Diane Ravitch describes herself as a 75-year-old reformed reformer. For her grandchildren and others, she is sounding the alarm about public education and its undoing through testing, accountability, choice and competition. A one-time believer in market forces to achieve reform, the former education official from the first Bush administration now sees that it hasn't worked.
She is "the conscience of America," said AFT President Randi Weingarten in introducing Ravitch to a rapt audience of 250 gathered at AFT headquarters on Feb. 4 for a continuing conversation about reclaiming the promise of public education. "Diane Ravitch talks the talk and walks the walk on behalf of kids."
"The destruction of public education is not progress," Ravitch warned. "It's regress."
She sees the evidence when she looks around the country, she noted—and she's been looking plenty, both as a researcher and in her travels on a book tour to promote Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools.
For example, in Philadelphia, they are cutting budgets, closing schools, firing teachers and increasing class size while the governor gives corporations big tax cuts. "I think it's a disgrace when we can afford so much as a society but can't afford to give the children of Detroit, Philadelphia, St. Louis or Indianapolis the schools they deserve," she declared.
The other disgrace, she said, is the myth that we are a nation of failing schools. She cited National Assessment of Educational Progress scores that refute the myth, as well as the highest high school graduation rates and the lowest dropout rates. Yet in the past 20 years, we've labored under a "test-test-test" obsession that has used billions of federal dollars in competitive, punitive ways that have harmed schools and children. She wrote Reign of Error to deconstruct that narrative of "reform," she said, adding that none of our high-performing competitor nations are privatizing or embracing charter schools or vouchers, as the United States is. The current push for breaking up school systems and relying on testing and data is not working. Her book features facts, data and charts—evidence, not ideology.
The good news is parents are rising up in rebellion against closing schools in Newark, Chicago and Philadelphia. They are opposing a culture of testing that pushes out the arts, science—even recess—and snuffs out children's natural joy of learning.
Ravitch advocated a "life-care" approach to education to replace the "madness, greed and insanity" of current ideology. This means investments in prenatal care, early childhood education—birth through pre-K—and wraparound services in schools, including healthcare to address poverty, the biggest obstacle to student success.
There are two different paradigms out there, she said. One, the status quo, says measure and rank everyone, and parcel out opportunity. But she and those who would reclaim the promise of education embrace another. "I dream of a world where the purpose of education is human development, where everyone has a pedagogy of kindness, where we respect people who help children."
We want for all children what parents want for their own, noted Weingarten in closing: "to develop trusting relationships with adults, to learn to solve problems, to develop character, to acquire the persistence—the grit—needed to confront adversity." That is what reclaiming the promise of public education is all about.
[Barbara McKenna, Jessica Smith/photo by John Harrington/video by Brett Sherman and Matthew Jones]