Meeting District Needs Opinion

What I Did Last Summer, Part One

By Diane Ravitch — September 13, 2011 4 min read

Dear Deborah,

I wish I could say I had a restful summer, but I didn’t. I finished writing an epilogue for the paperback edition of The Death and Life of the Great American School System, which should be out by Thanksgiving. That ended up being 100 pages. I felt as though I could have written a whole additional book about the events of the 20 months since the book was published.

The high point of the summer, of course, was the SOS March on July 30. But I had other events that bear mentioning.

On June 30, I had a debate with Wendy Kopp at the Aspen Ideas Festival. AIF was quite fascinating because I definitely felt like the skunk at a garden party. Aside from me (and a few spouses who were teachers), the educators in attendance were leaders of the current reform movement. There was Jon Schnur of New Leaders for New Schools, Jonah Edelman of Stand for Children, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and many more from the charter/entrepreneurial sector. If there were any superintendents or principals from traditional public schools, I didn’t see them.

Jonah Edelman, son of the legendary civil rights activist Marian Wright Edelman, made a presentation in which he explained how his organization had outsmarted the teachers’ unions in Illinois and pushed through legislation to curtail collective bargaining and to cut back on seniority and tenure. He described the clever way in which he raised a huge war chest from Illinois financiers and used it to buy up all the top lobbyists. All very brilliant, and his panel was called “If It Can Happen in Illinois, It Can Happen Anywhere.” However, when the video of his presentation went online and went viral, Edelman was roundly condemned by bloggers across the country for boasting about his alliance with ultra-conservative forces to outfox the unions. He quickly backpedaled and issued an apology. He couldn’t say he had been misquoted, but he did express regret for what he said.

I thought this whole train of events was sad, because I recall how important labor unions were as part of the civil rights struggle in the 1960s. I find it bizarre to hear Wall Street types claiming that they are part of “the civil rights movement of our day.” Dr. King created a coalition with the labor unions, not with Wall Street and billionaires.

My debate with Wendy was not nearly as eventful. We had a spirited exchange. I have my differences with Teach For America, but I admire the idealistic young people who join it. I often say, as I did in our debate, that if I were a college senior, I would probably want to join TFA. But my big beef is that TFA presents itself as a solution to the problems of the teaching profession, and it is not. The young people are sent into some of our nation’s most challenging classrooms with only a few weeks of training, and at just about the time they are getting a handle on how to teach, they leave. Most are gone within two or three years. You can find our discussion here.

I found Wendy to be a pleasant and well-composed woman. She is certainly hugely successful. She has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for TFA. She says things like “we need transformational leadership,” and “we must have a sense of urgency,” and “it’s being done,” and “we know how to do it.” But I was never too clear about what transformational leadership looks like, or what you do once you agree that our problems are urgent, or what it means to say that we know what to do.

On one thing we strongly agreed, and I was surprised: Like me, Wendy thinks that the media should not print the names of teachers and their “effectiveness ratings.” We agreed that The Los Angeles Times was wrong to do so a year ago. She agreed with me that naming names is fraught with inaccuracy and can only demoralize teachers.

Oh, and one other thing happened in Aspen that had my head spinning. I accepted an invitation to a cocktail party at a private home where the guest of honor was Secretary Duncan. The setting was beyond splendid, in a gorgeous home overlooking the valley. Secretary Duncan introduced a man who had led a campaign to build playgrounds, in fact, had created some 2,000 playgrounds. When introducing his friend, Secretary Duncan said that there was nothing more important for young children than having time for unstructured play, time to tinker, time to make things with their hands. He was wonderful. Knowing how much the U.S. Department of Education has promoted high-stakes testing, I was puzzled. My puzzlement turned to bewilderment a few days later when the Department of Education announced that the next round of Race to the Top would require the testing of 4- and 5-year-old children. Wait, I wondered, what about time for unstructured play, tinkering, etc.?

So, yes, a fascinating event. I wouldn’t have missed it.


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