Archive for the ‘“Race to the Top”’ Category

When it comes to education reform I’m a struggling optimist. The news is rarely good, with a steady diet from the media of school failures, lukewarm test scores, the self-serving demands of teacher unions, and even threats to our national security.

So what to make of Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools? The title itself seems to promise nothing but more bad news.

But this book is not a lament. Instead, in lean, measured prose Diane Ravitch addresses the many erroneous claims made by the “education reform” movement and then presents a realistic and humane plan for true educational improvement.

Ravitch doesn’t, however, just say that the reformers’ claims are wrong. That’s too easy, and Ravitch refuses the easy way out. She recognizes that the public is confused. For over a decade, it has been told by the government that our children’s schools are in a dangerously sorry state. The Bush Administration’s major tactic in presenting education reform (among other issues) was to repeatedly insist that something was “fact” despite solid contrary evidence until the public believed it. Unfortunately the Obama Administration has continued this same tactic in its education agenda.

In an effort to clear up some of the public’s confusion and to address the reformers’ accusations and claims, Reign of Error examines a wide variety of topics such as who constitutes what Ravitch calls “the corporate reformers,” the validity of high-stakes testing, the expanding achievement gap, charter schools and vouchers, and local school control. For each topic the book presents an exhaustive overview of studies, graphs and statistics that demonstrates why the reformers’ statements are false, oversimplified and in some cases, downright wrong thinking.

Yet behind all the statistics and the arguments laid out point by counterpoint, demonstrating the best of academic writing—no point left unsubstantiated—is a passionate and compassionate advocate for teachers, students and our public school system. Although the tone of Ravitch’s writing is professional, it is refreshing to see her own exasperation occasionally break through her usual cool demeanor when, for example, in writing about value-added assessment of schools and teachers she comments, “Stated as politely as possible, value-added assessment is bad science. It may even be junk science.” Having worked with at risk students my whole teaching career I couldn’t help but cheer that “dukes up,” “let’s take it to the parking lot” slam, and wonder if “bad science” was as close to “bullshit” as she (or her editor) could allow.

But Ravitch doesn’t stop at confronting the misinformation put out by the government and its corporate backers. She systemically exposes the motive behind many of these corporate reforms: the dismantling of our public school system itself and its replacement by entrepreneurial ventures.

For the more naïve reader (for example, me) it was continually jarring, almost painful at times, to confront the forces, one is tempted to say the sinister forces, that are shaping our educational polices. It was disturbing to read about for-profit charter schools and the educational schemes of equity investors and corporations; to see quantified the amount of money that is pulled away from public schools by charters and the use of vouchers. Reign of Error demonstrates over and over the power of greed in shaping educational policy.

All this profit is in stark contrast to the dire poverty in which many of our most vulnerable students—the supposed beneficiaries of NCLB and Race to the Top—live, a poverty that permeates their schools, which are unsafe, undersupplied, understaffed and as a result underrated.

As a teacher of disenfranchised high school kids, I appreciated Reign of Error’s in-depth investigation into the relationship between poverty and academic performance since policy makers and pundits consistently refuse to acknowledge the link. The impact of poverty and racism (conditions that go hand in hand) on the achievement gap seems too obvious to ignore. But ignore, the corporate reformers do. They maintain that schools alone can close the gap.

But a great deal of research proves the opposite, and Reign of Error documents not only the damage these conditions have on a child’s development but also shows how these unaddressed societal problems impact the entire field of education. It matters in how and why charter schools are established or vouchers are paid out. It matters in how teachers are evaluated, in whether neighborhood schools are closed, school staffs fired, and children labeled as failures.

Ravitch is a realist. She does not insist that poverty be eradicated before we improve our schools. That is a false choice, she assures us. The solution is clear, the way so much of what she recommends throughout Reign of Error is clear: Fix both at the same time. But there is little political will to address these conditions—there’s no money to be made. As Ravitch writes, “It is easy for people who enjoy lives of economic ease to say that poverty doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter to them…For them, it is a hurdle to be overcome, like having a bad day or a headache or an ill-fitting jacket.” Another zinger!

So, after reading Reign of Error do I remain an optimist? Yes. Perhaps even more so. Diane Ravitch has written the primer for anyone who wants to understand the education debate and who cares about kids and their schools. She doesn’t just tell us what is “wrong” in today’s schools, she lauds what is good (and there is more than you’d think given the reformers’ propaganda) and lays out what we—parents, teachers, administrators, school boards, citizens—can do to improve what we have. Reign of Error sounds an optimistic note, “Across the nation…parents and community leaders are beginning to realize that education policy has been hijacked. They are starting to organize against high-stakes testing and privatization.” This book just might be the wedge that finally cracks open corporate education reform and helps it crumble.

