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Wendy Lecker is a civil rights lawyer for the Education Law Center who writes regularly for the Hearst Connecticut Media Group and the Stamford (CT) Advocate.
Diane Ravitch is rare in American public policy — a public figure who very publicly admitted that the positions she once championed were wrong. Dr. Ravitch is a historian of education and former assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush — and was once a vocal champion of two pillars of education “reform”: school choice and standardized testing. In 2010, she published a book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” in which she meticulously critiqued these policies, and rued her role in pushing them.
Since then, Dr. Ravitch has tirelessly fought ill-conceived and harmful education policies and promotes a vision of public education that she believes is better for children and truer to our democratic ideals. She not only writes and speaks out herself, she also gives voice to many others fighting for public education, known and unknown. In her blog (dianeravitch.net), which has been viewed by tens of millions, she posts articles and commentaries on education policy from journalists, activists, teachers, parents, scholars and students. It is a must-read blog for anyone who wants to keep up with what is happening around the country in public education. (Full disclosure — Dr. Ravitch has posted many of my columns on her blog). In addition, Ravitch started, along with other activists, the Network for Public Education, a research and advocacy organization that connects supporters of public schools nationwide.
For all her critiques of education reform, or more accurately, “education disruption,” as she calls it, Ravitch is an optimist. Her new, well-researched, yet accessible book, “Slaying Goliath,” exemplifies this positive outlook.
The book doesn’t start out terribly optimistically. Early on, Ravitch presents a daunting list of the many billionaires and foundations that have funded this disruption, and the think tanks and policy organizations they fund to convince state and national politicians to impose their schemes.
For example, Ravitch notes that in North Carolina, that Tea Party extremists killed that state’s successful Teaching Fellows program — which worked with public universities to build a pipeline of career teachers- and diverted that program’s funding to Teach for America, whose minimally trained teachers make no more than a two-year commitment. Interestingly, in North Carolina’s long-running school funding case, a court ordered plan approved in January to ensure state compliance with its constitutional duty to provide an adequate education to all children, calls for reinvigorating and expanding the Teaching Fellows program.
Ravitch maintains that the influence these Goliath philanthrocapitalists buy, installing their chosen public policies and often trampling community will, is corrosive to democracy.
The book chronicles the failures of the reforms pushed by disrupters. For example, Ravitch details how standardized test-based teacher evaluation was devoid of evidence from the start, yet was pushed by Bill Gates and other influential disrupters, then imposed across the nation. Eventually, this scheme was exposed as fatally flawed, invalidated by experts and courts, and mostly abandoned. Even the Gates foundation ultimately admitted that it was a failed idea, but not before billions of dollars was wasted. Ravitch also surveys the corruption and dark money that pervades many of the disrupters’ privatization schemes, providing a clue as to why, despite their clear failures, these bad ideas seem to persist.
In every Diane Ravitch book, I always find new light shed on a topic I thought I knew. “Slaying Goliath” is no exception. In one fascinating chapter, Ravitch reviews the research on intrinsic motivation and its connection to the flawed reward-and-punishment philosophy that underpins education disruption policies. She describes in detail how renowned experts studying these concepts alerted Congress in 2011 to the faulty logic behind and dangers of test-based accountability, to no avail.
The author profiles some of the Davids battling these disruptive Goliaths: from Providence high school students objecting to standardized testing, to community members such as Jitu Brown, fighting school closures and privatization in Chicago, to the teachers around the country protesting deplorable conditions in their underfunded schools.
While these underdogs have not always succeeded, Ravitch’s book provides hope that sanity can be restored to education policy. Throughout the book she places the opposition to educational disruption in the context of the growing awareness about big money’s toxic influence on American politics and policy in general. She reminds readers that “no genuine social movement is created and sustained by elites.” Ravitch notes that those who have risen have shown others that grassroots organizing can have an impact.
Let us hope that Ravitch is right and these Davids will, for the sake of all our children, ultimately prevail.
Wendy Lecker is a columnist for the Hearst Connecticut Media Group and is senior attorney at the Education Law Center.