70 People Brave Frigid Weather to Raise Concerns about School Choice

Wednesday was so cold in greater Cleveland that schools were closed across the region, but by 7:00 PM, 70 people had arrived at our high school cafeteria whose doors had been opened for the second week of our community conversation about Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error.  (You can read about our first session here.)

A retired, and much beloved, high school guidance counselor driving in from rural Newbury reported that as he made his way to our meeting, his car radio blared an ad from Ohio’s most notorious on-line academy, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT): “Schools across Ohio are closed due to the weather, but our school is always open.  At ECOT your child will never miss school because of cold weather.”

“Can you imagine,” asked a school administrator, “what people would say if we spent part of our school district’s budget for radio advertising?  People would say we were wasting the taxpayers’ money, but nobody ever says that about ECOT!”

After the meeting, as people bundled up to go home, I asked several of them how they felt about the conversation they had been having.  Had talking about the book caused them to think any differently about challenges for public education?  Had any particular concern developed for them as they were reading and discussing?  Here is some of what people told me:

  • “I know something about the use of data in education. It used to be that we consulted data positively to inform our teaching, but now we seem to collect data with a negative purpose.  All schools have assets that benefit the children, but because test scores focus our attention on the deficits, today we think of schools that don’t post great test scores as lacking assets.  That just isn’t true, but we haven’t learned how to measure and document what our schools really contribute to the lives of our children.”
  • “I was so naive about charter schools.  The moment I began to read about the investment of foundations and venture funds and the potential investment opportunities just in the real estate, I was shocked.  Why have we permitted all these powerful people to influence public education so much?  The unfairness of it!  I have realized we are in a battle today to save public education.”
  • “When you think of a charter school from the point of view of the individual child and family, it can seem to make sense.  But when you think about the system, that’s where it all falls apart.  It seems to me that traditional public schools are in danger of becoming schools of last resort for the poorest children or those with special needs.  This is dividing our society more and more.  Public schools as a unifying force will be gone.”
  • “The focus on competition in school choice plans really struck me.  I have always thought the whole purpose of public education in our society has been to serve every child.  That is what the statement, “leave no child behind,” was always supposed to mean.  Our goal today has changed because choice always creates losers as well as winners.  There is no way to make sure that all choices are good choices.”
  • “Competition works in a whole lot of different ways here.  They have a system where school districts compete for their ratings based on test scores—you know, Excellent all the way down to Academic Watch.  But in our discussion last week we learned that standardized test scores are influenced a lot by family income.  So the rich, outer suburbs are all rated Excellent while the cities are rated Academic Watch.  It’s a set-up.”
  • “I hadn’t put all this together.  I have had a sense that bad things are going on, but these meetings have helped me put the pieces together. The awareness seems so essential.”

By coincidence the chapters that had been assigned for our Cleveland Heights conversation this week—dubbed School Choice Week by its supporters—were all about the privatization of public education.  We read chapters about Michelle Rhee, charter schools, on-line academies, the Parent Trigger, vouchers, and the historic importance of democratic governance of education. Our convening 70 people on a frigid January night to learn more about these topics during School Choice Week definitely has to be considered an act of protest.

“The Nation” Calls “Reign of Error” the Best Book of 2013

In its Progressive Honor Roll of 2013, The Nation magazine has named Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error  the “most valuable” book of the year.

Here is the brief review:

“Yes, she really did serve as an assistant education secretary for George H.W. Bush, and yes, she once supported George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind.”  But Ravitch refuses to cling to failed strategies, as she explains in her groundbreaking new book, subtitled The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools.  Driven by experience and data, she demolishes the argument that rigid requirements and punishments will make schools better.  Indeed, she argues, these schemes too frequently serve the interests of misguided foundations, ideologically driven billionaires and Wall Street speculators more interested in privatizing public education—-with some of them profiting in the process-—than in helping children, parents and communities.  Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis says, “Diane is a fierce warrior against the so-called reformers whose ideology exacerbates the problems of poverty and inequity.”

Check Out Talking Points Memo Series of Short Articles by Diane Ravitch

Last week the education historian Diane Ravitch was featured in a five-part “Book Club” at Talking Points Memo.  In the series of very short articles—here, here, herehere,  and here—Ravitch shares a taste of her recent book, Reign of Error.  If you haven’t had an opportunity to begin reading Ravitch’s now book, here is a good opportunity to take a look at some of the content.

