A smiling school board member, tired of me and unwilling to fight the Common Core monster, advised me to do what she does: focus on the positive parts of Common Core. Be an optimist, she said.
“The positive parts? –You mean the lies?” I thought, because I’ve not seen positive parts unless you count the positive-sounding parts.
There are lots of those– the Common Core advertisements, the school board’s website promotions and newspaper quotes.
To the non-researcher, the Common Core sounds completely positive– but this “initiative” turns out to be very bad when the naked facts are revealed, about how it’s controlled, whom it pays off and what it robs.
Because the smiling board member knew many of these unsavory facts that she wished not to know, her advice reminded me of the part in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde when Dr. Jekyll tells Utterton not to worry about Mr. Hyde. How illogical, dangerous and self-defeating. But to some, it seems that being an optimist requires putting ourselves at the mercy of bullies and pretending to agree to things that are clearly not so.
This conversation exposed the wide gap between the pretty surface language versus the ugly facts under the belly of Common Core.
In response to that conversation, I’m promoting George Orwell’s brilliant 1946 “catalogue of swindles and perversions” entitled Politics and the English Language.
Orwell’s great at explaining how to cut through verbal jungles of lies. (Please read his whole essay here; I’m just borrowing highlights.)
My favorite image from the essay tops Orwell’s explanation of how manipulators make a bad situation sound grand by using language to cloud truth: as a cuttlefish clouds his intentions by squirting a lot of ink.
“When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns… to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink” … “the great enemy of clear language is insincerity,” he wrote.
Orwell’s essay does more than reveal how political language deceived listeners in 1946; it also foretells 2014 ed reform lingo. It could have been titled “Interesting Ways That People Cook Up Lies to Appear Not Only True, But Delicious.”
Many people have never considered Orwell’s main point: that official language is not only used to express thought; language can be and is also used “for concealing or preventing thought.” Orwell said that political language can “make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”.
The politicorporate cuttlefish do this!
They can’t risk alerting Americans to the real direction in which ed reforms have taken our liberties. Speaking plainly would reveal everything, so they use language to conceal and cloud the sources of the power grab, banking on the fact that most people accept wordiness as if it were smartness and lawfulness.
As a cuttlefish squirts out ink to mask the direction in which he’s really swimming, so do Duncan, Obama, Gates, Coleman, Barber, Tucker, writers of grants, reports and publications try to cloud our minds to lull us, as school boards, governors, parents and taxpayers, to nod and hand over our keys– because we can’t see where the cuttlefish is going and the ink’s kind of pretty.
This is how they do it.
1. BORROWED WORDS OR PRIVATE DEFINITIONS
Those who are either lazy or liars continually borrow phrases and metaphors “tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house,” as Orwell called it, rather than to actually work to think of an original phrase, metaphor or image.
Keeping that henhouse in mind, watch for the repetitive phrases tacked together in education reformers’ speeches. The repeated handful of vague, positive terms include:
- “rigorous standards“
- “social justice“
- “the equity imperative“
- “human capital“
- “robust data“
- “world-class education“
- “global economy“ and “global flourishing” and “globally competent“
These terms have defined, mostly private second meanings. For one example, “world class education” does not mean the best in the world, as we might think –instead, it means noncompetitive, as in: the same as all the world –which is supremely ironic given the fact that the phrase “international competitiveness” is another prefabricated ed reform hen house phrase.
Orwell said that people use words of this kind “in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.” The trendy, pre-fab terms are re-echoed by the federal government, the NGA, CCSSO, Achieve Inc., the Chamber of Commerce, and top university leaders. Some high up officials do not even know that there are private definitions, and they parrot what they’ve heard from people who they may not even recognize as being liars; real, actual, ongoing, habitual, caught-in-the-act liars.
The prime example, of course, of an overused, overborrowed term with a private definition is President Obama’s “call for success in college and careers” also known as “college and career ready standards.” It sounds unobjectionable. But it’s not just a nice, vague term to Obama. It’s narrowly defined on the federal website as standards “common to a significant number of states.” That’s no definition at all except common, the same. Excellence doesn’t come into it. And the phrase is repeated seven times just in one short white house press release. It’s that important and weighty. Now I can’t hear the term “college and career ready” without groaning and rolling my eyes. The ed reformers stole its innocent meaning.
