The 86th Saturday Reunion (3/22/14) at Teacher’s College in NYC was decidedly political. Not political as in elections or party affiliation, but political as education is critical to “the public affairs of a country.”
The morning keynote address by Diane Ravitch set the agenda. Ravitch is an education historian and an author who served as Assistant Secretary of Education and Counselor to Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander under President George H.W. Bush. She was Adjunct Professor of History and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University; this Saturday, she returned to speak at Riverside Cathedral.
She began by recalling another political era, calling the cathedral the “sacred space” where William Sloan Coffin had spoken out against the Vietnam War. This time Ravitch was speaking out against the war on public education.
She began by alerting the enormous crowd of teachers about the Network for Public Education. This year-old network was established to, “Give the [us] the courage to fight; our motto is ‘We are are many, they are few, we will prevail’,” she claimed.
“I wrote Reign of Error for you to use as ammunition… but, for heaven’s sakes, don’t buy it,” she insisted, “borrow it from the library, but use it to fight back the efforts to undermine education.”
Ravitch has been organizing a defense that is aimed at exposing the corporate take over of education that is endemic to this country alone. She countered that other nations have “no charters and no vouchers,” adding that “charters and vouchers divide communities” in economic funding. She challenged the treatment of teachers in the USA, insisting that other nations respect teachers and do not let “amateurs become principals and superintendents.”
She spoke of challenges in providing for the inequities in education, detailing that 25% of children today live in poverty, and she demanded to know how our public schools will survive when education reformers push to replace public schools that accept everyone with schools that are privately managed.
She recounted instances of publicly funded charter schools that teach creationism and other “17th century STEM subjects,” and she railed against a push to eliminate local school boards.
“You may want to get rid of members of your local school board,” she quipped, “but there is a democratic process for that; this is an attack on democracy itself.”
“What is the end game?” she asked after the litany of charges against education reform, and then answered her question, “Nothing less than the elimination of teaching as a profession, systematically aided and abetted by the Department of Education.”
Ravitch continued her argument claiming that, “The education reformer narrative is a hoax, and they [education reformers] cannot win if they continue to perpetrate hoaxes.” She noted several indicators that speak to current successes in public education: falling dropout rates, higher graduation rates, higher minority scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test.
“We have an incredibly successful system overwhelmed by a high test prep curriculum,” she declared. “The reformers’ passion is for firing teachers. They suggest, ‘Let’s test every child every year and we’ll see what teachers get low scores, then those are the bad teachers,’ she intoned. “They fire 5-10% of teachers when they should be coming up ways to recruit and support teachers.”
Teach for America was a particular target of her scorn as she argued, “Teach for America is not an answer,” noting that reformers who rail against university and college preparation programs for teachers, and complain that first year teachers are “poorly trained are the same reformers that encourage the placement of 10,000 TFA graduates annually into schools, despite their minimal six weeks of teacher training. “They [TFA] leave in two years,” she continued, “and we have lost so many teachers. We are reducing the status of teachers. Who will want to teach? Many are shunning the profession; they [teachers] are getting rid of themselves.”
More scorn was heaped upon teacher evaluation systems where billions of dollar have been spent. “Many states have added value added measurements (VAM) to rate teacher effectiveness,” she noted. One such VAM is the inclusion of standardized test scores in rating teachers, however, Ravitch asserted, “most teachers do not teach the tested subjects (math and English). To assign [these] scores to all teachers is totally insane.”
Even more scorn was directed towards Bill Gates, as she maintained “The Gates Foundation has paid millions to have these [tests] written.” Gates himself has been touring the country this year in support of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), a tour that included an opportunity “to dine with over 80 senators” that did not escape her attention. Neither did his comment suggesting “it might take10 years to see if this stuff works.”
“You have to admit he has chutzpah,” she quipped. Her more salient point was in her statement, “One man has bought and paid for an entire nation’s education program.”
Her objections to the CCSS are rooted in its creation, and in its rapid adoption and implementation in 45 states.
