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Please Don't Shoot the Teachers

Posted: 2010-06-21

Richard A. Gibboney, former Vermont Commissioner of Education, is Professor Emeritus of Education, University of Pennsylvania
dick.gibboney@yahoo.com

Richard Gibboney offers what you need to know about school reform plus some trenchant comments on Diane Ravitch's book.

As he observes, Few speak easily to billionaires. Even the gods hesitate.


PLEASE DON’T 'SHOOT' THE TEACHERS,

PRESIDENT OBAMA--

because science has proved that

FAMILY POVERTY--NOT TEACHERS--

is the

PRIMARY CAUSE OF LOW SCHOOL ACHIEVEMENT REGARDLESS OF ETHNIC DIFFERENCES

******************************

These and other original thoughts await

PLUS

FASCINATING COMMENTS ON DIANE RAVITCH'S

HOT BOOK

Gotcha Education Policy

I want to make this easy. For both of us. Big things going on. Bad things,too, under an Orwellian "reform." I know how busy you are. I was almost too busy to write this unnecessary commentary in the first place. And reading about education policy--so-called "reform"--can be a real drag. Particularly if one is a teacher or principal, the "reformee" in this drama, the one who will carry the burden of Washington's top-down-corporate-driven affections.

The politics of education "reform" serve the corporate interests that talk--but do not practice-- the idealized efficiency of the business model. Evidence: The millions of taxpayer dollars spent in the 1980s to bailout greedy and risky loans by the savings and loan associations. And need I mention the trillion-dollar Wall Street welfare program of 2008.

I promise you this: Merely reading the summary above puts you in the 99th policy knowledge percentile in my Gotcha Education Policy Test. The statistical norm group for this fabulous statistic? A very pedigreed Ivy League bunch: Five of the most recent U.S. presidents, all of their secretaries of education and deputies, and all of the U. S. Congresses since 1980.

Now you know why these guys and gals want to "shoot" teachers and close ["blowup"] neighborhood schools for the poor. They ain't too smart.

So let's make a deal. I'll give you the essential stuff of school "reform" and a handful of goodies from Professor Ravitch's best-selling book [this is my prediction and I'm jealous as hell] . . . up front. And more. OK?

Anyone has time for a sentence or two, even if they're mine. I'll prep you for the proficiency test. You'll pass, guaranteed. The principal of your school will not then be burned at the stake for leading the best school possible in a poverty-struck community. (It is rumored that "principal burning" is being considered by some White House staffers as an incentive for principals to raise test scores. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (pronounced by teachers as [Dun'-in] calls this innovation "The Race to the Fire." But it is also rumored that the Environmental Protection Agency is opposing this regulation because it will lead to illegal pollution of the air. There is hope.) You will then decide if you want to read the nuanced, thoughtful and even brilliant commentary that enfolds the body of my text.

Here we go.

Professor Ravitch's book is as informative as the satirical "Daily Show" and a Michael Moore documentary on . . . anything. That's it. You have the essential point of her hot book. We are already half-way through this commentary. Celebrate.

Professor Ravitch's book grows from an interesting life. She has long served in the democratically destructive army of the Radical right that puts private profit ahead of earned social benefits like Social Security and Medicare, basic services that benefit ordinary working citizens not Wall Street fakes. The radical Right refuses to believe that good citizens are a major source of wealth creation in this democracy. The policies advanced by Right-wing foundations like the Olin Foundation, which has long financed her writing, advance a mean-spirited view that is hostile to working Americans, citizens (and teachers!) who are the backbone of wealth creation in today's weakened democracy.

Ms. Ravitch's life is a bit like a new character in Gone With the Wind: She was ideologically in tune with the South and spent close to four decades with the hard-fighting, ideologically [radically] conservative and well-funded Southern army; near the end of the war she decided that slavery was not a good thing and wrote a best-selling book about her conversion to our liberal Constitution.