Another pet deceit among ed reformers is to misuse the word “back” by equating any attempt anyone makes (to restore freedoms previously held) to moving backward, or making unintelligent decisions. Bill Gates said that controversy around Common Core “comes from people who want to stop the standards, which would send us back to what we had before.” He did not define “what we had before” as freedom. He left that intentionally vague. But ponder it: would restoring text and test diversity really be a step backward? Would restoring student privacy by getting rid of common data standards (CEDS) and the common databases (SLDS) be a step backward or forward for lovers of freedom? Is all change positive change?
Of course, some changes are good and some are bad. But top ed reformers, including education sales giant Pearson, relentlessly push the idea that deletion of traditional education is good. Pearson CEA Sir Michael Barber said, “governments need to rethink their regulatory regimes for an era when university systems are global rather than national… standing still is not an option.”
Do you buy the idea that governments should give up their national constitutions and local systems and that holding fast to time-tested traditions in education is stupidly “standing still”? Me neither. But this gives us insight into the private definition of “globally competent”.
2. VERBAL FALSE LIMBS
Overuse of the quantity words, especially of overused and educratically vogue words, is usually deliberate snowing. Ed reformers cover up the sharp truths so people don’t recognize what they’re doing, nor fight back. But George Orwell pointed out that adding extra, unneeded words is as obvious and cumbersome –if you pay attention– as adding an extra limb to the body. Watch for phrases lacking usefulness but still commanding space and posing as credibile.
The excessive limbs game was used, for example, when the Federal Register attempted to hide its removal of parental consent over student data-sharing in FERPA policy, by using so many words that only a committee of lawyers could uncover it.
Remember: the motive is to conceal, not to reveal, truth. Orwell said that these excess words “fall upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details… ”
Indeed they try. But there are red flags that they themselves created, phrases that can signal to us that lies are afoot. One especially irksome phrase is “informed by” –such a trendy, snooty false limb. Its academic tone may intimidate some readers, but the phrase is often used as a spout near missing evidence. For example, the Common Core official website states that “Common Core is informed by the highest, most effective standards from states across the United States and countries around the world.” Not true!
Promoters used to claim, often and loudly, that Common Core was internationally benchmarked, but after critics pointed out that not a single country had math and English standards that matched Common Core, promoters changed to the term “informed by” which is so vague that it’s harder to prove it’s a lie.
Still, it’s a lie: top state standards-holders prior to Common Core were Massachusetts, Indiana and California, and they dropped their high standards and came down to common core. Common Core didn’t reach up at all. There’s nothing “internationally informed” about them. Just ask validation committee member Dr. James Milgram, who said that the reason he didn’t sign off on the standards was that “they did not match up to international expectations. They were at least two years behind practices in high achieving countries by seventh grade”.
A very wordy example of verbal false limbs running amok is seen in a federal Common Core grant called the “Cooperative Agreement.” It connects the federal government and the Common Core tester, Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC). The lengthy agreement applies to PARCC, too. And since SBAC partnered with Utah’s and Florida’s current testing group, A.I.R., this document still matters to me despite Utah’s dropping out of SBAC. Buried in its snowbanks of wordiness is a micromanaging federal bully. States must:
“Actively participate in any meetings and telephone conferences with ED staff… Be responsive to requests from ED for information about the status of the project… providing such information in writing… Comply with… ED staff … make student-level data that results from the assessment system available on an ongoing basis… [R]espective Project Directors [this means the testing arms] will collaborate to coordinate appropriate tasks and timelines to foster synchronized development of assessment systems… The Program Officer for the RTTA grantees [this means the Feds] will work with the Project Directors for both RTTA grantees [this means the testing arms] to coordinate and facilitate coordination across consortia.”
In other words, conform. But that sharp message is buried behind pleasant phrases earlier in the document, such as “the purpose of this agreement is to support the consortium recipient.” Support? The way that a jail supports those jailed inside it? This brings us to the next tool: pretentious diction.
3. PRETENTIOUS DICTION
Orwell said that pretentious diction tries to “dignify sordid processes” and to “give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgments.”
Example: Read the pretentious, one-sided judgments underlying the highly controversial Obama-Duncan “Preschool For All Initiative”. For those who don’t know, this move puts four year old toddlers in federal preschools –based on supposedly settled scientific research that concludes that this will benefit little ones.
