Suppose Governor Christie issued an executive order stating that if a city like Newark or even his home town if Mendham were not 100% crime-free by 2014, he would fire the entire police department and allow anyone, no matter what their qualifications, to carry a badge. He’d be subject to quite a bit of well-deserved ridicule. Yet that’s exactly what he’s doing with another profession – not cops, but teachers – according to noted education expert Diane Ravitch.
Ravitch was the keynote speaker on the first day of the annual convention of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) in Atlantic City today. And unlike the factually-challenged memes spewed by the corporate media and the education profiteers, Ravitch backed up her points with hard evidence.
In a comprehensive review of the right wing assault on education in New Jersey and across the country, Ravitch systematically debunked the myths being propagated by the corporatists and their enablers like the governors in Ohio, Wisconsin, Florida, and yes, New Jersey.
Ravitch began her remarks by pointing out that New Jersey’s public schools rank second in the nation in reading and third in mathematics. In fact, the Garden State’s schools consistently scored higher than those in the same socio-economic status under the leadership of über-“reformer” Michelle Rhee, who ran the District of Columbia’s system. Ravitch said that right wing education “experts” often impose simple solutions on complex problems.
The best, and most productive corporations, like SAS and Google, she noted, are those that value their employees, not those that treat their people as expendable resources as in early 20th century factories.
In their pursuit of profits, the corporate “reformers” have two goals, according to Ravitch. First is privatization, a way to dump tax dollars into the coffers of for-profit education businesses. Despite the evidence that charter schools perform no better than public institutions, privateers, along with their corporate media compatriots, spread misinformation about the efficacy of their initiatives.
The corporatist’s second goal is one at which Governor Christie excels. Ravitch was kind. She called it “deprofessionalization” of teachers. Here in New Jersey, it’s more like demonization. In their endless pursuit of profit over professionalism, so-called reformers are advocating using non-certified teachers and eliminating the requirement for a master’s degree. They are also advocating hiring people who have no classroom experience as school principals.
The only thing standing between these profiteers and their goals is unions. So a priority for the right wing is weakening or eliminating organized labor. Ravitch also mentioned that these corporatist’s profits are enhanced by large class sizes and reliance on on-line learning.
Several times Ravitch referred to the educational system in Finland, ranked best in the world. There, all teachers are unionized, are well paid, and work in an environment where teachers are valued, not demonized. Becoming a teacher in Finland is difficult, and their world-class schools do not rely on standardized tests. (In the United States, standardized testing has become an industry in itself, with millions of taxpayer dollars going to these companies.)
One of the differences between Finland and the United States is that in that Scandinavian country, fewer than four percent of the children live in poverty, as compared to greater than twenty percent here. So, as Ravitch points out, it’s “cold, cruel, and heartless” to assert that poverty is not a factor in attaining desirable educational outcomes.
Ravitch debunked the myths surrounding charter schools, pointing out that they don’t achieve better results despite being selective in whom they admit. In fact, she continued, half the failing schools in Florida are charters which take taxpayer money and fragment community energy. But these charter schools appeal to the privateers because they are generally non-union and often have lucrative connections to those in political power. Charter schools are generally unregulated and the latest trend is toward cyber-charters, where a handful of teachers oversee hundreds of students whose lessons are delivered by computer. Great for profits, lousy for students.
She then addressed another favorite of the Christies of the world – merit pay. Ravitch quoted studies that show that merit pay actually undermines performance of educators who typically choose that profession for reasons other than monetary remuneration. In her closing remarks, Ravitch pointed out that a healthy society needs a strong public sector and a strong private sector. Education is not a competitive race, it’s “a slow incremental implementation of human progress.” Public education made America great and we must preserve it for our children and grandchildren, she said.
Clearly, Ravitch’s talk resonated with the educators in the cavernous hall. As a non-educator, I was impressed with Ravitch’s common sense approach to a complex and diverse set of challenges. And as a son of a teacher and former spouse of a teacher, both of whom taught in difficult schools, I can appreciate how underappreciated their profession is. The real crime here is how Chris Christie and his ilk are tearing down one of the crown jewels of the state. This is the message that NJEA and concerned citizens need to send to the voters and taxpayers.
Following Ravitch’s talk, I spoke with two prominent New Jersey teachers. Marie Corfield is an art teacher who almost pulled off an upset in the recent election, running for State Assembly against entrenched incumbents. Barbara Keshishian is the President of NJEA. Their comments appear below.
Disclosure: I am proud to have worked on Marie Corfield’s election campaign.