This information will get you through the state proficiency test that I have appended to this commentary. Please take it now. Doing so will ensure that your school has made Adequate Yearly Progress and that all your sixth graders will pass the calculus proficiency test by 2014. More importantly, your noble service in conscientiously attending all required test prep sessions will ensure that your neighborhood school serving poor minority children will . . . not. . . be visited by President Obama. A "no visit" by President Obama is a win-win for teachers and principals; why? because a "no visit" by President Obama means that no teachers or principals will be lost to "friendly fire." Recall that President Obama publicly praised the figurative "burning" of that humble high school in Central Falls, RI, because--to be truthful for a change--its poverty-afflicted students couldn’t pass tests that socially privileged kids easily pass. Washington reform logic holds that if you are a student from a family struggling with the devils of poverty, the poverty-induced devils you drag around all day are the fault of your school and your family. *

*Some intelligence finally prevailed in both Central Falls and Washington, D.C. when the teachers' union and the school district negotiated a more sensible settlement on May 17 2010 that rehired the teachers under stipulated conditions (New York Times, May 18 2010, p.A14). But this settlement is still based on the unscientific idea--with its implicit child- and teacher--destructive assumption--that schools alone can overcome the multiple stresses that the devils of poverty inflict on all humans. The only intellectually coherent and democratically-rooted promising reform effort that I know to improve the lives of poverty-struck children, their families and their communities--not simplistic test scores alone--is the great work by Geoffrey Canada with his progressive education theory--intentional or not--that drives the fundamental reforms in the Harlem Children's Zone. Canada's work is great because he simultaneously and vigorously reforms two cultures: 1) The primary culture of parenting to reflect the intellectual values and the language practices of middle-class family culture upon which the goals of all schools in America implicitly rest, and 2) the secondary culture of the school whose intellectual and social environment is also slowly re-constructed along progressive lines.

My opinion above on why Canada's work is great is controversial and cannot be argued here. For a sympathetic and detailed journalistic description of Canada’s work in the Harlem Children’s Zone, see Paul Tough, Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest To Change Harlem and America, 2008.

Schools do not fail. Sick Societies Fail

There is no scientific evidence in the world to support the willfully ignorant belief of the Obama administration that firing teachers in Central Falls or a merit pay plan will close the democratically tragic black-Hispanic-white-middle-class achievement gap. To fire teachers for the economic sins of the larger society, is to believe that one can pitch for the Phillies without arms.

Here's the professional response to this corporate nonsense: Schools do not fail. Sick societies fail. Ours is presently a sick capitalist society. Want proof? . . . Do you know where your 401k went? To the slick bankers on Wall Street! We need a progressive slogan! How about this one: "Think Sweden! It takes a Just democracy to make a Great school." Sweden is a healthy capitalist society. Potentially good schools in a sick society will always fail. Reform the society and every school community will be as good as it can be. Schools are growing, changing organisms like children. Children were not born to be defenseless and poor or tested to inanity (rhymes with "insanity"). Give children a healthy home and community environment and they, too, will become the best they can be. No clueless federal reformers. No federal standards. No federally supported tests.

A peek ahead: Professor Ravitch has not yet made this truth her own.

We must remain alert when a president and his secretary of education figuratively go to New England to burn the "learning witches" infesting schools in Central Falls, RI. It is always the weak and the poor who suffer the first and last lash from the arm of the crazed reformer, be he Bishop or Lord. One might observe that New England has had a history of using fire to fight hallucinatory evils. And quite successfully, too.

One more fact. We know that some teachers love facts unhooked to Big Ideas, and that facts, some say, are important and almost self-explanatory. That's why certain academics with a particular cast of mind, including Professor Ravitch, enjoy making fact or knowledge lists . . . for other people to enjoy, of course. A very generous act. It's also why we have quiz shows on commercial TV. Quiz shows could not exist without trillions of fragmented information bits we call facts. We must support commerce. This is America. Every time a contestant (or a student) fluffs a fact question, one million fact bits disappear into curricular hell. This is a good thing.

Last fact. The book's title is a bit intimidating. I was afraid to put the title in the first paragraph for fear of losing all you channel surfers, texters, tweeters, hustlers, cartoon readers . . . and bird watchers. Here it is: The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.

Whew! This is almost as complex as something John Dewey, America's great philosopher of democracy and the cultivation of a fierce but generous intelligence, might write.

Part 1

The "New" Reform Message


Putting all useful biases aside for now, let's take a fair look at the ideas in Professor Ravitch's book, The Great American School System. Wait a minute. . . Not so fast. . . . I feel something churning in my gut after I wrote that first sentence. Hold that lovely plea for intellectual honesty for just a moment. Our critics don't embrace it.

