Federal Opinion

Jonathan Alter Kicks the Hornet’s Nest

By Anthony Cody — June 05, 2011 2 min read
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It has happened again. An “education reformer” has used the pages of corporate media to go on the attack against a leading critic, Diane Ravitch. And lived to regret it. Jonathan Alter, an MSNBC commentator and former Newsweek columnist, penned an op-ed two days ago in the Bloomberg website. Titled, “Don’t Believe Critics, Education Reform Works,” the piece was long on ad hominem attacks and short on substance.

I wrote a response and posted it on the site - and was soon joined by scores of others, almost all scathing. (Note -- comments on the piece were closed off after about 24 hours). Then came the next round of responses, on the blogs of educators around the country.

Alter has been given a shellacking he will not soon forget. And the paragraph that perhaps inspired the most heat was the one where he quoted Arne Duncan, who said,

“Diane Ravitch is in denial and she is insulting all of the hardworking teachers, principals and students all across the country who are proving her wrong every day.”

I don’t know about principals and students, but teachers have put Arne Duncan on notice that he does not speak for us. In fact, this episode brings to mind Duncan’s unfortunate and poorly received paean to teachers a month ago during Teacher Appreciation Week.

It is getting very tough for education “reformers” to air their views without finding that they have the effect of kicking off a counter-reaction far more resonant than their original statement.

Last fall, Waiting For Superman director Davis Guggenheim invited teachers to share their reaction to his movie with him, and got a similar lambasting.

Why do they write these things? It is a sign that critics like Ravitch are making a dent in the “education reform” narrative. She is especially devastating, because she focuses on the heart of the mythology the “reformers” have offered to justify their policies. This Alter hit was provoked after Ravitch unspun the latest “miracle schools” that supposedly prove poverty doesn’t matter, and that high expectations and accountability are the keys to success. Ravitch knows that it takes on-the-ground facts to defeat a mythology, and provides them in her writing.

But the response has outweighed Alter’s weak attack tenfold. And the response is far more authoritative than his original bluster. Dozens of teachers are stepping up, as did Alice Mercer, to point out how education reform policies actually affect their schools.

Teachers are not letting people like Arne Duncan or Jonathan Alter pretend to be experts on education any longer. We are here to speak for ourselves, and for our students.

And we are coming to Washington, DC, July 30th, to make sure our voices are heard.

Here is the response I posted to Alter’s piece myself:

Wow! I consider myself a "fellow traveler" with Dr. Ravitch, but I did not realize that our central thesis was that teachers could do no better. I think we can do much better, but the path our "education reformers" have chosen is not the way.
I have worked in the high-poverty schools in Oakland, California, for the past 24 years, 18 of them as a classroom teacher. I have a firsthand understanding of what works, and what does not. Making a fetish out of test scores, and spending endless hours poring over test score data, does not work. It just makes teachers focus narrowly on test scores at the expense of real learning. Labeling schools as failures and firing key staff does not work, it just creates an atmosphere of fear -- but that seems to be one of the key weapons in the "reform" arsenal.
Alter asserts that reformers do not deny the reality of poverty. On the contrary, they do. Otherwise, how would we have a system that demands 100% of our students reach proficiency in a few short years? How would we have a system that requires Special Ed and English Language Learners be given the same tests and meet the same expectations as students without these disadvantages?
I wish Jonathan Alter would take a job for a single semester at an urban middle school. Take on the accountability for students that you write about so glibly. Then come back and tell us how you wish to be held accountable.
We WILL do better when we let go of the illusion that mandates and tests will improve our schools. That we can simultaneously improve an institution while systematically denigrating and disempowering the professionals who work there. We will do better when we recognize the importance of stabilizing a teaching staff, and giving them time and space, and respect for the critical collaborative work they need to do to improve. We will do better when we fund our schools properly, so they do not have to choose between a library and a nurse. Or worse yet, where they have neither. We will do better when education policy makers take the time to listen to people who work in our schools, and not 'reformers' funded by billionaires.

Update: Diane Ravitch will debate Jonathan Alter on David Sirota’s Denver radio show, at 7 am Denver time, 9 am Eastern time, on the morning of Wednesday, June 8. You can listen live online here, or catch the podcast later here.

What do you think of the dust-up caused by Alter’s hit piece? Is your voice as an educator going to be given any weight by the media?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.