Yet, highly respected researchers oppose what Obama-Duncan tout; they say that it is best to keep young children free of institutionalization (not to mention keeping them free of data tracking and high stakes testing). Still, President Obama speaks about the federal Preschool For All, using “research” that serves his idea that government should rear children from the cradle.
Watch how he does it. He imposes the intimate, tiny yet very pretentious term “we” on listeners, and implies that “we” can simultaneously –and fairly– serve the child, the business interests, and the educational-political interests:
“Research shows that one of the best investments we can make in a child’s life is high-quality early education.”
Notice that the president omits any mention of governmental mandate. Elsewhere, we learn that Preschool For All is to be mandatory. In an April 29, 2014 speech, Duncan called for mandatory preschool, saying, “The third major priority in the 2015 request is to continue the President’s commitment to expanding educational opportunity for millions of children through a $75 billion mandatory Preschool for All program…”
Pretentious diction overflows, like the polluted froth on a sick river, over and through the current math and English Common Core standards. It lives in the speeches of education sales giant Pearson CEA Sir Michael Barber as he explains reasons for making environmental education a centerpiece of every school in every subject in every nation (see Pearson’s CEA Sir Michael Barber‘s speeches.) It’s in the term “misinformed” that proponents loves to call all Common Core’s opponents. Pretention is everywhere ed reformers speak and write. They depend on pretense because they lack actual authority.
A clue to detecting the lies that are hidden behind pretentious diction is to search for links to research that supports the claims being made. Usually, there are no references, no links; listeners are expected to be trusting and dumb enough to assume what is being said is truthful. On those rare occasions that links to evidence are provided, find out if the cited think tank/university/publisher is financially partnered with the politicorporate cuttlefish of Common Core. Invariably, they are.
We are left to realize that in Common Core ed reform, money now has a stronger voice than voters, teachers, parents, students or taxpayers in determining what will be policy. And that money is deeply committed to making more of itself. Case in point:
Gates’ company, Microsoft, wrote: “At Microsoft, we are deeply committed to working with governments… [blah blah blah] … learning for all.”
“Deeply committed” sounds good. It sounds noble. But why is Gates’ company so deeply committed to “learning for all”? Because they’re making money while altering political and educational policy. Making money is a good thing; I’m all for capitalism. The problem is that nobody elected Microsoft or Pearson; they have no authority other than the dollars they use as bait. We can’t un-elect them now or ever, and we’ve swallowed their baited hooks right and left in countless “partnerships” with our governments.
4. MEANINGLESS WORDS
Orwell pointed out that much of what passes for writing is “strictly meaningless, in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly even expected to do so by the reader.” Orwell despised “long passages almost completely lacking in meaning.” He would not enjoy the 26-transcript-paged speech by David Coleman, current president of the College Board, because it is a black hole that says nothing except for the part when Coleman admitted he’s unqualified for his office. That part would be funny if the education of children were some kind of laughing matter.
Here’s more meaninglessness: Bill Gates said: “common standards could transform U.S. education.” It’s meaningless because nobody would argue it; it’s like saying rain could make your hair wet. Common standards could and ARE transforming education. But is it a disasterous or a delightful transformation? He left out that part so nobody could argue with him or criticize his sound byte. Except that I am criticizing it for its desperate spineless meaninglessness.
Sometimes Gates speaks so vaguely that he covers both ends of opposing concepts. He said that Common Core would “enable American students to better compete globally.” He didn’t explain how (considering the fact that the standards are only preparing students for nonselective colleges). But since it’s an established, defined fact that “world-class education” now means “noncompetitive education,” Gates’ statement passes neither the logic nor the meaningfulness test.
Why does the second richest man in the world, who probably has dozens of speech writers and image makers, deliberately choose to speak and write meaninglessly, vaguely? Because Common Core is a power grab and the truth would upset people. He can’t say so.
Neither can Arne Duncan or President Obama. So the cuttlefish use words that mean “we control; you submit” but that don’t sound that way. Look at the beige terms they use such as:
turning around schools
flexibility for states
These terms support the top-down edu-politicorporate control system that boils down to “we are the boss of you.”
Orwell warned readers against such ready-made phrases, not only because they often veil corrupt power moves, but also because “every such phrase anaesthetizes a portion of one’s brain.”
Not to mention that they smell like lies from miles away.