The most important speech on education in years

Dec 10, 2011 by

was given yesterday at the National Opportunity to Learn Education Summit by Diane Ravitch.

Diane Ravitich

You can read the entire text here (pdf).

You should.

You should pass it on.

For example, how about this paragraph:

So today we see Wall Street hedge funders and billionaires saying that they are leading the civil rights movement of our time. I have trouble imagining Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., walking arm in arm with billionaires in a crusade to privatize control of public education. Dr. King understood that social movements need a mass base, and that they are not based in Wall Street. He knew that the civil rights movement depended on its moral authority as well as its ability to mobilize poor and working people in coalition with labor unions. He had no desire to privatize. He wanted to make private interests bow to the demands of the public interest. As I watch rightwing politicians doing their best to destroy the public sector unions, I recall that Dr. King was assassinated at the very time that he was fighting to organize the sanitation workers of Memphis. How dare they invoke his legacy to attack public education and public sector workers!

And that is just one selection.

Please keep reading – at least Diane’s speech if not this posting.


Or perhaps, from the next paragraph, these words:

The free market works very well in producing goods and services, but it works through competition. In competition, the weakest fall behind. The market does not produce equity. In the free market, there are a few winners and a lot of losers. Some corporate reformers today advocate that schools should be run like a stock portfolio: Keep the winners and sell the losers. Close schools where the students have low scores and open new ones. But this doesn’t help the students who are struggling. No student learns better because his school was closed; closing schools does not reduce the achievement gap. Poor kids get bounced from school to school. No one wants the ones with low scores because they threaten the reputation and survival of the school.

And then there is this:

We now know that none of the current carrot-and-stick policies will shrink the gap. We know it because they have been tried for 10 years and they haven’t worked. Structural changes like charters and vouchers overall will not make a difference. Merit pay makes no difference. Judging teachers by test scores demoralizes teachers and will lead to narrowing of the curriculum—so that the districts where children have the lowest scores will have more time for test preparation and less time for the arts, less time for history or civics, less time for science, less time for physical education. The children who need a great education the most will get the least.And many more children will be left behind.

And many more children will be left behind.

They will not be the children of the 1%.  Ravitch notes the recent statements of Mayor Bloomberg that he does not see the harm in firing half the teachers and doubling class sizes, claiming he went to large classes and it didn’t hurt him, but

He didn’t mention that his daughters went to schools where the class size was 12.

No, the children left behind will be those of low income families.

They will be disproportionally children of color, although increasingly white families that used to be middle class find their economic status slipping away, as meantime the 1% and their Republican (and unfortunately too many Democratic) allies in government at all levels seem willing to cut public services, raise taxes on the middle class and the poor while further cutting taxes on the wealthy and the corporations.

Ravitch will tell you about how different Finland is.   So will I in forthcoming posts, having read the best book about Finland, Pasi Sahlberg’s Finnish Lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland?.   Here’s the sad thing –  Finland did not develop most of what it is using in education, but rather borrowed from the work of thinkers in other countries, especially in the US.   Like much of what has happened in technology and management (think Edwards Deming, for example), we develop it but our entrenched interests ignore it because it diminishes their income and their power.

For me the key of the speech by Ravitch appears in a series of the basic services that every child needs, that we could afford were the system not tilted so heavily towards the 1%, were we not wasting trillions in the military industrial complex, were we not so committed to bailing out the financial sector at the expense of the rest of us.

Here are those points.  I am not putting them in a block quote.  I will offer each line in bold and then perhaps in unbolded text some commentary of my own.

Every pregnant woman should have good pre-natal care and nutrition so that her child is born healthy. One of three children born to women who do not get good prenatal care will have disabilities that are preventable. That will cost society far more than providing these women with prenatal care.
Our damage to our young people starts in utero.  If some Americans are so committed to life, then perhaps they will agree that it is insufficient merely to ensure that the child is born.  Former Senator Fritz Hollings pushed the WIC program in part because he understood the need here, and on the next point.

Every child should have the medical attention and nutrition that they need to grow up healthy
We used to understand this.  That is in part why we have a school lunch program.   But that is insufficient if that is the only guaranteed nutrition for a child, and it is insufficient if the necessary medical care does not accompany it.

Every child should have high-quality early childhood education.
But that education should NOT be formally structured school.  Perhaps we should learn from Reggio Emelia how to do early childhood?

Every school should have experienced teachers who are prepared to help all children learn.
We cannot afford to keep turning over our teaching core.  For one thing, we waste tons of money in the hiring process.  For another, instability of the teaching force means instability of school community, which is essential for effective learning.  We will only address this with a comprehensive reform of how we approach teaching, from recruiting to training to induction to mentoring to assisting.  Subject matter knowledge is important but insufficient – it is like the .300 hitter who cannot help other players if it is not accompanied by an understanding of how to teach, with a respect for all the children in one’s charge.

