Dystopian education reform: Big Brother is watching in Belleville, NJ

Belleville 1

Rally for Belleville–6/23/14; photo from NJEA

There’s certainly no dearth of dystopian literature in the world, mostly because the idea of an oppressive ruling class controlling powerless citizens is compelling–and extraordinarily frightening.  Typically, people associate dystopias with governments, as is the case in Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four; however, as people all over the country–and more locally, those in Belleville, NJ–are learning, dystopian qualities are pervading our public schools and masquerading as “education reform.”

A quick primer for anyone unfamiliar with the characteristics of a dystopian society:

  • An individual ruler (Orwell’s Big Brother, for example) or a powerful ruling group (a corporation, for example) controls nearly all aspects of society
  • Information is censored and controlled by the ruler or ruling group
  • The ruler or ruling group imposes ridiculous mandates, rules, and regulations on citizens
  • Citizens are under constant surveillance
  • Citizens live in fear, primarily because dissent and individual thought are punished
  • Human characteristics are stripped from citizens; computers, robots, or other kinds of technology are often favored
  • Subservience, conformity, and mindless work are valued and rewarded.

Though there are many different types of dystopian literature, most works in the genre are meant to warn us of the consequences of unchecked power and societal imbalances.

So how does this apply to education reform?

On the most basic level, consider this piece, written by the father of school-age children, about Divergent (a 2011 Veronica Roth novel, although the article refers to the film that was released in March of this year) as an “education dystopia”:

The central feature of “Divergent” is that children are given aptitude tests that sort them by virtues, sometimes separating them from their families. These sorting tests are nothing new in popular young adult fiction.

But “Divergent”, intentionally or not, puts high-stakes testing at the center of the educational dystopia it portrays. As in present-day reality, testing takes time away from classroom instruction and occurs on a single day. The “Divergent” tests measure aptitude, not comprehension, and serve mainly to sort students according to immutable traits into one of five factions “to determine who we are and where we belong.” In schools, we use standardized tests to figure out whether someone is “college or career ready.”

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?  Standardized tests certainly serve to depersonalize the educational experience for both students and teachers, and the social stratification they create is characteristic of dystopian societies. But we also cannot ignore the corporate influence in education; the oligarchs in our society who use their wealth to impose rules and regulations on people who they’d consider to be socially-inferior; the conformity that advocates of education reform promote (“Whole Brain Teaching“?  Creepy chanting?); the culture of fear reformers are instilling in teachers and students (yes, in England, too!); and the ridiculous, crippling mandates being imposed on schools from the federal and state levels.

In New Jersey, the Belleville board of education has taken the concept of an educational dystopia to a scary new level. Last year, the district earmarked $2 million for state-of-the-art security systems in the district’s schools so it could monitor the comings and goings of students and staff:

The surveillance apparatus will enable district security to monitor activity throughout the school, including any classroom at any time. Students and staff will be issued radio frequency identification cards that can trace their whereabouts in and out of school. The board notes that such cards would aid in finding a lost kindergartner. Staff members are concerned about their privacy while carrying the card to and from work. The board approved a nearly $2 million contract with Clarity Systems Consulting Group for the product.

(One thing worth adding: jobs associated with the project were offered to family members of district officials after contracts were finalized.  Nice.)

And while few people would argue the virtues of keeping students and staff safe, parents and teachers in Belleville have been questioning the board’s motives, financial decisions, and priorities:

More than 150 people packed the former media center and current senior class cafeteria at Belleville High School, many to take the board to task for its perceived shortcomings, including: alleged political retaliation against its faculty and staff; inadequate supplies; overcrowded classrooms; and unnecessary security system upgrades. They also pleaded with the district’s governing body to work with its teachers and parents for the good of its students.

The Belleville board of education maintains that these security measures are necessary to protect children and staff, yet it seems that their “surveillance” system’s primary purpose is to tracks students’ and staff members’ every move. Union surveys reveal that teachers feel there’s a culture of intimidation in Belleville, and according to NJEA Vice President Marie Blistan, “BEA members are being mistreated, vilified, and denigrated.” As Jersey Jazzman reports, even the teachers’ lounge is equipped with a camera and listening devices. (Does anyone remember Watergate?  Nineteen Eighty-Four? The Firm?! Any other work of literature or example from history that involves this kind of surveillance?  Abuse of power.  The end.)

In recent months, the Belleville Education Association has filed unfair labor practice complaints and grievances in response to the board’s irresponsible and capricious actions; the board, in turn, suspended BEA president Mike Mignone–and brought him up on ridiculous tenure charges–for speaking about the injustices he was witnessing. In short, the district is in what the New Jersey Education Association describes as “constant crisis.” (Read here for Jazzman’s great coverage of the Belleville situation and last night’s rally to support Mignone.) 

As is the case in Belleville, dissent is punished in a dystopian society–specifically so the ruling class can keep its underlings in their place and continue to push its agenda without opposition. In general, the current education reform movement reeks of creepy class differentials that are characteristically dystopian–and it’s clear that there certainly is a powerful, wealthy ruling class making decisions about public education. (Local control? Lol.)

And as union members from all over the state proclaimed last night, the situation in Belleville is a glaring example of the reason educators need tenure.  With job protections removed, students’ educational experiences suffer–mostly because their teachers are at the mercy of  people who abuse their power at the expense of kids.  Teachers who oppose the powers that be and stand up for what’s right are fired without cause, and the instability that results hurts kids and public education in general.

David Coleman wants us to read more informational texts and less fiction, and perhaps this is why: because literature exposes the flaws in our society and serves to warn us of the repercussions of allowing those flaws to go unchecked.  The moral of the story here?  Learn from Belleville–and fight against the powers that seek to destroy public education.


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