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John Thompson: Diane Ravitch and the Long View of School Reform

Guest post by John Thompson.

Near the end of David Denby's New Yorker profile of Diane Ravitch (Public Defender), Denby quotes Ravitch saying, "If the testing vampire is slain, the whole facade of faux reform collapses. No test scores, no merit pay, no closing of schools by test scores."

Shouldn't people who cannot agree with Ravitch on anything else join her in repudiating high-stakes testing, and then see if her other positions prove correct?

Like Ravitch, I oppose merit pay, but I would not dig in my heels on it. If a younger generation of educators want performance pay, I'd push for another metric for estimating "performance" but I would not oppose it.

I will wait for Ravitch's new book before deciding how much I agree or disagree with her on charter schools, and whether they are driving privatization. If we are just debating charters as they currently exist, and not charter management organizations, I would not offend charter advocates by using the p-word. But, if we were just discussing the educational benefits of charters, would there be any evidence-based rationale for dramatically expanding them? And that is why I am anxious to read Ravitch's upcoming book. I am worried that she will assemble an impressive case that the school reform movement is morphing into privatization.

Before I entered the classroom, I was sure of two things - that Ravitch was wrong about standards of instruction, and that I learned more from her scholarship than I did from any other conservative.

It only took me two months of teaching before I admitted that my progressivism needed rethinking. I soon acknowledged that it is impossible to build the bricks of conceptual thinking without providing students the straw of information. During the 1990s, when rereading Ravitch, I saw that the excessively idealistic education movements she critiqued were no more or less wrong-headed than many of the theories that I had supported before teaching. It was the combination of her scholarship and my learning by trial and error that prompted the conclusion that if teaching doesn't turn a person into a conservative, that said something about either his sanity or the enduring power of liberalism.

I never criticized Ravitch's initial support of NCLB. How could I? I had twisted myself into a pretzel seeking a way to support the law. Being a team player, I supported NCLB. After all, my union supported it, my city was in the middle of a bipartisan school reform effort and we were having great success in bridging our differences and, as I read Ravitch, she saw the accountability system as an experiment. My assumption was that a conservative like Ravitch, who had a long record of protecting the integrity of the educational process, could be an invaluable ally in assessing NCLB.

It is in that spirit where I hope that it is too early to link most of the "reform" movement with privatization. I hope that the so-called "teacher quality" movement and test-driven accountability advocates will look anew at the evidence. These "reformers" must be depressed by the meager results yielded by their twenty year effort to inspire "transformational" change. Now is the time to persuade them to stop demonizing teachers and join us in producing incremental changes. Perhaps, Ravitch and others can persuade the Obama administration that we need to switch to the win win strategy of investing in prenatal care and early education.

On the other hand, some "reformers" might draw the wrong conclusions from their defeats. They could easily conclude that public schools are obsolete and can't be saved. Accountability hawks might double down on their ideology of "disruptive innovation" to wipe out the "status quo," and then proceed to the (then) only remaining option - privatization.

Just because that worst case scenario is possible, it does not follow that we should offend all reformers by prematurely charging their movement with an ulterior motive. I am hoping that the threat of privatization is not as dire as Ravitch argues. I have learned, however, to always give her a full hearing. And, once she lays out her entire case, who knows how many reformers will become more open to Ravitch's long view of the cycles of history? How many will join us to stop this testing mania and "celebrate the collapse of this reign of error?"

What do you think? Will Diane Ravitch's new book change the minds of many "reformers?"

John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

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