopic view is a popular one; during Michelle Rhee’s recent New York Times interview, this exchange occurred:

[Reporter:]  You write that you were offended by a sign…that read, ‘Teachers cannot make up for what parents and students will not do.’  That didn’t make sense to you?”\

 

[Rhee:] As educators, we have to approach our job believing that anything is possible. It is incredibly important that we constantly communicate to kids that they can accomplish anything when they put their minds to it.”

 

Bloomberg and Rhee unfairly overemphasize teacher influence and deny past educational research attesting to the greater importance of out-of-school factors. Dan Goldhaber, director of the Center for Education Data & Research, once stated, “8.5 percent of the variation in student achievement is due to teacher characteristics…the vast majority (about 60 percent)…are explained by individual and family background characteristics. All the [school] influences…account for approximately 21 percent…”

Such research has long existed, and this historical “testimony” indicates that teacher quality and effort are only two educational variables among man. Rhee is correct to suggest that successful education requires optimism, but she is incorrect to imply that hopeful, effective teachers are enough. Such misleading ideology denies contrary evidence and establishes unrealistic expectations for teachers.

Corporate education reformers use historical amnesia and their political stature and rhetoric to legitimize their empty assertions, but Orwell’s work suggests a way to resist. History provides counter-narratives to the present.

 

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