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When “Equality” Is Used to Push Through Orwellian Measures

By Deborah Meier — January 24, 2008 4 min read

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.

Deborah

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

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