On Friday night, January 20th, my friend and fellow conservative blogger Mr. Chandler of Buckhorn Road and I zipped down to the Sacramento Convention Center to hear a talk by noted "education historian" Diane Ravitch. I didn't realize it was sponsored by a bunch of teachers unions; I thought it was going to be an intellectual talk by someone who used to agree with me but now has switched sides. I thought I was going to get some really good information that would "challenge my assumptions" and make me think. Instead, what I got was, if you'll pardon the mixed metaphor, a liberal red-meat bacchanalia. As Mr. Chandler described it, we were "pilgrims in an unholy land".
We entered the Convention Center, where a couple thousand seats had been set up. Interestingly enough, they were mostly filled by the time the talk started. Imagine, a couple thousand teachers coming to hear a talk by someone who used to support the No Child Left Behind Act! As we entered we were given the following playbill (click to enlarge):
Holy crap! Linda Darling-Hammond, one of the crazies of the "educational equity" movement, was going to be a speaker! At this point we had our first realization of what we were in for.
The first speaker didn't make it a minute into his speech without launching an attack on Michelle Rhee, about whom I've written glowingly several times on this blog (type Rhee into the search box at the bottom of this page). When he spoke later he mentioned the Sacramento Bee, Sacramento's only remaining newspaper and one that is widely recognized to be somewhat left-leaning. He attacked the Bee, saying, "Without the News and Review, where would we be?" The Sacramento News and Review is an alt-weekly paper; just to give you a sense of what it's like, the vast majority of the ads in the back of it are for massage parlors, so-called medical marijuana dispensaries (which the feds started going after a couple weeks ago), and 1-900-SEX phone numbers. It's sort of a counter-culture paper. I read it every once in awhile, but let's not pretend for a moment that it's "mainstream" or "balanced". Anyway, for whatever reason, the Bee isn't liberal enough or radical enough for this Knudson fellow! And to make matters worse, his question generated significant applause! I just cannot understand that. The Bee isn't supportive of public schools? Really? (Incidentally, here's the SN&R's interview with Ravitch. It's actually the type of reasonable, sober discussion that I expected at Friday's talk from someone with Ravitch's gravitas.)
The second speaker was Tom Torlakson, the CTA's hand-picked Superintendent of Public Instruction. The first thing you need to know about Torlakson is that he's a dork. Imagine a dork trying to be a cheerleader for the crowd: "Teaching is awesome, right? You guys love kids, right? These are some great speakers, right?" It seemed like he was just trying to generate applause and, like all the other speakers, slobbered all over himself to praise Ravitch--someone he and the others wouldn't have touched with a 10-foot pole just a couple years ago.
Torlakson attacked standardized testing several times, even throwing out the new pejorative "bubble testers" to describe people who support standardized testing. News flash: Torlakson runs the department responsible for our state standardized testing program! He and other speakers talked down NCLB, but our state testing regimen is far more rigorous than anything NCLB requires! Torlakson talks about the stress of teaching, but so much of that stress comes from his department! The crowd clapped and cheered--like sheep cheering the butcher.
Sac State University is a fairly liberal school, and the teacher education program there even more so, so when I saw that the Dean of the College of Education was a speaker, I expected lunacy. Instead, she delivered a lot of pablum but didn't say anything completely stupid. I will admit, I was suprised that while introducing Linda Darling-Hammond, Sheared mentioned that Linda was an advisor on President Obama's transition team, and that mention got only tepid response. From a bunch of teachers. Wow.
I went into full-on battle preparation mode for Darling-Hammond, and was rewarded for doing so when the first thing she talked about was "marching and rallying for education". She also blasted NCLB, which Ravitch at one time supported, but never mentioned who wrote that law (hint: he used to be known as the Lion of the Senate), a theme to which I'll return when discussing Ravitch's talk. Like the other speakers, she attacked NCLB without pointing out that if it went away tomorrow, our state testing regime would remain virtually untouched because of our state testing mandates, most of which predate NCLB, and that the person responsible for enforcing those mandates was sitting on the stage with her. Darling-Hammond came across as a "true believer", but tempered her words enough so as not to across as batcrap insane.
No, that was left to Ravitch.
"You have the only governor in the nation who gives a damn about education." Really, Diane? See, I expected a sober discussion from her, and she goes straight for the red meat. She followed that comment up with a dig at Michelle Rhee--not a discussion, not a "here's where I disagree" comment, but just a dig. She did the same thing with Governor Scott Walker, saying "Let's all hope that he is soon recalled." Ravitch, who admits in the SN&R link above that there definitely are problems in American public schools, didn't "go there" in her talk; no, she said that the only crisis in American education is that it's under attack! And it's under attack by "right wingers", a phrase she used over and over again, whose hidden purpose is to privatize public schools. One of her repeated phrases was about the "corporate reform movement".
At one point I leaned over to Mr. Chandler and said, "She's an angry old biddy, isn't she?" We weren't getting reason from her, we were getting vituperation.
I was very disappointed in the logical fallacies, and the boogeymen, that she kept bringing up. "We must improve them (schools), not lose them." She seems absolutely convinced that there is a movement afoot to destroy public schools and to privatize them. If you believe that's so, then her statements make sense. If you don't, and she offered no evidence that it's so, then she's insane. She piled on: There are two goals of the "corporate reform movement", privatization and deprofessionalism.
Does this sound sane, or like a conspiracy theory?
Her bad statistics and bad logic could have been picked out by my first-year statistics students. At one point, when talking about how charter schools in Milwaukee haven't improved education, she said that African-American charter students in Milwaukee score no better than African-American students in Mississippi. Uh, to determine if the schools are an improvement over Milwaukee's public schools, shouldn't those kids be compared to African-American students in Milwaukee public schools? She makes several of these types of errors. In another attack on Michelle Rhee she mentioned something, I didn't write down what, that good teachers do, and then said that "Michelle Rhee certainly didn't do that in DC." Great applause line, but Michelle Rhee never taught in DC, she was the chancellor (superintendent) of the public schools there.
These types of logical errors detract from Ravitch's credibility.
I had hoped to hear why she changed from being an NCLB supporter and school reformer to whatever it is she is today; I got that information from the SN&R article linked above, not from Ravitch's talk. Every attack was against "right wing" something-or-others. Bottom line, she's just another liberal hack. "Public schools are a public good." But as I always say, "Universal public education is sacred, but public schools are not." A convert is always the most zealous. She didn't explain why she changed her mind, but she's certainly a zealot now. She attacked US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan a lot, but dared not mention his boss.
Near the end of her speech she was railing against some measures of school performance, and said, "I am not an economist, I am a historian. I don't think these (measures) should ever be used!" I leaned over to Mr. Chandler and said, "That's why she's not an economist."
She confused "bonus pay" with "merit pay", and concluded that merit pay doesn't work. But Mike Miles in Colorado Springs shows that true merit pay does work, and the students in his district, not affluent by any measure, are better off because of it.
"Organize, agitate, demonstrate!" "Act up, silence equals complicity!" Do these sound like cries from a particular side of the political spectrum? Do they sound like the clarion call of a reasoned person, or of a zealot? To ask the questions is to answer them, and that's how Ravitch closed her talk--to thunderous applause.
I didn't expect a red meat feeding frenzy. From someone of Ravitch's stature I expected much more intelligence, decency, and evidence. It's not that I disagreed with her--I knew going in that that was the case--it's just that I expected better. I was truly disappointed at the intellectual shallowness of her talk. This was the great Diane Ravitch? Really?
Update, 1/23/12: This EdWeek article discusses how a review of charter school studies shows many to be "flawed,problematic".