When You Preach To The Choir, Your Back Is To The Rest Of Us

I’ve never been to a revival meeting, but if I had, I suspect it would feel a lot like Diane Ravitch’s speech at Occidental. “Diane has given us hope,” says L.A. School Board member Steve Zimmer, who introduces her.  “She has given us strength.  She has given us” (waving book) “our instructions!”  Nobody yells “Praise the Lord,” but many times the enthusiastic, mainly white, mainly fortysomething crowd calls back murmurs of oh yeah and uh huh and that’s right.  The central metaphors could have been pulled from Joseph Campbell: Diane is a “fighter,” a “leader,” a “sage.”  There are “forces aligned against us,” forces that are “disgusting” and “immoral.”

I am dismayed.  I’ve been reading Ravitch’s work for years and have great respect for her. But I these holy war jeremiads are not constructive.  And it’s hard to hear what she’s saying over the din of overheated metaphors.

Her new book, Reign of Error, was originally entitled Hoax; Ravitch’s central idea is that the American public education system has been the victim of a series of hoaxes and lies perpetrated by the government and large corporations.  If the central narrative of the Ed Reform movement is that the educational system is broken and entrepreneurial ingenuity can fix it, Ravitch’s central narrative is that the forces of corporatization are colluding to take over public education for their own profit.  “We’re back to the age of the robber barons,” she said at one point, positioning herself as a tiny David against the Goliath of the corporatocracy.  “I don’t have money,” she said. “I don’t have a foundation.  I have words.”

Now, I am no fan of the corporatocracy; unlike Ravitch I actually do not have words to describe how distraught I am at the widening income gap in this country and its devastating effects on children in poverty.  But I get off the bus at conspiracy theories.  I mean, I have no doubt there are greedy bastards out there in some gleaming office tower scheming to make money off of education. And hell, they might pull it off some day, which would be horrible.  But I actually don’t believe that right now, when we look at charter schools and standardized testing, what we’re actually seeing is evidence of a series of deliberate, long-running malicious hoaxes designed by oligarchs.

Prove me wrong and I’ll get back on the bus.  But conspiracy theories in the absence of evidence instantly make me stop listening. Conspiracy theories are the low-hanging fruit of rhetoric.  They make people angry and self-righteous and more than anything, passive.  Why fight when the forces of evil are allied against you?  All we can do is sit home, curse the other side and eat popcorn.  My students sometimes didn’t bother to vote even though many of them were 18-year-old citizens. Why?  Because the Illuminati rigs the election.

What distressed me last night was that beyond the amped-up rhetoric, Ravitch is raising a lot of important concerns.   Dennis Danziger wrote me a really thoughtful email detailing exactly why charters have been damaging to his students; for his lucid and persuasive description, click here and scroll to the comments section.  He persuaded me of the negative effects of charters on many of his students.

To contemplate his point, though, is not to say that charters are a hoax—a deliberate scam perpetrated against the American people.  It’s to say that we’re in the throes of some very painful, not entirely successful efforts to improve a profoundly unequal educational system that both reflects and entrenches the racial and economic inequity in this country.  Ravitch herself, at the end of her speech, admitted that charters could be a whole lot better if not for the public’s continual demand that schools demonstrate high test scores in order to survive.

I feel it’s an important idea when she says that we need to balance our need for accountability with an understanding that when we demand swift, measurable results from schools that are serving our most at-risk children, and we don’t even really know what these results mean—seriously, raise your hand if you actually know how an API score is calculated—and we do this while also saying that these schools need to produce results without our giving them any additional resources, we may be putting untenable pressure on schools that are stretched to the limit.  The casualties are our most fragile students.  And all of us, in our impatience for quick fixes, are complicit.

Unfortunately, you had to be listening really hard to hear this point.  It came around the end, along with the short list of excellent suggestions she also made in her Op Ed in the L.A. Times, a list that a charter advocate, commenting pseudonymously as “mindopened,” mocked as crazy dreams (“why not just demand world peace?”) But her suggestions are not crazy.  And they are not that dissimilar to a lot of what’s being developed at some good charter systems.

My friend Ben asked Ravitch at the end of the speech if she could see anything positive in the Ed Reform movement.  She thought a moment and said no.  “I’ll write about it if I think of anything,” she said, dismissing him.  But the truth is that both sides have some good ideas and both sides have flaws; both sides have had their fair share of corrupt bad apples and big egos, but also of dedicated people who are devoting their lives to the same crazy dream.  What’s crazier than believing that it’s possible to give all children an equal opportunity in life?

But we’ll never be able to hear that if we can’t stop yelling.


