An appalling act of public humiliation and shaming: that it the only honest way to describe the decision of the Los Angeles Times to publish the names and pictures of teachers who scored poorly on a “value added” statistic derived from their students’ standardized test scores. Even if “value added” measures were completely reliable and accurate measures of an individual teacher’s performance — and the best research indicates that in their current state of development and with the current flawed regimen of standardized tests, they are not — the decision to publish the names of teachers would still be indefensible. It submits to public disapprobation individuals who had committed no crime and engaged in no professional misconduct, and issues a summary judgment, for which there is no appeal, on their careers of many years. The decision of the Times to publish names tells us more about its distorted sense of journalistic ethics than it does about the performance of the teachers in question. And the rush of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to cheer lead the Times action, telling its reporters in grand Orwellian fashion that “in education, we’ve been scared to talk about success,” puts to rest any hope that the Duncan who recklessly embraced the mass firings of all the teachers in Bedford Falls, irrespective of their actual classroom performance, was an aberration of that moment.
There are many historical analogies for this action, but one with remarkable resonance is Mao Zedong’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Rituals of public humiliation are only one point of convergence between Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the movement which celebrates the act of the Los Angeles Times. Both movements are united by a common voluntarist theory of change: the idea that the force of the human will alone can completely remake established institutions and social relations into new, ideal forms. Through sheer effort, teachers should be able to overcome all of the accumulated social and economic hardships and educational challenges faced by students living in poverty, just as Chinese working people were to overcome their nation’s historic impoverishment with a ‘great leap forward’ that ignored actual conditions. Both movements have a common disparagement of professional expertise: the Maoist notion of ‘better red than expert’ has its corollary in the ‘education reform’ idea that with a few weeks of rudimentary preparation, any intelligent graduate of an elite university can be an exemplary teacher, singlehandedly bridging the achievement gap. The ‘red guards’ of the Cultural Revolution, storming the Communist Party and Chinese state headquarters on Mao’s command, have their analogue in the non-educator lawyers, MBAs and hedge fund managers who have set out to colonize the commanding heights of American education, from which they wage war on the ‘status quo.’ Most importantly, there is a common ideological dogmatism that underlies both Maoism and the education reform movement: where Maoism made a ‘golden calf’ of an unfettered state, concentrating all political power in the hands of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat,’ its counterpart is engaged in an idolatry of the unfettered market in education. In their hands, the answer to every educational question is the market. Thus, in her haste to provide an apology for the Times’ decision, California Secretary of Education Bonnie Reiss declared that “publishing this data is not about demonizing teachers.” Rather, it’s about creating “a more market-driven approach to results.” To have markets in education, there must be accounting ledgers and bottom lines. It matters little, apparently, that those bottom lines have all of the accuracy of a pre-2007 Bears Stearn or AIG annual report, so long as there is a bottom line, and names can be named.
Sherman Dorn and Daniel Willingham are both on target that righteous indignation, however richly deserved, is not a sufficient teacher union response to this action. But it is worth pointing out that there have been places where teacher unions have taken on directly the development of a rigorous and robust system of teacher evaluation, such as was done here in New York when NYSUT and the UFT agreed to legislation with the Chancellor of the Regents and the State Education Commissioner that become law this spring. As important as that step was going forward, we did not take it under the illusion that it would satiate the ideologues of the Great Bourgeois Cultural Revolution. That is a struggle that continues.