“Singing to the choir because the choir needs support,” that’s what Diane Ravitch was doing in Hartford last Wednesday when she spoke to members of the Hartford Federation of Teachers. It was my good fortune to be among the few invited guests and also to enjoy a leisurely conversation with her at HFT headquarters prior to her formal remarks at The Bushnell.

No amount of praise for Ravitch’s intellectual contribution to American public education can begin to do justice to the plain-spoken wisdom of this historian and school reform critic. 

Research Professor of Education at New York University, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a recipient of countless awards for her careful use of social science research to advance the public good, Ravitch is a prolific author whose books, articles, blogs, and tweets are closely followed by tens of thousands of educators across the nation.  Her critically acclaimed bestseller, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education” has just been released in paperback in revised and expanded form.

For those seeking a quick overview of that book, its author’s transformational journey from ardent Bush-era conservatism to that of outspoken critic of current school reform approaches, Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post provides an insightful review.  And check out the Ravitch’s website and Facebook pages.  Better yet, pick up a copy of this highly readable “Death and Life” book. 

School Funding

Naturally, my conversation with Ravitch soon gravitated to school funding. “Does money matter?” I began. “Of course it matters!” she replied. “We cannot provide students a full, comprehensive, quality education if we’re not willing to pay for it.” Such an education requires much more than just a focus on basic skills, she continued; it must also include the arts, sciences, history, geography, civics, foreign languages, and ample time for teacher planning.

A well-rounded education also includes physical education and athletic programs, vocational training opportunities, and other kinds of enrichment activities that motivate students to come to school, take responsibility for their own learning, and interact positively with each other.  All these components of a quality education cost significant dollars, she points out, and where the fiscal resources are lacking, quality suffers.

“But what if our state officials claim that there’s no additional money to adequately fund our public schools?” I asked. “Then raise taxes!” was Ravitch’s unabashed retort.

“It’s a shame that we’re not willing to increase taxes on those who earn the most in order to pay for quality public education for all children,” she added, pointing out that it is the children of poor, minority, immigrant, and generally disadvantaged families who are harmed the most by current school funding policies around the nation. 

“We’re squandering the lives of young children when we should be raising taxes on those who can most afford to pay for a first-rate education system,” she opined, including those who have amassed huge fortunes or inherited estates worth billions of dollars.

“What’s the rationale for anyone who clings to more than the first billion dollars anyway?” she asked, pointing out that many among the high-wealth echelons, as well as middle-income folks, have already gone on record as being happy to pay higher taxes if the money would go to strengthening the public school system and sustaining their own neighborhood schools. Instead, she observes that the rhetoric of a need to cut taxes, lower corporate taxes, “do more with less,” and related “no excuses” punitive school reform mantras are all being skillfully used to incite disinvestment in traditional public schools.

Ravitch then went on to say that “the lack of adequate funding for our classrooms results in everyone lining up to get funding from a few very wealthy philanthropic foundations. Little wonder that those foundations increasingly control the education reform agenda.”

At The Bushnell

In the calm, factual, rapid-fire manner for which she is known, Ravitch delivered her sobering depiction of the deplorable state of education reform in America beneath the fiery red-orange structural intricacies of Dale Chihuly’s magnificent “Ode to Joy” glass chandelier.  Her remarkable recitation of facts and debunking of popular disinformation juxtaposed against the intensity of Chihuly’s emotive creation could not have been more fitting, as scholar and chandelier together made for a magical melding of intellect and passion, both conveying implicit messages of hope for the future.

I cannot here faithfully recount the full range of nuanced issues that Ravitch addressed Wednesday evening below the Chihuly chandelier, but let me highlight below just some of the “take-homes” that most resonated with all that I have learned in my many years of work in education policy and school finance:

• Ravitch reproached the “bad news industry,” which first took hold with the Nation at Risk report in 1983, for its continuous and ever more audacious “sky is falling” messages about the performance of American public schools. Yes, she says, there is a crisis in education today, but it’s one that has been propagated by the bad news industry that is largely dominated by wealthy corporate reformers with deep pockets, unprecedented political connections, and powerful influence with the media. In the free-market view of those corporate reformers, “bad schools” clearly have “bad teachers,” so those schools deserve to be closed and the nation’s system of public schools that serve all should now be remade into a system based on taxpayer-funded schools of choice, with choice (as with the elite, private independent schools) depending not just on student and parent selection of the school, but also on the school’s subsequent willingness to select and retain those students and parents. And where will all those students go that the schools of choice don’t agree to educate? We all know the answer to that: to public schools crippled by disinvestment as tax dollars have been rechanneled into schools of choice. 

