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Diane Ravitch Takes Critics of Public Education to Task over Education Reform

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    Diane Ravitch, right, signs a copy of her latest book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, for School of Education graduate student Shahrzad Daneshvar.

    With two years of service in the Teach for America program under her belt, Shahrzad Daneshvar settled into her seat in the University of Miami’s Storer Auditorium, anxious to hear what one of the nation’s top educational analysts and historians had to say about what is being done in the name of school reform.

    For Daneshvar, a UM graduate student in the School of Education’s Community and Social Change Program, what she heard couldn’t have been more clear, direct, and unmistakable: Poor academic performance in the nation’s public schools is not a result of bad teachers but poverty, and to evaluate teacher effectiveness based on the test scores of their students will not help improve ailing school systems, but only hurt them.

    That was the message delivered by Diane Ravitch, former assistant secretary of education in the George H.W. Bush administration, who delivered the Northern Trust 2011 Lecture “Testing the Limits of Education Reform.” Northern Trust and UM’s School of Education sponsored the lecture.

    “I think it’s a scary time,” said Ravitch, explaining that teachers across the nation are feeling “very demoralized” because of critics who blame them for low-performing public schools, the mediocre test scores of students, and the achievement gaps among children of different races.

    “They’re demoralized because the level of criticism has become uncivil. There’s a lot of finger-pointing, and it’s very unfair,” Ravitch continued, a standing room-only audience listening to her every word, with dozens more watching the lecture on a video feed broadcast to a study room at the School of Business Administration.

    “Our schools have always had critics, but never has there been such fierce criticism directed at educators and public education itself.”

    Ravitch decried those detractors who call for firing teachers and principals and closing low-performing public schools and replacing them with privately managed schools.

    She had harsh words for the movie Waiting for ‘Superman,’ saying the 2010 documentary that is critical of American public schools is “propaganda that mixes fact and fiction.” The documentary’s claim, she said, that 70 percent of eighth graders read below grade level is untrue. In fact, based on federal testing data, that number is actually 25 percent, which is a figure, she said, that includes English-language learners and children with disabilities.

    “Poor academic performance,” said Ravitch, “is mostly the consequence and result of poverty, not bad teachers and not bad schools.”

    Her comments on the current education reform movement were far reaching. A professor of education at New York University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Ravitch also addressed the often controversial topic of charter schools, asserting that ailing public schools could perform just as effectively as successful charter-school models like the Harlem Children’s Zone if they had the same academic resources.

    She said many charter schools are rife with faults, noting that many lack oversight and enroll limited numbers of homeless and minority students.

    She also took a critical stance on Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, saying the $4.3 billion program designed to spur education reform is flawed in that it awards more funding to schools that meet certain conditions such as allowing teachers to be rated based on the test scores of students.

    Saying she wasn’t defending the status quo, Ravitch also offered solutions, calling for an increase in strong pre-kindergarten programs, balanced curricula, teacher recruitment and retention, and parent education.

    UM graduate student Daneshvar said she agreed with everything Ravitch spoke about.

    During her two years as a Teach for America instructor, Daneshvar taught first graders at two of Miami’s poorest inner city schools, motivating her students by making home visits and establishing relationships with their parents.

    “I joined Teach for America because I had witnessed the inequities of tracking in my high school and I wanted to join the movement to change that,” said Daneshvar, standing on the Storer Auditorium steps after the Ravitch lecture had concluded.

    She is starting a nonprofit intended to address many of the issues identified by Ravitch to improve public schools, including encouraging parent-child bonding. Said Daneshvar, “Despite the fact that I no longer teach, my experience as a corps member inevitably changed my life. It has redirected my future career plans into the direction of social work and public service.”

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