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An International Diane Ravitch Moment?

There is hope on the horizon, my dears.

For more than ten long, empty, intellectually dry and dishonest years, we’ve lived under the insanity of No Child Left Untested. (Someone told me not to be so negative. Trust me. I’m holding back.) Children, especially poor children, have been subjected to a corporate “reform” mentality of pass/fail by making their quota of test score points on some standardized garbage never designed to gauge anything more delicately complex than a child’s understanding of where the comma goes.

(Ironically, the only ones lately who have been afforded “social promotion” have been the morally corrupt CEOs who were awarded their gold star parachutes whilst bankrupting the global economy, but I digress.)

When I was kind (I used to be kind), I chalked it up to the ignorance of politicians who honestly did not know how their policies made no sense. I am a teacher, and correcting ignorance is my core business. Ignorance is not a sin. It is a state of not knowing, and this is always an exciting prospect to a teacher. Ignorance is job security to me.

It’s the opportunity to teach and to learn and knowledge to be got and used and the world to be a better place for it.

But ignorance combined with arrogance is not fertile ground for growth.

And this is what has plagued the education debate on the purpose of education and what it means to teach and what it means to learn and how to measure if you’re going in the right direction and what happens if you are measuring all the wrong things and what happens if you forget that education is a system that involves a teacher and a family and a student and learning conditions that include how many students are in a teachers care and whether or not the child is hungry and if one teacher has computers and libraries and a theater class and parents who take their children to their alma mater’s campus on alumni day and another teacher is holding a crying child whose father was arrested last night for running a meth lab in the kitchen.

These are not made up examples. I have had both these students.

But there is hope. Hope is another core business of educators. There is hope because one of the global think tanks that came up with this mess of cobbled and hobbled “accountability” is re-thinking.

They are looking at the metrics they themselves chose to determine pass/fail and they find that people who actually take their advice on corporate school reform are sinking and those who have systematically ignored their advice, have rising stock.

They are thinking that maybe they made a mistake. Thinking. Finally. This is a good thing.

Of course it isn’t only one misguided or ideologically blind entity responsible for the global slapping of teachers and standardized limitations on students.

There are lots and lots of idiotic ideas that get lots and lots of attention by people who didn’t stop to think beyond their MBA assumptions. But one institution that is more likely to be the culprit for the universal contagion of school standardized, privatized and “profitized” (must I use the term?) “reform” is the OECD.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development grew out of the rubble of post World War II as a way to avoid a repetition of the mistakes after World War I where the need for punishment and revenge sowed the seeds for the rise of Hitler. They were to help rebuild the economic infrastructure of post-war Europe. Today, they give economic advice to the world, and a country’s education system has a huge impact on its economy. That’s how the OECD got into the school reform business, and business was their market model.

First, we need to understand that this corporate school “reform” has been peddled to world governments for years now. Folks should have known better, because there was no research. None. As in Not A Shred of Evidence to Suggest This Might Work, With Human Children, but they went ahead and sold this factory model of school reform to governments, rich and poor. The pillars are privatization, de-professionalization of teaching and rewards and punishments by standardized testing.

That’s bad. But you know what really ticks me off? They stole all the good words.

They’ve taken all the good words that used to mean that good things were going to happen – reform, accountability, assessment and evaluation. The good meanings are all gone now. I can’t use them without my colleagues rolling their eyes to heaven in silent prayer, “Help me, Lord, they’re about to reform me again.”

For your Vocabulary List this week:

  • Reform? We’re going to give you a script we bought from a textbook company. Just read it and be on the right page on the right day, and your kids will make their number because we have a guarantee from the company that sold us the script.
  • Accountability?  We’re going to blame you if we bought the wrong script and you don’t make your number.
  • Assessment? The standardized test number that will be used to determine everything, like if you get to keep your job if the number’s low since you obviously didn’t read the script we gave you with enough enthusiasm to inspire higher test scores.
  • Evaluation? You will be ranked, judged, paid and publicly praised/humiliated in the local paper by name as to whether your numbers were better or worse than the teacher across the hall or the teacher across the district or the teacher in Shanghai.

But back to my theme: Hope.

Because that OECD think tank in Paris that embraced corporate standardized reform as an act of faith in the business model is starting to look at the evidence.

And there is evidence.

