Diane Ravitch

Mobilizing to Defend and Strengthen Public Education

I wish politicians and pundits who make a habit of railing against teachers and public schools had spent some time at the conference put on by the Network for Public Education (NPE) last weekend.  The organization’s first national conference brought together about 400 teachers, scholars, education bloggers, and activists to learn from and encourage each other, and to strategize on how to push back against the assault on public education.

The passion that fueled the high-energy gathering was not teacher pay or pensions. It was a commitment to students, teaching, and the future of public education as an institution that serves all children and helps prepare young people for life.

There was also plenty of anger and frustration at the status quo: budget cuts, diversion of energy and funds into various privatization plans, and a vast amount of time being taken away from teaching to satisfy ever-increasing demands for high-stakes standardized tests.

At the end of the two-day conference in Austin, Texas, NPE called for congressional hearings on the use, misuse, and abuse of standardized testing in America’s public schools. In a letter to members of Congress, the group urged them to examine 11 questions about the quality, costs, and effectiveness of such tests. The letter, which has drawn some surprising support, concludes:

We believe that every child in the United States deserves a sound education. We are deeply concerned that the current overemphasis on standardized testing is harming children, public schools, and our nation’s economic and civic future. It’s our conclusion that the over-emphasis, misapplication, costs, and poor implementation of high-stakes standardized tests may now warrant federal intervention. We urge Congress to pursue the questions we have raised.

After the conference, NPE board member Bertis Downs, who also serves on PFAW’s board, published a compelling open letter to President Obama inviting the president to consider the harmful impacts of excessive high-stakes testing and other educational policies backed by the administration.

A primary focus of the conference was the heavily funded corporate “reform” movement that pushes for increased testing and expanded “school choice” via vouchers, charters, and virtual schools. That push comes in the context of massive cuts to public education, particularly in states where Tea Party Republicans took power in recent years, including Pennsylvania and North Carolina. And huge sums are being diverted to for-profit companies through tax credit schemes and lucrative contracts.  In Texas, for example, the state has a five-year, $500 million contract with testing giant Pearson, the world’s biggest for-profit education corporation.

Saturday’s keynote speeches were by Karen Lewis of the Chicago Teachers Union and John Kuhn, who as a Texas school district superintendent might be considered by some a more surprising speaker. Kuhn gave a barn-burner of a speech on behalf of public education and the children it serves. Kuhn is the author of a new book, part memoir and part pro-public-education manifesto, called Fear and Learning in America: Bad Data, Good Teachers, and the Attack on Public Education.

“I am here speaking for one reason. I care about my country, I care about the future, and I love my children,” he said. “Anything that weakens the public schools in the United States of America weakens the nation.”

Kuhn slammed the ongoing political efforts to divert more public funds to for-profit charter chains and voucher schools that are not required to serve all children, as well as the underlying premise that educational opportunity will be improved by turning education into a system based on competition.  In education, he says, competition breeds marketing and cost-cutting and search for competitive advantage.  Competition doesn’t necessarily result in excellence, he said. “If it did, our fast food restaurants would serve the healthiest food around.”

Sunday’s keynoter was Diane Ravitch, widely considered America’s finest education historian. Ravitch, an NPE board member, served as an assistant secretary of education in the first Bush administration, but she has since become an energetic critic of the corporate reform movement, saying it is based on ideology rather than evidence, and that it threatens to destroy public education in America.  Ravitch’s most recent book is Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, which Jonathan Kozol calls “a fearless book, a manifesto and a call to battle.” Ravitch’s speech was also a manifesto and call to battle against the corporate-reform “juggernaut” that is “devouring education.” 

While conference participants shared a burning desire to change the conversation and push back on efforts to dismantle and privatize public education, there wasn’t always unanimity among participants. A panel on Common Core, for example, featured a number of educators who are strongly opposed, but also included American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who defended the standards as a way to build broader public support for a public education system that serves the common good.

At the conference, more than two dozen panels focused on a wide range of issues regarding the future of public education, including teacher preparation, the role of parents, the impact of educational corporations and foundations promoting privatization, the importance of truth-telling academic research and investigative reporting, and organizing and communications strategies.

A consistent theme at the conference was the imperative to better serve high-needs students living in conditions of concentrated poverty. Socioeconomic status is a major predictor of success on standardized tests, but the corporate reform movement often dismisses talk about the impact of poverty and inequities as excuse-making.  “They want us to say that poverty and segregation and policies that continue to foment that should not matter,” said the CTU’s Lewis. “Well, yeah, that would be lovely. They should not matter. But they do.”

Among the organizations offering resources was the Opportunity to Learn campaign. For example, Opportunity to Learn challenges school closures as a reform tactic and provides examples of alternatives that have proven effective in strengthening public schools.  Among those strategies is creating “community schools” by wrapping schools and students in social and family support services.

In spite of the huge challenges and relentless attacks on public education, the conference as a whole, like Ravitch’s speech, had a kind of David vs. Goliath optimism.  She devoted part of her speech to educational heroes. Among them was the Providence Student Union, which has engaged in creative protest and street theater against tests required for students to graduate. In one high-profile project, the group recruited 50 prominent Rhode Islanders to take the math tests students would have to pass to graduate from high school; 60 percent of the adult professionals failed.

Ravitch said that the tactics of those who are out to destroy public education are failing, and that parents and educators are mobilizing to build public opposition to “reforms” that are based on “junk science.”

There’s no question the facts are on our side. But we have to shape the narrative. And the narrative is, we have a great public institution. Our public schools are not failing. If you’ve read my last book you know that the test scores today are the highest they’ve ever been in history for white, black, Hispanic and Asian children. The graduation rates are the highest they’ve ever been in history. The dropout rates are the lowest they’ve ever been in history. So their narrative is a lie…We are defending American democracy. We are defending children. We are fighting for what’s right….

She called for parents and others to be active both in advocacy and in politics.

So my message is, first of all, be not afraid. Be strong. …. Speak proudly of our children. Our children are amazing -- the fact that they’re able to put up with all the garbage that’s being thrown at them. And get political…Run for office. Get involved. We cannot win unless we throw some of these guys out of office….I’m 75 years old…I’m not gonna be here forever….Who’s gonna take my place? My answer is, “you will.”

….We will reclaim our schools as kind and friendly places for teaching and learning. Not profit centers for corporations and entrepreneurs and snake-oil salesmen, and consultants. We are many, and they are few, and this is why we will win.

PFAW