Is Diane Ravitch the George Ball of Our Generation and Education Reform our Vietnam?

Mark Naison, the author of this post, is a Professor of African-American Studies and History at Fordham University and Director of Fordham’s Urban Studies Program. He is the author of three books and over 100 articles on African-American History, urban history, and the history of sports. The post originally appeared on Naison’s blog With a Brooklyn Accent.

In the spring and summer of 1965, as  US policy makers debated whether to send large numbers of US ground troops to Vietnam to insure that the South Vietnamese government not collapse , a longtime Washington insider named George Ball issued a fierce warning  that the policy being recommended would be disastrous.  Declaring that the conflict in Vietnam was a“civil war among Asians” not  a front of  a global struggle against Communism, Ball warned that sending US ground troops lead would lead to national humiliation no matter how large the force sent or the technological advantage it possessed because it would cement the character of the war, from the Vietnamese side, as a struggle against a foreign invader. Ball’s advice needless to say, was disregarded, and the result was exactly as he predicted- a humiliating defeat for the US which extracted a terrifying toll in deaths and ecological damage on the Vietnamese people

In our time, a bi-partisan initiative of equal import, though less immediately destructive consequences, a movement to revitalize public education in the US and eliminate racial and economic gaps in educational performance, has prompted an equally momentous dissent from a Washington insider, this time in the person of a education scholar Dr  Diane Ravitch. An Undersecretary of Education in the Bush Administration, and an initial supporter of landmark “ No Child Left Behind” legislation, Ravitch became convinced that the fundamental assumption that  undergirded  bi-partisan Education Reform, that the “achievement gap” between Black and Latino and White and Asian students  was caused by “bad teachers” and recalcitrant teachers unions rather than entrenched poverty, would lead to policy recommendations that would demoralize teachers, destabilize the nation’s public school system, profession, encourage privatization and profiteering  and, in the long run, increase performance gaps between racial and economic groups.

As  with George Ball before her, Dr Ravitch’s recommendations were systematically ignored not only by the administration that appointed her, but the administration which replaced it.  And  as with George Ball, her warnings are proving to be eerily prophetic.   All over the nation, policies are being implemented which are leading to demoralization of teachers, to closing of schools  which honorably served communities for generations, to  marginalization of special needs and ELL students, to  testing scandals in high needs schools and districts, and to an uncontrolled proliferation of tests that has put profits in the pockets of test companies, while pushing aside science, history and the arts, and making a growing number of students hate going to school.

The question is not whether these policies- an odd mixture of privatization, universal testing, and teacher/ school accountability based on student test scores- will be effective in reducing the impact of poverty on educational performance. The question is how much damage will be done before a critical portion of the public, the media, and the nation’s political leadership realizes  how counterproductive these policies are.

If  Vietnam is any precedent, such a  “national wake up call” on educational policy  could  be quite long in coming, and the damage inflicted immense. And as with Vietnam, only massive protest and civil disobedience will be able to stop the policy in its tracks.

6 thoughts on “Is Diane Ravitch the George Ball of Our Generation and Education Reform our Vietnam?

  1. Pingback: » Is Diane Ravitch the George Ball of Our Generation and Education …

  2. Pingback: Is Corporate Reform Like Vietnam? « Diane Ravitch's blog

  3. It may have been a humiliating defeat for the nation as a whole and a waste of human life for the world as a whole, but the fact remains that those who pushed it got exactly what they wanted out of it.

    And so it goes, time after time …

  4. I have this horrible picture in my mind of the Life magazine cover of a young Vietnamese girl running naked and burned. Is that what we are doing to our children? Are we, the “boots on the ground” teachers, complicit in these horrors and we don’t even realize the longterm consequences? Each day I fight to keep my focus on what I know is great teaching practices, but am forced to implement legislative mandates with which I don’t agree. Breaking the law is not an option. Leaving the profession isnt either. I cant abandon my students, so i keep on teaching. How do we turn this tide?

  5. To compare the state of American education to Vietnam is fatuous. Diane Ravitch was dead wrong in joining the chorus of “No Child Left Behind” as she is in now announcing that the American school system is on the road to perdition. One might be encouraged by the rise of the Charter school and the emergence of the Common Core Standards, which are not test based, but based in teaching the skills of complex thinking, among other lofty goals. It is true that profit-inspired testing, the tyranny of the AP exam, and the obstructiveness of the teachers unions must all be contended with, but American education is currently thriving with new voices, a deeper understanding of the learning process that was ever dreamed a couple of decades ago, and the emergence of technology that will revolutionize all learning in the coming years. NCLB seriously set us back and it deserves to die, just as Ravitch’s credibility has in her blind support of added bureaucracy masked as “accountability”. Schools are closing because their funding is disappearing, not because the teachers are failing. I have been in education as a teacher and administrator for 40 years and I am more encouraged now than any time since the panicked and disastrous policies which followed A Nation At Risk and birthed the shallow NCLB.

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