17 thoughts on “When You Preach To The Choir, Your Back Is To The Rest Of Us”

  1. I don’t think it’s possible to give all children an equal opportunity any more than it’s possible to give adults an equal share of the pie. Even if the settings are equal, the teachers won’t be, and neither will their parents.

    1. Mimi, thanks for commenting! I agree that in practice, all classrooms, kids, parents and teachers are different. But I do think that our economy showers some kids with privileges while putting many others–often children of color in low-income families–in situations without access to even the most basic of resources, like safe housing and decent medical care. I agree that we’re unlikely ever to completely level the playing field, but I think the efforts we make toward equal opportunity are what define us as a country. We probably won’t ever get it perfect. But I do think it could be a lot better.

      1. And, I think many would argue that we’ll know that equal opportunity is achieved when there is less disparity in educational/professional attainment by race, gender, income, etc… In other words, equal outcomes indicates equal opportunity.

        So for example, I think only about 40% of Americans get an undergraduate degree. But for those 40%, it’s disproportionately skewed to white/asian and wealthy. I think what many in the ed reform community want is basically a proper reflection of undergraduate degrees being awarded that reflects the demographics of America.

        The ed reformers look at disparity, and they’ve focused heavily on in school factors as a way to mitigate these different outcomes. Teach Like a Champion! Disruptive Educational Innovation! Data! Leadership! Mayor Controlled Schools! Tenure Reform! Student Centered! Evaluation by Test Scores! Close Failing Schools! Fire People!

        The “traditional” educators look at disparity, and they focus on more systemic problems. Racism! Resources! Tax Policy! Social Justice! Community Enhancement! Unions as a Means to Give the Weak a Chance to Influence Power! Immigration Law! Funding!

        Who’s “right” in their worldview of how to address inequity?

        Others argue that we already have equal opportunity NOW and that people just need to work harder.

      2. Ben,
        I think that your distinction between in-school and out-of-school elements is a good one. But, I don’t think that the division of interests is as clean as you think. I don’t know of any, what you refer to as, “traditional educator” who focuses on systemic issues solely. All those whom I read argue that learning is inextricably linked to them. They point to the ways that education in those very countries with which we are supposedly in competition make sure that the poorest districts are funded equitably (not equally–Germany et al give more funds to districts with more needs); to the social services that are tied to those schools; and to the thorough professional preparation of their teachers. If these countries can do both, why can’t we? I have yet to hear a response from any of the “ed reformers.”

      3. Fran,
        I agree. I didn’t mean to paint it in such large generalizations. I guess what I’m seeing is a certain educational worldview from these two “camps.” And yes, most I’d say are not in the extreme of either camp (Just like most people aren’t Tea Party or Occupy people, although some are.)

        And instead of “traditional” educator, I probably should have said “whole child” educator as Ellie has blogged about previously. The ed reform community has used the word “traditional” to describe educators so I think I just used that.

  2. Ravitch and Rhee both use a lot of absolute statements that essentially prohibit discussion and turn people off. I think we should look beyond those absolutes and think about the facts of their arguments. My opinion is Rhee uses more anecdotes like “This is an adult policy not a kid policy!” or “This is the status quo!” Ravitch seems to site more studies and research. I haven’t read either of their books yet so we’ll see if this is true.

    Ravitch, when she accuses folks of privatizing, turns off a lot of ed reformers who aren’t trying to privatize, but they might have different ideas on how to improve education. Rhee, when she accuses folks of being selfish and not caring about kids and defending the status quo, turns off a lot of educators who have devoted their lives to educating kids and disagree with market-based improvement ideas.

    There are plenty of people trying to privatize public education, and there are plenty of people trying to defend the status quo. But I think there’s this large group of in between folks…I think. I wonder what they think?

  3. I have to disagree with your premise. Ravitch, and others, are not arguing that there is a “conspiracy.” By definition, a conspiracy is hidden. This movement is very much out in the open. It’s goal is to “reform” schools by extending the principles of unregulated capitalism and by de-skilling workers. As Ravitch puts it in an op-ed piece, they view schooling, not as a “civic obligation” but as a “consumer choice.” She argues, and I agree, that this radical re-formulation threatens to “eviscerate” the fundamental principles of democracy with which we have operated for the last several hundred years.
    Are the issues in schooling complex? Certainly. Have urban public schools become bureaucratic, hidebound, and unresponsive? Without a doubt. Can enabling and supporting “alternative” approaches to teaching and learning improve the education of all students, including those in those hidebound schools? Definitely. But, the leaders of corporate ed reform are not interested in dialogue, despite their protests to the contrary. (Follow the money and you learn a lot). They are not interested in improving public education; they are determined to abolish and replace it.

