My and Diane Ravitch’s Path to Reign of Error

March 11, 2014

Reign of Error (2013) by Diane Ravitch, front cover. (http://bn.com).

Reign of Error (2013) by Diane Ravitch, front cover. (http://bn.com).

I first began reading Diane Ravitch in July 1990, the summer before my senior year at the University of Pittsburgh. It was the summer in which I became interested in understanding magnet programs and their relationship with desegregation and diversity efforts, courtesy of my own experience with Mount Vernon, New York public schools and its now defunct Humanities Program. I read both The Great School Wars: New York City, 1805-1973 (1974) and The Troubled Crusade: American Education, 1945-1980 (1985) that summer, with education scholar and Ford Foundation director Jeanne Oakes’ Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality (1985) sandwiched in between.

It was the beginning of a twenty-year period of constantly intellectual disagreement between me and Ravitch. Oakes’ work captured inequality in terms of race and socioeconomics so much better than Ravitch, whose writings back then often treated these inequalities and distinctions as afterthoughts. When I shifted my research area to multicultural education and multiculturalism, though, that was when I found Ravitch’s absolutist defense of so-called traditional American democratic education and all things e pluribus unum unbelievably stifling. With all Ravitch knew about the politics of education, in New York and with the US Department of Education, how could she possibly defend a system that did as much to control and exclude students as it did to provide something akin to an equal opportunity?

I chalked Ravitch up to being another out-of-touch neoconservative, scared to death of race and diversity and multiculturalism. I said as much at conferences like the American Educational Research Association meeting and other conferences. I wrote as much in my dissertation and in my first book, Fear of a “Black” America: Multiculturalism and the African American Experience (2004). Through it all, I always found Ravitch’s writing compelling, but her conclusions wanting, because they lacked perspective and empathy in the context of public schools and diversity.

Then, Ravitch wrote Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform in 2000. Though it contained some of her common themes — overemphasis on the mantra of reform, the need for more testing, support for school choice, denigration of a multicultural curriculum — Ravitch showed growth in this book. She was less hostile to a more progressive curriculum and seemed, for the first time, really, to understand how much race and poverty had shaped the direction and the harshness of school reform going back to 1900. I happily used Ravitch’s Left Back in my History of American Education Reform course at George Washington in 2002. For her book provided a comprehensive and even-handed overview of the politics of K-12 education in a way that any educator of any American ideological perspective could understand.

I’ve finally read Ravitch’s Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools (2013). Reign of Error is Ravitch at her most passionate and energized. If I hadn’t read a couple dozen of Ravitch’s articles from the 1980s and 1990s and four of her previous books, I would think that this was her first book, as there is sense of urgency in Reign of Error that can seldom be found outside of epic memoirs and epic fiction novels.

Ravitch’s argument in Reign of Error is a simple one. Corporate education reform, if allowed to continue unfettered, will destroy public education in the US, and in the process, American democracy. Privatizing public schools (i.e., turning them into “public” charter schools), destroying teacher’s unions, constant high-stakes testing, bypassing school boards and forgetting about racial segregation and poverty — that’s corporate education reform’s agenda. As Ravitch said in Chapter 12 on the fallacies of merit pay for teachers, “Merit pay is the idea that never works and never dies (p. 119).” She could have also substituted the words “school choice,” “creationism,” “standardized testing,” “closing schools,” and “privatization” for “merit pay.”

But Ravitch goes further in her 400-page treatise. That though public education in the US has had its share of problems — the need for more teacher training and time for professional development, racial segregation and high levels of poverty while underfunded — that corporate education reform has compounded these problems several times over. That with corporate education reform, teachers, parents and students will have no say in public education, at least the ones without their own personal foundation with which to endow their own public charter school.

From a writer’s standpoint, this wasn’t Ravitch’s best effort. Her argument is repetitive, one where she likely could’ve cut the main chapters by a quarter (about 100 pages) and made the same points. I likely could’ve become inebriated if I had a shot of vodka every time the words “poverty,” “Gates,” “Walton,” “Broad,” “high-stakes testing,” and “corporate education reform” come up. But given my history with reading Ravitch and with this topic, of course Reign of Error was repetitive — it was like reading my own words on this same topic.

