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When "Equality" Is Used to Push Through Orwellian Measures


Dear Diane,

You’ve quoted the part we most agree about from your book "Left Back." It’s amazing how much flows from that agreement. I suspect it’s this core that immunizes us against the "reign of (soft) terror" that we’re witnessing in the most innovative school districts, such as NYC.

In the 1980s many of us celebrated what we thought was the final victory—at last—of Dewey over Thorndike. Alas, we were dead wrong. It was a momentary blip. But, Diane, you were also right that progressivism came in many guises, including forms of Thorndyke’ism, and virtually all guises were far more hopeful about the uses of testing than they should have been. And some still are.

In opposing elitism we are both in the same camp. But what an “elite” education means is what we often argue about. I think we’d both agree that it is not necessarily what the particular elite of a particular moment in history designed for their children. Knowing Latin (regardless of its other virtues) was esteemed precisely because it separated one group out from the masses; similarly being “well-educated” meant speaking a particular dialect—not because it was superior but because it defined one’s status and class. Technology had no status in my youth, but today the very rich think it’s cool. And so on.

Each generation needs to rethink what ALL its citizens—from the least to the most advantaged—require. We can call that essential The Academics, followed by lists of traditional lore, or we can redefine the meaning of academia in ways that capture the passions of the young. But in either case, we must defend it against a largely thoughtless and heartless world. Including too many elite academics. As Gerald Graff reminds us, many academics seem as "clueless" about its broader value (see "Clueless in Academe") as their students do.

We are all capable of high levels of intellectual inquiry, of entering into the important arguments that shape the world, of playing with the important concepts, and of being creative and critical in a wide range of different arenas of life. This is as true for the cosmologist as the cosmetician, as teacher JP affirms in his "comments" on the blog that you quote.

Ted Sizer was right, I think, in noting that the most intellectually rigorous class he observed in his study of the American high school several decades ago ("Horace’s Compromise") happened to be a particular shop class, and the least rigorous happened to be an "academic" honor’s class. Anything that smacks of being "practical" is too often scorned, and anything that seems "impractical" valued. What an odd way to frame the argument to the young!

The what and how of schooling is where I want to remain flexible, while also firmly stating that the intellectual life is not reserved for an elite and can and must rest in everyone’s hands. Our letter-writer Cal is just plain wrong—and I say this as someone who has, I believe, "proven" the point—at least to my satisfaction.

But what to do about "reformers" (maybe we should rename them "deformers"?) who use their extraordinary power to rush through one after another measure that undermine such optimism about democracy?? They are on a different track entirely. Of late the buzz word for taking such Orwellian 1984 measures is "equality." Bah, humbug. You and I both know that there are other efficient routes to be taken to attain greater equality via tax policy, housing policy, health policy and on and on. It is no accident that M.L. King Jr.’s assassination took place during his involvement in a strike for higher wages and job security, as part of the long-forgotten War on Poverty.

Michael Bloomberg (NYC’s mayor, and if he had his way president) thinks that offering 4th graders $50 dollars is an important anti-poverty tactic! I do not joke. He has used the same perverted logic to argue that IQ testing of all 4- and 5-year-old will level the playing field. That such tests are known to contain infamous class and racial bias, and that testing all children at age 5 opens the doors wide to historically biased notions about intelligence doesn’t worry him. Nor are our leaders concerned with the technical psychometric limitations—the gross unreliability—of tests for children under the age of 8—not to mention ages 4 and 5!

Then, just yesterday—more or less—Bloomberg decided that not only will children be automatically held over based on 3rd-6th grade test scores, but he promises to show his toughness on behalf of equity by refusing entry into high school for students who fail the 8th grade benchmark. Apparently the proposal would leave thousands of already over-age 8th graders to linger there a year or so longer. It will automatically do one thing: increase actual drop-outs while simultaneously improving graduation rates—which are calculated based on 9th graders. If you’re unclear how this magic works, write me.

And then I read in The New York Times: “NYC has embarked on an ambitious experiment, yet to be announced, in which some 2,500 teachers are being measured on how much their students improve on annual standardized tests….The move is so contentious that principals in some of the 140 schools participating have not told their teachers….officials say it is too early to determine how they will use the data, which is already being collected.”

This stuff is not a NY-only phenomenon. Nor do most of the richest philanthropists in the field see anything wrong with any of the above. Eli Broad’s trustees chose NYC as their model not because they didn’t notice all this flim-flam, but because________

I urge readers to complete the sentence above. I’ll give the "right answer" next week.


