Respect, Retrospectively

Oct 29, 2010 by

On Wednesday night, I drove toward home a despairing cynic and skeptic and knew I couldn’t bring all that ill will straight into my house. It wouldn’t have been right.

For the record, I don’t blame Diane Ravitch for my state at all. Hearing and seeing her speak at Dillard University was a revelation. Although I am only part of the way through her latest book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, I had an idea of what to expect from her, having also read some of her latest articles at the Shanker Blog and The New York Review of Books, checked out her Twitter stream from time to time, and taken in her style and her careful, thoughtful attention to facts and research in The Language Police. Ravitch has steeped herself in this country’s education history and its attitudes and trends toward public education…and, as a former proponent of education reforms such as testing and school choice, she details her change of heart in Death and Life and presents many examples of how market-driven reforms, among many other ones being applied to public education today with heavy hands, are eviscerating traditional systems. The tales of woe were exhausting but necessary, if only to convince the majority of us assembled that what is happening here is a nationwide travesty, and that we aren’t alone in our frustrations.

The audience for Ravitch’s talk, however, exposed the fissures beneath the microscopically thin veneer of education reform that was imposed on New Orleans’ public schools right when the questions from the audience began. Teacher, poet, and former Students At the Center co-director Kalamu ya Salaam kicked things off by asking “What can we do to effectively change those people who are sincerely wrong?” Ravitch emphasized the need for more voices needing to be raised against the reform movements in public education, and teachers stood and voiced their feelings of helplessness in the face of the “system of schools”. One man asked Ravitch her opinion of two reforms pending approval by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education: virtual charter school operations and grading schools by a letter grade system – she disapproved of both, saying that virtual charters were just a low-overhead marketing venture, and that the letter grading as implemented in New York City is a dismal failure, as it doesn’t measure the schools over long terms. Good schools that have been given Fs based on miniscule drops in performance in a single year are frustrated by the grading, with one school choosing to disregard it altogether.

Wheels began to wobble when a representative of the Cowen Institute spoke up and challenged Ravitch to look more carefully at school reforms in New Orleans – Salaam pointedly asked the lady why, if she was touting curriculum reforms and increased offerings of AP courses in the public schools, did the RSD forbid Douglass High School (where Students At The Center had been located) from offering any AP courses? A teacher at John McDonogh High asked her about the same policies towards AP courses being implemented at his school as well. Another speaker complimented the Cowen lady on her courage in speaking up but firmly countered her sunny outlook by calling for the community to band together if so many were opposed to the major changes that were being thrust upon the schools.

My own restlessness, combined with comments I’d been trading back and forth with a companion sitting next to me that were increasing in tones of cynicism, snark, and weariness, dangerously peaked when Orleans Parish School Board member Brett Bonin spoke up. He touted how improved the OPSD is and asked how he could get the word out as to how good it was, since the media seemed to be ignoring it. I wanted to stand and yell that the reason why it had improved so much was that the failing schools are being run by the Recovery School District – the ones that were good before 8/29/2005 are still the good schools, they are still under the OPSD umbrella, and most of them are charters. Bonin didn’t make that success – he was elected to manage what was already there. It was akin to standing up and saying, “Hey, why doesn’t the media take more notice that I haven’t broken what doesn’t need fixing???”

Oh, I had had it…even if the lady from St Tammany Parish after Bonin spoke, and, after exhorting educators in the auditorium to conduct themselves more like experts of their professions, mentioned the sensible idea other states’ parents and teachers have started to take – the opt-out of the standardized tests. I held it together enough to compliment Dr. Ravitch on her talk and ended up detouring to a local watering hole. I couldn’t bring my turmoil home as of that moment. My head was spinning.

How did things go so wrong? How did education get co-opted into being subject to business models and market-driven economies? How can we keep going on at each other’s throats over how to proceed while our children stand by and wait impatiently for us to quit our griping and get on with the learning? We all got lost, horribly lost, and something ate the bread crumbs meant to mark the way back and then bashed our brains in for doing that in the first place. Even Dr. Ravitch had ended her talk by saying, “I hope what happened in New Orleans never happens anywhere else in the United States.”

I sipped my beer and watched the Texas Rangers and the San Francisco Giants duke it out in Game One of the World Series. I hadn’t watched a major league game in a while, and I hadn’t seen Vladimir Guerrero in action since his days with the now-gone Montreal Expos. He made some errors in the outfield that night. He looked older, wiser, and more tired. The up-and-coming baby-faced players like the Giants’ Buster Posey were ensuring that Guerrero looked like a relic out there, but he soldiered on in right. I thought of the signs on the fences at the fields where my son plays his baseball games: Let the Players Play, Let the Coaches Coach, Let the Umpires Umpire. I could feel for Guerrero out there, but I wasn’t going to run out onto that field and take his place. I respect his history in the game, his expertise, his grit…and the fact that sometimes, players have bad days, even on a storied diamond like AT&T Park in the 2010 World Series.

We don’t respect teaching as a profession, not since the nineteenth-century days when, as one teacher in the session after Ravitch’s talk mentioned, it was proposed that women be hired to teach, as school districts could save money by only paying them half of what men would demand for the same job. We don’t respect parenting or its role in how kids learn, because if we did, we’d be looking much harder at ways to improve everyone’s economic status and implementing those measures instead, so that parents could really work and play with their kids. And our kids suffer mightily in the wake of it all.

I have never wanted to reverse those curses more.


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