Ultimately, Ravitch’s Reign of Error is a primer for anyone interested in averting the social injustice that is the corporate education reform tyranny of wealthy philanthropists, money-grubbing entrepreneurs and politicians across America’s limited ideological spectrum. For those whom up to now this issue has been of limited interest, or for those who’ve felt the change in public education but haven’t quite been able to articulate those feelings, Reign of Error is for you.

For educators, parents and even students already involved in writing about or protesting against corporate education reform, this book is still for you. Ravitch provides so much ammunition that Reign of Error can be applied in numerous ways to numerous situations. At school board meetings. With #AskMichelleRhee hash tags on Twitter. In job interviews with Teach for America and with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In letters to the editor of the mainstream newspapers and in comments to mainstream TV and radio newscasters. In arguments with neoconservative parents who send their kids to private schools.

“Protecting our public schools against privatization and saving them for generations of American children is the civil rights issue of our time (p. 325).” is how Ravitch ended her Reign of Error. It’s not an exaggeration. But it does beg a question. If we can successfully fend off corporate education reform — and assume that the country will continue to ignore the poverty and racial segregation that Ravitch desperately wants addressed — can she and I then spend five minutes discussing multiculturalism?


Public Education Fights To See, & Politeness Be Damned

February 15, 2014

Diane Ravitch and Michelle Rhee, the two faces of American education, October 10, 2013. (James Ferguson, The New York Review of Books, http://nybooks.com).

Diane Ravitch and Michelle Rhee, the two faces of American education, October 10, 2013. (James Ferguson, The New York Review of Books, http://nybooks.com).

Unlike the whole George Zimmerman vs. DMX debacle bandied about by idiot promoter Damon Feldman, there are some fights truly worth seeing for us Americans. Especially in the realm of public education, because it involves all of our futures, not to mention the future of our democracy. I’d pay top dollar to see Diane Ravitch pummel Michelle Rhee. Literally pummel, that is. Not just with words, sarcasm, passion and a highly sharpened argument. But with boxing gloves and an uppercut to the right side of Rhee’s jaw.

Oscar de la Hoya getting beat up by Manny Pacquiao, Las Vegas, NV, December 6, 2008. (http://beatsboxingmayhem.com).

Oscar de la Hoya getting beat up by Manny Pacquiao (or in my imagination, Ravitch beating up Rhee), Las Vegas, NV, December 6, 2008. (http://beatsboxingmayhem.com).

Okay, I’m being tongue-in-cheek. Yet there’s a part of me — the same part that wrote Celebrity Deathmatch Meets Brave New Media back in ’10 about watching politicians and journalists beat on each other — that could imagine some of these fights play out in a boxing ring. To have Bill Gates get his head knocked in by Anthony Cody. Or Leonie Haimson lay out former New York City DOE Chancellor Joel I. Klein. Or, for that matter, the White soccer moms US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made fun of giving him a full-on beatdown. Then, after the ten-second countdown, they stitch and bandage him up, and begin again.

Collage of who's who in corporate education reform and who stands against it (from top left, across and down, John Deasy, LAUSD/Gates Fdn; Anthony Cody; Haimson; Perry; Hess; Duncan, Pedro Noguera; Barth; Kopp), February 13, 2014. (Donald Earl Collins).

Collage of who’s who in corporate education reform and who stands against it (from top left, across and down, John Deasy, LAUSD/Gates Fdn; Anthony Cody; Haimson; Perry; Hess; Duncan, Pedro Noguera; Barth; Kopp), February 13, 2014. (Donald Earl Collins).

I imagine this because this fight to save our public schools from the corporate education reform agenda has been an ugly one. Folks like Gates, Duncan, Klein, Rhee, Wendy Kopp, Richard Barth, Dr. Steve Perry and several big-name others have taken full advantage of the financial needs of public schools and the greed of politicians. Not to mention the concerns and worries of parents and the perpetual fear-mongering of the media. They took possession of the conversation about the future of public education long before actual educators and parents had a chance to pick up our weapons and respond.