The first piece, taken from the book’s first chapter, summarizes Ravitch’s critique of where our current, bipartisan conventional wisdom on school reform has gone badly wrong.

The second and third articles are Ravitch’s analysis of Michelle Rhee’s tenure as chancellor of the Washington, D.C. Public Schools.

In the fourth piece Ravitch traces the impact of  test-and-punish school reform from George Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act to Barack Obama’s Race to the Top program: “The upshot of these two programs, which both rely heavily on standardized testing, is the massive demoralization of educators; an exodus of experienced educators, who are replaced in many districts by young, inexperienced, low-wage teachers; the closure of scores or hundreds of public schools; the opening of thousands of privately managed charters; the growth of for-profit charter schools and online charter schools; a widespread attack on teachers’ due process rights and collective bargaining rights; the near-collapse of public education in urban districts like Detroit and Philadelphia, as public schools are replaced by privately managed charter schools; a burgeoning educational-industrial complex of testing corporations and technology companies that view public education as an emerging market.”

In the final piece, Ravitch reflects on the role of public schooling in a democracy.  “If we mean to educate them, we must recognize that all children deserve a full liberal arts curriculum. All children need the chance to develop their individual talents. And all need the opportunity to learn the skills of working and playing and singing with others.  Whatever the careers of the twenty-first century may be, they are likely to require creativity, thoughtfulness, and the capacity for social interaction and personal initiative, not simply routine skills. All children need to be prepared as citizens to participate in a democratic society.  A democratic society cannot afford to limit the skills and knowledge of a liberal education only to children of privilege and good fortune.”

Read This Stunning Critique of Utilitarianism and Creative Destruction as Education Theories

Commonweal has published Reform of the Reform, a stunning critique of today’s dangerous, bipartisan conventional wisdom about public education.  It is, specifically, a review of Diane Ravitch’s new book, Reign of Error, but it is much more than a simple book review.

The writer, Jackson Lears, the Board of Governors Professor of History at Rutgers University and editor in chief of the Raritan Quarterly Review, explores the danger of the business-school theory of creative destruction when it is applied to the institutions that form children and anchor our communities. He critiques, “the broader cultural attitudes that got us in this mess: the superstitious reverence for high-tech entrepreneurship, the techno-determinism that assumes we must allow technology to shape our future for us, the market-utilitarian indifference to anything that can’t be valued in dollars.”

“At bottom,” writes Lears, “the reformers’ aim is uncreative destruction: the hollowing out of the commons, where public education once occupied an honored place. However intractable the difficulties of the public schools, we would do well to remember that they are the difficulties of the larger society as well. The privatization project—scapegoating public schools, starving them of resources, and depriving their teachers of professional dignity—is a dangerous business. As Otis Redding said, you don’t miss your water till your well runs dry.”

I urge you to make some time this weekend to read Lears’ piece.  To be specific, you ought to read Ravitch’s book and Lears’ review of her book.  Reading one or the other isn’t enough.

The Truth about StudentsFirst and Why It Matters

Living as I do in Cleveland, Ohio, I remember not long ago when the names of companies told you just what they made: Republic Steel, Youngstown Sheet and Tube, Cleveland Twist Drill, and Timken Roller Bearing.  I suspect we are the town whose public utility has the most delightful and perfectly accurate name: Cleveland Electric Illuminating.  When trees fall on the power lines here in Cleveland, the Illuminating Company comes to get the lights back on.

Nowadays however, company names no longer tell you very much: Halliburton, Archer Daniels Midland, Enron. What does the firm do? Does it make something?  If so, who does the work?  Does it happen in the U.S. or someplace else?  Does the company pay the workers enough? Does it protect them from injuries and toxins? Does it protect the environment?  Does it pay enough taxes?  Any taxes?  Names no longer tell us much, and we aren’t encouraged to ask questions.

Just last week at two social events I found myself in the uncomfortable situation of having to explain how an organization’s name may not really be designed to tell the truth about what the organization does. This time the issue of the name related to a not-for-profit advocacy organization instead of a company.  In both instances well-meaning people brought me the same flyer advertising the local screening of a movie. The flyer which depicted cheerful young children was designed in appealing primary colors.  At the bottom appeared the logo of the sponsoring organization, StudentsFirst.  The flyer provided no information about StudentsFirst, and those who had picked up the flyer—one at a bus stop and the other in a coffee shop— thought it must be a local group, maybe some kind of PTA.  These people wondered if I planned to attend the screening?  They asked if I know anything about StudentsFirst.  Is it new?  Where does it meet?  Which schools does it relate to?

