Education Opinion

Diane Defends Detroit

By Nancy Flanagan — September 25, 2010 4 min read
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Last night, I went to hear Diane Ravitch speak, at Wayne State University. In the heart of Detroit, on the Cass Corridor, a neighborhood in a once-proud city that is now ground zero for post-industrial unemployment.

Ravitch’s speech was dynamic. It’s gratifying to witness someone preach the truth, without notes, for about 75 minutes, on a comprehensive range of educational topics and passions. The audience was jammed with urban educators. Ravitch’s remarks were punctuated with church-revival murmurs and exclamations (“Say it, sister!”).

Ravitch pulled no punches. She spoke eloquently of what happens when corporate--and often white-- outsiders think they know how to “fix” the schools that serve poor children: “efficiency,” cutting back to narrow “basic” curricula, credentials over substance, patronizing the educators who have been faithfully serving until the private-manager cavalry arrived.

At one point, Ravitch asked how many in the auditorium (perhaps 500 people) were teachers. A forest of hands went up. She applauded, and the audience joined in. Then she said--it’s a good thing you’re applauding for yourself, because the media is conspiring to make you look greedy and incompetent, beginning with your unions and your due process guarantees.

The Q & A was marked by angry Detroit teachers looking for an audience. On behalf of Teachers’ Letters to Obama, I asked Ravitch how teachers can organize to preach our own experienced truth, if our unions have been rendered toothless and the media juggernaut has overwhelmed reason and research.

Oh--never stop, she said. Teachers need to build their own networks of social capital. Form and join groups. Read good books to arm yourself with information. (She recommended Richard Rothstein, Daniel Koretz and Linda Darling-Hammond.) Know that the struggle will last for a long time. Refer to other high-achieving nations as models--countries that have systemically designed their public schools and their teaching profession as long-term investments in civic excellence. It can be done. So don’t give up.

I raved to teacher buddies about the evening. A friend in Los Angeles (where Diane was appearing, the next day) noted that while she was now saying “the right things” and had “joined our side,” he was taking a pass on going to see her speak. He compared her to those who participate in the architecture of destruction, but profess to be appalled when the damage occurs.

My response: There are those who would argue that Diane Ravitch used to say the right things, but now she is wrong--gone to the dark side of teachers, unions and “the status quo.” Ravitch addressed this in Detroit. She talked about ideas that have been her constant beliefs about education (a full, rich curriculum for all children in public schools) and ideas where research has changed her mind (the free-market model). She has been consistently scholarly, pursuing the evidence relentlessly.

Ravitch was adamant: “I do not embrace the status quo. The status quo is terrible. I changed my mind, because the evidence showed me I was wrong.”

I believe that admission is very, very powerful. It requires personal humility. At this point--given the recent flood of evidence-- I’d love to see a little personal humility on the part of the people currently running the policy show. Perhaps it’s time to stop dividing people into “our side” and “their side” and start the hard work of deconstructing popular policies and media-driven narratives. It’s not about winning. It’s about making better public schools for all kids.

Go see her, I told my friend in L.A. I guarantee that you will appreciate what she has to say about kids and teachers in “failing” schools, the inhumane and counterproductive turnaround strategies that started in Chicago and have become bait for more funding, nationally.

Visiting Detroit--arguably the most challenged public system in the nation--Ravitch explained that reconstituting schools destroys communities in poverty and the fragile social capital they have laboriously built. She championed the teachers who teach there, and called out those who built careers destroying school communities for political gain.

I reminded my friend of Emerson’s take on staying the intellectual course: Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds...

Marginalization and disengagement of a strong, well-informed teaching profession is the strategy of those who believe free public education is a drain on the growth of capitalism. If they shoot more holes in the great ship of the American Common School, eventually the noble idea that everyone deserves genuine opportunity will drain away.

In education policy, we are witnessing a power grab of epic proportion; the very folks we hoped would lead us toward equity and opportunity have decided that it’s easier to rely on the market. Oh well. Never give up. Never give up.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.