For those like me who saw the potential dangers of this shift to high-stakes testing-as-teaching, to punitive measures as teacher evaluations, to data for data’s sake, we politely lodged our concerns. We wrote our occasional letters to the editor and comments on blogs, and asked our questions at conferences. And all while applying for grants from the Walton Family Foundation, for jobs at Gates and consultancies with Teach for America.

Where public education fight meeting March Madness bracket, February 13, 2014. (Donald Earl Collins).

Where public education fight meeting March Madness bracket, February 13, 2014. (Donald Earl Collins).

Of course we were wrong. We may have even been hypocritical. But if folks like American Enterprise Institute’s Frederick Hess are to be believed, we’ve also been mean-spirited and disrespectful to this group of “good-intentioned” do-gooders. Speaking at the American Federation of Teachers Albert Shanker Institute on “Philanthropy & Democratic Education: Friends or Foes” this week, Hess called for educators, parents and children to be “patient” with people like Gates and foundations like the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. Why? Because, according to Hess, because “there are a lot of easier ways for them to spend their money than on education.” We need to be “reasonable,” and to “disagree without engaging in personal attacks” or jumping to conclusions about their personal “motivations.” Translation: rich people have thin skins after they’ve spent their lives in hubris and racial paternalism in playing with our lives.

Hess’ was the typical bullshit argument of a neoconservative who, instead of focusing on the fact that we’ve put our kids, teachers and schools in jeopardy, he focused on optics, and a false sense of optics at that. Hess would have poor kids kissing Gates’ ring for spending his money on reforming our schools in his image, and have impoverished parents crying tears of joy for supposedly saving them from bleak futures. Heck, Hess would have us groveling in thanks for dollars from any of these folks, because all that matters are their alleged good intentions, not the road to perdition leading from their good intentions.

Jeremy Irons as Pope Alexander VI, The Borgias series (SHO), 2011. (http://ohnotheydidnt.livejournal.com).

Jeremy Irons as Pope Alexander VI, waiting for his ring to be kissed by Cardinal Orsini, The Borgias series (SHO), 2011. (http://ohnotheydidnt.livejournal.com).

So, no, I’m not going to be patient. Nor should the millions of kids doomed to see school as a testing factory. Nor should parents who want a brighter future that they play a role in determining, not some family worth $140 billion in Arkansas. Nor should the millions of teachers who’ve been turned into scared lab technicians, worried about their jobs every minute of every day.

We shouldn’t be reasonable, because being reasonable with deep-pocketed plutocrats amounts to bowing and scraping. And for goodness’ sake, let’s not excuse foundations like Gates or Broad because of “good intentions.” Screw good intentions! We’re not personally attacking any individual program officer or an administrative assistant. We’re criticizing their leaders and their use of their foundations for attempting to remake public education into a free-market monstrosity. Period.


Why Students Need Teachers Who Look Like Them

October 24, 2013

Wendy Kopp and Diane Ravitch head-to-head, Aspen Ideas Festival, Aspen, CO, June 28, 2011. (http://www.aspenideas.org/).

Wendy Kopp and Diane Ravitch head-to-head, Aspen Ideas Festival, Aspen, CO, June 28, 2011. (http://www.aspenideas.org/).

Not exactly the most precise title I’ve ever written. But it does get to a sensitive point for many involved in education and so-called  reform. Between Wendy Kopp and Diane Ravitch — especially since the publication of Ravitch’s latest and most comprehensive salvo Reign of Error a couple of months ago — it’s been hard for anyone to get a word on K-12 education into the national dialogue. Kopp’s running around ringing the educational Armageddon bell, while Ravitch has all but revealed the likes of Kopp, Michelle Rhee and Dr. Steve Perry as money-hungry reformers who wouldn’t know reform if it bit them in their derrieres.

The debate over high-stakes testing and anti-union teacher effectiveness models has put aside so many other conversations on improving K-12 education. So many that the average person may think that test scores and teacher training are the only issues on the table for reform, whether from the perspective of false prophets like Kopp or actual experts like Ravitch. For me, the one effort that has been neglected over the past decade and a half has been one to diversify the teaching profession, on the basis of race, gender and even levels of expertise.

