Ravitch at the Bridge

Last night, at a church by Washington Square Park, Diane Ravitch spoke. She’s not the most long-term opponent of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and all the other “reform” battalions, but she is proving the best. She is becoming our champion, our Horatio defending Rome:

Alone stood brave Horatius,
But constant still in mind,—
Thrice thirty thousand foes before,
And the broad flood behind.
“Down with him!” cried false Sextus,
With a smile on his pale face;
“Now yield thee,” cried Lars Porsena,
“Now yield thee to our grace!”

Horatio does not yield, of course, but swims the Tiber back to Rome.

It sometimes looks as hopeless for Ravitch, the forces of “reform” arrayed before her with all their money and establishment power with the media (including The New York Times) rolling on implacably at her back (the media that we imagine will protect us like a river from the abuses of the powerful)–the rest of us on the other side  watching helplessly. But she is now braving the media Tiber, and the rest of us are finally gathering for defense of a system of education that only failed in that it failed to defend itself.

But the talk, that media river, is still there, not protecting the public (as it should) but becoming part of the problem. The tired falsehoods about American education that we’ve been hearing for decades now are repeated in the Times just this week: In “The Great Stagnation of American Education,” for example, an opinion piece by Robert Gordon, many of the shibboleths appear again, unquestioned by the greatest paper in the country (whose columnists seem lined up in favor of such ill-conceived and executed initiatives like the Common Core). Gordon writes:

Other research has shown that high-discipline, “no-excuses” charter schools, like those run by the Knowledge Is Power Program and the Harlem Children’s Zone, have erased racial achievement gaps. This model suggests that a complete departure from the traditional public school model, rather than pouring in more money per se, is needed.

Most real research has shown the opposite. Even Common Core results themselves show the opposite. Gordon is relying on something other than the reality of childhood education but on the myths created by the “reformers” themselves.

At the talk, I ran into a colleague who has just retired after more than 30 teaching at CUNY, teaching developmental classes in reading and writing. She looked so much younger and happier–I haven’t seen her so healthy in years–no longer does she have to daily face the frustration of trying to raise up students more and more woefully underprepared each year. She said it has gotten worse since Bloomberg became mayor and since the advent of No Child Left Behind. My experience has been much the same. The “reformers” have blown it. Instead of helping American education, their actions are destroying it. And no amount of argument that a “complete departure” will change the situation can change the reality that ‘creative destruction’ has failed to improve schools anywhere. The charter schools Gordon is talking about are certainly not making for better college students.

The sights of the “reformers” are now turning on higher education–as we heard from President Obama himself quite recently (he, of course, is the chief “reformer”). The woes of public education under the onslaught of “reform” are going to be the woes of our colleges and universities–if we involved in higher education don’t start coming to the aid of Ravitch and her supporters on the banks of the Tiber.

The only problem last night was this: The litany of outrages perpetuated by the “reformers” was the same as it ever was. It was all things we in the audience have heard over and over again. It was all stuff that will outrage us once more as we read Ravitch’s new book, Reign of Error, when it comes out next week. But neither she nor anyone else has come up with a means of effectively countering the Times, Gordon, the Gates and Broad Foundations, Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, Arnie Duncan and all the others who so relentlessly beat their drums of “reform.” So many have come to accept as truths their spurious (at best) suppositions that the small voice of truth is falling on deaf ears.

Ravitch says that a third of her book lays out her own plan for real reform of education (reform we need mainly because of the havoc caused by the current “reformers”). But she does not tell us how to stop the continuing spread of the untruths that are undercutting American education. We can all bemoan the situation, but what can we do about it?

A champion alone isn’t enough. We need to rally our own forces behind her… and we need to develop a plan of action. Simply repeating the thousand injuries that the “reformers” have heaped upon us will not suffice. We need to be aggressive.

Perhaps Ravitch can swim the media stream (though even she is damned by it through faint praise and snide comment). But the rest of us need to start doing it, too. And we need to have a goal, a specific goal in each community. Sometimes, as in Bridgeport, CT, a “reformer” like Paul Vallas can accidentally bring us together, but this isn’t happening often enough.

Those of us here in New York City have a chance right now, to make the removal of mayoral control from our schools an election issue. We should. Mayors have not shown they can run schools any more successfully than anyone else (nor have governors, for that matter). Control should be returned to elected boards reflecting the real feelings of Americans–most of us believe, the relentless dirge of the “reformers” notwithstanding, that our schools are fine, that they could stand improving but that they have the staffs and administrations in place who can do that (with the right support).

I want to see students coming into my college classes with the skills and attitudes that will allow them to succeed. The ability to pass a test is not sufficient. Having been educated within an environment of enthusiasm and interest will be so. We’re not going to get that through grading teachers, students and schools through standardized tests.

We are going to get that if we insist that our elected officials start listening to us, not to “reformers” in thrall to distant foundations and think tanks. People, believe it or not (and thank you, John Dewey), are often smarter than those who would think for them.

One thought on “Ravitch at the Bridge

  1. For those who live in the LA area, Diane Ravitch will be speaking at Occidental College on October 1 at 7 pm in Thorne Hall. The talk is free and open to all. If you want to see a film that celebrates public education rather than promotes privatization, charters, and high-stakes testing (like “Waiting for Superman” does), see the documentary film “Go Public,” which I wrote about in this article for Truthout: “The Billionaires’ War Against Public Education,” linked here: http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/17455-go-public-%E2%80%93-finally-a-film-that-celebrates-public-schools. A version of it was posted on Valerie Strauss’ column in the Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/07/21/finally-a-film-that-celebrates-public-education/

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