"Temporality is part of the truth" -- Chuck Klosterman
Thursday, February 17, 2011
Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid
Diane Ravitch Speaks February 17, 2011 Denver, Colorado
At the last minute we cajoled May’s parents to watch the baby with promises of Chipotle burritos and an early return time. When I registered to see Diane Ravitch speak, the website said her appearance would be from 6-9 pm and would include a book signing. We thought that would mean an hour or two for speaking and questions, then and hour or so for signing. Since we didn’t really want Ms. Ravitch to sign our Kindles, we assumed that we would be home way before 9:00.
The timing was all wrong. We arrived at 6:05, thinking we were late, but there were only a couple dozen people there. By 6:20, a few others had arrived, but there was no sign of Diane Ravitch. An announcement was made that Ms. Ravitch would begin signing books at 6:30 and her speech would begin at 7:30, with questions at 8:30. My wife and I conferred, she made a call home, and we decided to stay. It wasn’t too bad: we had some time to talk, I had my Kindle to read, and some teacher friends showed up and sat next to us. They knew the correct time.
This brief personal narrative is just my way of saying that it was worth the wait. I have read Ravitch’s book, The Death and Life of the Great American Education System, over the past few months and haven’t stopped thinking about its implications upon my profession. I still plan on blogging more about some arguments that book makes, but for now, I want to point out a few things she discussed this evening that would be helpful appendices to her book.
Ravitch says there’s a two-pronged attack on public education: Privatization and de-professionalization. For the past decade this movement has taken hold and just in the last year, media pundits from the Today show and Oprah to the documentary Waiting for Superman have shown America that public schools are failing and teachers are to blame. (I haven’t seen Waiting for Superman, but it’s first in my Netflix cue--short wait--so I’ll write more on that later.)
There is a perfect storm brewing. The lagging economy leads to less funding which makes it easier--in the sense that there’s little backlash--to close schools or lay-off teachers. Bush W’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law mandates that all schools, all children, 100% of students in America will be proficient on state tests by 2014. And Obama H’s Race to the Top (RTTT) law doesn’t change NCLB's utopian vision but only mandates more adoption of unproven reforms. Stir this all in a pot and call it stew because these mandates will only cause more problems for educators.
Ravitch says the corporate reformers who want more privatization of education have fought to keep the failing NCLB accountability mandates because in the next three years, as more and more schools fail to make AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) goals, more and more schools will be failing, and that’s when the corporations can take over. She goes on the say that the RTTT law contributes to the demonization and demoralization of teachers. RTTT calls for the elimination of tenure and seniority, and linking teacher evaluations, and therefore their jobs, to student test scores.
I know that many Americans misunderstand teacher tenure. The reformers claim that teachers cannot be fired, even if they are bad teachers, that even if they do crazy, illegal things, no one can touch them. This is patently untrue. Tenure is due process. That’s all. It’s a system that allows a teacher not to be fired on the whim of an administrator who’s had a bad day. In America, we've long accepted the idea of unionization, of banding together to fighting for the guy who has no clout. I know this system gets abused, as all systems do, that sometimes terrible teachers are still allowed to teach. But the protection should be there nonetheless.
The movement to link teacher evaluations to student performance on standardized tests is even scarier. Colorado has already passed a law to this effect. Ravitch says, "Assuming that if we put pressure on teachers, students will work harder is ridiculous." In fact, she goes on to say that this thinking takes away teacher authority. Students will learn that they can fire their teachers if they don’t like them.
One of the main tenets of Ravitch’s book is that there are so many variables in education that is hurts us all if we focus on just the few things we can read in data from a test. How can I be held responsible for the kid who by twelfth grade still doesn’t care, even if I try my damnedest to knock some sense into him?
Here’s a quick run-down of what Ravitch believes will help public education in America:
1. Pre-Kindergarten programs to close the gap between children of poverty and affluence. 2. Parent education programs. 3. Medical care availability for those children living in poverty. 4. Higher standards for entering the teaching profession. Make the profession more rewarding, not less. 5. Principals should be master teachers. 6. Superintendents should be expert educators. (And this statement scored the most applause of the night.) 7. Abolish multiple choice questions. Assessment should be through projects, not guesses. 8. A balanced and rich curriculum.
There’s so much more to say. But for now, if you’re not an educator, perhaps this can help you understand the problem and not believe the hype fed to you by the corporations with the power. If you are an educator, you probably know all this already. I’ve known it, but it’s taken this book for me to be able to see these problems so clearly. For four years, I haven’t really understood where the superintendent in my district came from. Now I do.
It was a pleasing event. Not Steven Wright winging one-liners pleasing, but it’s cathartic to be in a room with like-minded professionals professing ideas that you hope will change the world.