Diane Ravitch: Public Education Defender Extraordinaire

Diane Ravitch continues to impress the daylights out of me; see the excerpt from one of her blogs further below.  Her honest assessment of the challenges facing our nation’s public education system coupled with her repeated reflections rebuking her past positions on certain issues, such as charter schools, privatization, etcetera, while also admitting that her former advocacy caused [unanticipated] harm is not easy to do.  This is especially the case in the face of the mainstream media’s adoption, “hook, line and sinker” of the messaging from the industrial juggernaut formed over the past decade or so that rallies around charter schools, vouchers, privatization, etcetera.

Leveraging analysis skills I developed in my MBA studies helps me see what Dianne instinctively understands, that an immense “industry,” now known as public education, is ripe for plundering by those that tout themselves as saviors of our children’s educational woes, namely private foundations, backed by some of our nation’s wealthiest, as well as the emergent entrepreneurs who smell the money to be made by marketing their charter organizations as solutions to all that ails public education.  The money to be made is staggering, which explains the immense interest in this sector cloaked in the guise of improving education for the underserved.  Read Diane’s latest book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (New York: Basic Books, 2010), to learn more.

People of the ilk Diane writes about in her latest book’s chapter, Billionaire Boys Club, who purport to have a ready-made solution for what ails you, would be viewed as “snake oil” salesman one-hundred years or so ago.   Sadly, our need for instant fixes / instant gratification when coupled with a truly dysfunctional public education system that needs fixing in a major way, and mixed with the public relations prowess of these money magnates, creates an environment more apt for siphoning off public funds into private pockets faster than you can say “snake oil.”  Its happening already.  There are many other stories.  See http://www.charterschoolwatchdog.com/ and http://www.charterschoolscandals.blogspot.com/.  Let’s not let this become the next “bubble” chased by “investors,” posing as philanthropists, simply because they can manipulate their way by playing upon emotional heartstrings, politicians pockets, and educational boards’ egos.

Not to throw the baby out with the bath water, there are some fine charter schools doing good for students and their communities, however, it is very difficult to scale successful charter schools since the recipes for success do not work uniformly everywhere.  Many are finding this out for themselves.  Schools are not like fast food franchises.  You cannot force the same rules that help franchises scale upon schools that have unique student populations, and hence, unique needs.  More importantly, students need personal attention from teachers to help them develop their ability to learn, not a script forced upon instructors who, working with charter leadership, can counsel students to leave the school for failing to hold up their end of the “contract” signed upon acceptance to the charter school; or teachers, who while fired up for their couple of years of public service, practice the equivalent of speed dating with careers, with limited investment in the pedagogical practices necessary to elevate children to a level where they believe in themselves in a sustained way.  Unless there is an endless supply of these two-year practitioners, the herky-jerky nature of their efforts will do little to address the larger, systemic issues that need fixing.  They might sound compassionate, and their presence might make headline news, but what will they do when their passion and commitment to change education runs headfirst into children who know how to work the system, since it failed them so mightily, and do not respond to requests, or even pay attention, if they do not feel respected for who they are, and the challenges they face everyday?  Are these short-time teachers ready to address these challenges?  I know I’ve seen some that definitely are not.

Education is not a business, or an investment for financial gain, but a social program necessary to make sure our nation’s future is replete with inventors, pioneers, leaders, teachers, and those with skills we cannot even imagine today.  Perhaps a hybrid private-public model would work best as long as the financial conflicts of interest are addressed.  However, let’s not allow the rats to come out of the woodwork to feast on the massive amounts of public money flowing in our educational system; doing so is more irresponsible and more shameful than the status quo, which is hard to imagine.  Who will truly look out for our nation’s underserved, which is growing every day as the income gap widens?  Should the fox guard the henhouse?  I think not.

Did We Bridge Our Differences?

By Diane Ravitch on November 2, 2010 8:40 AM12 CommentsRecommend

[excerpt from Diane’s blog follows…]

When we started this blog, the assumption was that we had long argued, but that we now saw some common ground around the central issues of the day. I still find this a compelling reason to continue our dialogue. As the issues of our day grow sharper, people who used to be adversaries are finding common ground. The disastrous policies of No Child Left Behind and now the Race to the Top have succeeded in ending old animosities. I have heard directly from many people who once considered me a bitter foe, but who now recognize that we are in the same boat. Somehow our old disputes about whole language, bilingual education, and the new new math pale in comparison to the coordinated assault by powerful forces on the very foundations of public education.

I now freely concede that I was wrong to support the expansion of testing and accountability. I believe that this 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. I am reminded that at the end of Experience and Education, John Dewey said that we need to think less about “progressive education” and “traditional education,” and think instead about good education. Who today even talks about “good” education? Instead, we are entrapped in empty discourse about meaningless data, and more and more children go through their schooling without any real engagement in the arts, science, history, projects, activities, or anything else that does not raise their scores in reading and math.

Here is a crowning irony: The New York City Department of Education announced that it is closing the John Dewey High School in Brooklyn because of low test scores. I regularly hear from staff members there who insist that it is a good school and who are outraged that it will be closed. I wonder if those who made the decision ever read anything written by Dewey? My hunch is that they have not, as they seem to be squarely in the camp of Frederick W. Taylor and the efficiency movement (bet they never read him either).

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. I testified before the New York state legislature in 1998 on behalf of charter schools. What a mistake that was. I can’t change what happened in the past, but I can sure admit that I was wrong and do my best to stop this movement from consuming even more of the public sector.

I am sure there are many specific pedagogical issues on which we disagree. But right now and for the foreseeable future, the biggest issue is the survival of public education and of the education profession. The same powerful groups support both the movement to privatize public schools and efforts to put inexperienced people into the schools as teachers, principals, and superintendents.

These are terrible ideas. They do not reflect what is done in any of the world’s most successful school systems. They represent a power grab by people who believe that the private sector always knows best. People often ask me why President Barack Obama and Secretary Arne Duncan are in the camp of the privatizers, and I have to say that I don’t understand it.

So, what I have seen these past few years is that old animosities over pedagogical issues fade to insignificance when compared with the present struggle for the future of public education. And in that battle, we stand together.



About Dave aka Mr. Math Teacher

Independent consultant and junior college adjunct instructor. Former secondary math teacher who taught math intervention, algebra 1, geometry, accelerated algebra 2, precalculus, honors precalculus, AP Calculus AB, and AP Statistics. Prior to teaching, I spent 25 years in high tech in engineering, marketing, sales and business development roles in the satellite communications, GPS, semiconductor, and wireless industries. I am awed by the potential in our nation's youth and I hope to instill in them the passion to improve our world at local, state, national, and global levels.
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