I must note for the record that criticism of public schools since the 1950s is typically wrong on its charges of a system-wide failure of public education. My short review of the literature critical of public education is pertinent to my comments on Professor Ravitch's book because her book and her career involve the issues discussed below.

"The Sandia Report,"1990,authored by scientists in the federal government, is an objective study of public education. "The Sandia Report" flatly contradicted claims then being made by [the officials of President George H. W. Bush's administration] "about system-wide failure of public schools." And, believe it or not, this scientific report was suppressed by Bush 1 officials!! . . . The press and the public never learned that the public schools were doing well with a diverse population, with more of its children suffering in poverty-trashed environments than in other Western democracies, and with underfunding of poor city and rural schools.

This was the first knockout blow against public education and democracy.

"A Nation At Risk,"* 1983, published by the Reagan administration, is pure propaganda. This report is so intellectually barren--notable for its lack of documentation for its crude assertions--that it ought to be considered a hoax. "Risk" made headline-grabbing charges about achievement declines among American students and how poorly they compared with foreign students. Nonsense.

This was the second knockout blow against the poor and dispossessed. A blow that tarnished the shine of the democratic ethic.

Amazingly to me, Professor Ravitch sees little wrong or harmful in "A Nation At Risk." I believe "Risk" and the media play it received, did great harm to our democracy and to public education--which has been since 1850 one of the main ladders to literacy, citizenship and to achieving working- or middle-class social status for millions of immigrants and poor white families. Most of our ancestors climbed that solid-always-there public school social ladder. The public school has always been one of the nation's best democratizers. The public school is the social bee that pollinates the democratic honey. It's that simple. "A Nation At Risk" was a blast of DDT aimed at the democratic bees by a fearful and failing business elite who distrust all public institutions (except the military), and who opposed Social Security in 1935, Medicare in 1965 and . . . have you forgotten? . . . a modest Healthcare proposal in 2010.

The uncritical media attention to "Risk" was the third knockout blow. The stage was now set for "test and choice," and for the "privatization and commercial sterilization" of the world's most democratic public system of schools.

14,000 school districts under siege by business barbarians

Let me try to explain my reasoning in partial support of these conclusions. I do this because many will regard the next paragraphs as a diversion from her book. No. We shall never mount a powerful intellectual and moral defense of public education--from basic education to the university level--until we know that the worth of our system of public education rests on a single core value, itself incapable of generation or proof by the scientific method. That value is democracy and the potential power of the democratic ethic, a value rarely invoked by the critics of public education, or by most of its ahistorical defenders, who are as timid as a rabbit in the presence of a python.

Our historically de-centralized, democratically innovative public system of schools--a system that has demonstrated in the past 160 years at the least, that it could both adapt to, and often soften, the huge regional cultural differences in America. Why could the public schools effect such a monumental good of democratic social cohesion, "domestic tranquility" in the quaint words of our Constitution. The answer: The public schools accomplished this feat of social innovation because . . . well, excuse me President Obama â€Â¦because the public schools are democratic in spirit. The public schools are the schools of the people, the public, res publica, as the Romans called it. Without democratic ideals that are acted upon as required by pragmatic democratic theory, the ordinary people suffer--needlessly. A little later . . . the country itself dies.

Bridging regional cultural differences, to cite one example of the democratic, real-world power of public education, is the social democratic equivalent of Einstein's contributions to physics. But the subtleties of social accomplishments of a grand order cannot be verified with mathematical proofs. And for this we suffer. Social truths are closer to the insights of poetry or history or love. But let me . . .skipping the chain of reasoning for now . . . state the source of the democratic social power of public education. The power source comes from a "simple" policy decision of our Nation's founders: Education policymaking was delegated to the states and from the states, to local communities. Education was in the hands of elected citizens in towns and cities across this land of many colors. Our 14,000 school districts are our very own handcrafted "statues of liberties" to American democracy, a gift we gave ourselves as we innocently taught kids the 3R's and a little bit about getting along with each other in neighborhood schools throughout this land.

It is time that educators themselves first honor and then begin defending public schools on the only value that matters, the justice, elegance and practicality of the democratic ethic, an ethic that excludes no one from the fruits and responsibilities of American citizenship . . . including the wolves roaming Wall Street. If democracy is not the ultimate moral value in our culture, there can be no other.

