Diane Ravitch, toast of the town among progressives, today presented her latest book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, to a capacity crowd at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) in Washington D.C. What brought the people? Likely her scathing critique of No Child Left Behind, this made all the more interesting and oddly legitimate since she was a former member of the Bush administration and vocal proponent of the legislation. Today Ravitch outright denounces the sanctions of NCLB and high stakes testing. She’s also taken on some popular Obama administration ideas particularly charter schools and privatization of public education.
The New Blueprint
In contrast to Ravitch, the EPI panel also included Carmel Martin. Martin, of the Department of Education, was described as a principal author of the administration’s newly minted ESEA blueprint. It’s interesting as she spoke about the blueprint I got a striking feeling that we were hearing a kitchen sink approach to education policy making; they’re really throwing a bit of everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. For progressives there are some pretty nasty ingredients in the mix, but they’re laced with something sweet to make them go down a little easier. Although they may have covered all their bases, and are doing a lot of “things”, the finished product misses the mark on creating a grand idea for truly transformative change.
Standardized testing will remain, but it’s based on student progress; an improvement maybe; yet it still doesn’t answer the problem of teaching to the test. For turnaround schools they offer some unproven and harsh methods; close them, convert them to charters, fire teachers and principals; but before you want to rip your hair out in frustration; they add a fourth option of intensive planning and professional development. How many districts will really use the fourth option? They’re strong arming states to remove charter school caps; we’d say that opens the floodgates to charter school creation and mass privatization of public schools; they say they haven’t mandated the creation of these schools, they just want to make sure they’re an option for districts.
A Sad Reality
Overall the event was great but tempered by a sad reality. Where’s the racial and ethnic diversity in the voices speaking on this issue? Where are the voices of the people on the ground? But this (from what I’ve seen thus far in the DC policy world), is nothing new. The problems in the schools persists despite all this highbrow conversation; maybe they’re missing something. In fact, an actual District of Columbia Schools social worker and parent addressed the crowd bringing all the high minded dialogue to eye level. We are teaching to the test, we have extreme needs that aren’t being met, the schools are in crisis, she lamented. In response, a panel member, offering all due respect of course, proceeded to dispel and temper her reality by pointing out that test scores in DC public schools have actually been improving and perhaps, things weren’t quite as bad as she’d perceived them. Perhaps this goes a long way in telling progressives what’s sadly lacking in the present day policy making mix in Washington DC.