    This is about who will control policy in “public” schooling. If you believe that the leaders of this “reform” movement do have your interests and the interests of your students at heart, then give them your support. But, realize that for someone of the stature of Diane Ravitich to conclude that she must resort to the rhetorical megaphone so that her message will be heard and not drowned out should give us pause. She has never been a “liberal” much less a “progressive.”

    1. First of all, thank you so much for commenting. Point taken: the term “conspiracy” is probably off-base. I do wish Ravitch would stop using the word “hoax,” though, because it implies a deliberate, malicious scam. I am keenly aware of why the whole concept of choice is problematic and deeply troubling. But I think her implication of deliberate bad faith in every case is not fair or accurate, and will cause a lot of people to stop listening. As I said, I agree with many of her points and would have loved to have heard a more measured, rational discussion of what specifically we can do on the ground to strengthen education for all public school students.
      Maybe it’s true that resorting to the rhetorical megaphone (I love that term, by the way, thank you for introducing me to it, and if you invented it, my hat is off!) is the only way she can get the American public’s attention. But I think the effect on the ensuing dialogue may be unfortunate, and that, in turn,may hinder progress.

      1. I think all sides are guilty of assigning intent to those who disagree with them, but in political messaging, it works. It’s like calling a politician un-American for supporting or not supporting a policy. Keep repeating it, and people will believe it. It’s the mob mentality in the Simpsons, when Springfield residents just follow whoever is loudest and has the most charisma.

        In education, it looks like:
        “They don’t care about kids, they care about adults!” “Adult interests not student interests!” “Defenders of the status quo!” “Entrenched adult interests!” vs. “Privatizers!” “Corporate elitists!” “Scabs!”

        Notice these statements don’t actually say why a policy does or doesn’t help children. It just assumes ill intent on the other side. So what has this done? For career educators, they’ve had to now explain to the public that they actually decided to become teachers…to teach. All of a sudden, teachers, and especially their unions, have had to convince people that they’re in it for the children. This infuriates them, and it demoralizes them. (MetLife study on the lowest levels of teacher morale since I think the 70s, for example. 50% teacher attrition rate in the first 5 years, as another example, according to USC.) We have teachers who now qualify for food stamps in America, and they think to themselves, “So people think I’m doing this because I want tenure and no accountability?” (I can’t remember the news article or which state, but I know I read a newspaper article about teachers who now qualify for food stamps after collective bargaining ended. School districts ended funding health/vision/dental benefits.) And for the reformers, many of whom I believe want to make a positive difference, now have to try to convince the public that they’re in it for the children. They have to convince the public that they just have different ideas, but that they do care about poor low income kids, but they want to try newer ideas. So both sides spend a lot of energy trying to convince politicians and the public that they care about children.

        The problem that both sides face is that you can find instances of status quo protectors and privatizers, so it makes each side really skeptical of the other. For example, the rubber room mess out of NYC really hurt the teaching profession in the public (And yes, I’m making a judgment here that the rubber rooms, from what I know, does in fact help adults more than children.). Another example: The CA Charter Schools Association just spent a huge effort defending a charter leader who was already convicted of embezzlement. (Yes, I’m making a judgment here that the CCSA feels threatened by this conviction.)

      2. Ellie,

        First off, thank you so much for the compliment. As far as I know, I did invent that phrase! If the media in your area are anything like the media in mine (Philadelphia. This is a coast-to-coast blog now!), most outlets report little more than what they’ve been given by the “Ed Reformers.” I have become so disenchanted that I have begun to advocate for acts of civil disobedience.

        Which brings me to my response about “bad faith.” I understand your concern about the hyperbole (I didn’t invent that term, damn) involved. As teachers of English we’ve have bee taught to believe in the power of rational, empathetic, dialogue and to be very suspicious of “rhetoric” of any kind. Yet, while I agree that ther are important distinctions to be made (I think there a real difference between the Gates/Duncan people and the Broad/Walton/ALEC people, for instance), I do think there there is a real case to be made that “bad faith” is the only explanation that can account for the , at times ruthless, power of this reform movement. The reforms that they call for are not “evidence-based.” The foundations that support these reforms are very much in sync with the idea that unfettered market economics is the only answer to anything that ails us (this is more the Broad/Walton/ALEC faction, but I think the neo-liberals have similar beliefs). Though not a conspiracy, these groups tend to mask their real agenda behind pseudo-foundation money. Here in my city, we have more of these than you can shake a stick at (My Dad used to say that. It means “a whole lot,” but I don’t know why). Our last 3 “superintendents” have all be products of the Broad Academy, though none revealed that in their resume (s0, too, for Michele Rhee). All have worked,, together with the pseudo-foundations, to expand charters aqnd mismanage the district’s budget until now, 28 schools were closed, 3000 employees laid off, and teachers are being coerced into taking pay cuts of up to 13% and sacrificing due process in the contract. This is similar to what is going on in Chicago, and to what happened in New Orleas, after Katrina. There about 80% of the schools are now charters, while this “Recovery School district” still ranks last in Louisiana.
        I’ve gone on way too long, though I’m sure you still have questions. The last thing I’ll say here is that Ravitch is one of the few public figures to have the credentials to claim “bad faith.” She has never been a “progressive;” in fact, she has long been part of the inner workings of the very groups that she now condemns. So, if she argues “hoax,” and the evidence supports her, I think we need to take her quite seriously.