P.S. I note that our passions have led us to write our two longest letters of this year-long conversation!



You are completely correct regarding Bloomberg’s ill-advised education “reforms” and you ask a very important question, “…what to do about "reformers" (maybe we should rename them "deformers"?) who use their extraordinary power to rush through one after another measure that undermine such optimism about democracy?”

But to answer that question we need to acknowledge that the reason that Bloomberg et al., are able to enact such horrible reforms is that our children are not learning very much when compared to children in other industrialized nations.

Not only do our top students pale in comparison with top students around the world, our country has one of the largest achievement gaps of industrialized nations. Our excessively large achievement gap is not just a question of poverty as other nations struggle with that issue as well, and are still able to ensure a quality education (especially when compared to the US) for their lowest SES students.

The only way to counter the “testing and accountability” movement (which has failed miserably at improving our students’ learning) will be to offer an alternative path forward that enables our children to learn more (or at least learn as much as that seen in the top countries around the world.)

Not an easy task.

Erin Johnson

Dear Deb, Fine exchange, as usual between you and Diane.

To answer your completion question, I will venture three ideas:

"This stuff is not a NY-only phenomenon. Nor do most of the richest philanthropists in the field see anything wrong with any of the above. Eli Broad’s trustees chose NYC as their model not because they didn’t notice all this flim-flam, but because________
1. They are convinced the corporate model applies to schools and they look at the Mayor as a CEO of the school system
2. Punishment and reward is viewed in financial terms that have nothing to do with education
3. They are driven by the old boy's network and can see the bond between Broad and Bloomberg.

I await the "true" answer.

What, exactly, am I "wrong" about?

That you can teach kids without forcefeeding them "arts" and that there's absolutely no requirement that people love to read?

Don't be silly. If by "wrong" you mean that I think good education should be restricted to the best students, then you--like Diane--are inventing reality. I've said no such thing.


You write...

"We are all capable of high levels of intellectual inquiry, of entering into the important arguments that shape the world, of playing with the important concepts..."

This is by definition false- 'high level' implies that there must be some corresponding low level of intellectual activity. Intellect, like any other attribute, is possessed in varying degrees by various people. To suggest that everyone is capable of a high level of intellectual activity is as illogical as suggesting that everyone is capable of lifting weights at a high level, or running the 100 yard dash at a high level. It simply isn't true.

This is not to say that intellectual inquiry of some kind is not possible for the vast majority of humanity, nor is it to say that one must be exceptional at an activity to gain value from it; many people enjoy playing pick up basketball even though they won't make it to the NBA. However, I think it valid to point out that people tend to enjoy activities at which they excel, and in general don't enjoy engaging in activities at which they have little or no natural talent.

Now obviously there is no direct line from recognizing that individuals possess various degrees of ability to the political policies Mayor Bloomberg espouses. But any definition of meaningful academic success has to recognize that not all students can reasonably be expected to accomplish the same tasks.

I think what you're really trying to say is that all people, or virtually all people, are capable of making a meaningful contribution to society and ought to be respected for their accomplishment. I certainly wouldn't dispute this concept. But insisting that everyone is capable of tracing our pedagogical history back to Plato's Republic simply isn't true, and building policy around this inaccuracy is a terrible mistake, in my mind.

Enjoy your column

Daniel Polansky

“But insisting that everyone is capable of tracing our pedagogical history back to Plato's Republic simply isn't true, and building policy around this inaccuracy is a terrible mistake, in my mind.”

A notorious school of philosophical elitists known as the Straussians hold that interpretation happens at different levels, ranging from the literal (which is available to any reader) to the esoteric (available to a select philosophical few). Let’s take Horton Hears a Who. The discussion following an elementary-classroom read-aloud might be grounded in several technical questions about how high the turtles were, etc. Or, the teacher might introduce her second-graders words like “rebellion,” “authority,” and “right,” sparking an animated conversion about democracy (grounded in the students’ general knowledge of how human nature manifests itself on the playground). There is a huge difference between being able to trace the pedagogical history back to Plato's Republic and to be able to look at Plato’s allegory of the cave and see more than the literal picture of a muddy philosopher carrying prisoners piggy-back into sunshine. This is the difference between pedantry and thinking. Not everyone is capable of pedantry. Everyone is capable of thinking. And almost everyone needs help when they’re thinking for the first time. That’s where teachers come in.

