Dear Dr. Ravitch,
I remember watching the passage of No Child Left Behind and thinking that it was a terrible idea, the product of an ignorant President and his anti-union backers, and it saddened me to no end to see old education stalwarts like Senator Kennedy join onto the new President’s initiative. I suppose it was a mix of good will for the newPresident, as well as optimism at what the bill would accomplish that allowed those like the late senator to believe that NCLB would change things for the better. I must admit that like most Americans, I stopped paying much attention to Education Policy initiatives, especially after 9-11 and the march to wars. But in 2010, I picked up The Death and Life of the Great American School System back in July of 2010, and I have felt as though so much of the noise surrounding education reform in America has come sharply into focus through the details of your book.
The pessimist in me sees the current wave of ed reform proposals as cunningly crafted attacks on the public school system itself and the teacher’s unions that make the profession somewhat bearable. It’s depressing to see so many idealistic and enthusiastic young people getting swept up in organizations like Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), Students for Education Reform (SFER), Michelle Rhee’s Students First, or Wendy Kopp’s Teach for America. Having an older sister who served as a TFA corpsmember in Philadelphia, I heard firsthand accounts of the dangers of focusing on standardized tests. She joined TFA because, as an impressionable college student, it seemed like a good way to help make a difference. Shortly into teaching the school implemented “self contained classrooms” which kept students locked in the same room all day long and mandates to not allow any child to go to the bathroom except at lunch. She saw her curriculum be pushed aside in favor of test-prep with a zealous drive to raise test scores, so that the for-profit Edison School Company could receive bonuses from the state and city. It amazes me that the people who are calling the schools broken today are many of the same people who pushed them to this breaking point.
Something that drives me around the bend when it comes to those who are pushing “Ed Reform” is that so many of them never attended public schools. Their children rarely attend public schools. That, in and of itself is fine by me. I only attended public school until the 5th grade but what I advocate in public education is what I was fortunate enough to experience at a private school. I want the knowledge and practices of my progressive education to be offered to the children of Detroit, Chicago, New York, and LA. I find it so unspeakably hypocritical that those who advocate the typical ed reform policies (longer schooldays, longer school year, merit pay based on standardized tests, dissolution of unions, and the removal of non-tested subjects from the curriculum) would likely not wish the same thing for their own children, or send their own children to schools that did any of those. Those who are preaching for change to the public school system, who come from a private school background, should be trying to incorporate the positive elements of the private schools into public education, and not reduce public education to the lowest form of education possible.
A very good friend of mine from high school now works for David Harris’ The Mind Trust. He and I both benefited from attending a high school with a rich John Dewey Progressive Education background. We learned science by doing, and we spent most of our afternoons outdoors, not sitting at a desk preparing for a state test. We were not “drilled” for tests but we both managed to get accepted to Ivy League colleges. I believe that he, and millions of other young people who have accepted the current mainstream chants of the ed reform movement, got involved to make things better but are instead making them much much worse. How can we call out those who would degrade the public education system of this country for advocating one set of policies, and then making sure that their children do not encounter the consequences? How can we convince young people of the harm that DFER, SFER, and TFA are going to cause? How can we explain to politicians that just because some studies claim that money is not a silver bullet, that doesn’t mean we should be reducing education budgets?
Thank you so much for the work you continue to do. We need more education advocates like you, and a lot less of the ones like Ms. Rhee.