"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.
Diane Ravitch

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.)

Buy this book.
 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.
Read about the Save Our Schools March, and rally in Washington this summer.


  1. What really makes me afraid is that people I know (including my family) who are not educators really believe that the "reform" movement that is underway is the right way to go. These are rational, well informed, well educated people who have heard me talk about my challenges as an educator for years and yet they still believe that bad teachers are at the root of our national education problems.

    It just seems so silly that the people who live in the country of educating are not trusted to evaluate the problem. It's true that an outside perspective is often valuable - but who would you rather have making decisions during an operation? The doctor who has studied surgery for years without actually ever performing a surgery or even stepping foot in an OR? Or the doctor who has been cutting and stitching and adapting for years? I know I'd rather trust the experienced MD. Unless he was drunk.

  2. I have always believed it is up to the parents to help their children succeed. Teachers are there to teach what I can't but they are not babysitters. Unfortunately that is what a lot of people think. I strongly Dislike the reform. The people making these bills are not teachers. They have no idea what it is like to go into a class room of 30 or more students and try to get them modivated to learn. Teaching should be one of the highest paid jobs and it isn't. I hope someday people will wake up and realize it isn't the teachers fault that kids are not passing these stupid tests.

  3. Even before I met Jazzy, I always got upset with people who blamed teachers for all the educational woes. I sat in classrooms with people who did not do as well because I had a thirst for knowledge and a good attitude toward education. I read and searched for more to stuff into my brain.

    The bad attitude toward education, teachers, and the system has limited people's ability to learn. Just as the placebo effect creates the possibilities we have faith in, our misguided belief that the teachers are failing to educate our children creates a block in our children's ability to learn. I watched others stumble because they thought high school was stupid, a waste of time, or not applicable to the real world.

    Parents are failing and I am afraid that too much momentum of stupidity has built up for us to dam the deluge much longer. I hope we are not too late to save our education system.

  4. Thanks May, Gail, Charlie.

    Another ironic/funny thing about all this is that when I've asked students about their teacher's responsibility to motivate them, they invariably say the teacher has nothing to do with motivating them. They know it's their own responsibility to work and learn, and if they aren't they pretty much know why.

  5. Another big problem with Bush's plan and Obama's plan is that they both treat schools like they are the same in every state and in every city. My school in suburban Texas is vastly different than a school in urban Detroit. Our problems are completely different yet we're using the same methods to solve the problems.

    Also, one simple way to get better teachers in the classroom would be to pay them more. Put more money out there and higher quality applicant will emerge. The market would actually be competitive.

  6. Excellent post. I've written about Diane Ravitch in the past and she's spot on. Interesting tidbit about Diane Ravitch is that she used to be a big champion of Bush's reforms and charter schools. Fortunately, she hangs her hat on evidence, and has found it sorely lacking.

    Thanks for stopping by at Blue Lyon and leaving your 2¢. I'll be back!