Assessment Opinion

A Moment of National Insanity

By Diane Ravitch — March 01, 2011 4 min read
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Dear Deborah,

Lucky for you that you were able to join the protests in Madison. I will be there, coincidentally, on March 8, for a long-ago-booked lecture at the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences. By the way, I met your son Nick when I spoke at Monterey, Calif., last week, and he is the spitting image of his mother!

I’m beginning to think we are living in a moment of national insanity. On the one hand, we hear pious exhortations about education reform, endlessly uttered by our leaders in high political office, corporate suites, foundations, and the media. President Obama says we have to “out-educate” the rest of the world to “win the future.”

Yet the reality on the ground suggests that the corporate reform movement—embraced by so many of those same leaders, including the president—will set American education back, by how many years or decades is anyone’s guess. Sometimes I think we are hurtling back a century or more, to the age of the Robber Barons and the great corporate trusts.

Consider a few events of the past week:

  • In Detroit, the school system will reduce its deficit by closing half the city’s public schools and creating classes of as many as 60 students. These are among the poorest and lowest-performing students in the nation. Parents and teachers should be rioting in the streets of Detroit, along with everyone who cares about these children and our future. This is an outrage.
  • The school board of Providence, R.I., voted to fire all of its teachers to address its deficit. Most will be rehired, but now the board has maximum flexibility to choose which ones. At the same time, Providence’s leaders are humiliating every teacher, breaking the bonds of trust that are essential for the culture of a good school. Will anyone hold these reckless, heedless, unprofessional “leaders” in Rhode Island to account?
  • And, in Idaho, the state superintendent of education has proposed a plan that would lay off 770 teachers over five years, banking on students taking more online courses. Do they know there is no evidence for the efficacy of virtual learning? I don’t think they care. For them, this is just a cost-cutting measure. And it’s other people’s children who will get this bargain-basement training, not their own.

If more was needed to strip away the mask of “reform,” consider the deafening silence of the corporate school reformers in response to these events. A few, like Joe Williams of Democrats for Educational Reform, surprised their confreres (and me) by siding with the teachers of Wisconsin. Most, however, complained that public employees are overpaid, have unnecessarily rich benefits, and need a comeuppance. All those who wrote such articles enjoy comfortable upper-middle-class lives; do they want to reduce teachers to penury? Some circulated spurious claims that Wisconsin’s schools were dreadful because only one-third of 8th graders were proficient on the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading assessment in 2009; I assume they don’t realize that “proficient” on NAEP is far higher than proficient on state tests and is equivalent to an “A.”

I was disappointed when my friend Rick Hess, who blogs for Education Week, expressed his support for Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker (I Stand With Governor Walker); in another piece, Rick reported that the average salary of Wisconsin teachers was about $52,600 in 2009-10. I wonder what the average salary is for professionals at the American Enterprise Institute, where Rick does his thinking and writing. I’m sure it’s far more than what teachers earn, and that the working conditions are pleasanter, the stress level lower, and the responsibilities fewer.

The corporate reformers have done a good job of persuading the media that our public schools are failing because they are overrun by bad teachers, and these bad teachers have lifetime tenure because of their powerful unions. (See the corporate reform film, “Waiting for Superman”). I’m sorry to say that Race to the Top, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have stirred up a frenzy of anti-teacher sentiment that hurts even our very best teachers, by their much-publicized search for “bad teachers.”

National Board-certified teachers are organizing a march on Washington this July to fight back against the vilification of their profession. Their website is www.saveourschoolsmarch.org.

In the wake of the attacks on teachers and public schools this past year, the haters of teachers feel respectable as they write their venomous diatribes and post them widely. When I recently defended teachers and their right to bargain collectively on CNN.com, I was startled by the raw expressions of rage in the thousands of comments that poured in.

So much madness on the loose. So many districts firing teachers and closing schools. So many legislators slashing education budgets while refusing to raise taxes on millionaires or allowing taxes on the wealthiest to expire as they lay off teachers.

What do we hear from the corporate reformers? Merit pay. Really? Bonuses for some, layoffs for others? Fire teachers with low value-added scores? Ah, more teaching to the test, more narrowing the curriculum.

Nothing to improve education. Just “innovation” (i.e., no evidence) and “disruption” (I.e., firing the whole staff, closing the school).

Our schools remain subject to a failed federal accountability system. We are packing children into crowded classrooms, ignoring the growing levels of child poverty (the U.S. now leads all advanced nations in infant mortality), and putting fear into the hearts of our nation’s teachers. Who will want to teach? How does any of this improve schools or benefit children? Do you understand it? I don’t.


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