Esteemed education scholar Diane Ravitch is engaging in a bizarre bit of sniping at the Education Equality Project, the education reform group headed by NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and Reverend Al Sharpton. Ravitch posts on a sort of epistolary blog called Bridging Differences, which is hosted by Education Week, and her latest entry attacks E.E.P.’s claim that closing the achievement gap is the new Civil Rights battle.
Frankly, I am tired of the claim that education is the civil rights issue of our generation. No, it is not. The leaders of EEP say that the civil rights revolution will be completed if only the test scores of whites and blacks converge; and that if kids take test prep endlessly and conquer the demands of standardized testing, then Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy will be fulfilled.
If the EEP “reformers” were truly concerned about civil rights and not just posturing, they would have a plan to do something about de facto segregation; they would launch a program to make sure that every child had access to good health care and started school ready to learn; they would coordinate between the schools and other government agencies to make sure that families had access to job training programs and social services and the basic necessities of life.
What’s got her goat? Why the enmity towards a group that espouses the goal “to eliminate the racial and ethnic achievement gap in public education by working to create an effective school for every child?” Maybe their claim of a new front in the Civil Rights movement is histrionic. Maybe it’s not. At any rate, Ravitch’s outrage seems out of proportion to the semantics of her argument. She even seems to be indulging in a kind of paranoia; in response to some bemused reader comments on her entry, she notes that the NYC Department of Education has “assigned public relations staff to monitor blogs and make anonymous comments” and that a PR firm working in support of Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein was “lurking” on blogs: “I fear that this blog is now hosting some of these paid lurkers.”
Andrew Rotherham of Eduwonk conjectures that Ravitch’s ire is a result of the anti-union predilections of groups like E.E.P. He writes that Ravitch “is now a stronger teacher unionist than most of my friends active in teachers’ unions.” It’s true that the growing number of education reform groups out there like E.E.P. share an agenda that seem anti-union, like the calls for differentiated pay, teacher accountability, and advocacy of charter school.(Most charter school faculty are not unionized.)
Ideally, the agenda of teacher unions correlates with the needs of students. But the new information coming out of reformer experiments (like charter schools) is that our poor kids, the ones defended by both Ravitch and E.E.P., need non-traditional/non-union-ish education models to succeed. There’s a consensus evolving that needy kids require a different and more varied menu of educational services than our wealthier kids — longer school days, longer school years, tying teacher pay to student growth. So the agenda of teacher unions and the agenda of education reformers start to diverge and what is pro-union becomes anti-kid, and what’s anti-union becomes pro-kid.
It’s a dichotomy that needs to be tamed if we’re going to get anywhere.
In New Jersey, the N.J.E.A. appears impervious to pleas from school districts to consider more varied school schedules, or teacher accountability, or tying increased pay to student growth and teacher productivity. In fact, N.J.E.A. seems to morphing into a parody of job protectionism, especially as N.J. districts slash programs and increase class size in order to meet payroll. NJEA, here’s a word of advice: rigidity is not your friend.
Ravitch lost her head for a minute, and we have faith that she’ll recover her erudite panache. We all need to recover our sense of shared mission. Education is a’changing, and either we all change along with it or the kids truly will get left behind.