The French Marxist Louis Althusser sees schools as an unconscious mechanism of social reproduction. Kids at low-income schools are taught obedience, efficiency, and to excel at those questions on the lowest level of Bloom’s taxonomy. Kids born to white-collar parents attend schools where—hey—if you can’t answer the lower-order questions, but are successful when answering questions that call for synthesis, comparison, etc., you’re creative and gifted! (This child’s counterpart at the free-lunch skill is simply marked wrong and told to redo the assignment.)

Here I will emphasize the word UNCONSCIOUS. According to Althusser, we teachers of low-income students are not aware of our place in this institutionalized self-ordering of society. We want to help prepare kids for life—and that means making sure they can get those low-level questions down pat when the ref blows the whistle. I don’t think anyone is advocating an army of (multicultural!) Cicero-reciting ballerina robots. Short of a communist revolution—which I don’t advocate—teachers need to be hyper-aware of the more discrete social impact of their lessons.

Thank you, readers--one and all. The exchange is interesting enough to lead me to want to address them more fully.
Erin's comments get to the heart of what I think is a misleazing, but interesting, issue re international comparisons. And then Daniel, Cal and JP get into a useful debate about our "all children can learn" rhetoric and what it means.
Finally, it may take me a wee bit longer to figure out what purpose Bloom's reforms serve (other than political ambitions); so help me out there.

I am amazed how people who have no idea what it is like to be in a classroom make such major decisions. They have no idea what is taking place in the education field. This problem is universal and it has got to stop. When are we goinf to listen to the teachers who know first hand what would help their students. Also, it would be nice if they realise that teachers in different demographic are face different obstacles. Instead of helping they distroy everything that already working. How ironic, what do you think he would think if the teachers got into his line of work and tried "to find a quick fix". How much money would he lose? I bet he would think about that, wouldn't he? Irina

"The only way to counter the “testing and accountability” movement (which has failed miserably at improving our students’ learning)..."

You are a victim of a common confusion. Testing is the messenger who brings news of the state of learning. All that testing does it tell educationists that they have or have not succeeded in what they are supposed to do.

A thermometer analogy will immediately reveal the fallaciousness of your statement. Visualize an outdoor thermometer that shows the temperature to be five below zero and then imagine someone cursing that the thermometer has failed to raise the temperature to a cozy 75 degrees.

"Kids born to white-collar parents attend schools where—hey—if you can’t answer the lower-order questions, but are successful when answering questions that call for synthesis, comparison, etc., you’re creative and gifted!"

Don't worry about the white-collar parents' kids supposed ability to do synthesis and comparison. They can't synthesize and compare if there is nothing to synthesize and compare. The Bloom levels are inextricably linked. One level can't happen without the preceding level. You need ingredients to bake. You erroneously assume white-collar parents' kids can bake with thin air.

My comment regarding the “testing and accountability” movement is not an anti-testing statement, but rather a refutation that testing alone can increase student learning.

The underlining erroneous assumption by the “testing and accountability” movement is that with transparency (tests) and holding teachers/schools accountable for student learning, student learning will necessarily increase. Clearly, even with NCLB and the yearly testing (grades 3-8), student learning has not increased as the NAEP scores (and plenty other test scores) have shown.

Increasing student learning (as demonstrated on tests) requires a different approach altogether. Our teachers can not be considered “part of the problem” as the accountability aspects of NCLB imply. But rather teachers need to be an integral part of the solution toward increasing student learning.

The current educational reforms centered on of holding schools/teachers “accountable” fail to realize that schools/teachers do not have a viable path forward or systems in place to improve curricula or teaching practice. The “how” to improve student learning is missing.

Students learn in a specific classroom from a specific teacher. For improvements in student learning to become reality, all educational reforms need to focus on what actually happens (or does not happen) within a classroom. To improve student learning, teachers need both quality curricula and extensive support on improving their practice. Something that is noticeably lacking in the “testing and accountability” movement.

Erin Johnson

I'll take a stab at answering Deborah's fill-in-the blank quiz question. Eli Broad's trustees chose NYC as their model, not because they didn't notice all the flim-flam, but because "they forgot Jerome Bruner's model of the 'spiral curriculum,' which holds that even elementary school children can understand the principles of higher math, such as calculus. They also show ignorance of Bruner's notion of the importance of narrative in teaching subjects like history." I offer this as a subject for discussion. As you know, Deborah, this is no "right answer" to questions like this.

