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Diane Ravitch Slays the Sacred Cow

This week's post is written by Chandra Emery, a writer and mediator in service to the Portland Community.  Before becoming a mom, she practiced law in Washington, DC and Portland for a number of years.

On a recent Tuesday night, Illahee hosted a lecture by Diane Ravitch as part of its 2012 Sacred Cow Lecture Series.  From the packed bleachers at Lincoln High School, Ravitch received two standing ovations, notably one before she reached the podium.  

In a lecture that had the tone and rhythm of a stump speech, Ravitch came out swinging at the “sacred cow” -- the belief, promoted by the “corporate reformers,” that schools will improve if we focus on testing, accountability and choice.  In the 1990s, as assistant secretary of education, Ravitch was fully committed to these pillars of reform.  She has since changed her mind, dramatically and publicly.  She is now arguing to protect public education from the “corporate reform movement” which has underpinnings to privatize the American school system.  Our government's focus on testing, accountability and choice, she says, is a threat to public education.

Ravitch’s wish list:

  • a strong public education system 
  • equality of educational opportunity
  • a system that supports, respects and values teachers 
  • a broad curriculum to include history, science, geography, civics and foreign languages
  • a government commitment to have a public neighborhood school in every community

And she’ll tell you (with heavy reliance on facts and figures) the threats to her wish list loom large:

  • Follow The Money.  “Corporate reformers” -- big money foundations, hedge fund groups and other conservative groups -- are moving us to a privatized system.   Ravitch points to the emergence of e-schools, like K12 Oregon, an online virtual elementary school -- one of many examples of private entrepreneurs with skin in the game.  
  • Poverty, Poverty, Poverty.   The most reliable predictor of scores on standardized tests, low family income correlates with low test scores.   Our emphasis is on testing.  Meanwhile, childhood poverty is on the rise.  (More than 20% of children in the US live in poverty, according to the 2010 Census). This, she calls, the elephant in the room.
  • A Punitive Environment Increasingly Hostile To Teachers.  In our system, Ravitch says, “It’s all sticks and no carrots.”  Corporate reformers would replace training and professional development with merit pay and bonuses that pit teachers against each other and create no chance for collaboration.  She also criticizes Teach For America both for failing to directly address poverty and for the nomadic nature of its program based on college recruits.  Ravitch likes Finland, where teachers have support, respect and security and typically enjoy long, stable careers.   To Ravitch, the sticks in our system and the TFA recruits, for two examples, work against this ideal.
  • Standardized Testing.  Long before Ravitch entered government, she was passionate that we must improve our knowledge of history, literature, geography, science, civics, and foreign languages.   She enthusiastically became assistant secretary of education under George H.W. Bush, with huge hopes of establishing state and national standards in this wide range of subject areas.  Instead, the focus under No Child Left Behind (which she previously supported) has been on standards for reading and math and the result has been a narrowing of the curriculum in public schools and a culture of punishment and distrust.  Standardized testing diminishes creativity, says Ravitch, and serves the corporate model of measuring profits and losses.   
  • School Choice.  She is against Charter schools.  According to Ravitch, charter schools are not better than public schools and further, comparisons are unfair because more often than not, children who are harder to educate are denied access to charter schools.  Coincident with the school choice approach, closure or privatization of neighborhood schools is the final stick under No Child Left Behind.  This, she says, disrupts communities and creates a private sector that undermines the public offering of education.   

A historian, research professor and former government official -- Ravitch has a rare mastery of the subject of American education.   Her willingness to rethink her position on reform speaks to her integrity and grit.  And what can we imagine of the personal toll of this remarkable shift?  Improving American education has been her life’s work. Years ago, this meant embracing and working on reform from within our government.  Today, she is warning of the heist of our public education by moneyed interests.  Is she a canary in the coal mine?  

At the core of her message, is this question:  Who has the power to shape our educational system? According to Ravitch, 25,000 stakeholders are part of the corporate reform movement towards privatization while many millions of people want a public education system that is accessible, rich in curriculum, stable, community-based and inspirational (. . . well, why shouldn’t we dream big?!).   

In Portland, many, many parents are desperate for a path forward.  The amount of energy expended per family to navigate the maze of our educational system (which includes public, private and alternative options) is astounding.  Imagine if we channeled that energy and pulled together. Some places to channel energy may be with Parents Across America (on a national level) and with Oregon Save Our Schools (on a statewide level).  (And, for some local inspiration, look here.) 

Tell me, what do the 25,000 stakeholders have that the millions don’t?

Reader Comments (2)

So much of current business advice and practice involves standardizing steps and procedures so supposedly any poorly trained and motivated person can do the job. An obvious example is the cash registers at fast food places, where actual knowledge of products and money is replaced by keys labeled with pictures and words. This standardization is everywhere in business and now it is getting to be everywhere in education.
There have always been attempts to teacher-proof education. The idea is to make a text-book product or teaching procedure that will still deliver the educational goods even in the hands of ignorant or incompetent teachers.
The truth is, though, that human beings are the most complex organism on the planet and education is the most complex thing those organisms do. It can be the most demanding task there is. The only thing that works is to hire good people, train them well, pay them well and then let them loose to do what needs to be done. Nothing but first-rate people can have the flexibility to teach a group of humans well. And first-rate people can't work under inane and restrictive limits.
Some businesses are beginning to find this out. They are hiring more people, paying them better and watching their profits rise. Unfortunately, education is way behind on this as usual and we are just embracing standardization when business is leaving it behind.

April 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMegan Hughes

Hello there ,

I saw that you mentioned Teach for America here
As a teacher that faces technology challenges in education, I find there is a need to educate teachers on what risks kids face online these days.

I want to suggest you share an important guide which came out last month. I found it was very thorough on child safety online:

I liked the way they summarized each section with actionable items for the teachers.

Thanks for helping protect our kids,

June 26, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJane

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