This think tank in Paris invented a fairly sophisticated international assessment to see if their hypothesis (Privatize, De-professionalize, Standardize) was working. Was their approach helping kids learn what they need to know to thrive in a world that needs critical thinkers, people who question, people who create, invent, communicate, innovate, nurture, organize, inspire, choose wisely, persuade, reject, complete, show up, speak out, argue, believe or don’t believe but can tell you why they believe or don’t… well, was it working?

In a word: No.

Silly, of course, it’s not working. They can now see that countries that invested in massive boutique privatization through funding private schools and charters did nothing to improve the overall system and the privatized charter schools often, very often, more often than even the critics thought, performed dramatically poorly.

Even the touted islands of success often didn’t stand up to close scrutiny or couldn’t be maintained after a short surge, and the lion’s share (83%) never did out perform the public schools they were meant to replace.

They can now see that countries that encouraged shortcut teacher training could not sustain a profession that required thoughtful practice, collaboration, and knowledge of instructional design and intervention. Countries that invested in teacher recruitment of talented individuals, thorough preparation, rigorous intern and mentor induction programs and continuous improvements through true and meaningful professional development throughout the educator’s career beat the little panties off the teacher-shortcut folks.

They knew that measurements matter. But they can now see that what you measure matters immensely. The best performing countries do not focus on once-a-year standardized tests that cannot be used as diagnostic instruments, nor for guiding instruction, nor to design needed intervention when there are gaps in the knowledge base.

The test prep industry in the United States is a multi-billion dollar enterprise. In the top-ranked country, Finland, the test prep industry does not exist.

Diane Ravitch gives me hope.

As full disclosure, she was NEA’s Friend of Education last year. She is perhaps the only Friend of Education we’ve ever had who had been booed publicly by NEA members ten years before as she defended what she sincerely believed was a new and needed reform in No Child Left Behind.

She’s a very tough cookie. She didn’t give a flip that we booed her. She said what she thought was right.

And ten years later, when she looked at the aftermath of No Child Left Behind and what this corporate reform had done to poor children to squeeze them into little standardized boxes and done to their teachers to squeeze them into little standardized boxes, she recanted.

Today she spends an equal amount of airtime denouncing the corporate-style school reformers as she did ten years ago denouncing the unions that fought No Child Left. And she doesn’t give a flip that all those corporate reformers are booing her as a turncoat. She will say what she thinks is right, no matter who likes it.

Our hope is that the corporate reformers of the international OECD will have a Diane Ravitch moment. A moment of intellectual honesty. A moment of profound professional integrity. A moment where they will look at what they believed would improve teaching and learning and see it for what it is: A global failure on a par with the global economic collapse we are still living through.

Diane Ravitch taught me to hope. Now, if only she can teach the OECD to rise above the rubble of education policy they helped create and to be fearless in building something better from its ashes, something that makes sense for all students.

There are a lot of politicians and corporations that like the ideology of corporate school reform because it might work in favor of their politics or their profits. But it’s wrong. Will the OECD have the courage to have a Diane Ravitch moment?

To follow the evidence and do what’s right? No matter who likes it?

We can only hope.

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15 Comments

  1. George Sheridan says:

    Combine Lily’s wit and empathy with Diane Ravitch’s scholarship. Throw in a double helping of honesty. It’s a powerful force.

  2. Kathy DuPuis says:

    Lily, you’ve done it again! Let’s hope more get the Diane Ravitch moment! So much evidence is available. It’s up to us, I guess and since we’re teachers, to keep planning the lessons…one day, hopefully sooner than later, the light bulbs may go on. We all know how that looks and how it makes both the learner and the teacher feel.

  3. Sergio Flores says:

    With so much evidence that what reformers are doing to teachrers and students is not only innefective, but wrong and destructive, what is NEA waiting for to lead a campaign to educate as many members as possible and rescue our public education system?
    Let’s hope for NEA to take the cause of saving public education and stop going along with the reformers. Let’s hope for NEA to persuade members and non-members that what we call reforms aren’t so. Le’s hope for NEA to use its logistic capabilities to spread the truth so members can defend themselves against destructive ideas disguided as reforms, and respond appropriately to myths, misleading statements, and outrights lies, and can persuade others using facts and evidence.
    Will NEA do something to save our public education from privatization?