The business barbarians are no longer "at the gates" of our better culture. They are inside the gates (see the novel about the destruction of a good American company in Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco, by Bryan Burrough and John Heylar, investigative reporters for the Wall Street Journal, and the Emmy-award winning TV movie by HBO, 1993). These two artistic creations will document in the dramatic voice that a wild-west capitalism is the greatest threat to American democracy--and to
its public schools--since President George W. Bush.

Teachers wakeup! Want to work under the corporate authority of Wal-Mart Schools, Inc., for $15 an hour, no union contract and fuzzy benefits?

The billionaire-foundation-paid-for-lies-and-simplistic-pet-teacher-wipeout-projects like merit pay and alternative routes to certification, and their successful media and federal legislative attacks on public schools since the 1980s in President Reagan’s administration, is my evidence. The profession’s intellectual vacuity in defense of our neighborhood monuments to the democratic ideal, our profession's near- total failure to take the moral high ground of the democratic ethic in defense of our great public system of schools, is tragic and inexcusable. That this generation has not the imagination or the moral stature to invent the American system of public education, I accept. But that we do not with intellectual and moral conviction and guts--good thing some of the "leaders" in this generation weren't around during WW11--to defend the treasure we have inherited! I will not accept.

Utterly stupid, I'd say . . . and culturally unpatriotic.

Worse, we are so ahistorical that we do not see that democracy is the only necessary and sufficient VALUE we need to defend the public schools against attack by the business nihilists, and to move forward to a higher civic and intellectual standard of academic excellence in a comprehensive and compassionate Deweyan sense. All else is either complementary to the democratic ideal or a destructive diversion: Vouchers; mayoral control; merit pay; union busting; all charter schools [The Harlem Children’s Zone is a temporary but miraculous exception]; standards and testing; firing innocent teachers and closing neighborhood schools serving the children of the poor are nothing more than distractions from the scientific fact that POVERTY--not teachers--is the primary cause of kids failing in school. But the narrow social interests of the billionaires and their blind pursuit of profits at any cost to you--think only of the Wall Street-Banking-Ordinary-People disaster in 2008 with all the bailouts that you yourself have witnessed, necessary as they were. One needs no history here. You don’t need Paul Krugman or Joseph Stiglitz--two of my favorite economists--to give you the basics of economic life in America since President Reagan and the University of Chicago Free Market theologians like Milton Friedman convinced many people (President Clinton was a member of this church), that “government is the problem” (it can be the problem as it is now with its market-pleasing-MBA-business-school "reform" model that is nothing less than an attack on poor kids and their families). Rich people don't believe the "government-is-[always]--bad" nonsense for one minute. They know where their money chute is located. Teachers have not learned this painful fact. But as more cuts are made in local school budgets, as more thousands of teachers are laid off, and as more schools are closed by President Obama because they serve the poorest of our poor citizens, the teachers' motivation to learn a few principles of Stiglitz-Krugman economics will be evident--even to our national union leadership, I do believe.

Forget classroom management for awhile, my friends. Learn who is managing you.

Continuing this little primer on how bad things are falsely said about good democratic institutions, much critical steam is generated by the Far Right, the Religious Right and the Neoconservatives*. The Far Right can be personified in radio and TV by the mad Glenn Beck. The Neoconservatives are characterized by Berliner and Biddle in The Manufactured Crisis as "centrist" in conservative thought [too weak a term in my opinion but useful]. Many of whom have had ties to the American Enterprise Institute. Diane Ravitch is listed as a Neoconservative among others such as William Bennett, Chester Finn, and Lamar Alexander.* Finn and Alexander are prominently mentioned in Professor Ravitch's book.

*Note: I have drawn much of my literature review from Chapter 4, Why Now?, of David Berliner's and Bruce Biddle's superb book, The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America's Public Schools, 1995. Page numbers in order of the asterisks in the text are 167, 169, 140, 137. Public school educators in America, particularly the lackluster and anti-intellectual leadership in our two unions, have been timid and irresponsible by not aggressively refuting nonsense about public education such as the dishonorable "A Nation At Risk." The authors of "Risk" were correct. Two minutes after their report came out, America was indeed at Risk.

I encourage all of you to buy Berliner's and Biddle's book, and Gerald Bracey's book, The War Against America's Public Schools, 2003. These books are based on scholarship, not a destructive, "anything goes" business ideology.

