By Mikhail Zinshteyn | Washington Independent | http://bit.ly/nZ8fdV
07.29.11 | 3:21 pm - WASHINGTON, D.C. – Education reformer Diane Ravitch gave a keynote speech Friday at the Save Our Schools and National Call to Action, speaking for one hour on the history of education while offering a litany of rebukes aimed at policymakers and stakeholders in toe with President Obama’s Race to the Top programs.
The former assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Education and noted professor of educational history spoke to an endeared audience of teachers, parent groups and community activists, who routinely interrupted Ravitch’s speech with applause, cheers and titters.
Barring no punches, she boasted news outlets have called her an adversary of Bill Gates, whose namesake foundation funds many education research projects that Save Our School organizers view as inimical to education.
During a faux-interview in which Ravitch lobbed questions at herself that she’s answered throughout her career, she spoke on the history of rhetoric on U.S. education, explaining commentators have been drumming the beat of educational crisis for a century.
“In the 1910s there was a crisis,” on student vocational training, which led to the Smith Hughes Act in 1917, Ravitch began. Another crisis was the spate of immigrant children in urban schools during the 1920s, followed by underfunding during the Great Depression. She took a pot shot at Newsweek for calling the 1950s the “golden age” in American education, even though that decade produced the seminal scare-read Johnny Can’t Read—And What You can Do about It, which launched a national call to action for remedial learning reform. Drawing laughter, she remarked the first Soviet satellite was launched into space “because our schools were so bad.”
She also touched on racism, high poverty and class issues coming to the fore during the explosive 1960s, adding ironically “that was the discovery of the 1960s—there’s poverty in America,” which also drew laughter from the audience.
On contemporary issues like budget cuts and high-stakes standardized testing, Ravitch said, “every school should have full curriculum … music is primal. Every school should have a library and media center with a person in it,” a veiled reference to the recent trend of school districts laying off librarians.
She reiterated her opposition to merit pay for teachers, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top measures and school vouchers. On teacher tenure, Ravitch lampooned critics who view educational work protection rules as lifetime employment guarantees: “[Teachers have] a right to a hearing if someone wants to fire [them] … it’s not so onerous ,.. it’s due process.”
Ravitch provided a handful of policy prescriptions, beginning with electing “a whole lot of different people.” She also urged teachers, parents and activists to participate in the recall efforts underway in Ohio and Wisconsin — two states that have aggressively curbed public sector wage protection laws and public service expenditures.
Beyond politics, she argued more medical outreach should be given to pregnant women, citing studies that link underweight newborns to higher rates of learning disabilities, a problem that affects mostly low-income mothers. Early education for all children below the age of five she also mentioned, explaining in 1990 that end goal was the top priority among education policy makers. In addition, she called for increased funding for special education and medical clinics available on all school campuses.
“These people who call themselves reformers have almost all the money and all the political power,” Ravitch said, but “[t]hey are few, and we are many.”
As a primary spokesperson for the impassioned groups like Save our Schools, her call to political action will likely invite increased speculation teachers’ unions are chiefly funding these movements. Politico ran a piece citing an unnamed source who alleges Save Our Schools is concealing the degree to which union representatives are involved in organizing the group’s efforts. The American Independent was also contacted by an individual alleging a cover-up, citing four senior union officials on the Save Our Schools executive committee who were unnamed previously. Sabrina Stevens Shupe, a former teacher who serves as a press contact and web editor for Save our Schools, told TAI it’s to be expected unions will be involved with teacher groups.
“That’s not a smoking gun,” she said. As for the two lists, Shupe wrote in an email, “The ‘internal’ list isn’t internal! It’s public.”
TAI reported Thursday less than half of the money raised by Save Our Schools came from union funds. Ms. Ravitch, the 2011 recipient of the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Prize, donated all $20,000 of her prize money to Save Our Schools and other education reform projects.