"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Diane Ravitch and Reformers' Feelings

When Diane Ravitch, in Reign of Error, discusses charter schools, she makes it clear that not all charters impose a “no-excuses” mentality. When discussing the reformers’ public relations machine and its “well-honed message,” she analyses their language and writes, “when they speak of “no-excuses,” they mean boot camp culture.”

In a rational world, Ravitch’s careful distinctions, as in the above sentences, would be noted. After all, she has decades of experience as a scholar of unsurpassed distinction.

Ravitch is attacked, however, because she bilingual. She can easily switch back and forth between academic language and quotability that a political leader needs.

I’ve been inclined to write off the reformers’ concerted attacks on Ravitch as just another example of their ability to sing from the same hymnal. The other day, however, I was engaged in a long and constructive conversation with a reformer and I was surprised by the sincere pain in his voice when protesting the use of the words “corporate reformer,” and “privatizer.”

A light went on as I recalled my anguish when we teachers were attacked by liberal reformers, such as the Education Trust, who claimed that inner city schools were not failing but doing what they were “designed” to do. Teachers were condemned for a "creeping malaise" that robbed poor children of color of an education. The Trust also argued that “high-performing, high-poverty schools” showed that teachers could overcome poverty if they had “high expectations.” It even claimed that "the biggest challenge these educators (of high-flying schools) face is often not the poverty, health status or mobility of their students. Instead, the longest odds are those created by our education culture, which denies that these children can succeed.”

So, teachers’ attitudes do more harm than poverty does!?!? Of course, I read such statements as charging us, teachers and unions who have been trustworthy advocates for civil rights and justice, with racism.

That explains why I risked the angering of fellow educators – who are equally offended by the attacks on our character. It is why I am sharing my mixed feelings about one chapter in Reign of Error. The chapter, “The Language of Corporate Reform,” includes an essential diagnosis of the way that reformers’ spin doctors have corrupted our conversations about school improvement.

Ravitch uses vivid language in explaining what “they” say, and what “they” mean. Who can deny her charge that “when they say ‘data-driven instruction,’ they mean test scores …?” When reformers speak of “effective teachers,” of “accountability,” and of “a successful school,” they obviously mean test scores.

When “they” speak of “personalized instruction,” the chances are that Ravitch is correct and they mean putting a child in front of a computer screen. But, not all reformers mean that. Many are appalled at the way that human contact is being sacrificed. As Ravitch says in a different chapter, some reformers are sincerely committed to “innovation,” so not all of them mean the replacing of teachers when they use that word. And, I would add, when “they” speak of “reform,” not all reformers “really mean” deregulation and privatization.

On the other hand, I would say to reformers what I said to myself when I realized how liberals were engaging in the “Sister Soldja” tactic of attacking the integrity of teachers, beating up their loyal political allies, to prove to their corporate benefactors how tough they are. The abuse that is dumped on us adults is nothing in comparison to the deprivation that so many of our students face. So, if a part of Ravitch's book sounds too harsh, please turn the page and wrestle with her questions.

How many reformers, regardless of their sincerity, can deny Ravitch’s charge that “they seldom protest budget cuts?” How often do reformers “complain about racial segregation,” or “object to scripted curriculum or teacher’s loss of professional autonomy?” Shouldn’t reformers be embarrassed that “they do not complain … when plans are announced to test children kindergarten or even pre-kindergarten?”

At the same time, even though Ravitch has convinced me that corporate reform and privatization are real threats, after last week’s conversation, I will try harder to choose my words carefully. Whether or not Ravitch is being too harsh on the rank-in-file of the reform movement, I intend to bend over backwards to not offend reformers who are on the team funded by the “Billionaires’ Boys’ Club,” but who – rightly or wrongly - do not see themselves as privatizers. I will also continue to urge them to carefully read Reign of Error.

Finally, when I posted "Should Diane Ravitch Be More Careful to Not Hurt Reformers’ Feelings?,” I knew it might prompt a hard-hitting response, as well as some angry comments. I hope reformers will read the comments, note the anger, and ask what was accomplished by demonizing teachers. I hope they will also follow a commenter's link to the Flight of the Concords' "Hurt Feelings (Tears of a rapper.)"

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