It’s taken my son’s five-plus years of education in Montgomery County Public Schools to fully appreciate how unique my own time in an integrated school setting in Mount Vernon, New York truly was. From first through sixth grade, at Nathan Hale and William H. Holmes Elementary Schools, four of my six teachers were African American. But it wasn’t just that they were Black. The one thing that Ms. Griffin, Mrs. Shannon, Mrs. O’Daniel and Mrs. Bryant all had in common was their high expectations of me and my classmates. They were kind, but also no-nonsense teachers. They gave me a hug when I needed one, and a slap on the butt (in O’Daniel’s case, nearly literally) when I needed it to.  By the way, they frequently made school fun, too.

No reflection of self in the mirror, October 24, 2013. (http://mailfeed.blogspot.com/).

No reflection of self in the mirror, October 24, 2013. (http://mailfeed.blogspot.com/).

They also dared to venture beyond the state-mandated curriculum to infuse it with materials about everything from Black history to the Maya, from reading our standard textbooks to encouraging us to discuss the Camp David accords (Menachem Begin, Anwar Sadat and President Jimmy Carter) and the Iran hostage crisis. Mostly, I learned more about what I’d face from the world in terms of race, gender and class from these teachers than from all the rest of my teachers combined (other than Harold Meltzer).

I would’ve liked some more male teachers of color, particularly once I became part of Humanities at A.B. Davis Middle School in seventh grade. In fact, between Dr. Larry Spruill and Dr. Hosea Zollicoffer, there were really the only Black male teachers/administrators I had between end of sixth grade and my junior year at the University of Pittsburgh, a span of almost nine years. As it was, administrators and teachers like my seventh grade math teacher Ms. Simmons, along with Brenda  Smith, Spruill and thehandful of other I encountered often looked at me as if I was the cursed Son of Ham, or, rather, some weird version of whom they considered Black. At least, respectable and Black. Still, they served as reminders that not all teachers were White and female, if only that. (But, I digress…)

Now, I know what some of you may say. It shouldn’t matter what the race of the teacher or administrator is, as long as they care about the students. That The New Teacher Project (founded by Rhee) and Teach for America (founded by Kopp) provide alternative opportunities for professionals of color to enter the teaching profession. No they don’t. Not really. They provide an elitist version of Peace Corps for impoverished urban and rural school districts for folks who often do not stay in teaching for the long-term (beyond four or five years), to then move on to graduate school, law school or Wall Street.

Reign of Error (2013) by Diane Ravitch, front cover. (http://bn.com).

Reign of Error (2013) by Diane Ravitch, front cover. (http://bn.com).

My teachers to a person remained teachers until they received promotions, retired or passed away. But they could stay teachers (and later become administrators) because they weren’t trying to reform education. They saw themselves as part of a larger community, helping to nurture children, not just educate them. They had the autonomy and parental support necessary to do so. And they didn’t have an atmosphere where they lived in fear of their jobs in case the students’ SRA scores dropped between 1979 and 1980 or between 1980 and 1981.

Despite my experiences and the experiences of my generation of students, the money grubbers of K-12 education reform will continue to insist that public education is at Def Con 1, and that we should launch our proverbial nukes in a pre-emptive strike to reform it. The sad truth is, in places like Texas and Philly and Chicago, their warheads have already gone off, irradiating school districts, poor students and students of color alike. And all without dealing with issues involving poverty and diversity in the process.


Curriculum 2.0 – Been There, Done That

May 21, 2012

Nekyia: Persephone supervising Sisyphus pushing his rock in the Underworld. Side A of an Attic black-figure amphora, ca. 530 BCE, from Vulci, February 13, 2007. (Bibi Saint-Pol via Wikipedia). In public domain.

This school year, my son’s school district, Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, began implementation of what they call Curriculum 2.0. This new curriculum, formerly known as the Elementary Integrated Curriculum, has been in the works for the better part of a decade. As MCPS explained in a flyer to parents, Curriculum 2.o will be one that will “better engage students and teachers, and dedicate more learning time to subjects such as the arts, information literacy, science, social studies and physical education. By blending these subjects with the core content areas of reading, writing, and mathematics, students will receive robust, engaging instruction across all subjects in the early grades.”

