Ravitch to the Rescue

I have on my desk a second grade homework assignment. It tells the story of a seagull and her mother. When the weather becomes cold, the seagulls fly to Florida. A question at the end of the assignment asks why the seagulls fly south in the winter. The correct answer is because the weather gets colder.

This assignment was designed according to the Common Core State Standards. The Common Core philosophy is that students must command evidence from the text. Students, of course, should know how to find evidence in a text. But in second grade my friends and I were reading C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia. I would like to argue before my school board that our district should adopt a challenging, literature-heavy English curriculum rather than one dedicated largely to informational texts.

Alas, I do not have that option. In 2010, with minimal public or legislative debate beforehand, Governor David A. Patterson submitted a Race to the Top application that committed New York to the Common Core. According to the State Education Department of New York, "It is to these benchmarks that we must now teach. It is student mastery of these benchmarks that we must now assess." The federal and state government have used the power of the purse to make sure that nearly every New York child uses Common Core-aligned curricula.

How did parents lose the right to educate our own children or, at least, have a meaningful role to play in our school districts? How can we reclaim this right?

Enter Diane Ravitch, America's foremost historian and theorist of education policy. In her new book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools (2013), Ravitch explains how foundations, venture capitalists, and politicians have seized control of America's schools. She also highlights how parents and citizens may fight back against the corporate reform movement.

Advocates of the Common Core sometimes say that they belong to the new civil rights movement. Ravitch replies: "It defies reason to believe that Martin Luther King Jr. would march arm in arm with Wall Street hedge fund managers."

Follow the money, Ravitch counsels. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has spent over a hundred million dollars to create and promote the Common Core. Joanne Weiss, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's chief of staff, says that the initiative "means that education entrepreneurs will enjoy national markets." America spends over 500 billion dollars a year educating children between the ages of 5 and 18. The Common Core, like charter schools or vouchers, helps privatize America's public schools, in this case, by empowering educational vendors such as Pearson to "enjoy national markets."

Schools, Ravitch argues, follow a different logic than businesses. Businesses control their inputs and discard elements that don't produce. Public schools, to the contrary, must accept and educate all children. New York State Education Commissioner John King applauds the fact that most students failed the new Common Core exams. According to Ravitch, America's schools should be nurturing its future citizens, not branding them failures at an early age.

Ravitch knows that Americans can and should do a better job in the schools, but she also thinks that Americans ought to be wary of proclaiming a crisis in education. Over the past decade (i.e., before the Common Core), students have done better than ever on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) tests, and graduation rates are at an all-time high. The United States remains the world's leading economic and technological power, and America produces some of the world's most influential scientists and artists. America's lowest performing schools, almost without exception, are in neighborhoods with high poverty and racial segregation. We ought to have honest conversations about social and political problems rather than simply blame teachers.

"What the best and wisest parent wants for his own children, that must the community want for all of its children." John Dewey's principle informs Ravitch's policy proposals. Discerning parents demand that schools offer courses in the arts, science, history, literature, civics, geography, foreign languages, mathematics, and physical education. Ravitch warns against a system in which only the children of the privileged may receive a liberal arts education.

Ravitch argues for democratic control of public schools. States and localities have long managed schools in the United States. Corporate education reformers, however, don't want to negotiate with approximately 14,000 school districts. No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have put the federal government in the driver's seat. Ravitch objects: "No one in Congress or the U.S. Department of Education has the knowledge, experience, or wisdom to impose his or her ideas and plans on every school and community in the nation."

Ravitch believed otherwise in the 1990s and early 2000s when she allied with conservative politicians, scholars, and institutions, but she changed her mind about market-based education reforms after she examined their early results. Ravitch once endorsed voluntary national education standards; her modified position now is that state education departments should provide curriculum frameworks. A critique of Reign of Error is that state control still means that people in faraway places can determine how our children are educated.

Ravitch, though, would probably be willing to consider this objection. On her blog, an important site of educational debate, Ravitch gives space to readers who disagree with her, including E.D. Hirsch, Jr. who recently posted a defense of the Common Core. Ravitch's opponents should show the same courtesy to her.

Ravitch observes that though corporate reformers have political power and money, they lack a political base. Ravitch is ringing a bell so that parents and democrats may come to the defense of America's public schools. May enough people hear the alarm in time.

I dedicate this essay to Babette Pitt, a librarian at Richard Montgomery High School who passed away before I had a chance to thank her as an adult.