AFT - American Federation of Teachers

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Diane Ravitch remarks

As Prepared for Delivery to AFT’s 2012 National Convention
July 28, 2012


I feel I am coming home.

Al Shanker was a dear personal friend.

Sandy Feldman was a dear personal friend.

And Randi Weingarten is a dear personal friend.

We owe Randi our thanks for her tireless work over the past two years, engaging in hand-to-hand, combat with some of the major detractors of public education.

Over the past two years, I have met many of you in New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Boston, Miami, Detroit, Providence, Houston, Hartford, and many other cities.

I have a confession to make: When I go to bed at night, I often wear a nightshirt that says, “With us, not to us. Hartford Federation of Teachers.”

AFT has been in the forefront of the struggle for public education, for professionalism, and for protecting the middle class.

But today, the beliefs of the AFT are challenged as never before.

Public education is under attack by the forces of privatization, who make false promises to drain students and funding away from public schools.

The teaching profession is under attack by those who blame teachers for conditions beyond their control. They want to take away your professionalism and turn you into testing technicians.

The public schools are under attack by those who heedlessly slash the schools’ budget, increase class size and reduce essential services for children.

The teachers unions are under attack. You are under attack for this simple reason: You defend public education. You defend the rights of children. You stand in the way of the budget cutters. You fight privatization. You oppose high-stakes testing.

If they take away teachers’ right to bargain collectively, they silence the voice of teachers. They eliminate the one force that can stop them.

That leaves the path clear for them to cut school funding. To turn more public schools over to non-union charter chains. To introduce for-profit online charter schools. To double class size. And to implement policies that hurt children and reduce the quality of education.

You must not let them do it!

Today you face a political juggernaut that calls itself the reform movement. They corrupt the plain meaning of the word “reform.”

The reformers say that American education is failing and that it’s obsolete. They say that we spend more but achievement is flat. They want to persuade the public to abandon its public schools. They are laying the groundwork for privatization.

They claim that our schools are in an unprecedented crisis. They say it again and again.

They are wrong.

There is only one longitudinal measure of academic achievement for America’s students as a whole, and that is the federal NAEP-the National Assessment of Educational Progress. NAEP is a no-stakes test. This is what it shows.

The test scores of American students are at their highest point in history. The test scores of white students, black students, Hispanic students, and Asian students are at their highest point ever. They are at the highest point ever for students in fourth grade and eighth grade, in reading and in math. The increases in reading have been steady and significant. The increases in math have been very large. The increases have been greatest for black students and Hispanic students.

Reformers will never admit to these simple facts. But they are facts, and they are a matter of record.

We should be thanking our nation’s teachers. But reformers don’t do that. Instead they keep up a steady drumbeat of criticism.

They say that teacher experience doesn’t matter. They say that teachers should not be paid more for getting a masters degree. I don’t get it. How will American education improve if teachers have less experience and less education?

The reformers believe in evaluating teachers predominantly by student test scores. But test scores are not a valid way to determine which teachers are best and worst. Firing teachers is not a school-improvement strategy. It just creates turmoil and churn and instability.

In city after city, experienced teachers have been laid off and replaced by poorly trained, inexperienced teachers who will be gone in two or three years. This is wrong. Our children need and deserve experienced teachers, and parents want them too. Our children need stability; so do teachers and schools.

The reformers believe in closing schools. Reformers call it “creative destruction.” It is destructive, but there is nothing creative about it. They don’t understand that schools are embedded in communities. They don’t understand that killing a neighborhood school is like putting a knife into the heart of the community.

The reformers take no responsibility for helping schools. That’s not their job. They don’t how to help schools so they close them, open new ones, and hope for the best. They forget: Public schools are public institutions, not shoe stores.

They don’t understand that struggling schools enroll the students with the greatest needs. Those schools need help, not mass firings.

Reformers like the idea of a school “turnaround.” It is such a sweet euphemism. “Turnaround.” It sounds like a happy dance around a Maypole.

But the reality is brutal. Half the staff is fired, even if not a one of them has a negative evaluation. The community loses its school. A new staff is brought in, and five years from now, if nothing else changes, that school will close too.

This is madness.

The AFT has stood tall against high-stakes testing. High-stakes testing is diverting billions of dollars that should be used to reduce class size and improve instruction.

Tests should be used for information and diagnostics, to help and support, not to close schools and fire teachers.

Because of high-stakes testing, schools are cutting down on the arts, physical education, history, science, foreign languages, civics, and laying off librarians, guidance counselors, social workers, and nurses. Some are even eliminating kindergarten.

This is insane.

The reformers say that merit pay will compel teachers to raise test scores. As if you aren’t trying now!

Merit pay has been tried for 100 years. It has never worked. It doesn’t work because it undermines teamwork and collaboration; it destroys the school culture. The evidence is clear.

But wait, a new study came out last week. It says that if you give teachers extra money at the beginning of the year and threaten to take it away, then the scores will go up. This is called “loss aversion.” This is not merit pay. It is manipulative and sadistic. I bet the scores will go up if you threaten to cut teachers’ fingers off or confiscate their homes.