  4. It has taken more than 10 years before someone with credibility, Diane Ravitch, bravely stepped forward to counter the pundits who nearly succeeded in ripping the heart out of educators. Public school personnel and their associations need to cooperatively and forcefully communicate their firsthand reasons for the distaste associated with NCLB. They need to tell philanthropists, and politicians who force unsubstantiated initiatives on grassroots educators that they have had enough and support their positions through the use of data. I believe that there is now a window of opportunity to counter the pundits and be heard. Every educator should help and their voice would be intensified via the support of their professional organizations and unions.

  5. Thank you for this! It’s going up on my Facebook page right now. As a teacher in a school that serves children of poverty, I’ve seen firsthand how “reform” has become a heavy, fast-descending anvil. It’s hard to pass a test when you’re looking up in dread of Wile E. Coyote’s next bomb.

  6. Ken Bernstein aka teacherken says:

    Part of the problem is that voices that do not accept the consensus on educational “reform” are often excluded from discussions. It was hard to ignore Diane because she was so prominent. Even so, ask her how many publishers turned down her book, despite the fact that it should have been obvious to even a casual reader that it would be a blockbuster.

    Too many who mediate how the public learns about education, those who report on education for general media, are either incompetent for their jobs, lacking the ability to properly evaluated research design, misuse of statistics, etc., or fall in love with “reform” because they decide they want to write books about them.

    Look at the tons of money and corporate support for an intellectually dishonest movie, Guggenheim’s “Waiting for Superman.” Look at the total lack of interest in omives that present different views: “August to June” or “Race to Nowhere” or “American Teacher” or “Mitchell 20″ (and I was fortunate to see the DC premiere of the last at NEA headquarters a few weeks ago).

    The current national administration picked as Secretary of Education a man with no experience in the classroom, Arne Duncan, who track record running Chicago Public School is nothing about which to brag, rather than a superb lifetime educator, Linda Darling-Hammond. Democratic members of Congress have as their LAs dealing with education former TFAers who think their two years as untrained teachers in classrooms makes them experts on education.

    I have tweeted and distributed the link to your blog post. But your words, those of a lifetime educator, will be seen less and listened to less than the bloviations of Bill Gates, a man who had no personal experience of public schools, and who thinks too much of the role both of technology and of topdown reform and not enough of community involvement with local schools and the interplay of economic status and what happens in public schools.

    Our “reforms’ have been narrowing educational opportunity for those in the ever increasing proportion of Americans whose economic situation is precarious. Our economic inequity is now that of third world nations, and our approach to education is colored – or if you prefer, distorted – in favor of the profit motive and creating a compliant and dependent pool of low wage workers, not for the creation of a population of engaged and empowered citizens. The current overemphasis on STEM education is merely the latest manifestation thereof. You and I are both musicians by background, although I now teach government. Where is the emphasis on music, art, poetry, drama, sculpture, even literature? How do we expect our young people to have visions of what can be if our emphasis is on economic purposes of education? What about morality? What about compassion? What about community?

    I am close to leaving the classroom. In part it is because of my age – I will be 66 in May. It is also because school is increasingly becoming a place of conformity, of narrowed learning, of too much factual and not enough thinking outside the box, of seeing how what one encounters in one’s formal learning is connected with the reality of one’s life. It is why even when test scores go up, so does student engagement with learning, and so does the need for remdial instruction in colleges and universities.

    We are destroying our public schools, and in the process also destroying our society, our communities, our democracy, our republic.

    How sad.

  7. Debi says:

    One big issue is that the “powers that be” do not listen to the people on the front lines of education; the teachers/TAs. Until that changes, nothing else will.

  8. Neil Hicks says:

    What a spot on, world class rant! Thanks Lily.

    I woke up this morning to a snow day (we don’t get many in the northwest) and opened up my laptop to find that overnight Microsoft’s Word had decided to change my basic font (Tiepolo book) in all my math worksheets, messing up the formatting in the process. This is the same Microsoft owned by Bill Gates, who thinks he has the singular answer to education – better teachers, never mind class size. 8 years ago when I was starting my third career in the closest thing to an inner city school we have in Portland, Bill knew the answer was small schools, so my school, Roosevelt was split into three small schools. You will be shocked to learn that didn’t work either. Lord save us from those who know very little about education but who are sure that the answer to a complex process is simple, and they know what it is.

