Ravitch Electrifies Crowd, Counters Bill Gates at BC

Diane Ravitch (Photo by George Abbott White)

by Lisa Guisbond

How does it feel to attract the attention and ire of one of the most powerful and wealthy men on earth? Pretty exhilarating, according to author Diane Ravitch, speaking to a standing-room-only crowd of more than 300 at Boston College Law School on December 1. In recent weeks, Ravitch’s searing analysis of the destructive education policies pushed by billionaire Bill Gates has apparently caught his attention, causing him to ask her a series of leading questions in a well-known education blog. But Ravitch refuses to follow Gates’ lead.

Ravitch, author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System and many other books and articles, was invited by Citizens for Public Schools and the Boston College Lynch School of Education to give a speech titled, “Taking Back School Reform: What kind of reform do we want and how are we going to get it?”

With apparent glee, Ravitch shared her responses to Gates’ questions. For example, in answer to his question, “Does she like the status quo?” Ravitch replied, “No, I certainly don’t like the status quo. I don’t like the attacks on teachers, I don’t like the attacks on the educators who work in our schools day in and day out, I don’t like the phony solutions that are now put forward that won’t improve our schools at all. I am not at all content with the quality of American education in general, and I have expressed my criticisms over many years, long before Bill Gates decided to make education his project. I think American children need not only testing in basic skills, but an education that includes the arts, literature, the sciences, history, geography, civics, foreign languages, economics, and physical education.” (The questions and Ravitch’s answers appeared in The Answer Sheet blog in The Washington Post.) Ravitch believes in testing for diagnostic purposes, not for high stakes uses.

A former assistant secretary of education in the administration of President George H.W. Bush, Ravitch has earned the attention of Gates and many others, both for the strength of her analysis and the fact that she has radically changed her views on education policy.

Ravitch isn’t taking on Bill Gates for trivial reasons. She’s taking him on because of his outsized power and influence over our nation’s school policies. He and like-minded,  deep-pocketed fellow philanthropists Eli Broad and the Wal-Mart Waltons are running the show. They fund programs and train the next generation of principals and superintendents, favoring business-minded people with little or no educational background. What they want and we’re getting is a heavy-handed push for privatization in the form of charter schools and private “school turnaround” specialists, high-stakes testing, punishment and a long list of unproven or proven-to-harm strategies like evaluating and paying teachers based on student test scores.

Diane Ravitch stayed to talk to members of the audience. (Photo by George Abbott White)

Many in the Boston College audience may have been familiar with Ravitch’s trenchant and evidence-based analysis through her book and her many articles and blog posts, but there was something different about listening to her in this large and energized crowd that included teachers, parents, legislators, and others. As Medford School Committee member Sharon Guzik put it, “I have heard most of what Diane had to say – I’ve read her book and read the blogs and things that CPS posts regularly and I’ve listened to Diane’s talks on YouTube.  But it’s different being in a room of like-minded people and listening to her live.  There’s energy there and hope!”

Indeed, if Ravitch’s analysis was familiar, the poignant comments in the Q & A after her talk lent weight to her arguments that the school policies being driven by Duncan, Gates et al. are wrecking our public schools and hurting children and families. Whether the speakers were legislators, teachers, parents or college professors, they elaborated upon Ravitch’s general themes with their particular concerns and stories that vividly expressed the urgent need for change.

Boston Rep. Liz Malia, for example, expressed her gratitude to Ravitch. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart,” Malia said, explaining that she had gotten a call from Mayor Menino earlier in the day about a plan to close two schools in her district, one within two blocks of her home. “I went home and sat for a long time. What do we do now? Where are we going?” Malia noted that Boston has lifted the charter cap and at the same time is closing traditional public schools because we can’t afford them. “The fight is just beginning,” Malia said. “The only way to succeed is to come together.” Diane responded that closing schools does not help children or schools themselves. “This is educational euthanasia. Doctors don’t say ‘You’re not getting better I’m going to kill you.”

Rep. Liz Malia shared her dismay over Boston school closures. (Photo by Larry Aaronson)

Rep. Malia noted that she did not vote for the Massachusetts so-called “Achievement Gap” bill, which among other things, lifted a cap on charter schools. Many legislators who did vote for the bill pointed to the promise of Race to the Top money as their reason, and Massachusetts did finally win $250 million over four years, less than was hoped. But Ms. Ravitch said that winning RTTT is actually losing because it requires states to do things they wouldn’t choose to do. “You can’t use the money to plug holes in the budget. You have to do what the feds tell you to do.” For example, the money can be used for RTTT-specified “turnaround” activities, but not regular operating expenses at a time when school budgets are being cut to the bone.

Boston Parent Kenny Jervis, who has been emailing with Ravitch, described his frustrations at Boston’s plans for school closures and other draconian measures and his efforts to find a group that would help fight policies that are dividing and disempowering the public school parent community. “There aren’t many [such groups]. This group is for this kind of kid. That group is for that kind of kid. They should be for all kids.”

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves, Kenny. It seems CPS is the group you’ve been looking for.


Lisa Guisbond is co-editor of the Backpack and a member of the CPS board of directors.

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