By Dina Martin
Diane Ravitch speaks at Herbst Theatre in San Francisco.
At a time when so many educators are demoralized and under attack by corporate reformers and privatizers, Diane Ravitch’s message proved to be “chicken soup for the teacher’s soul” for throngs who turned out for her speaking tour of California in January.
Once an ardent supporter of the ill-conceived No Child Left Behind Act, the New York University education professor made headlines across the country in recent years for doing a complete about-face on NCLB, testing, accountability, pay-for-performance, and the merits of charter schools. In the process, she has become a hero to millions of beleaguered public school teachers across the country.
One of those teachers was Erik Knudson, second vice president of the Sacramento City Teachers Association (SCTA), who conceived the idea of inviting Ravitch to California more than a year ago.
“Somehow, we’ve been branded as what’s wrong with education, and not seen as student mentors and advocates. Being demonized like that incited me to take action,” Knudson says.
With the support of SCTA, Knudson reached out to the Capital Service Center Council and eight other Sacramento area chapters: Elk Grove, Twin Rivers, San Juan, Folsom-Cordova, Stockton, Lodi, Davis, and Washington. Each in turn made commitments to turn out their members for the event. But even a seasoned speaker like Ravitch was startled when more than 3,500 educators and community members showed up at the Sacramento Convention Center on a rainy Friday night to hear her.
Though the event was billed as “An Evening with Diane Ravitch,” several other supporters of public education joined her, including Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond, and Anthony Cody, a teacher and blogger for Education Week — all of whom shared her words of encouragement for teachers.
Ravitch also spoke to smaller but equally enthusiastic audiences earlier in the week at Herbst Theatre in San Francisco, where the event was co-sponsored by CTA and the California Federation of Teachers and hosted by United Educators of San Francisco, and at Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles, sponsored by United Teachers Los Angeles.
The best-selling author of “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” Ravitch maintains a breakneck schedule even while on a lecture tour, as CTA Vice President Eric Heins discovered while spending time with her in Sacramento and in San Francisco, where she met with local education leaders before her speaking engagement.
“Spending the day with Dr. Ravitch was inspiring,” Heins says. “Whether she was talking in a small group, to a crowded room, or to her 24,000 Twitter followers, she challenged us to fight back against unproven reforms and for what we know works in our classrooms.”
Ravitch, who learned on this trip that she is the same age as Gov. Jerry Brown, said she’s realized she’s at a point in her life where she’s not afraid to speak out to critics.
“They’re not going to stop me, and they’re not going to shut me up,” she said during a Sacramento reception with educators, deans of nearby schools of education, and local and state officials.
Corporate reformers have two goals in mind, she later told a rapt audience at the convention center: privatizing schools and “de-professionalizing” teachers.
Although the Gates, Broad and Dell foundations have money and political power on their side, “what they don’t have is the truth, or evidence that their reforms work,” she said.
Despite the backing of big-moneyed corporate reformers, proposals to fire teachers based on the test scores of their students don’t address the fact that the teaching profession already loses 50 percent of new teachers in their first five years of employment, nor do they take into consideration that “the new teachers might be worse than the ones that are fired,” Ravitch said.
Merit pay has also proved to be a failure. Ravitch cited a Vanderbilt University study that concluded merit pay alone does not raise student test scores and achievement. It hasn’t worked in Washington, D.C., or in New York, which spent $56 million on a disastrous merit pay program.
Despite the assaults on the teaching profession, Ravitch pointed to some positive developments coming from the work of education advocates in California, including former Oakland teacher turned education blogger Anthony Cody, the “best voice for teachers in the nation”; Tom Torlakson, the “wisest state superintendent of public instruction”; and Jerry Brown, “the only governor in the nation who gives a damn about public education.”
But nothing will change, Ravitch said, unless teachers get involved.
“Speak out, blog, write letters, use social media, run for office, and if none of that works, engage in direct action,” she said. “It’s time to organize, demonstrate and agitate.”