Education historian and advocate Diane Ravitch, the author of the bestseller The Life and Death of the Great American School System, came to the RA today to collect her “Friend of the NEA” award. She got a standing ovation after her speech panning the No Child Left Behind Act, the Race to the Top, charter schools, the “privatization” of public schools, merit pay, and efforts to shift away from seniority and tenure, among many other things.
Suffice it to say that with an audience like the RA, which has big problems with all those things, her speech was akin to pouring gasoline on a fire. At the end, in fact, Ravitch stripped off her jacket and put on a T-shirt that read, “Public Education: It’s a Right, Not a Race,” to great acclaim and applause.
The video of Ravitch’s speech will probably go viral in less than five minutes so I’m not going to bother writing up her specific remarks. Overall, Ravitch’s appearance at the RA says far more about her than it does about the the union. Her change of heart has been extensively documented by Education Week and others, and this award is more or less the capstone of that transition.
If this appearance is any indication, Ravitch now views herself as the defender of public education against forces that are bent on destroying it. On her Twitter page, she recently drew an allusion to the French Revolution, comparing her public protests to being on “the barricades.” Today at the RA, she called her book tour a “whistlestop campaign.”
In any case, NEA must be thrilled to have an influential public figure like Ravitch now aligned with its agenda. Whether the union really needs the help is an open question. It still enjoys support on Capitol Hill, and there are a bevy of lawmakers who are pushing back on things like Race to the Top, the School Improvement Grants, and No Child Left Behind.
Also, you wouldn’t know it from this speech or the excitement it generated, but Ravitch and the NEA aren’t on the same page about everything. Throughout her career, the education historian has taken a consistent tack on curriculum, arguing that it should be deep and rich and highly specific. But the NEA has never been as much of a leader on curricular issues as its sister union, the American Federation of Teachers. The NEA is, in fact, one of the leading proponents of the movement for “21st-century skills,” a movement Ravitch despises and has claimed is nothing but an William Heard Kilpatrick-inspired brand of progressivism in sheep’s clothes.
Photo by Kevin Lock, courtesy of the National Education Association
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.