EDUCATION MATTERS: Arguing with the rock star of education

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Marsha Sutton

By Marsha Sutton

Heaven knows, I wouldn’t want to argue with the likes of Diane Ravitch. It would be like disagreeing with the Pope over religious ideology – even if you’re not Catholic, it’s just an irreverent, cheeky thing to do.

However, her speech before 400 San Diego Unified School District teachers, administrators and members of the public two weeks ago triggered unsettling thoughts about the credibility of her remarks and the assumptions upon which she bases her beliefs.

Ravitch’s fame in the world of public education is far-reaching and well-deserved. An education historian, research professor at New York University, senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, former U.S. assistant secretary of education and respected author of 10 books on the American system of public education, Ravitch commands respect. Her depth of knowledge, longevity in the field and close associations have placed her in pivotal roles over the years with the highest levels of politicians, policy-makers and education experts.

What’s made her a hero to teachers lately is her about-face on the issues of accountability and the testing focus of the No Child Left Behind legislation, as well as her opposition to charter schools and the Race to the Top competition for award money implemented under President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Ravitch wrote in a recent blog, “I now freely concede that I was wrong to support the expansion of testing and accountability. I believe that approach has created a major national fraud, as the more we rely on testing, and the more we emphasize accountability, the less interest there is in anything that you or I would recognize as good education.”

And this: “I now freely concede that I was wrong to support choice as a primary mechanism for school reform. It has become a mechanism to promote the privatization of public education and to create a cash flow of government funding for clever entrepreneurs.”

Ravitch expanded on these themes in her remarks in San Diego, slamming the controversial “Waiting for Superman” movie that assigns much of the blame for the failure of urban public education on the intransigence of teachers’ unions and policies that endorse job protection, tenure and seniority rights. She called the movie a “propaganda piece” and said its false message is that privatization in the form of charter schools is good and that unions protect bad teachers.

If we have so many bad teachers, Ravitch said, “then we have a problem with the people evaluating the teachers. Teachers don’t give themselves tenure.”

“Waiting for Superman” promotes the belief that schools need to be run like a business, Ravitch claimed, countering that public education is a public good that cannot be sold to the highest bidder and that it “belongs not to the Gates Foundation or the Broad Foundation.”

Charter schools “don’t take their fair share of English language learners or students with disabilities” and are not the solution, she said, pointing out that Stanford University’s CREDO Study of Charter Schools showed that only 17 percent of charters do better than their neighborhood schools – “not way better, just slightly better.”

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