Diane Ravitch: On Point

“When tests are used for sanctions and merit pay, we lose sight of why we assess.”

Today, Diane Ravitch electrified a packed house of superintendents in the largest venue available in the Denver Convention Center.  A year ago, she spoke in a classroom-sized venue at NSBA’s national conference to an audience insignificant in number compared to today’s crowd. According to AASA staff, she received, this morning, the longest standing ovation in conference history.  Her topic? Will School Reform Change Schools?

What does this same question mean to “boots on the ground” educators – teachers, principals, and superintendents?” It’s been a conversation topic all week.  The mood among educators seems to have shifted over the summer as we’ve become more attuned to what some now label “an assault” upon a basic principle of our democratic way of life in the United States – equity and equality of access to public education.

Here, in informal hallway conversations, presentations, and workshop discussions, everyone’s been speaking to concerns about media bashing, political deconstruction, and private sector takeover of public education. No comment gained greater applause than when Ravitch said, “The national media pundits criticize public education, but they wouldn’t trade their jobs or salaries for the jobs and salaries of public educators. The popular media narrative of failing public education is factually wrong. We must stand up and say so.”

Ravitch’s statement, “When some move to make education more of a consumer good instead of a public good, they tear at the social fabric of this country,” echoed the perspective of AASA’s superintendents that we face a crisis of public trust in educators and public education. Ravitch noted a recent call from an LA Times reporter who asked, “ Why do we need public schools?”

In her presentation, Ravitch took apart this question, sharing her perspective that public education is under attack, not because our students’ performance is at a low point in the history of achievement measurement (it’s not), but because the business community has turned its sights on the potential of public education funding as a new source of revenue to fuel a new private sector from the privatization of public schools.

She noted that it’s not parents and educators shaping educational policy and funding direction in the USDOE, but corporate ‘types’ associated with “Broad, Gates, and the New Schools Venture Fund.” In her opinion, the USDOE ignores educators’ research such as the merit pay study conducted with funding from the Department, “Vanderbilt University conducted the most rigorous empirical research ever done on merit pay, and they found no evidence of differences in student performance even with a $15,000 incentive for one group of teachers. DOE chooses to ignore evidence such as this – unless it supports their ideology.”

Speaking also to health care for children, parent education, support beginning at birth, and pre-school programming as critical to strong academic performance, Ravitch compared the United States to Finland, the top-performing country in the world on international assessments and a country where social services support begins at birth for children; “Our society can’t afford to neglect basic needs of families in poverty- it’s a national disgrace- poverty matters. “

Superintendents this week spoke in unified protest to Secretary Duncan and his educational outreach staff about the shift in philosophy from using USDOE funding to address needs of children living in poverty, children supported by IEPs, and children who enter our schools speaking a language other than English. While 84% of the overall federal funding for schools remains formula driven; of new federal funds, 60% goes directly into competitive grants. Ravitch articulated superintendents’ concerns about both Race to the Top and I3 grants when she commented, “Federal dollars should go to those districts with the neediest children and not to those with the best grant writers.”

Echoing the frustration expressed this week by AASA superintendents from rural, urban, and suburban districts, Ravitch also decried the failure of the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, “Many say we need to change the status quo of education. Well the status quo’s NCLB. I’ve said I was wrong about it. Why can’t they?” Ravitch was one of the biggest supporters of Accountability 1.0 standards and high-stakes tests until 2006 when she processed data-driven evidence of what she began to label as a “dangerous culture of testing.”

Since then, she’s become, perhaps, the most vocal and public critic of charter schools, vouchers, federally supported school closures, staff firings for low performance, merit pay, sanctions, and programs such as Teach for America- all of which she sees as contributing to the demolition of public education by those she describes as education-business profiteers or “the billionaires’ club.”

Superintendents lined up for Diane Ravitch to sign their copies of The Death and Life of the Great American School System.

One said, “I hope this book doesn’t come true.”

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