Education Opinion

Truth, Anger and the National Conversation about Ed Reform

By Nancy Flanagan — September 15, 2013 3 min read
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The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words. If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words.

(Philip K. Dick)

There’s been a lotta snark goin’ on in Ed Policy World lately. Most of it centered on The Book--Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. I’ve read the book (making hundreds of little asterisks, corner-folds, full-paragraph highlights and margin notes) and have written a review, which I’ll post on the day the book is released, Tuesday.

It must be the urge to get out there first and capture the spotlight that’s caused so many reviewers to post real and imaginary appraisals already. What’s interesting to me--as a lifelong, pedestrian school teacher, toiling at what Checker Finn calls the “retail level”--is how everyone is trying to position themselves as Skeptic. There are friendly skeptics, if-only-she-weren’t-so-one-sided skeptics, yes-but skeptics. There’s a whole spectrum, right down to those who are practically foaming at the mouth over the case that Ravitch lays out in her book: DFER’s Joe Williams and The New York Post. Several of these people refer to Diane as their “friend” or “mentor,” ironically.

I am guessing that on Tuesday there will be an outpouring of positive reviews (spoiler: mine), but right now, the conversation is focused on a kind of general unwillingness to say: this book calls it as Ravitch sees it, and there are a lot of practitioners who increasingly believe she sees it as it is.

If I had read Ravitch’s book five years ago, I may have thought it harsh. When you’re going off to school every day, critiques of education policy take a backseat to lesson plans, and what’s coming downstream from administrators and the school board. But the mass of evidence Ravitch collected in the very recent past, and her conclusions, are stunning.

It’s clear that we have moved precipitously into an entirely new era of public education. People are scrambling to take sides, and it’s also clear that lots of publishers, organizations, nonprofits, thought leaders and decision-makers don’t want to come down too hard on their funding streams and future prospects. There’s been a sea change in thinking about the core value of public education in American life--swings in civic opinion, changes in revenue sources, an open invitation to make a foundational public good “entrepreneurial.”

Robert Pondiscio (whom I consider a friend, and who crafted what I consider the best blog title I’ve ever read-- It’s Not You, It’s Me. I Think You’re an Idiot), after calling Diane a mentor, said:

...the reform vs. anti-reform debate feels entirely played out at this point. Charter schools, neighborhood schools, unions, tests and TFA are a permanent part of the education landscape. None are going away anytime soon; we are bouncing the rhetorical rubble. I think it's time for a new discussion that is less about who controls schools and more about curriculum and instruction, and what happens inside classrooms."

I disagree heartily on several points--the debate is far from played out and there are not two sides, reform and “anti-" reform. (I am not anti-reform. I am pro-reform. I just believe that many of the most promoted and funded reforms fall somewhere between ineffective and damaging.) As quickly as charters, annual high-stakes testing, Common Core Standards and Teach for America sprang up and gained traction, they could fade in importance or morph in structure. In the second half of her book--a plan to reclaim and improve public education--Ravitch admits charters are here to stay, for example, then makes some cogent suggestions about how to re-think the original purpose of publicly-funded schools for innovation.

As for a “new discussion that is less about who controls schools"-- it was federal intrusion into what has always been a state and local issue that launched the “reform” movement, that has taken practitioners’ work out of their own hands.

The feds are now indirectly controlling standards and assessments, Gates and Pearson have a Common Core-aligned online curriculum waiting in the wings, the Gates Foundation has decided how to evaluate the nation’s teachers, and K-12 Inc offers parents in my community a free education via road signs.

Somebody’s got to get angry and speak passionately about that.

Thank goodness it’s a respected scholar, and not someone“unencumbered by experience” in education.

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.