Every teacher should have at least a masters degree
I understand Bill Gates argues against this.  But let’s look at Finland, where teachers are respected, where teaching is a high prestige occupation entrance to which is highly competitive (it is easier to be admitted to an Ivy League college than to get into the teaching program at the University of Helsinki).  All teachers get masters degrees BEFORE they are given charge of their own classrooms.

Every principal should be a master teacher, not a recruit from industry, the military, or the sports world.
Look at the title:  it is short for “principal teacher.”  Perhaps we need to redefine the job to be far less administrative and budgetary and far more committed to the processes of real education.  It is hard for someone who lacks understanding of teaching to be an effective leader of other teachers.

Every superintendent should be an experienced educator who understand teaching and learning and the needs of children.
This is critical, but sadly disappearing from American schools, with more and more a turning to people with managerial experience but little real understanding of education and learning.

Every school should have a health clinic.
It would be ideal if children could get basic health services without having to miss a day of school.  It might catch illnesses and conditions before they become severe.  At a minimum, we should be providing screening on vision and hearing for every child as early as possible.  Health issues and restricted vision and hearing have an obviously detrimental affect upon learning if not addressed.

Schools should collaborate with parents, the local community, civic leaders, and local business leaders to support the needs of childre
Schools should be rooted in communities.  That is one reason why many of the “reform” approaches have been unsuccessful:  they cut the connection between the school and the communities from which the children come.

Every school should have a full and balanced curriculum, with the arts, sciences, history, civics, geography, mathematics, foreign languages, and physical education.
If we do not realize that learning is far more than a limited approach to literacy and numeracy we rob our society of the talents of our students.  If we think all that matters is STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) because we think that is what matters to be economically competitive, then perhaps we have missed what we should have learned from the recent financial debacles so crippling not only this nation but much of the world:  that civic responsibility, morality and ethics matter, and these are often best learned through literature, drama, poetry, art, architecture.  Here our 2nd President, John Adams, for all his faults, was far wiser than most of those attempting to guide educational policy today.  I quote him yet again:  “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”

Every child should have time and space to play.
Play develops imagination.  Playing with other children teaches our young people how to organize, how to cooperate with one another, even how to learn.  On this I strongly suggest the recent book by Deborah Meier and two others from the Mission Hill School in Boston, Playing for Keeps:  Life and Learning on a Public School Playground.

We must stop investing in testing, accountability, and consultants and start investing in children.
On the one hand those driving reform have insisted upon more and more testing and “accountability” then complain that we are spending money and not getting results.  Perhaps that is because our approach is in conflict with its stated intention of improving education.   We worry that other nations like Finland and Singapore and the Canadian province of Ontario are eating our lunch on international comparisons, but they do not insist on the kinds and degree of testing we are imposing, they find other more productive ways to ensure that resources put forth to educate their young people are effective.  Oh, and by the way, Finland spends far less per child than do we, with far better results.   Hmm……

This speech by Diane Ravitch is powerful, it is important, it brings together in a short space so much of what people should know and understand.

A few paragraphs before the end of her speech, Ravitch offers a series of questions I believe are crucial to where we are.   Take a few moments.  Read the questions in the next block quote, and consider their import:

Do we want to be a decent society or a decadent society? Do we want to nurture, protect and inspire all of our children? Do we want children who are leaders or followers? Do we want to make sure that this generation of young people is prepared to sustain our democracy? Do we want citizens prepared to ask questions or just to answer questions posed by authorities?

If we are not prepared to wrestle with these questions, then we should acknowledge that we have given up on meaningful public education for most of your children, and therefore we have abandoned the dream of a democratic republic and are willing to abandon the principles to which so many dedicated so much throughout our history.

I am not a strong believer in the usual approach to American Exceptionalism.   But if we want to assert that we are the greatest nation in the world –  something really not supported by a lot of the data on things like health care, economic inequity, political inequality, infant mortality, life expectancy, qualiity of life (not merely how much we spend) – then perhaps we can take that belief and consider seriously the final paragraph of this powerful speech by Diane Ravitch:

Surely the greatest nation in the world can mobilize the will to do what is right for the children. It won’t be easy, it won’t be cheap, and it won’t be fast. Doing the right thing never is. The only simple part is to recognize that what we are doing now is not working and will never work. What we need is a vision of a good education for every child. We should start now. Today.

Today.  Not tomorrow, not after we fix the financial crisis, not after the next election.  Right now.

Because every day we do not address these issues we cheat ever more students of what should be their birthright as Americans.   And we thereby rob our society of what they can bring to us all.

Read the speech.

Pass it on.

It will be your start to making a difference.  Today.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Related Posts


Share This

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.