Diane Ravitch Speaks Out for Public Education in Opening Session

Conference News Online March 2012 Diane Ravitch opened the 2012 NAESP Conference and Expo with the keynote "Will school reform improve the schools?" and her answer is "No," not in its current incarnations.

Conference News Online
March 2012

Diane Ravitch opened the 2012 NAESP Conference and Expo with the keynote “Will school reform improve the schools?” and her answer is “No,” not in its current incarnations.

Ravitch believes in the primacy of public education. “You have the charge of the lives and treasure of our nation’s most important asset: our children. You nurture their love of learning and help them become good citizens and good people. Unfortunately that can’t be measured, though your fate will be measured. Our policymakers have decided you will be judged by student test scores. They are wrong.”

She clarified that she is not opposed to testing, but that our process misuses extrinsic reward and punishment, when intrinsic motivation is most important to learning. “I would like to point out,” Ravitch said, “that carrots and sticks work best for donkeys.”

Public education is becoming privatized, with the result that principals must ignore their best professional experience on the needs of children and turn their schools into test centers. “You are the leader of a team of professionals,” Ravitch lamented, “not the manager of a factory.” Yet the current “Corporate Reform Movement,” as Ravitch calls it, treats schools as if they were stores that can be opened or closed, staff hired or fired, and poverty ignored.

This movement is led by foundations, Wall Street hedge fund managers, conservative billionaires, global corporations, and academic think tanks funded by the foundations. The result is a focus on free market competition, which does not produce equity. Public schools, says Ravitch, are the heart of our communities; you fragment community if you are arguing over resources.

Ravitch noted that the Race to The Top (RTTT) agenda on top of No Child Left Behind is “NCLB 2.0.” If we continue on our present path, by 2014 close to 100 percent of U.S. schools will be labeled as failing. And that simply isn’t true. What is true is that in our national policy we are ignoring poverty. Poverty and racial isolation are root causes of poor academic performance. We know this, yet we punish teachers and schools for social conditions beyond their control. In a painfully funny analogy to our current RTTT “turnaround process,” Ravitch said this would be like blaming police for rising crime, closing police stations, and giving badges to anyone who wants them.

What can we do to improve schools? Strengthen education, rather than dismantle schools. Respect educators, and their specialized education training. Ravitch stated that if we’re serious about improving education, we should improve standards for entering teaching and becoming administrators: every principal should be a master teacher and every superintendent should be an educator.

She urged that we:

  • Ask Congress and state legislatures to stop telling educators how to do their jobs;
  • Ask the U.S. Department of Education to stop telling states what to do in their schools;
  • Insist Congress fully fund the 40 percent of special education they promised;
  • Use standardized tests for assessment, not rewards and punishment; and
  • Build strong alliances across all stakeholders in our communities to be advocates for public education.

If we do all this, Ravitch said, we recognize public education as the true cornerstone of democracy. And then she received a standing ovation.

Olivia Gault, MESPA Director of Communications and Professional Development, St. Paul, Minnesota