Let me preface this blog with a confession: I missed Wynton Marsalis’ speech at NSBA’s 70th Annual Conference last weekend in Chicago. I’ve since heard that his speech and performance was one of the best in recent memory at an NSBA event, and we’ve had some pretty darn good speakers in recent years (Bill Clinton, Sydney Portier, Sandra Day O’Connor, to drop a few names).
For me, the most important speech of the conference wasn’t a General Session headliner, it actually took place in a jam-packed room on the fourth floor. But I believe what Diane Ravitch had to say was pretty close to revolutionary in the 15 years I’ve covered education policy. My former NSBA colleague, attorney Tom Hutton, called it a “watershed” moment in education reform.
My second confession: I hadn’t read Ravitch’s new book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” before listening to her speech. I had read lots about it, and how she’s changed her views on issues such as school choice, testing and accountability models, and free enterprise as a model for K-12 education reform.
Fortunately, Ravitch walked the audience through the chapters of the book and explained how she had changed her mind about a lot of the concepts she’d previously endorsed (there’s been a lot more research since the inception of standards-based reform in the 1990s and No Child Left Behind, for one thing).
It all started when she decided to have her home office repainted and had to pack up and sort through some 30 years worth of books, papers and memorabilia. It was then that Ravitch, who began her career as an education historian, served in the George H.W. Bush administration, and later became a conservative-leaning analyst, began examining the ideals versus the implementation of NCLB and current political climate.
What she’s concluded is that teachers and school officials are being held to impossible standards and the punitive measures in NCLB are undermining the public education system and demoralizing school staff, particularly those who take on the toughest jobs in education.
Data, she added, has taken on far too great of a role in evaluating schoolsinstead, she suggests that intervention should consist of a supportive, state-led team visiting an underperforming school and evaluating its issues and needs.
“Every school that has low test scores has a reason, and to hold them all up as failing schools is an outrage,” she said.
Now that I’ve had time to start reading the book, which is now No. 16 on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list, I believe it is going to reaffirm what a lot of people who’ve been working inside schools–not highly paid think tanks–have suspected would happen. The audience members who were squeezed in next to me were murmuring what could have been considered a chorus of “amens.” One person even stood up and suggested everyone buy a copy of the book for their state legislators.
There’s much, much more to discuss, but because this is a blog, I’ll simply say “buy the book, read it, pass it along.” Or just buy copies for all your board members and administrators (and teachers, too.) Given Ravitch’s prominent standing and experience, I, too, believe this will be a watershed moment.
Joetta Sack-Min, Associate Editor