The Platitudes of Diane Ravitch

The Platitudes of Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch has a new essay in the New Republic blaming Democrats for Betsy Devos, the new education secretary appointed by President Trump. She makes a few good points and several that are either not relevant for Baltimore or, sadly, utterly inadequate given the challenges we face.

Attacking Betsy DeVos is a perfectly sensible thing to do. DeVos, an ideologue, is uninformed and hyper-partisan. Comparing people who have misgivings about school choice to flat-earthers, as Devos did recently, is vacuous and anti-intellectual. Suggesting that historically black colleges were pioneers of school choice, something else she did recently, is a staggeringly ignorant white-washing of U.S. history, a history full of examples of African Americans being denied access to education. Black colleges arose as a necessity—because there was no choice, no educational option. 

Ravitch is also right about the grip that testing has on our educational culture. I’ll write about this more over the summer, when I continue my series about building a better school system, but the truth is that even as fewer and fewer people believe in the merits of excessive standardized testing, we continue to do it at an alarming rate. Now, it seems, we are testing for testing’s sake. We have, over the past 25 years, created an educational/industrial complex that is built on standardized testing and overflowing with data. Right now, in Maryland, this complex remains in control. The Protect Our Schools Act, recently passed by the General Assembly, begins to grapple with this reality, but it’s such a messy piece of legislation that it’s more about being anti-Trump and anti-Devos than it is about being pro quality public education. Testing can play an important role in education. In fact, we do need to be able to assess whether students are progressing and what areas students either excel in or need assistance with. The truth remains, however, that we’ve not been able to effectively figure out how to use the testing as a true instructional tool. It remains much more a political tool.

So when it comes to DeVos, Ravitch is right and when it comes to testing she is mostly right. But she’s wrong about three big things. First, by linking charters to privatization she ignores the fact that many, perhaps even most, charter operators around the country, including all of them in Maryland (by law), are not run by corporations and have no interest in privatization. Baltimore’s charter school operators are local people who have created or are a part of local non-profit organizations, to try and address the incredible challenges of providing a decent education to the students and families of Baltimore City.

Second, Ravitch suggests that simply switching agenda solves problems. Switching is precisely the problem that I’ve been talking about throughout this blog. Baltimore City switches agenda all the time, starting and stopping one initiative after another on a four-or-five-year cycle. The school system and the school board committed to charter schools. No charter school here now, in Baltimore City, would exist without the recommendation of a CEO and the approval of the board. Abandoning the charter sector, or undermining or destabilizing it with poor policy, would be incredibly detrimental to the city. We need a policy and an approach that builds from the strengths that we have and is sustainable. We need a policy and an approach that understands that there are many different kinds of public schools.

Third, Ravitch is terribly weak on what to do next. “There is,” she claims, “already an education agenda that is good for children, good for educators, good for the nation, and good for the Democratic Party. It’s called good public schools for everyone. All Democrats have to do is to rediscover it.”

I’ve been working and living in Baltimore City for 26 years now. I’d like to know when this agenda Ravitch is referring to actually worked. This is nostalgia, pure and simply. Democrats rightly attacked Trump for saying he wanted to make America great again. Democrats said two things about this, rightly I believe. First, America is pretty great now, warts and all. And, second, Trump’s notion of when America was great was actually only pretty great for white people, white men specifically.

Ravitch’s quest to rediscover something that was never there is MAGA for liberals. What our city needs is a significantly more pragmatic approach that blends the best of the practices we know work and discards aspects that fail our students. We need to chart a consistent course that avoids platitudes and ideology, understands the assets we have, builds from our strengths, and includes a long-term commitment to public education, in all its varied shapes and sizes. This work will require creativity and determination. We can, of course, learn from the past as we build a better future, a better school system, but this journey is about discovery, about forging something new and better. Nostalgia has no part in it.