She objected to the lack of educators involved in developing the standards. She reminded the crowd that only four agencies were involved in the creation: the National Association of Governors; the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO); and two educational organizations, Achieve, devoted to improving the rigor and clarity of the process of standard-setting and testing, and Student Achievement Partners, a non-profit organization working to support teachers across the country in their efforts to realize the promise of the Common Core State Standards for all students. She specifically called out David Coleman, a non-educator and a former treasurer to the controversial Michelle Rhee’s Student’s First enterprise,who now serves as president of the College Board. (See my previous posts on Coleman here and here)
Ravitch commented also on the language that education reformers made in promoting the CCSS, standards that force schools to”Jump into the deep end of the pool” or standards that “rip off the bandaid” asking, “Why do they use such sadistic language? These are our children!”
“This small group [CCSS writers],” she continued, “was aided by the ACT and presented the CCSS as a fait accompli.” She added that the writing process of the CCSS was not transparent, and that, in violation of the National Standards Institute protocols,“there is no appeals process for standards that are seen as incorrect.” Moreover, although teachers were invited to “review” the CCSS, the standards themselves were implemented without a field test. Now the two federally funded testing consortiums, PARCC and SBAC, will spend the next two years testing these standards online.
“The tech sector loves the CCSS,” she insisted, “there’s new software and bandwidth” included in already tight education budgets, “along with data analysts and entrepreneurial agencies designed to help with the CCSS.” Finally she returned to her message of academic inequities where targets of 70% failure rates on rounds of standardized tests are predicted. “How is it equitable to give a test they know students will fail?” suggesting that a passing rate is fluid, determined by the test creators who choose the “cut rate.”
During the speech, I was seated only eight rows back with a colleague who echoed to me particularly strong statements made by Ravitch on the effects of educational reform. She obviously wanted these statements included in my notes, so here are a few more “Ravitch-isms”:
We must roll back what we see is a poisonous time….
I never met a child who learned to read because the schools were closed.
No other nation doing this. We are alone in taking punitive action.
They [ed reformers] call it creative disruption, but children need continuity, not churn.
As she came to the conclusion of her speech, Ravitch returned to her message on the impact of poverty on academic performance saying, “What we do know about standardized tests is that they reflect socio-economic status. The pattern is inexorable. Look at charts that align standardized test scores with income and education; they [tests] measure the achievement gap.” Ravitch then turned to Michael Young’s book, The Rise of the Meritocracy, and cited the following quotes:
If the rich and powerful were encouraged by the general culture to believe that they fully deserved all they had, how arrogant they could become, and if they were convinced it was all for the common good, how ruthless in pursuing their own advantage. Power corrupts, and therefore one of the secrets of a good society is that power should always be open to criticism. A good society should provide sinew for revolt as well as for power.
But authority cannot be humbled unless ordinary people, however much they have been rejected by the educational system, have the confidence to assert themselves against the mighty. If they think themselves inferior, if they think they deserve on merit to have less worldly goods and less worldly power than a select minority, they can be damaged in their own self-esteem, and generally demoralized.
Even if it could be demonstrated that ordinary people had less native ability than those selected for high position, that would not mean that they deserved to get less. Being a member of the “lucky sperm club” confers no moral right or advantage. What one is born with, or without, is not of one’s own doing.
She concluded her address with a list of suggestions, of next steps:
- Salvage the standards to make standards better. The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) should review and revise the standards. “Fix what is wrong”and “damn the copyright.”
- Decouple the Common Core from the tests;
- Teachers: Teach what you love and enrich instruction;
- Remember that a decent democracy equals values.
- Do nothing to stigmatize those who have the least.
It should be noted that throughout the speech, Ravitch referred to “children” instead of using the word “students.” Her linguistic choice was noted by a later speaker, Kathy Collins. In refusing to use “students,” Ravitch put the focus back on the purpose for public education, to prepare the nation’s children, and she relayed a critical difference between her pedagogy and the philosophy of the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. “Arne Duncan thinks children as young as five should be on track to be college and career ready. He has said, ‘I want to walk in, look in their eyes, and know they are college and career ready’.”
She paused as if to respond to him, “I see a child. Leave him alone.”
The cathedral reverberated with applause.