Why is better engagement of teachers and students necessary, and how will an integrated curriculum make this possible? The answer to the first part of this question is much more obvious than the answer to the second part. In light of county-level and state-level testing (in the latter case, the MSA for third, fourth and fifth grades), an engaging and integrated curriculum will enable students to be better prepared for the heavy doses of critical reasoning and reading comprehension that this testing involves, at least theoretically.

What hasn’t made much sense has been the implementation process itself, as Curriculum 2.0 became the curriculum for kindergarten and first graders in this 2011-12 school year, with the option of having it for second graders at some schools (like my son’s school in Silver Spring). Meanwhile, third and fourth graders won’t become part of Curriculum 2.0 until 2012-13, and this year’s fifth graders won’t see Curriculum 2.0 at all. It seems as if the implementation process was about as well planned as the SS Minnow’s tour of the South Pacific.

But that’s not the only story here. For someone’s who’s spent a great deal of time attempting to understand

A One Thousand and One Night manuscript written in Arabic under the second half of the Abbasid Era (750-1258 CE), February 9, 2008 (Danieliness via Wikipedia). Released into public domain via cc-by-sa-3.0 license.

the circumstances under which I grew up, including my times in Mount Vernon, New York’s public schools in the ’70s and ’80s, MCPS’s Curriculum 2.0 is sort of like deja vu all over again. Except that in the period between ’76 and ’93, the kind of curriculum MCPS is implementing now was mostly for Mount Vernon’s gifted and talented students then, students who were part of the district’s Humanities Program, particularly those in the Grimes Center for Creative Education. The motivations for developing a similar curriculum three and half decades earlier came out of the need for racial integration and preventing White Flight, and in the process, a measure of academic excellence. Different circumstances in search of the same results, I guess.

A piece of evidence I uncovered a few years ago while working on Boy @ The Window shows how much educators reinvent the wheel in terms of curriculum development, a pitfall in education on which Diane Ravitch has been proven correct for the past thirty years. Charlotte Evans wrote in her April 1981 New York Times article on the Grimes Center that there “is a flowering of creativity at Pennington-Grimes [Grimes had combined with Pennington in the 1980-81 school year] that is evident in the hallways as well as in the classrooms.” Leroy L. Ramsey, New York State Department of Education Administrator of Intercultural Affairs and Educational Integration, when asked by Evans to comment, said that “the intent” of a school like Pennington-Grimes “was to break racial isolation and to stop white flight, and we have done that in Mount Vernon.”

As detailed by Evans in her April 1981 New York Times article, with the

[c]oordinating [of] language, math and science with social studies in the same way, first graders study the family and its roots, how people live and lived in different places. Second graders focus on prehistoric times – the old and new Stone Ages; third graders on the ancient Middle East, fourth graders on Greek and Roman civilization and sixth graders on the Renaissance, Reformation and the Age of Discovery.

This interdisciplinary approach to creating a magnet-style gifted track curriculum did not stop with a focuson other histories and cultures in social studies. “Fifth-graders, for example, specialize in studying the Middle Ages in Islamic nations and in Africa and Europe,” but they also “read Arabian Nights in connection with their Islamic study and went on to African folk tales,” according to fifth-grade teacher Mattie Lucadamo. In addition, there were other “flourishes,” such as “learning the foundation of Hindu-Arabic numbers” and “study[ing] astronomy, tracing it back to the Babylonians.”

It never ceases to amaze me how we as educators, education researchers, and governments spend time, money and human resources recreating what was already in existence, in this case, when I was my son’s age. But, like with the experiment that was the Grimes Center and Humanities, parents with resources will find a way to game the system. In one case, an innovative program was moved to Mount Vernon’s predominantly White North Side in May ’80, and tended to give more preferences to White students in general.

In the case of Curriculum 2.0, the more aware parents will send their kids to Kumon or Kaplan or other testing centers to give their kids every opportunity to do well in this new curriculum, score in the top percentiles on the MSA, and garner the gifted label in time for middle school.