Diane Ravitch as Post-Caster

If Professor Diane Ravitch's profession were predicting the weather rather than evaluating decades of education reform policies, she would be called a "weather post-caster." Her post-casts on last year's weather are correct 90 percent of the time. The trivial error of ten percent may be attributed to poor typing skills or, as today's Radical-conservative business elites do, blame her teachers from the 1950s in the public schools of Houston, Texas.

Ms. Ravitch's serious and useful post-casts in her book, The Life and Death of the Great American School System, are sparkling and informative.

If you're a middle-class parent, a public school teacher, a principal or a superintendent--and you've been sleeping well lately--you must hear Professor Ravitch's message. Much of her message in this book (although not all of it in critical respects), lies within the broad progressive perspective I hold. (This revelation may astound Professor Ravitch, but I, too, am a little surprised myself. However, all this happy talk may be a cynical ploy by me to convince you how sweet and ridiculously open-minded we progressives are.)

I believe critics should make their perspectives on the world known to the reader. Through what lenses do they squint at the "blooming, buzzing confusion" of daily experience, as William James called it. My education theory and life perspective have been slowly but powerfully shaped at a glacial pace over decades. Good "life-long learners" are sanely paced learners. Wisdom, should it alight on one’s shoulders, and deep learning come in inches--not in the yards or miles of content covered. The true life-based metric of learning--not most formal school learning--is months, not hours spent; decades of reading-thinking-conversations with people who stimulate you, not years "spent" in school; mind-and-emotionally shaped experience, not arid test scores or those empty vessels, letter grades.

My formal theory of life experience is rooted in the philosophy of John Dewey expressed in his great book, Democracy and Education. Its very title expresses a profound thought (generally ignored by educators and critics of public education alike). My Deweyan "book knowledge" of education has been enriched and critiqued by social and intellectual history which began with one eye-opening course in what is now the Vanderbilt University/Peabody College of Education. [I wonder if such impractical courses are still taught there.] The most powerful life-shaping experience in my life was working as a beginning teacher in a progressive public elementary school in Ferndale, MI. I didn't know it at the time, but I took with me from that mind-shattering experience of dead ideas, a deep love and respect for teachers (their sometimes orneriness included). That respect for teachers endured as inner music in every job I held after Ferndale in two state education departments, in face-to-face work with teachers and their principals in school-based dialogues, and in the university.*

*******************
* See my book, The Stone Trumpet: A Story of Practical School Reform, 1960-1990, SUNY Press, 1994.

*******************

That teacher music is with me still. Where you see words on paper, I hear music as I write this commentary on teacher abuse which has been education "reform" in every disgraceful year since 1983, the birth of "A Nation At Risk."

You know now where I look to find Educational North. If you look East, that is fine; you can find me on your Left.

And the Message Is . . .

Here's Professor Ravitch's message: "At the present time, public education is in peril. Efforts to reform public education [on the business model] are, ironically, diminishing its quality and endangering its very survival...." (Ravitch, p.242). That small piece reflects the intellectual perspective of the book. I submit that its tone is progressive.

In this section the author explains the anti-public school efforts of powerful [R]adical-right foundations [my term] such as the Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. If you want to know your enemies, her critique of the billion-dollar foundations in education is a good place to start. Those of us living more ordinary financial lives have no idea of the behind-the-scenes media and political power Big Money exerts on both political parties. And our two national unions are ineffective and voiceless in systematically countering--and doing so on the national stage--the Big-Money-with-Small-Ideas folks. Don't union leaders read anything? You hear it here from a writer who was part of the Neoconservative attack on public education. Better listen.

The KIPP charter school comments are mine. The KIPP folks have been eating our lunch with the unearned adulation heaped upon them by uncritical reporters and sleeping editors. Again, where are the union leaders with some op-eds and ads or articles in the influential newspapers, and on TV to counter the very destructive and effective lies about the assumed power of semi-private selective charter schools to educate poverty-struck kids better than unselective public schools that cannot--absolutely cannot-- select one child to educate while consigning another to the streets: This is the very practical action that the short word public in public education demands. A true public school cannot select only the brightest kids of motivated parents as KIPP admits it does. The confession I quote below was available to anyone who tries to keep up with some of the richer literature in our field. But one does have to read some fairly thick books now and then, which is a very practical survival task that too many of us shun.