    2. Spot on, Fran! The debate has been about who gets to engage in the decision-making process and at what levels. I agree with your reading of Raviitich, particularly given her history and prior stand on Ed Reform.

    1. Not yet. It’s on my desk in the top of my pile and I’m hoping to get to it soon. As I’ve said, I think many of the proposals she listed in the L.A. Times and in the excerpt from her book on Salon.com are excellent and important, even if I’m sometimes put off by her tone and don’t agree that Ed Reform is entirely a hoax. Have you read the book?

  4. I appreciate that the word hoax might be upsetting. I think I am much more inclined to the word scam. Think of the Ipad debacle currently at work with LAUSD. Charter schools weren’t a hoax; they were an end run against vouchers which the public had rejected democratically. If the problem is that college degrees don’t represent the demographics of a diverse American population, why is the solution not sought at the college level. To frame this debate around issues of civil rights is a scam. An insidious one at that. It is profoundly disrespectful to the teachers who dedicate themselves to improving the lives of their students. I would write more but I have 44 students in my first period class that I have to teach in morning.

    1. Laura, I couldn’t agree more that the iPad debacle is appalling. I actually cannot begin to understand why all of this occurred. Why in the world did they pay so much? Why in the world did they not foresee that these gadgets would get lost, broken, etc.? How could they not foresee that they’d need the keyboards on which they’re now paying another $38 million?
      And I could not agree more about the disrespect to teachers. I’d love to hear more about why you say that charters were an end run around vouchers. My impression is that charters arose in a sincere attempt to create autonomous small schools, though obviously over the years this effort has morphed in many directions. I certainly can see–especially with some of the insights from readers to this blog–that there are enormous, all-out efforts being made by profit-making corporations to co-opt education, with charters right now being a soft target, along with standardized testing and technology, which to me seem like even softer targets since the profit margins are significantly larger. It’s my sense that, as Ravitch says, the pressures of NCLB have forced charters to push test scores much harder than they would have if their survival did not depend on it, with unfortunate results. If what you mean is that the language with which this is now being discussed is often disingenuous, I agree, and I think inflated claims of charter success are really damaging to all. But that’s why I wished Ravitch had toned down the rhetoric. When both sides are in battle mode, I think we just end up with a stalemate, and that doesn’t help anyone.

  5. Ellie, I suggest you read the book Hoosier School Heist by Doug Martin. It exposes with painstakingly-evidenced analysis just how the “privateers” have tried to buy Indiana schools. As a journalist and a teacher, I researched and followed the campaign money trail in Indiana. Most of what was being pushed through the legislature was not being done in the name of truly revamping education in any meaningful way for students. It was truly about whose coffers (Pearson, McGraw Hill, etc.) could be lined. In 2012, a Wall Street hedge fund manager donated $50,000 to Tony Bennett’s campaign for Indiana Supt. of Public Instruction. I have a really hard time believing that a Wall Street hedge fund manager had a vested interest in seeing Indiana public school students become more educated. That donation was motivated by potential monetary gains, period.

    The conversation needs to shift between non-profit charters who strive to serve a need in the community (especially those founded by dedicated educators in those communities) and the for-profit charter companies who are taking advantage of anti-public education legislation being passed in many states. (Case in point: We had to fight off a bill in Indiana three times where legislators attempted to make it illegal for schools to allow teachers to have their union dues deducted from their paychecks.) Killing public education IS the goal of much of the legislation, and often, only teachers who have been in the trenches for years trying to fight for their jobs and their students can see it. In the meantime, we’ve demoralized a teaching force and driven many of our best, most experienced teachers out of the classroom into other careers or early retirement. It’s why I left. I couldn’t take one more “bad teacher” speech from the governor or chairman of legislative education committees. I couldn’t take one more day of trying to gather “data” to prove I was doing a good job. I couldn’t take one more day of devoting my life to a job that, despite the positive outcomes I could see in my students, was leaving me emotionally bereft and killing my personal life.

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