Loss aversion insults the dignity of teachers.

Would doctors save more lives if we threatened to cut their pay?

Would economists make better predictions about the economy if we threatened to take away their computers?

Reformers say they can judge the quality of a teacher by the test scores of students. This is wrong. No high performing nation in the world is doing it.

Value-added assessment should never be used to fire teachers or to award bonuses. The National Academy of Education and the American Educational Research Association issued a joint statement earlier this year. They said that value-added assessment is inaccurate, unreliable, and unstable. The teacher who is effective this year is likely to be ineffective the next year. If you use a different test or a different model, the ratings change. Test scores are influenced more by the student’s family than by her teachers. The scores are affected by children’s lives and opportunities, by their daily crises, by the vocabulary they hear, by their out of school activities—all of which are beyond the teacher’s control.

Value-added assessment is junk science. Your job and your career should not depend on so unreliable and so unstable a measure.

The single biggest predictor of test scores is family income. The single most reliable predictor of low academic performance is poverty.

The United States leads the advanced nations of the world in child poverty. We are number one. Nearly one-quarter of our children grow up in poverty. In other highly developed nations the child poverty rate is under 5%. This is the shame of our nation.

But the reformers say, don’t talk about poverty. Don’t talk about children who are homeless. Don’t talk about children who are sick and hungry. Don’t talk about children who have asthma or vision problems or hearing problems or need dental care.

Don’t talk about that, they say. You are just making excuses.

I disagree. We must talk about poverty. We must ask why the world’s richest and most powerful nation looks away from the needs of its children.

Let’s talk about what schools and children need.

They don’t need more testing. They need better education.

They need experienced teachers.

They need early childhood education.

They need a full and balanced curriculum, one that includes the arts and history, foreign languages, literature, history, civics, science and mathematics and physical education.

They need time to sing and dance and play.

They need band and chorus and drama and dance.

They need time to read great books and do science experiments.

If reformers really want to fix our schools, they should open a health clinic in every school that doesn’t have one. They would be amazed by the improved academic performance of the children who come to school healthy and ready to learn.

What do professionals need?

Professionals need to do their work without fear.

They need to know that their school is not in danger of being closed because of test scores.

They need to know that they have the academic freedom to teach about evolution and to assign books that deal with controversial issues.

They need to know that they will be evaluated by supervisors who are master teachers, not by principals who took a one-year course in how to be a principal.

They need to know that they will be judged by other professionals, not by the test scores of their students or student surveys.

Professionals need to work in a professional atmosphere, where they are treated with respect and dignity, where they have the resources and support they need.

Policymakers should stop devising schemes based on carrots and sticks to prod teachers. Carrots and sticks are for donkeys, not professionals.

We know what motivates professionals.

Professionals work hard because they believe in the mission.

Professionals want to collaborate, not compete for prizes.

Despite all the dark clouds, there are reasons for hope:

The UFT fought Mayor Bloomberg’s determination to fire thousands of teachers in 24 schools and they won; they beat the city in binding arbitration, and when the city refused to accept the ruling, the UFT beat the city again before a judge. It took the judge just seven minutes to reach a decision! Congratulations, UFT!

The Chicago Teachers Union scored a stunning victory against Mayor Rahm Emanuel. CTU brought 10,000 members into the streets, and 98% of its members voted to authorize a strike. The mayor blinked, and they won. Way to go, CTU!

The United Teachers of Los Angeles has resisted pressure to evaluate teachers by invalid measures. Billionaires have launched a lawsuit against UTLA, and UTLA has bravely said no. Stay strong, UTLA!

Earlier this spring, Florida parents and teachers joined to defeat the Parent Trigger law. They recognized that the purpose of the Parent Trigger was to trick unsuspecting parents into turning more public schools over to for-profit charter chains. I call it the “parent tricker” law.

The teachers and school boards in Louisiana are suing the state to block the use of public funds for religious and private schools;

In North Carolina, school boards went to court and stopped the K12 corporation from opening a for-profit online charter school that would have taken millions of dollars away from public schools.

More than half the school boards in the state of Texas have passed resolutions against high stakes testing, and other schools boards across the nation are following their lead.

We cannot allow rightwing governors and legislatures to dismantle our public schools and harass dedicated teachers. We cannot allow billionaires and corporate executives and Wall Street hedge fund managers to privatize our public schools.

This terrible time will end. There are cycles of history; bad things don’t last forever. Bad ideas eventually are exposed. And when this dark era does end, as it will, be there to celebrate the collapse of this reign of error.

Be proud of your profession and proud of your union.

Insist on the importance of public education in a democratic society, doors open to all, not by lottery but by right

   Insist on the dignity of your profession

Join forces with parents, who are your greatest allies.

Join with principals, administrators and school board members.

Invite your local civic and business leaders to visit your classrooms and join you to stop the Walmart-ization of public education.

In numbers, there is strength.

Keep your union strong.

You will persist. Your cause is just.

And you will win.