Education is, after all, a continual struggle among ideas. A struggle that takes place on the foggy terrain of society through its media and politics. Our attackers are very clear and forceful--if often not honest--in advancing theirs.

In 2009, Bill Gates of Microsoft fame, admitted that many of the schools in his $2 billion small schools reform "did not improve students' achievement in any significant way" (Ravitch, p. 211). The schools with the best results were charter schools such as KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) whose cofounder, David Levin, admits are selective and that KIPP "can never eliminate the black-white achievement gap-- even for its specially selected students" (Rothstein, Class and Schools, p. 82, italics added). This is Headline News! But who ever hears it? Glenn Beck! Interested? NPR: Are you tuned in? No. NPR has unfairly and irresponsibly aired many stories on the glories of KIPP as a solution to the alleged defects of the public schools. The public media is as blind as is the for-profit media on education policy. Shameful. This hurts our democracy. But who in the media is looking out for something that . . . B-O-R-I-N-G ?

Despite KIPP's meritable admission that it cannot close the white-black achievement gap, Mr. Gates charged forward with his arrogant billion dollar biases for charter schools in full play. Professor Ravitch raises some important questions about the millions of dollars foundations such as the Gates Foundation spend on PR programs in the media to "sell" their reforms to the public along with the Broad Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation (the Walton family owns the Wal-Mart store chain). Professor Ravitch believes this huge sum of PR money is likely to curb dissent from scholars and citizens who have legitimate questions about private foundations making policy for a major public institution. These private foundations are "accountable" only to themselves. "Who would warn him," she asks, "of the dangers of creating a two-tiered system in urban districts, with charter schools [serving] motivated students and public schools [serving] all those left behind? Who would raise questions about the sustainability of charter schools that rely on a steady infusion of young college graduates who stay for only a few years? Who would tell him that the data systems now in use--and the ones he was about to fund--would never identify as great the kinds of teachers who had inspired him at Lakeside [a private school]" ( p. 212).

Few speak easily to billionaires

Few speak easily to billionaires. Even the gods hesitate.

In 2007, the Walton Family Foundation awarded $82 million to charter schools, $26 million to school choice programs, a $8 million low interest loan to the Brighter Choice Foundation, which runs charter schools in Albany, NY, and $3.9 million to the KIPP Foundation for its schools. (Ravitch, p. 202).

The big money boys and girls are going all out to reduce citizen confidence in public education. Professor Ravitch believes that the Walton Family Foundation seeks to "create, sustain, and promote alternatives to public education. Their agenda is choice, competition, and privatization." The Walton family believes that the private sector will always provide better consumer choices than the government, and that the government cannot provide good education (Ravitch, p. 203).

Here is a billboard-size warning to every public school teacher in America. Better give a wake up call to your union leadership. (Disclosure: I am a life member of the NEA. I paid $100 for a life membership when I was a teacher earning $ 3000 annually. I believed.)

The fallacy of the Sterile Commercial Mind is that it refuses to admit that education is a critical public good essential to the country's health and welfare. Education polices and practices must be formed and acted upon in the bright light of the public interest. If war is too important to be left to the generals, public education cannot be relegated to those whose vision of democracy is seen through the distorting lenses of private profit at any social cost. My proof? The immoral and unnecessary Wall Street collapse in 2008, engineered by crazed "mathematized" Ivy League MBAs doped up on "derivatives," with an unbelievable indifference to the welfare of their country. Talk about "unpatriotic" socialism! Nice work guys. Your high SAT scores paid off. We are so-o-o proud of you. Please understand, Mr. and Ms. MBA, that education is a matter of grave civic importance. Profits alone--removed from the civic sphere-- earned from manufacturing a Toyota or even a Ford, are not inherently in the public interest.

A pervasive social sensitivity--however delayed--infuses this book. It "drips" history in both its formal and personal sense. I love that. Chapter 1, for instance, "What I Learned About School Reform," is a history of personal and professional growth as much as it is about reform. Professor Ravitch tells the story of her journey. She grows, time passes and new colors and shapes enhance her world. Tell me, please, where lies the bold red line between the "subjective" and the "objective," and I will show you either a god or a fool.