• Corporate reformers’ blind faith in accountability, competition, and choice is seriously undermining public confidence in education — all of it aided and abetted by the No Child Left Behind Act and its focus on “measure and punish.” Calling NCLB “the worst federal education legislation in American history,” Ravitch pointed out that it essentially federalizes control of education by holding the reigns of power while funding only about 10 percent of PK-12 expenditures across the nation. Noting that some 80 percent of all schools this year are to be labeled as “failing schools” under NCLB, she asked “Has any nation in the world ever passed a law that would label 80 percent of its schools ‘failing’?” And, she added, the Race to the Top grant competitions disturbingly promote the same NCLB privatization and “transformation” formulaic goals, albeit with more direct and dire consequences for teachers whose students don’t “measure up.” 

• Ruing the promulgation of distorted and incomplete facts about American student performance on international tests such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), Dr. Ravitch’s own longitudinal analyses of student performance trends reveal very different patterns. For example, over the past 40 years of NAEP testing — despite significant changes in students being tested as a result of racial desegregation, unprecedented immigration, and the testing of significant portions of special education students — substantive progress has been made in NAEP performance, especially by black students, and it is only since NCLB came on the scene has progress stagnated. As for PISA performance, in 1964, the first year it was administered, she notes that U.S. students were 12th out of 12 nations. In 2010, with some 65 countries participating, our 15-year-old students were 23rd or 24th in most subjects, yet Secretary of Education Arne Duncan claimed that “we’re being out-educated.” No downhill slide here, on the contrary. My take-home: Maybe our educational system is (and ought to be) focusing on something more substantive and enduring than out-scoring other nations on tests? After all, there’s no test for imagination, creativity, tolerance, democratic values, social/moral responsibility, or a host of other characteristics that schools attempt to develop in youngsters. And as Ravitch wisely noted, these tests are not predictors of anything.

• Especially illuminating were Ravitch’s comparisons of education in Finland, where there is but a very small variation of quality across schools, aided in part by that country’s low (3 percent) poverty rate among children. (Just imagine having equally high-quality schools in all 169 cities and towns of Connecticut!)  Finland has a national curriculum with broad guidelines across all the disciplines; it is not prescriptive, allowing teachers the flexibility and creativity they’re expected to bring to their classrooms. Students take no standardized tests until they are ready for college; teacher-designed tests and close teacher-student and teacher-parent interactions ensure that steady progress is being made. Special education students enjoy full inclusion. Teachers are highly respected, despite not being particularly highly compensated, and competition to enter the teacher training schools (all of whose programs are identical) is fierce, with only 1 out of every 10 teacher candidates winning certification. Trusted as professionals and strongly supported throughout their years in the classroom, there is little attrition and great satisfaction within their ranks. All teachers are union members, with school principals participating in the same union.   

• But perhaps my biggest take-home of the evening centers on Ravitch’s remarks about poverty. She noted that the corporate reformers don’t like to talk about poverty, preferring to dismiss it under their “no excuses” and “do more with less” mantras. For them, “poverty is not a problem and resources don’t matter.” As she reported (and I, too, have witnessed here in Connecticut and elsewhere), nothing could be more demoralizing to teachers and school administrators in rural and urban districts that serve large proportions of low-income students than to hear this feckless and reckless argument, especially when it is paired with calls for “no new taxes” and “no more money for schools” by so-called reformer lobbyists or policymakers who clearly have no first-hand experience with poverty or real understanding of how its ravages impact teaching and learning. As Ravitch pointed out, NAEP scores, as well as every state’s own disaggregated state assessment results, prove that poverty has a direct negative impact on academic performance. Ameliorating and/or altogether overcoming that cruel fact cannot be achieved by ignoring it, dismissing poverty as irrelevant, or continuing to punish and starve the schools that serve disadvantaged children.

As Ravitch boldly asserts, we get what we pay for. “Unfortunately,” quips AFT Connecticut President Sharon Palmer, “what we pay for buys far less than what our students need and deserve. Despite the valiant efforts of teachers and other adults in the schools, across Connecticut’s poorest districts, as well as in many middle-class and even some high-wealth communities, our schools lack adequate resources for providing all children with the kinds of learning opportunities they need to master if they’re to be sufficiently prepared for college, meaningful employment, and responsible citizenship.” 

But as Andrea Johnson, President of the HFT Local 1018 rightly concludes, “We American educators are so fortunate to have in our corner such a skilled person who has solid research to back up all that she professes. Ravitch will help us get through these ‘dark ages’ of education where the ‘reformers’ are trying so desperately to destroy educators, diminish our expertise, and end our passion for teaching. Those reformers may think that we educators make widgets, but this too shall pass!”

Dianne Kaplan deVries is an education consultant who also serves as Project Director for the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding,plaintiffs in the CCJEF v. Rell education adequacy and equity lawsuit. Opinions expressed here, however, are solely hers and not necessarily those of CCJEF.

DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.