Families & the Community Opinion

Marginalizing the Teaching Profession: Merrow, Ravitch, and Education Nation

By Anthony Cody — September 26, 2013 4 min read
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Yesterday, Diane Ravitch’s masterful book, Reign of Error, debuted at #10 on the New York Times best seller list. At the same time this news was coming out, John Merrow posted a blog entitled “Do We Need More Heroes?” in which he compares her to right-wing Republican Ted Cruz, associates her with the left, and accuses her followers of being intolerant zealots.

As of this morning, more than 120 people have posted comments on Merrow’s blog, ranging from critical to brutal. One or two have agreed with him. I responded yesterday myself to Merrow, but this part of a bigger pattern.

We have, in our nation, two parallel conversations going on about education. One is the conversation sponsored and controlled by the billionaires driving corporate reform. The other is that of teachers, parents and students who are the subjects of these reforms. When those two conversations intersect, there is tremendous friction. With his attack on Ravitch and her followers yesterday, Merrow created such a friction point.

The reason there is such energy there is that the funders of corporate reform are making a great effort to pretend that those of us who profoundly disagree with their approach are some kind of fringe element, leftovers from a bygone era, soon to be in the dustbin of history. Merrow’s blog was in service of this, but because it is a blog, one of the few avenues of media that is open to visible public response, it has yielded the opposite result.

While Merrow claims that Ravitch is a leftist who is out of the mainstream, both the volume and substance of the comments reveal that she is squarely in the middle of a tremendous movement. And her best seller status makes her and that nascent movement impossible to ignore.

But the sponsors of corporate reform are still trying. The annual Education Nation extravaganza is just over a week away. As has been widely noted, the list of presenters includes almost nobody with any actual experience working with children. No teachers. No prominent parent advocates. What is more, there is hardly even anyone we would recognize as being expert in education. No Linda Darling-Hammond, and certainly no Diane Ravitch. But there is, of course, the usual parade of celebrities and financiers -- Goldie Hawn, M. Night Shymalan, and Goldman Sachs chairman Lloyd Blankfein. Educators have been completely silenced at a summit focused on our profession.

Can you imagine a summit on healthcare that included not a single prominent doctor?

So in the biggest public arena where education is discussed, teachers have been silenced, their expertise ignored. Paul Thomas has offered an interesting analysis of this phenomenon. In a post addressing the question of “tone” in the education debate, he suggests that teachers have something akin to minority group status.

He writes:

The classification of teachers as a minority group is an acknowledgement about a disproportion of power. While racial minority groups satisfy both the status of being fewer in number and having less power, not all groups having minority status are the smaller group--for instance, women. While women constitute a larger population than men, women remain a minority because minority status is primarily about the unfair imbalance of power. And all this leads to what makes me uncomfortable about the tone arguments. They remind me of my father's dictum: "Children are to be seen not heard." They remind me of that same dictum being applied to women for much of U.S. history. They remind me of that same dictum being applied to African Americans for much of U.S. history.

Education Nation silences educators, while Diane Ravitch, through her book and blog, literally gives teachers a voice they otherwise would not have in the public arena. And John Merrow has uttered not a peep about Education Nation - perhaps they are in the “messy middle” along with KIPP founder Dave Levin whom he quotes so admiringly. Rather, he relegates Ravitch to the margin.

In Merrow’s mind, the “messy middle” is inhabited by people doing the difficult work of reform. Perhaps it is messy because it comes with strings attached from the corporate funders, and we know that Merrow has long relied on those same funders. But what seems strange is this. We seem to have two worlds - corporate reform world, which Education Nation will put on stage like some kind of weird Soviet style festival of one-sided propaganda. And then we have the world of our schools, where teachers and students struggle with the impact of budget cuts, school closings, constant test pressure and so forth.

In Merrow’s post he references two major award ceremonies he attended in the past week alone. This is the world he lives in - of galas and billionaires presenting checks and awards at dinners in big hotels. These are the people to whom he apparently feels accountable, and he has salved their worries about Ravitch with his paean to the “messy middle.” But for teachers who are looking for who made such a mess of our schools, this is a betrayal.

Reign of Error is, however, a best seller. And Diane Ravitch will speak to thousands of people in the next few weeks. These people are not passive witnesses to history. They are reading, listening, understanding, and this is the prelude to real movement.

By the way, there will be a protest in front of Education Nation’s Teacher Town Hall event on Sunday, Oct. 6, in New York City.

(Note: I work with Diane Ravitch on a project called the Network for Public Education. )

What do you think? Is Merrow’s post an attempt to marginalize Ravitch and those of us who identify with her message? How can we best respond to this?

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