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What I Learned in 2010

Dear Deborah,

As 2010 draws to a close, I must tell you that this was probably the most amazing and wonderful year of my life. I spent the previous three years writing a book, and I had no idea how it would turn out. One never knows, do one (to quote the eminent jazz philosopher Fats Waller, and to note also that Billie Holiday sang the grammatically correct "One Never Knows, Does One")? But I digress.

When I finished the book in 2009, my agent sent it to every major trade publisher; 15 of them turned it down. They said it had no audience. They said I had to either write a policy book (which they would not publish) or a personal memoir (which they would not publish), but it couldn't be a mixture of the two. So, I eventually had the good fortune to land at Basic Books, which had published my very first book (The Great School Wars) in 1974; the new book appeared in March of this year, and it reached The New York Times bestseller list. He who laughs last, etc.

So, I have spent this year on a thrilling, grueling, exciting lecture tour. At first, I was invited to talk about the book, but after a couple of months, I no longer even mentioned the book. Instead I was talking about the present dangerous effort to distort the purposes of education, to hand vast numbers of public schools over to private corporations, and to treat children as data points to satisfy misguided politicians, policymakers, and economists. Even Wall Street hedge-fund managers now consider themselves "reformers" and tell their friends that they are leaders in the new civil rights movement of our time. These "reform-y" groups—buttressed by the No Child Left Behind Act—insist that schools are failures if their test scores don't go up every year and if they can't reach 100 percent proficiency. By setting an unreachable goal, they (and NCLB) set the stage to close schools, for the benefit of for-profit and nonprofit entrepreneurs, all of whom wait like vultures for another public school to fail and close.

Since late February, I have spoken to 75 different audiences. I calculate that I have spoken to more than 60,000 people, mostly teachers, administrators, school board members, and parents, sometimes elected officials. I met with high-level White House staff, with congressmen and senators. I have not appeared on any national television programs. Yet I have been able to reach large numbers of people by writing and speaking.

At one point, a columnist in The New Republic accused me of speaking to "teacher-dominated audiences"; I plead guilty as charged. I can't figure out why this is a bad thing; I think it is a great thing, and I hope to speak to many more teachers in the coming year. Teachers today are so unjustly vilified, so little appreciated, and so eager for support. Their critics in the media and in "reform-y" think tanks are arrogant and ignorant. Teachers deserve our thanks. I still remember vividly a meeting a few years ago, when I listened to several high-powered business leaders complain that teachers are overpaid and underworked; that was one of the crucial events that convinced me I was on the wrong side of the debate. I don't know of any teacher who makes even one-third what any of those guys are paid, and I am certain that the average teacher works harder and longer hours than any of them, while doing work of greater social value.

On my extended travels, I saw two interesting places. One was San Diego, where there is currently an amazing level of cooperation among teachers, administrators, the elected school board, and parents. Their goal is to develop "community-based school reform," in which the various constituencies agree to work together to promote improvement at every school. This is the spirit of "It takes a village," and I hope it lasts. It is very promising, and what a contrast to the bitter conflicts that the "reformers" have ignited in city after city, community after community. The "reformers" pit parents against parents, charter parents vs. regular public school parents, competing for dollars and space; and they pit teacher against teacher, bringing in new teachers to take jobs from experienced teachers while the "reformers" demean the value of experience. Their strategy is conflict, and it is hard to see how children will benefit when the grown-ups are fighting for control of the schools and the profession.

The other interesting place I visited was Cincinnati. I met with the Strive Partnership, a group that coordinates the efforts of civic organizations, businesses, social-service agencies, and others who want to improve the lives of children. I was impressed by the mobilization of community support on behalf of the children and by the breadth of Strive's outreach, as well as the scope of its vision. If there were more cities as organized as Cincinnati, the prospects for civic renewal and educational improvement would be far brighter.

We have much to be thankful for this year. As we count our blessings, we must remember those children and families who live in need and do not share our bounty. Let us try to convince those who demand 100 percent proficiency for the schools to extend their vision and their goals; let us try to persuade them to set a more ambitious goal: to bring health, justice, well-being, and comfort to 100 percent of our population. And to hold themselves accountable for doing so!

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you, dear Deborah, and to all who happen to read these words!

Diane

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