Diane Ravitch speaks truth to power

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Introduced by AFT president Randi Weingarten as "the epitome of speaking truth to power," education scholar and activist Diane Ravitch hit all the right notes July 28 at the AFT convention, speaking against policymakers who blame teachers for school conditions beyond their control, and sharply criticizing education cuts that threaten public schools.

Diane Ravitch

Watch video: Diane Ravitch addresses delegates at the AFT Convention.

In a speech punctuated by frequent applause, Ravitch lambasted the so-called reform movement for criticizing public education and favoring privatization. In fact, test scores are higher than ever, she said, though the reformers will never admit it. "We should be thanking our nation's teachers, but reformers keep up a steady drumbeat of criticism."

Struggling schools need help, not the firings and closings they face. "Firing teachers is not a school improvement strategy," Ravitch pointed out. "Firing teachers creates turmoil and churn and instability." Closing schools is equally destructive. "Killing a neighborhood school is like putting a knife into the heart of a community."

She praised the AFT for the union's firm stand against high-stakes testing, and she called value-added assessment— basing teacher evaluations on test scores—"junk science."

"Your job, your reputation and your career should not depend on such an unreliable and unstable measure," she noted. "The single biggest predictor of test scores is family income. The single most reliable predictor of achievement is poverty."

Ravitch's list of what students need to succeed—experienced teachers, reasonable class sizes, and time for physical education and the arts—was topped only by what professional teachers need. "Professionals need to work without fear," she said. They need to know their schools won't close because of test scores; they need the academic freedom to teach evolution; and "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." 

There are reasons to hope, noted Ravitch, listing victories in more sensible education policy in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, Florida and Texas, where school boards recently voted to limit high-stakes testing. And she ended by assuring union members that attacks on public education will not last forever. "When this era does end," she said, "you will be there to celebrate the collapse of this reign of error."

"Keep your union strong," she told delegates. "Your cause is just. You will persist, and you will win." [Virginia Myers/video by Matthew Jones and Brett Sherman]

July 28, 2012