Another implicit dividend of her book is that the "history averse" among us, get a free, anti-history-averse "shot" (relax, it's feels good, kinda like a martini). Professor Ravitch, for example, gives a trenchant account of the development of the choice idea in an almost casual way. The development of this idea is an informal history, of course, and includes the segregationist white academies the South established to hold off desegregation, Milton Friedman's economic ideas for choice are given, President Reagan's advocacy of choice and its development to the next stage, vouchers, are cited which evolved to what is today's real threat to democratic public education, charter schools (Ravitch, Chapter 7). Charter schools are a private policy opiate we lovers of public schools cannot embrace. The democratic ethic and Dewey's demand that schools "cultivate the intelligence" of teachers, students and parents forbids it.

No public school teacher has ever inflicted poverty on a single child

Remember: Poverty is the necessary and sufficient cause of low test scores and for the development of hostile attitudes of poverty-struck children toward formal learning, regardless of race or ethnicity. Poverty is easily tolerated by all capitalist systems as most mainstream economists assert. Capitalism in America is a version of capitalism in its most lethal form, more so than in most Western democracies. No public school teacher, whether brilliant or average, whether she falls on the 85th percentile or 10th percentile, has ever, ever inflicted poverty on a single child. A sick society does that. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and The Business Round Table do this.

Meanwhile, the saints of commerce in the wealthy New Church of Private Social Healing, continue their six decades--yes, six decades--of lies about the public schools. The media's complicity in this attack is unworthy of a free press; that only one of the few major domestic policy issues to draw near unanimous support in Congress was the democratically and intellectually destructive No Child Left Behind Law is testimony -- to what? . . . to the decline of America as a democracy that is beginning to shred its most basic values.

Our great historian, Henry Steele Commager, wrote in a 1950 editorial in Life magazine that a society that is indifferent to its own heritage, a society that slurs over its fundamental principles and takes refuge in the superficial and ephemeral, a society too occupied with its own material accomplishments -- cannot expect its schools to teach that the warmth of security is "less meaningful than the bracing venture of freedom." Commager says in conclusion:


[T]o reform our schools is
[F]irst to reform our society.

Note: Commager says "ourselves" in the editorial. In his context, my use of the idea of "society" is appropriate. (From Henry Steele Commager, "Our Schools Have Kept Us Free," National School Public Relations Association, National Education Association, 1962.)


Part 2

The Business Model Fails and Fantasy Economic Theories Prevail


Professor Ravitch goes to the heart of a conservative "business" city to . . . do what? . . . to definitively show the utter failure of accountability as testing and choice. Here’s reasonable proof that the sterile mind of the business man or woman is poison for the cultivation of anything that does not carry a foot-long for sale sign shouting its market worth.

Things don't get better when two Stanford University economists, besotted with Ayn Rand and Alan Greespan theories ( well, not quite that bad . . . maybe), bring their "value added" proposals to the table in an effort to make a version of merit pay "objective."

The Disastrous Failure in San Diego . . .

San Diego is a conservative city, Professor Ravitch reports. San Diego's business leaders hired Alan Bersin in 1998 as superintendent of schools to lead a tough, top-down business model reform of its schools. A model of reform that meets Bill Gates's fantasy ideas of what makes a good education reform.

Bersin looked good on paper. He was a former federal prosecutor, a Harvard graduate and a Rhodes Scholar. San Diego's story is a story of destruction, a story of the mistreatment (to use a polite word) of teachers and the brutalizing of an innocent public system of schools by arrogant Know Nothings.

Should not tough business-style reformers be responsible for "war damages" inflicted on innocents by their willful ignorance of the scientific content of education (at the least), and their eagerness to act upon the most simplistic and sneeringly quick reform "solutions"?

The quotation that follows from Ms. Ravitch's book gives the flavor of this reform travesty against the children, teachers and, yes, the very community of San Diego itself.
"...Bersin's accountability reform and organizational policies--firing principals, demanding higher test scores, fighting the teachers' union, attacking the bureaucracy, and opening charter schools--delighted the business community and those on the [R]ight who believe that public agencies, especially schools, are overflowing with waste, inefficiency, and incompetence and are greatly in need of accountability, competition, and choice. Almost every study--including the AIR [The American Institute of Research] studies--documented that a majority of teachers were angry and disaffected. You cannot lead your troops if your troops do not trust you." (Ravitch, p. 65)


Fantasy Economic Theories--Merit Pay--The Weapon of Mass Teacher Destruction

The Church of Commerce (known in polite media as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and their allied billionaire friends who found Right-wing foundations), love to distort complex social issues. We saw it under Bush 11 with NCLB, we saw it with huge tax cuts for households earning $1 million or more annually, and we saw it with burying the costs of the Iraq war in "off budget" categories. Joseph Stiglitz, a recipient of the Nobel prize in economics, put the conservatively estimated total costs of that war at $3 trillion in his book with Linda J. Bilmes titled The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict.