As for Daniel and JP, let's leave the pedantry about Plato's Republic out of it. The Republic has been called "the greatest treatise on education ever written," but there's no need to trace pedagogy back to it for it to be used in the classroom today. There are six conceptions of justice in the First Book of the Republic (Thrasymus advances two), and like other critical citizenship ideas (e.g., equality), justice offers a subject for much passionate discussion and learning about democracy. There is no reason, Daniel, why elementary school children can't discuss the forms of justice and injustice in contemporary society.

And JP, let's be careful before we toss off misinterpretations about Plato's myth of the cave. The philosopher (be he male or be she female) finds the bright light of the sun (i.e., the "truth") to be too much to stay outside in and returns to the cave to bring a portion of the light to denizens of the cave, who are trapped in the world of pale copies of the sun (i.e., small fires) and of even paler images of the sun (i.e., shadows of those fires on the cave's wall). This is undemocratic in many ways and shouldn't be a model for faciltating learning, but it can serve as a basis for discussion among school children, Daniel, of what people can know in a fairly constituted society, if it is accurately portrayed. (No hard feelings, JP.) All children CAN benefit from a discussion of issues raised in the Republic, provided allowances are made for Plato's elitism and DWEM status.

--- An unreconstructed opponent of Straussianism and all its esoteric, quasi-religious tenets.

No hard feelings on my part, Tom. I know my Plato. I was trying to be funny.

In an attempt at addressing Erin's concern, "To improve student learning, teachers need both quality curricula and extensive support on improving their practice." To this point in time, education reform has centered on two of the three components of reform, curricular and fiscal reform: (1) Most states have established standards for each discipline, at each grade level. Where we never had a plan (statewide) as to what to teach and when, we now do. (2) Most states today have either rectified existing disparities in per pupil spending from one district to the next, or are well on their way to developing said remedies.

What's been missing has been pedagogical reform. This is a bit more ambiguous than the two reforms mentioned above. Most states, districts, and administrators are reluctant to even attempt to address this for fear of violating teachers' academic freedom. Let's face it, if someone is successful with what they're doing in their classroom, how can anyone question their results? They can't, really. This is not Japan with their lesson studies and cooperative attitude toward a national curriculum. This is America, with its free enterprise, competitive mantra. Additionally, who is to say which pedagogy is better than the rest? What might be great in NYC might not be at all effective in Duxbury, Massachusetts, and vice versa.


While establishing standards helps to clarify to adults what children should be learning, how has the standards movement actually affected student learning? Are students learning more now that we have standards in most states? The answer from NAEP (and a whole host of other exams) is that our children really are not learning any more.

Your suggestion that we need pedagogical reform is not supported by the international teaching studies (TIMSS video). That study suggested that a wide variety of teaching styles and pedagogical approaches supported quality learning.

So while pedagogical style did not affect student learning; two other aspects did. That is the quality of the curricula and the in-depth knowledge of the subject by the teacher were the only two variables that correlated with positive student learning.

As for improving our school system, we can learn from how the Japanese school system supports their teachers without blindly adopting all of their ideas. Clearly, the Japanese teachers insist that they learn their in-depth knowledge of the subject material from their lesson studies, but there may be other ways, more amenable to the US culture, that would engender that same depth of knowledge. Certainly, the Japanese system does not look like the Finnish or the Dutch school systems and yet all three systems enable their children to learn significantly more than US students.

One of the worst aspects of our school system is how we develop and adopt curricula. Because publishers want to maximize their chance of adoption, they put in every skill they can think of while watering down the content (to avoid offending anyone). Any logical progression or self-consistent message is lost in the excessive volumes of rather meaningless material that publishers provide.

Additionally, publishers are not looking to develop innovative, quality programs as “going outside the box” can greatly reduce the likelihood of adoption as well. And frankly, what school district is going to adopt a program that looks remarkably different than anything that they have seen before?

Consequently our curricula are rather scattered and poorly organized. Our system of curricular adoption could readily be changed without impinging upon the teacher’s academic freedom.

Changing teaching practice is more difficult, but it is attainable if we would first acknowledge that we have wonderful, caring teachers who do not currently possess the in-depth curricular knowledge seen in top teachers around the world. This is not because they are “bad teachers” but because we have no cultural tradition of encouraging teaching ability. We implicitly assume that we have “good teachers” or “bad teachers.” While an interest in teaching may be innate, quality teaching requires careful study, learning and extensive practice; much like every other human endeavor. Our school systems are greatly lacking any type of systemic support to develop quality teaching.

