By Alain Jehlen
NEA Friend of Education award winner Diane Ravitch electrified the Representative Assembly Tuesday with an impassioned call for the defense of public education and the teaching profession.
“The current ‘education reform’ movement is pushing bad ideas,” she said. “It wants to end tenure and seniority, to silence teachers’ unions, to privatize large sectors of public education. Don’t let it happen!”
Ravitch, an eminent historian of education who served as Assistant Secretary of Education under the President George H. W. Bush, supported some of those “bad ideas” for years but changed her mind when she saw the damage they caused put into practice in No Child Left Behind.
Ravitch blasted high-stakes testing, saying it might lead to higher test scores but not to real learning. She attacked merit pay because it undermines team work and has no support in education research. She warned that public school choice and more charter schools could split the public school system into one system for haves and one for have-nots, because many charter schools skim the best students. And she noted that national studies have repeatedly failed to find charter schools do a better job.
Introducing her to the RA, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel noted that her book, The Death and Life Of the Great American School System, has caused a sensation. He said the reason may be that it is so rare for someone to change their mind based on evidence.
Ravitch said NCLB set an impossible standard when it declared that 100 percent of children will be proficient. “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,” she said, so NCLB has “created a rhetoric of failure and paved the way for privatization.”
“Public education,” Ravitch declared, “is the backbone of this democracy, and we cannot turn it over to privateers.”
Ravitch told the delegates that the nations whose students perform best in international comparisons “recognize that the best way to improve schools is to improve the education profession.”
“We need expert teachers [and] experienced principals who are themselves master teachers, not a wave of newcomers who took a course called ‘how to be a principal.’”
The NEA’s Friend of Education award is given each year to someone who has significantly contributed to the improvement of public education. Last year’s winner was education policy writer and researcher Linda Darling-Hammond.
Previous winners include U.S. Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and William Jefferson Clinton; U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall; Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.); former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley; and the late Sen. Edward “Ted” Kennedy (D-Mass.).
Photo: Calvin Knight/NEA