In an article titled, How Michelle Rhee Misled Education Reform, published last May in the New Republic magazine, here is what Nicholas Lemann, the recently retired dean of the Columbia University School of Journalism, wrote about Michelle Rhee’s organization, StudentsFirst:  “StudentsFirst, Rhee’s post-Washington organization, lobbies state legislatures around the country to pass education-reform measures.  Although it began in a series of meetings in Washington among the influential friends Rhee had made as chancellor—the names she drops in telling of its founding include Rahm Emanuel, Eli Broad, the Aspen Institute, the Hoover Institution, and McKinsey, and her initial requests for philanthropic funding are at the $100 million level—she insists that it is a grassroots organization, ‘a movement of everyday people.’  What this really means is that StudentsFirst has used the latest top-of-the-line Internet-marketing technology to generate a notional membership of more than a million.  They do not pay dues and they are not organized into local chapters that hold regular meetings, but when there is an important vote in a state capitol, StudentsFirst can generate turnout to demonstrate that it is engaged in a grand battle between powerless parents and rich unions.”

Writing for Reuters in May of 2012, Stephanie Simon reported, “Rhee has set up StudentsFirst as a network of interlocking lobbying groups, advocacy organizations and political action committees.  By law, she does not have to disclose her donors, and she refuses to discuss her fundraising.  But an adviser to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg confirms that he provided financial backing for Rhee’s recent push into Connecticut politics. The Laura and John Arnold Foundation, funded by John Arnold, a hedge-fund manager and major Democratic donor, has pledged $20 million over five years.  Other backers: the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation, funded by heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune, which gave $1 million, according to foundation records.”

In her new book, Reign of Error, education historian Diane Ravitch describes the role of philanthropists to fund the think tanks that develop research and then the role of philanthropists and politicians to fund organizations like StudentsFirst who then promote the policies favored by the same research.  Ravitch concludes: “The issue for the future is whether a small number of very wealthy entrepreneurs, corporations, and individuals will be able to purchase educational policy in this nation, either by funding candidates for local and state school boards, for state legislatures, for governor, and for Congress or by using foundation ‘gifts’ to advance the privatization of public education.” (p. 310)

Even prior to Rhee’s launching of StudentsFirst, it turns out that we all ought to have been asking more questions about Michelle Rhee.  Although she has managed to prevent a major investigation of her tenure as Chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public schools, John Merrow, the reporter for the News Hour on PBS has gone to great lengths to investigate what USA Today exposed as a likely major test-answer-erasure cheating scandal during the period when she led the school district.

In the cover story of the October 10, 2013 New York Review of Books, Andrew Delbanco, the chair of the Department of American Studies at Columbia University, reviews together Michelle Rhee’s recent book, Radical and Diane Ravitch’s new book, Reign of Error. The review, The Two Faces of American Education, inaccurately presents the authors as though they represent two ends of a simple continuum of opinion.  Instead Rhee and Ravitch are as unlike as they can be; Rhee is a shrewd, self-promoting operator and media darling, while the 75-year-old Ravitch, an academic and long published historian of education, has turned herself into a muckraker.  Delbanco would seem to conclude that challenges for our poorest children and their schools can be worked out if the debate can be made less polarized and less shrill: “You would think it possible to take ideas from both sides and put them to work together… One thing that certainly won’t help our children is any ideology convinced of its exclusive possession of the truth.” While Delbanco is correct that the conversation about public education has become angrily ideological, he is wrong to conclude that Rhee’s story and Ravitch’s well documented analysis can be read as any any sort of counterpoint.  And he is naive to assume there is a mere polite middle ground.

All of us need to start paying closer attention, and we must insist that the media help us by more persistently cutting through the rhetoric designed to cloud our understanding. Who is Michelle Rhee?  What is StudentsFirst?  Does this organization have anything to do, as its name implies, with the needs of students?  In what way is this organization’s name a slap at the teachers whom Rhee has made a career of blaming for putting their own interests ahead of the interests of students?  Are not, in most cases, the needs of students and their teachers closely related?  Where is StudentsFirst raising its money?  What kind of ideology is being pushed by those investing in StudentsFirst as a mouthpiece?  What kind of candidates has it been bankrolling as a national organization investing in local school board and state legislative elections?  How have we lost our capacity to discern the difference between a PTA—a real parents’ organization—and an astroturf (fake grassroots) organization like StudentsFirst?