The question we should be asking ourselves is how can we change our school system to enable both the development of quality curricula and to strongly encourage teachers to improve their practice?

Erin Johnson

[Are students learning more now that we have standards in most states?]

The so-called standards are not standards at all. The term was appropriated by educationists to neutralize it. What's called "standards" are vague visions. Real standards are focused, specific, concise, non-redundant and linked to grade levels.

Allow me to chime in on this enjoyably higher-order discussion of education, reform and pedagogy. I am from the heartland, so I am not entangled with the Bloomburg questions. But I did grow up, mostly, in a middle-class white suburb, and was further stratified into the higher reaches of what was not yet at that time termed gifted education.

I have a life-long attraction to the how and why questions, a penchant for walking around to look at issues from the other side, and not much patience with memorization of dates and facts. Yes, I was viewed as intelligent and creative. When my family moved to a small town I missed the education that I had had, and only put effort into the memorizations to "prove" my superior ability. Had I been exposed to that level of teaching all along, I think I would have drifted away at an early age.

It is worth noting that in my suburban years, text books did not dictate the curriculum. Any teacher who started with Chapter One and continued through as far as you could get before the end of the year would have been considered inferior. In my move to small town, this was the expectation in all classes. I didn't read literature--I read about literature.

But--I wanted to underline something else that JP pointed out, which is the role of American schools in maintaining the socio-economic stratification of society. We tend to view this in terms of what is wrong with those kids at the bottom that they can't learn (or synthesize), without taking a longer view with regard to who benefits from their loss. Leveling the playing field would tend to make college entry (a big goal of the middle class) far more competitive, along with jobs down the line. In states that have been faced with court orders to reform funding systems to equalize the access to financial resources there has been extreme reluctance to do so. On the one hand, no one wants to pay for lifting urban buildings to the level of the ones in the suburbs (and I use buildings loosely--facilities are a start, experienced teachers, computers, class sizes, all that comes along). On the other hand, any redistribution that lifts the bottom at the expense of the top calls forth an outcry of those with political clout. Witness the limited changes in redistributing Title I $. The highest per pupil distribution still goes to the districts having the lowest percentage of low income students. There has been some gain in the middle. At the bottom (and it is the bottom, both in the lowest percentage of non-low-income students AND the lowest per pupil allocation to low income students) the numbers have remained flat. There have been changes--but they only apply to the increases. This hold harmless mentality serves those at the top at the expense of those at the bottom.

I think that one of the big surprises that has come out of testing and accountability NCLB style--which really says little about pedagogy--has been that (how to say this kindly, since I know it won't sound good) the teachers in the classrooms know somewhat less than was supposed about how to improve learning. Going back to the thermometer, we supposed that we all had working heaters, and just needed some clues about when to turn them on and off. What we are finding is that some heaters (and we can think of them as being schools rather than individual teachers) work adequately, some poorly and others very well, at warming their space.

Now that we see how poorly the heat is spread, we either need to move some people where the heat is good, or tinker with heaters to make them more efficient, or maybe buy new ones.


Some valid points. Let me try to respond/elaborate.

"...how has the standards movement actually affected student learning?" This strikes at the heart of the standards movement, at least for me. While Deborah and I disagree on this point, I will contend that the standards movement has made the same rich body of knowledge we would want for our own children (now) available to all students throughout a state. This is also one reason I strongly support national standards. I'd like kids in Mississippi to have access to the same rich body of knowledge my kids have in Massachusetts. Kids attending school in urban districts (now) at least have access to the same "stuff" kids are getting in the suburbs. I consider that a good thing. Access to, is the key here. Standards have been a step TOWARD equity. While we're not there yet, I at least like the direction in which we are finally headed.

While I'd like to see pedagogical reform (simply to minimize/eliminate whole group instruction) I think the rest of my paragraph on pedagogical reform agrees with what you said about it. We're fortunate that we have many outstanding, dedicated teachers in this country. The biggest problem that I saw over my many years in the classroom; unlike Japan, teachers in US schools are essentially isolated. Seldom do they get the opportunity to visit classrooms of their peers. All the money we spend on professional development (programs) might better go to substitutes so our regular ed teachers could spend time in some of our exceptional classrooms. This goes along with Margo/Mom's concern that, "...the teachers in the classrooms know somewhat less than was supposed about how to improve learning." The opportunities simply have not existed in our contemporary school culture.

Think of what we could have learned if we could have spent even one day in Deborah's class/school. My guess - it would have been time well spent.

Paul Hoss

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