You can read an excerpt from Reign of Error at Salon



As Common Core curriculum moves closer to full implementation the discussion about its impact on students and teachers heats up. As you’ll read in today’s guest essay, “A Plain Little Thing” by Jeff Nguyen, the latest in the “Teachers in Their Own Words” series, there’s a “collision coming down the tracks.” The effects of these standards are far reaching and go beyond the obvious concerns of limiting teachers’ ability to tailor curriculum to the needs and interests of their current students. Some states are beginning to question the wisdom and feasibility of such a national course of studies. While Indiana has taken an even braver step and has “paused” its implementation of Common Core until those involved can fully study it. Jeff has long been involved in teaching. He has extensive experience working with a variety of K-12 students with special learning needs. Currently he is a kindergarten teacher in Florida and next year will be moving to first grade. Jeff is not only a practitioner but also a critical thinker when it comes to educational and social justice issues. Sounds pretty heavy, doesn’t it. But when you read Jeff’s piece you’ll see that he has a great blend of fact, insight, humor and Dr. Seuss wisdom—useful qualities for any teacher facing today’s crazy educational world. You can read more of Jeff’s writings at his blog .

“A Plain Little Thing”

I know, up on top you are seeing great sights,

But down here at the bottom we, too, should have rights.”

Dr. Seuss

As another school year draws to a close in the land of milk and Honey Boo Boo, students across the land are looking forward to enjoying their summer break, whether it be learning to dance Gangnam Style, playing video games until their thumbs fall off or avoiding the outdoors like the cooties. For teachers, this stretch is looked forward to with equal anticipation. It is a time to catch one’s breath, eat a leisurely lunch with actual grown-ups and go to the bathroom whenever they gosh darned feel like it. However, when they return to school in the fall both students and teachers, alike, will have one thing to look forward to…the Common Core curriculum.

Just as the professional judgment and expertise of the teacher has been minimized through the widespread reliance on standardized testing scores as a measure of student achievement and teacher effectiveness, the Common Core takes matters to its logical conclusion by replacing state and locally developed educational standards with a national curriculum that all states who sought “Race to the Top” funding are expected to follow in lockstep fashion. By 2014, students in Kindergarten and up will take end-of-year assessments called PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness of College and Careers) because, well, all 5 and 6 year-olds should be ready for college and careers before they can go to first grade.

Let me take just a minute to break down what life is like in a typical Kindergarten classroom, or at least in mine. Our day starts with 18 boys and girls, of varying backgrounds and abilities, who are all inclined to decide that they need to blow their noses, show me their loose tooth or new sneakers at the exact same time upon their arrival to the classroom. Invariably, before the morning announcements are over, half the students will need to use the bathroom or need a new pencil/eraser. Guaranteed, that by the end of the morning read-aloud, at least five students will inform me that a) they have a microscopic boo-boo, b) they’re hungry and/or c) they have to go to the bathroom again. As the day progresses and the stamina of the students begins to diminish, I remind them that they just need to pull themselves up by their untied bootstraps and finish their math problems or so help me, Bill Gates, himself, will descend from the heavens to reform their pint-sized, wayward selves.

In the past year, I have learned many things from my students. I have discovered that applesauce and ketchup mixed together are not gross but milk and peas are really yucky. I have found that 5 and 6 year-olds do not like to sit still for more than 1 minute and 43 seconds at a time but they do love to clap, sing and dance. I have ascertained that my students do not always like to talk about why Hansel felt conflicted when he was fed by the witch while Gretel was left to starve but they will gladly talk about their lunch, their baby sister, their pet hamster and pretty much anything else under the sun except how Hansel and Gretel can be compared to similar protagonists in the folk tale genre. I have also realized that children do love to learn, play and talk but it has to be within a context of authentic experiences that are carefully constructed so as to shape their thoughts and ideas in a meaningful way.

In my finite wisdom, I do foresee a collision coming down the tracks between the locomotive of Common Core and the caboose of poverty. I think special education students will feel the impact most heavily, a historically overrepresented population in the juvenile justice system who will find themselves increasingly alienated from the mainstream of school life. Eventually, though, all students and teachers are going to feel the burn. My lingering fear is that this is another “set the pins up to knock them down” initiative to widen the net of privatization and standardization of the curriculum at the expense of creativity, experiential and aesthetic learning as well as the minimizing of children’s literature as an agent of change and diversity.

I admit that I’m not too sure which Common Core standard was covered when my students learned in Social Studies one day about a brave turtle named Mack who was tired of being stepped on. One day he had had enough and he challenged Yertle, king of the turtles, who had built his kingdom on the backs of the unwashed turtles. When King Yertle refused to hear his plea and show compassion, Mack let loose the burp heard around the world. Mack’s burp caused Yertle to fall from his throne built high upon the backs of the other turtles and into the mud. It was a plain, little turtle doing a plain, little thing that brought liberation to the turtle citizenry. If only there were more Macks among us willing to make whatever burps, farts and sneezes are needed to bring the Yertles of the world back down to the mud with the rest of us so that our fellow turtles can be free to forage in peace.