Impassioned Call to Defend Public Education

This is an edited version of an impassioned call to defend public education by Diane Ravitch, Professor of Education at New York University, former US Assistant Secretary of Education and author of the best-selling book The Death and Life of the Great American School System. The speech was delivered at the 2010 Representative Assembly of the US National Education Association in New Orleans on 6 July 2010.

Since my book appeared in early March, I have started out on what I thought would be a conventional book tour, but it really has turned into a whistle-stop campaign. I have been to 40 different cities and districts. I have another 40 planned starting in September.

I talked to union members, to school board members, to administrators, to left-wing think tanks, to right-wing think tanks. I have met with high-level White House staff. I have met with about 40 members of Congress. I would say that I have met so far about 20,000 teachers, and after today I think I am going to increase it to 30,000.

And in all of this time, aside from the right-wing think tanks, I haven’t seen met a single teacher who likes what’s happening? I haven’t met a single teacher who thinks that No Child Left Behind has been a success. I haven’t met a single teacher who thinks that Race to the Top is a good idea.

Wherever I went, I met teachers who understood that there is a rising tide of hostility to teachers, to the teaching profession, and to teachers’ unions. You see it almost daily in the national media, in Newsweek magazine with its dreadful cover story about firing teachers, and Time magazine with awful columns, and in the New York Times and the Washington Post and all of the major media.

And as I talk to teachers, by the end of my talk, I hear the same questions again and again: What can we do? How can we stop the attacks on teachers and on the teaching profession? Why is the media demonizing unions? Why does the media constantly criticize public schools? And why does it lionize charter schools? Why is Arne Duncan campaigning with Newt Gingrich? Why has the Obama Administration built its education agenda on the punitive failed strategies of No Child Left Behind?

I promised to speak out against No Child Left Behind. It’s a disaster. It has turned our schools into testing factories. Its requirement that 100 percent of students will be proficient by the year 2014 is totally unrealistic. Any teacher could have told them that. Thousands and thousands of schools have been stigmatized as failing schools because they could not reach a goal that no state, no nation, and no district has ever reached. By setting an impossible goal, No Child Left Behind has delegitimized public education and created a rhetoric of failure and paved the way for privatization.

I will continue to speak out against high-stakes testing. It undermines education. High-stakes testing promotes cheating, gaming the system, teaching to bad tests, narrowing the curriculum. High-stakes testing means less time for the arts, less time for history or geography or civics or foreign languages or science.

We see schools across America dropping physical education. We see them dropping music. We see them dropping their arts programs, their science programs, all in pursuit of higher test scores. This is not good education.

In speaking out, I have consistently warned about the riskiness of school choice. Its benefits are vastly overstated. It undercuts public education by enabling charter schools to skim the best students in poor communities. As our society pursues these policies, we will develop a bifurcated system, one for the haves, another for the have-nots, and politicians have the nerve to boast about such an outcome.

Public schools are a cornerstone of our democratic society. If we chip away at support for them, we erode communal responsibility for a vital public institution.

Teachers are rightly worried about the Race to the Top. Race to the Top encourages states to increase the number of privately managed charters, to pass laws to evaluate teachers by test scores, to promote merit pay, and to agree to close or privatize schools with low scores or to fire all or part of their staff. All of this is wrong.

Why expand the number of charters when research shows that on average they don’t get better results than regular public schools? Last year, a major evaluation showed that one out of every six charters will get better results, five out of six charters will get no different results or worse results than the regular public schools. A report released just a couple of weeks ago by Mathematica Policy Research once again shows charter middle schools do not get better results than regular public middle schools.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, on whose board I served for seven years, has tested charter schools since 2003. In 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2009, charter schools were compared to regular public schools and have never shown an advantage over regular public schools. Charter schools, contrary to Bill Gates, are not more innovative than regular public schools. The business model and methods of charter schools is this — longer school days, longer hours, longer weeks, and about 95 percent of charter schools are non-union.

Teachers are hired and fired at will. Teachers work 50, 60, 70 hours a week. They are expected to burn out after two or three years when they can be replaced. No pension worries, no high salaries. This is not a template for American education.

If we pursue the path of privatization and deregulation, we better keep in mind what happened with the stock market in 2008. And to those who tout the benefits of vouchers and charters, I want you to point out this example to them, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Milwaukee has had charters and vouchers now for almost 20 years. Twenty years with vouchers, almost 20 years with charters.