And the Republicans and about thirty corporate-loving Democrats have the democratic insensitivity to say that the Healthcare law is too expensive. Do you believe that people like this--who vaguely intuit that the Iraq war is worth trillions but that Healthcare with a cost of around $1 trillion linked to an equivalent reduction in the national debt--will ever fund schools serving the poorest of the poor? Never. Its name? Lethal capitalism.

And teachers are a weaker victim than even American citizens generally, because teachers are threatened by not only our pro-wealth tax policies, but teachers are also objects of direct attack by billionaire foundations and, now . . . by the Obama administration with its $4 billion of bribe money for a test-merit-pay-teachers-cause-low-test-scores-unscientific-Wall Street no-reform plan I call The Race to the No-Union Bottom that ignorantly is destroying--yes, literally--the greatest democratic public school system in the world. If the business elite under President George W. Bush wanted to privatize something as democratic and as practical as a monthly check to widows and children and old people under Social Security, imagine how easy it would be to privatize public schools under, say, the Wal-Mart corporation -- our glorious public schools whose only "check" is the civic gift of domestic tranquility, knowledge and stronger families. Leaders in education must stop accommodating the cultish "reformers" (such as unions sponsoring charter schools, the death knell for true public schools, for heaven's sake!).

"Value-added" has arisen as a way to pay teachers on merit. Value-added ties the test sores of specific students to specific teachers.

Professor Ravitch invited two Stanford Universiity economic professors, Eric Hanushek and Steven Rivkin, to address the problem of attracting "high-quality" teachers to a Brookings Institution conference. I have a word for these gentlemen: Economics is not Education any more than ice hockey is ballet. And this word from John Dewey: An idea may be "true" in economics or psychology, but it cannot be true in Education until it is tested in schools to see what its good and poor effects are. Be humble, sirs, with your reed-like supported "truths" that surface in one corner of life experience. The "truths" embraced by a champion downhill skier may drown a long-distance swimmer.

Hanushek and Rivkin believed that "high-quality" teachers (those at the 85th percentile) can make up for the "typical deficits seen in the preparation of kids from disadvantaged backgrounds" (Ravitch, p.181). This is Grade A nonsense.

The economists recommended that state level entry requirements for teachers be "loosened up," and to focus on teachers whose students were able to get "results" on--guess what--standardized tests (Ravitch. P. 181). More Grade A nonsense.

Richard Rothstein, from the liberal Economic Policy Institute, attended the conference and criticized the economists' proposals. He called their paper "misleading and dangerous." Rothstein made specific objections: 1) Schools alone cannot overcome the learning deficits created by a family living in poverty; and 2) The assertion that the white-black achievement gap can be closed in five years is false.

The magic formula advanced by the economists appealed to both liberals and conservatives. Liberals liked the mere possibility of closing the achievement gap; conservatives liked the idea that teachers alone would be responsible for the low achievement of poverty-struck kids (Ravitch, p. 182). The cry that school failure is "the teacher's fault" also avoided Poverty as the real cause of low achievement. One has to hand it to the conservatives (nihilists?). They know what they want and they are willing to hang on like bull dogs until they get it. But what in hell are they "conserving?" Not economic justice; not a reasonable chance for ordinary Americans to "pursue happiness" as the Constitution promises; not freedom from hunger or access to health care. . . I know. . . They want to conserve for posterity the severe social inequalities that were in this nation from its birth (see Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States). Yes, we have made advances in our 250 years. Good. But it took about 200 years until blacks had full citizenship rights under federal law. That is too slow. And I do believe that a residue of this injustice clings to every school achievement failure that hundreds of thousands of black kids will earn in the next round of testing that President Obama promises soon to inflict upon us. And to low-scoring poverty-struck white students as well as the typically low scores on international tests of students in Mississippi and Alabama attest. No testing or merit pay plan ever killed the demons of poverty for a single poor child. Ever!

Part 3

(To come)

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