When Being An American Equals Never Having to Say Sorry

July 8, 2011

New York State Social Studies Review and Development Committee Report, June 1991 (Picture/Donald Earl Collins). One of several reports produced for the New York State Education Department and Commissioner, as part of the Commissioner's Task Force on Minorities: Equity and Excellence

Twenty years ago this week, I began writing an academic piece that would lead to my dissertation topic, doctorate and first book Fear of a “Black” America (2004). It was a topic that I’d fall in and then out of love with. Ironically, I pursued this topic because of my academic experiences in Humanities at Davis Middle and Mount Vernon High School. The topic was multiculturalism, and more specifically, multicultural education, and how to achieve this kind of curriculum reform in K-12 education. Just writing these words makes me feel both young and naive at the same time.

This whole quest started with a girl. Actually, with the young woman “Another E” (see “The Power of Another E” from April ’09 and “Beyond the Asexual Me” from last month”). She wanted to put an article together for publication, in response to what was then a major controversy involving research into the revision of New York State’s social studies and other curricula. The New York State Department of Education had given a committee the task of figuring out how to make the state’s K-12 curriculum more inclusive and representative of the state’s tremendous racial, ethnic and other forms of diversity.

By the end of September ’91, it would produce A Curriculum of Inclusion: Report of the Commissioner’s Task Force on Minorities: Equity and Excellence. But that deliverable was far from my mind when, tired from my weeks of near starvation post-graduation that April (see “Sometimes Starvation” from May ’11), I reluctantly said okay to working on this article.

Leonard Jeffries, Newark Public Library, February 1, 2007. (http://npl.org)

Now here I was, minus the young woman in whom I no longer had an interest, now working on a piece that had become more academic than either of us had originally intended. By the time I’d written my first words on multiculturalism, I’d already learned the names Leonard Jeffries, Asa Hilliard III and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. I’d read articles from the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal about Jeffries’ name-calling, Schlesinger’s incredulousness about calling slaves “enslaved persons,” and about the committee in general getting along like hyenas tearing at a dead wildebeest.

If I’d been just a tad bit smarter, I would’ve done an investigative piece and called and emailed the people on this task force. I would’ve asked them to divulge to me what they would eventually tell the world about their dislike of each other and of anything “multicultural,” which was in quotes for them. For Schlesinger, multicultural was the equivalent of bad ethnic studies or a kind of Afrocentrism that blamed Whites for all that has ailed America and the world for the past 500 years. For Jeffries, it was a racist attempt at appeasing Blacks and other groups of color while maintaining the main theme of Whites on top.

Although this is an oversimplification, it’s not by much. There really wasn’t anyone from the task force, the

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., CUNY, circa 2006, months before his death on February 28, 2007. (http://www.nytimes.com)

NYS Department of Education, or anyone who spoke on the Himalayas-out-of-a-termite-mound controversy over a more inclusive K-12 curriculum without taking one of those two views. That’s what interested me the most. Schlesinger, and eventually, folks like Diane Ravitch, Mario Cuomo and others completely against revision that even approached cultural pluralism, versus Jeffries, Hilliard and others arguing beyond what they called a White multiculturalism.

I didn’t have the capacity at that stage of my life to see myself as a writer or a journalist in any way. Just two years removed from the end of my mother’s marriage to my now idiot ex-stepfather, I only saw the piece that I’d turn into a Master’s research paper, doctoral thesis and first book as an academic exercise, one where I found the philosophical middle. I hadn’t a clue as to how to make myself part of the Ground Zero issue of the first seven years of the ’90s, the Culture Wars.

But I did have one experience that provided unique insight into multiculturalism and the arguments made by scholars and pols on all sides. Six years in Humanities in Mount Vernon, New York’s public schools. A place where cultural diversity and how to deal with it within the curriculum was the elephant in the classroom. Some teachers and classes addressed it, and many didn’t, to the detriment of what was a solid program, not to mention me and the others who were my classmates.

Either way, I saw more issues of diversity crop up where a multiculturalist approach would’ve been helpful all during my time in Humanities, including with my kufi and my Hebrew-Israelite years. It was a missed opportunity, one that I unconsciously wanted to address with my research of and writing on multiculturalism.

Elephant in School, retrieved July 7, 2011. (http://teachhub.com)


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