They have seen a steadily declining enrolment in the public schools, and meanwhile research now shows that African-American students in Milwaukee, the supposed beneficiary of all of this choice, have test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, test scores that are below those of their African-American peers in Mississippi and Louisiana.

There was no rising tide. Choice promoted no rising tide, and no boats were lifted. While all of this money was invested in choice, there were no benefits to the students.

The Race to the Top plan to use test scores to evaluate teachers is a very bad idea, badly implemented. Legislatures should not decide how to evaluate teachers.

Teachers should be judged by professional standards and not by a political process. Research does not support evaluating teachers by test scores.

Students are not randomly assigned to classes. Teachers’ so-called effectiveness fluctuates depending on which students happen to be in a teacher’s class. The single most reliable predictor of test scores is poverty, and poverty, in turn, is correlated to student attendance, to family support, and to the school’s resources.

And perhaps we should begin demanding that school districts be held accountable for providing the resources that schools need. Just like No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top requires and pressures districts to close low-performing schools. The overwhelming majority of low-performing schools enrol students in poverty and students who don’t speak English and students who are homeless and transient.

Very often, these schools have heroic staffs who are working with society’s neediest children. These teachers deserve praise, not pink slips. Closing schools weakens communities. It’s not a good idea to weaken communities. No school was ever improved by closing it.

We should thank our teachers, not fire them, not threaten them, and not close their schools.

Merit pay is another of the useless fads of our time. Merit pay has nothing to do with education. It destroys teamwork. It incentivizes teachers to compete with each other for money instead of collaborating for each other for the benefit of children.

Teachers need to share what they know and work towards one common goal — helping children and young people grow and develop. Merit pay will promote teaching to not very good tests. It may or may not improve scores, but it definitely will not improve education.

I have spoken out repeatedly to defend the right of teachers to join unions for their protection and the protection of the teaching profession. Teachers have a right to a collective voice in the political process. It’s the American way. I don’t see the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post or the pundits complaining about the charter school lobby. I don’t see them complaining about the investment bankers lobby, or any other group that speaks on behalf of its members. Only teachers’ unions are demonized these days.

Currently, there is a campaign underway to eliminate tenure and seniority. To remove job protections from senior teachers would destroy the profession. Supervisors will save money by firing the most expensive teachers. Imagine a hospital staffed by residents and interns with no doctors. Bad idea.

Instead of the current wave of so-called reforms, we should ask ourselves how to deliver on our belief that every student in this nation should learn not only basic skills, but should have a curriculum that includes the arts, history, geography, civics, foreign languages, mathematics, science, physical education, and health. But instead of this kind of rich curriculum, all they are getting is a heavy dose of high-stakes testing and endless test preparation. And as the stakes increase for teachers and schools, there will be more emphasis on test prep and not what children need.

Policymakers have been far too silent about the role of the family. Teachers know that education begins at home, and that when families take responsibility, students are likely to arrive in school ready to learn. We need, not a Race to the Top, but a commitment to provide greater resources for those children who are in the greatest need. Schools and school districts continue to vary dramatically in their access to resources. The role of the federal government in education is to level the playing field, not to set off a competition for money.

Around the world, those nations that are successful recognize that the best way to improve school is to improve the education profession. We need expert teachers, not a steady influx of novices.

We need experienced principals who are themselves master teachers. We do not need a wave of newcomers who took a course called “How to be a principal.” We need superintendents who are wise and experienced educators, not lawyers and businessmen.

The current so-called reform movement is pushing bad ideas. No high-performing nation in the world is privatizing its schools, closing its schools, and inflicting high-stakes testing on every subject on its children. The current reform movement wants to end tenure and seniority, to weaken the teaching profession, to silence teachers’ unions, to privatize large sectors of public education. Don’t let it happen!

So here’s a thought for NEA. Print up four million bumper stickers that say, “I am a public schoolteacher, and I vote — and so does my family.”

Do not support any political figure who opposes public education. Stand up to the attacks on public education. Don’t give them half a loaf, because they will be back the next day for another slice, and the day after that for another slice.

Don’t compromise. Stand up for teachers. Stand up public education, and say “No mas, no mas.” Thank you.

The full speech is available at the National Education Association

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