I used to think that nothing could be worse than the old Board of Education, but I was wrong. After two top-to-bottom reorganizations of the school system in four years, I have come to see that there is a virtue in stability, especially for schools, which are communities.
Furthermore, having seen how volatile and manipulable the state tests are, I have become skeptical of using such poor measures for punishing or rewarding teachers, students or principals.
Those words are from an op ed in The New York Post entitled An Unfair Attack, written by Diane Ravitch in response to an attack by Kathryn Wilde in the same publication on Oct. 30 entitled Hypocritical Critic: Ravitch vs. N.Y. School Reforms Keep reading to understanding why Ravitch responded so forcefully.
For those who don't know, New York City is typical of a number of big cities where the mayor has seized control of the school system. Richie Daley has done this (to tragic ends) with a number of appointments in Chicago, more recently Adrian Fenty has followed a similar path bringing in Michelle Rhee o Washington DC. The motivations may be noble - trying to solve the seemingly intractable problems of struggling inner city schools - but ofthen the methods used are counter-productive. In New York, Michael Bloomberg brought in Joel Klein, previous, from Bill Clinton's Justice Department among other places (read his bio from Wikipedia to get a sense of the man - the official bio on the NY Schools website has been pulled). Of course, Klein had no experience with school administration or teaching, nor did his work experience ever include serious management or administrative positions.
Why is this relevant? Let me quote from Ravitch again:
This attack, I have learned from published accounts, was orchestrated by the New York City Department of Education, which compiled a secret dossier about my views and turned it over to Wylde. I am at the top of the Department's enemies list. This is a frightening way for a public agency to behave.
Diane Ravitch is an historian of education, who is also committed to the idea of public schools. I have had my disagreements with her, and my direct personal dealings have been limited to one extended phone call. But I have found her to be a caring human being, one who has an unassailable sense of integrity: she quit the campaign of the current president. She has increasingly become a critic of the current administration's approach to education and of NCLB. I may not agree with her prescriptions to fix our educational problems, but she has a logically consistent position and is willing to attempt to find common ground with people of differing viewpoints. She now participates in a joint blogging effort at Education Week,with one of my educational heroes, Deborah Meier, with whom she is a colleague at the Steinhardt School of Education at NYU.
One can get a sense of Diane Ravitch's commitment in the following two paragraphs:
Have I abandoned my belief that all children deserve a great education? Absolutely not. Indeed, I am appalled that schooling in this city has degenerated into little more than testing and preparing for more testing. This is decidedly not great education!
A great education is one that includes history, literature, the arts, physical education, science, mathematics and foreign language. The leadership of the Department of Education has no educational vision.
She criticizes the results of the efforts of the Klein-led school system. And she notes the following:
More troubling to me than the personal nature of the attack by Wylde is the likelihood that her article is intended to silence not only me but other independent critics. The message seems obvious: If this can be done to me, it can be done to anyone - particularly independent researchers at local universities that are now receiving grants from the city Department of Education.
The 2002 measure that handed control of the schools to the mayor also eliminated the central Board of Education and the local community school boards. At the time, I supported that legislation. Now, with the benefit of experience, I question the wisdom of eliminating all public forums in which school officials must stand up in public and answer questions. The net effect of these changes leaves the public out of public education.
Too many people think their ideas should be implemented without input from stakeholders. This is not merely the kind of attitude that we have seen displayed in the current national administration with its rejection of any oversight and its attempts to silence critics from Joe Wilson to John Murtha, by anhy means fair or foul. It is also unfortunately the attitude of many who could fairly be described as neo-liberals, a group of which Klein is clearly an exemplar. They brook no disagreement or public criticism, and it becomes crucial to silence a voice that might be credibile in opposition, as Joe Wilson was to the Iraq policy and as Diane Ravitch clearly is on educational matters. Fortunately some people do not intimidate easily:
The public schools need involvement by parents and local communities. They need a lively and open public forum in which decisions can be debated before they are finalized. The public should have a voice in what happens to the children of the community.
Diane Ravitch makes clear that she will continue using her expertise and her powers of expression:
This I promise: I will continue to analyze the facts and the evidence to the best of my ability, without fear or favor. I will not be intimidated. I will not be silenced.
And I say, good for her!
There is something seriously wrong with people unwilling to hear criticism. Actions to suppress criticism imply to me an insecurity or worse a recognition that the positions being criticized cannot truly be defended.
I have said many times that what happens to our public schools should serve as the equivalent of the canary in the coal mine for much of our nation and our society. And if people like Joel Klein, who really does NOT know what he is doing, can with impunity act through others to attempt to destroy and silence his critics, there is yet another threat to our freedom of expression, which means a real threat to the liberal democracy our Constitution was supposed to ensure us. We must remember the words of Franklin, that we had a Republic if we could keep it. We can not afford to look away at any diminution of rights, at any attempt by those holding power to silence voices of opposition.
There are, as I said, issues on which I have strong disagreement with Diane Ravitch. But I know she is a woman of integrity, who has dedicated her professional life to trying to improve public schools. Our vision may be different, but our ultimate goals are similar, and - unlike Joel Klen and people of his ilk - I welcome voice different from mine and look forward to the exploration of where we can find common ground.
I think we have an obligation to acknowledge and support voices of courage, voices of those who oppose the abuse and misuse of power, even if we may agree on the merits of the argument of the powerful (which I assure you in this case I do not - I am merely attempting to make my point somewhat more broad). Sometimes that may put us in an uncomfortable place. Certainly I am no fan, for example, of Robert Barr but I welcome his principled criticism of the restriction of civil liberties by the Bush administration. And Bruce Fein used to irritate me, but his has been one of the most powerful criticisms of the constitutional abuses of the Bush administration.
If you care about schools and the future of public education, you might consider dropping a note to the New York Post supporting her on the issues of criticism, objecting to how Joel Klein went after this one critic. You might even consider sending her a message thanking her for speaking up.
Of greater importance, do not silence your own voice. When you see things you believe to be wrong or even simply wrong-headed, speak out, write, call. If nothing else you will ensure that there continue to be multiple voices heard in the dialog over public policy.