  9. Sarah Patton says:

    Lily, I’ve been spending some time catching up on my email and just discovered your wonderful article. I have “HOPE” that we will eventually get public education back on the right course in our country. I just worry about the generation that will be lost before this happens.

  10. Kepha Hor says:

    As a teacher of languages and social studies, I respectfully dissent.

    While I’m also bothered at the way NCLB seems to demand the reduction of everything to bytes of numerical data, I believe that our educational profession set itself up for such a thing, and might be well-advised to do some soul-searching of its own.

    We desperately seek to prove our method and profession “scientific”, as if a failing student is qualitatively the same as a pair of steel spheres falling through a vacuum; or a successful one is qualitatively the same as liquid rocket fuel pushing a metal structure towards escape velocity. We have also pinned our professional (and, face it, political) hopes on expansive government administration at local, state, and national levels. Yet we forget that our day-to-day work involves a tissue of human factors that don’t easily lend themselves to being reduced to dependent and independent variables and tidy equations. We also forget that in an administrative bureaucracy, justifying one’s continued employment depends on writing regulations for other people doing the actual work, not on making a positive difference in a young person’s life. And, pray tell, when was the last time someone in the DOE writing a regulation to tell you and me how to do our jobs was ever faced with a teenaged student struggling to learn to read? Do we really believe that his professional distance from our struggle gives him a greater “objectivity”?

    Hence, we increasingly subject ourselves to a supervisory superstructure that is dazzled by “data” (translation: printouts of digits and decimal points) rather than a teenager with an interrupted education finally learning how to decode–and later read–text. And this superstructure, which isn’t necessarily better educated, or, more importantly, wiser, than the likes of us, can’t help but be impressed with reams of standardized test data.

    And, rather than take cheap shots at the CEO’s, why don’t we respectfully ask them if their own ability to organize the production of everything from the agar in our biology labs to the zinc alloy in the chairs we sit on or turning silicon (it was just sand when I was a boy) into the stuff of the information revolution truly depends on no more than cramming for a standardized test? I think we might encourage a more fruitful dialogue that way than simply sparking more rankled ideological polemics.

  11. Ken Bernstein, you should be our Education Department Secretary. I have been in the trenches of public education working with at risk students for 30 years myself and your assessment of what it has come down to is dead on accurate. I fear for our democracy as do you and my hopes for a bright future for our grandchildren dims daily. As hopeful as I was as President Obama was elected, he invited the foxes into the hen house too. Truly a sad time for our country.

  12. Martha Scheier says:

    I spent last Friday evening along with several hundred fellow educators in Sacramento listening to the encouraging words of Diane Ravitch and Linda Darling-Hammond, one awesome double-bill. These inspiring women and people like Ken Bernstein and Lily are the ones who should be in charge. It’s time to stand up and take back our educational system. We’re not going to take it anymore. At least that is what Diane said.

  13. George L Snider Jr says:

    A great article! We need to learn from Singapore, Norway, and Finland, etc. More time to collaborate with peers is essential. We are deluded in thinking that we can support a world-class educational system by funding at the community level.

  14. Deborah DeCoteau says:

    I am a veteran elementary teacher of 24 years. I am EXHAUSTED. “Reform” has made my life a nightmare. Elementary teachers are expected to teach many subjects (all are being beefed-up )(and differentiate for each student) with a pathetic half hour of prep time. By the time you drop off the kids and pick them up, it amounts to about 20 minutes. This does not include meetings, professional development, a new, “improved (read: onerous) evaluation system, testing, data processing (putting all those scores in the computer, and new RTI requirements (more testing and paperwork), etc., etc. One half hour of prep time might have sufficed for the paradigm of the 60′s – when reading, writing, and a little math was required– but it is laughable in light of the impossible demands put upon an elementary teacher today. Our work load is scandalous, and I believe elementary teaching is abusive. I would not want my worst enemy to this. What can our union do? These “initiatives” are part of Race to the Top– which I wish to God we had not “won”!!! We talk to our Superintendent, but she does not seem to care enough to try to help us. Who really gives a hoot? There are plenty of young graduates chomping at the bit for a job. We are not valued. But I am preaching to the choir here! The only way to get some sanity back is to INVOLVE PARENTS. The powers- that- be do not listen to teachers.

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