On the eve of yesterday’s election, education expert Diane Ravitch spoke to a packed auditorium at Princeton High School’s Performing Arts Center on the attacks to public education by so-called “supporters of educational reform.”
Describing New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as a “bully,” she said his administration is waging an “unceasing war” on the public school system. “While he rants about superintendents’ salaries and calls New Jersey’s schools ‘failure factories,’ he is short changing Abbott Districts and engaged in a ‘full-bore privatization process’ that is a radical assault on our education system, an integral part of our democracy,” said Ms. Ravitch. “Christie’s idea of educational reform is to give education away to private entrepreneurs, but schools are not consumer goods that should be for-profit enterprises; they are like public roads, public beaches, a public good for all.”
The historian and bestselling author was scheduled to speak later that evening at Princeton University and had responded to a long-standing request to come to PHS by Julia Rubin, co-founder of the Princeton-based group Save Our Schools NJ (SOS NJ).
“Ravitch is helping people understand what’s happening now in public education and the need to do something about it,” said Ms. Rubin, who began SOS NJ with other concerned parents in a Princeton living room just three and a half years ago. Since then the volunteer run movement has grown to 12,000 members with a website (www.saveourschoolsnj.org) that lists, for example, where state legislative candidates stand on public education issues.
Ms. Rubin, who has a 6th grader at John Witherspoon Middle School, described the nonpartisan, grassroots organization’s goal as to educate and engage residents in support of public education and to advocate on behalf of all children.
Superintendent of Schools Judith A. Wilson, welcomed the speaker and thanked Dorothea von Moltke of Labyrinth Books for supplying copies of Ms. Ravitch’s latest title, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, for a sale and signing by the author.
Born in Houston and now living in Brooklyn, Ms. Ravitch found a receptive audience when she spoke out against Gov. Christie’s efforts in education. “Christie is contemptuous of public school teachers; if he could, he would replace public schools with charters and vouchers.” In fact, said Ms. Ravitch, New Jersey’s schools are some of the best in the nation, ranked with those in Massachusetts and Connecticut.
Citing the efforts of Martin Luther King, Jr. to desegregate schools along racial lines, she said: “Here we are in 2013, recreating a dual school system for the haves and the have-nots. Privatization is draining students and funding from our public schools. Charters don’t serve all children; they are private corporations contracting with the government. It is easy to get high test scores when you push out the children who get low scores, the kids with disabilities, those whose first language is not English.”
Ms. Ravitch, who was recently featured on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart (as can be viewed on YouTube) described the idea that student testing would weed out bad teachers as “junk science.” The emphasis on testing results in a narrowing of the curriculum, she said, citing numerous anecdotal instances to support her claims. Why is it, she wondered, that the U.S. administers more tests than any other country in the world? “Could it be because there is a fantastically active testing lobby,” she said to loud applause.
“The emphasis on testing is a distraction that is squelching the genius of this country, our problem solving ability,” she said. She compared the nation’s number of Nobel Prize winners with that of Japan, known for test-taking success. “Training to take tests doesn’t foster independent thinking or genius,” she said.
What tests do reveal, however, is socio-economic status. “America isn’t overrun with bad teachers but with children in poverty,” said Ms. Ravitch. “Everyone, whether they have children or not, must be concerned about the future of education in this country,” she said.
Retired public librarian Sharon Olson, who has no children, agreed. A fan of Ms. Ravitch, Ms. Olson has followed her blog and her writings on Salon.com and in The New York Times. “I feel that teachers and education are being undervalued and that too much emphasis is being placed on competition and testing abilities rather than on the acquisition of knowledge,” said Ms. Olsen, a resident of Lawrenceville.
The Common Core standards currently being implemented in states across the nation, came in for particular criticism because, among other items, the system had not been field tested in any classrooms. In addition, Ms. Ravitch lambasted federal programs such as George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind and Barack Obama’s Race to the Top for setting unreasonable targets for American students, punishing schools, and resulting in teachers being fired if their students underperform, and unfairly branding those educators as failures.
“This is failure by design,” she said, “poor testing results are not a reflection of the quality of teachers but a purposeful effort to make public schools look bad.” She predicted a push back against the Common Core that would result in states pulling out of the system. “We know what works: experienced professional teachers, involved parents, a school library with a librarian, a nurse in every school, guidance officers.”
A handsome women with silvery hair and an appealing sense of humor, Ms. Ravitch has been described as “whistleblower extraordinaire.” A historian of education and research professor of education at New York University, she was assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education in the administration of President George H. W. Bush and was appointed to the National Assessment Governing Board by President Bill Clinton.
Her books include the critically acclaimed The Death and Life of the Great American School System and Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform. A prolific author of books and some 500 articles, she has won numerous awards and been commended for careful use of data. Since April 2012, she’s been an active blogger and has some 66,000 Twitter followers.
For the last three years, she has been traveling the country leading a national battle to save public education. Her most recent book, Reign of Error, was a response to critics who said that she posed questions and gave no answers. On the contrary, she said, “I have lots of recommendations for what can be done to protect and improve public schools.”
Reign of Error argues against the idea that public education is broken and beyond repair. It describes the positives of U.S. education and suggests ways to combat the root causes of educational failure.
After her talk at PHS Monday, Ms. Ravitch responded to audience questions ranging from the apparent demise of community schools in New York City; the teaching of teachers and the Teach for America program; and what might be learned from other countries such as Finland. She was even presented with a question on how to respond to an attack on herself as an expert on education who has never been a classroom teacher. One charter school supporter questioned her assertion that charters had been co-opted by hedge fund managers and the like and invited her to come to Trenton to see for herself. Ms. Ravitch responded that charter schools were not intrinsically at odds with public education and were of value when they worked with the public system rather than in competition with it. But, she warned, major foundations, individual billionaires, and Wall Street hedge fund managers are encouraging the privatization of public education; some for idealistic reasons, others for profit.