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Diane Ravitch in Austin: Education is ‘Not Just About Intellect. It’s Also About Character.’

At two events Sunday, the education historian and activist said she hopes Texas leads the way in getting testing right.
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Patrick Michels
Diane Ravitch onstage at Austin's Eastside Memorial High School gym Sunday afternoon.

Diane Ravitch, the 74-year-old education historian who’s become a popular voice of resistance to the corporate-backed, test-based reform movement, brought her outrage roadshow to Texas last weekend.

Ravtich is a Houston native but has, for reasons that are unclear, long lived in New York City. There, she’s witnessed generations of well-meaning school reforms gone awry, particularly Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s takeover of the schools, helped by his charter-lovin’, school-closin’,  data-twistin’ chancellor Joel Klein from 2002 to 2011. Her 2010 book The Death and Life of the Great American School System has become a sort of Bible for like-minded teachers and ed policy watchers critical of the school choice and accountability movement. (By way of preview, the Austin Chronicle offered a look at that book and an interview with Ravitch last week.)

On her blog, she’s been particularly enthusiastic about two recent developments in Texas: the anti-high-stakes testing resolution that’s now been passed by 819 Texas school districts—over 80 percent of the districts in the state—and the emergence of the parents’ group Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment, aka “Moms Against Drunk Testing.” On Sunday, Ravitch had a chance to address folks who’ve led each of those efforts, first at the Texas Association of School Administrators and Texas Association of School Boards conference, and later at a community forum in East Austin.

In both settings, in front of the suits (or the matching tucked-in school polo shirts) in the morning and the rabble in the afternoon, Ravitch delivered her angry missives with a measured, academic demeanor. In her tone and her appearance, she was like a first-grade teacher who’d seen too much to be fazed by the latest schoolyard fight.

On Sunday morning at the Austin Convention Center, Ravitch praised the administrators and board members for the resolution. Employing a metaphor famously used by former Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott last year, Ravitch said she hopes that Texas, where the high-stakes testing “vampire” got its teeth, could be the state that drives a stake through its heart.

While it’s popular today to suggest bringing corporate-style efficiency to schools, Ravitch said the last 10 years of school management by carrot and stick—a system of reward and punishment for schools and teachers based on test scores—runs counter to the best management research out there.

“The carrot-and-stick philosophy represents early 20th century behaviorism, and the social efficiency views of Frederick Winslow Taylor… But modern cognitive psychology rejects these ideas,” she said, the kind of burn only a historian could lay down. More current thinking, she said, suggests that idealism and the freedom teach well is a much more powerful motivator than fear.

“These reformers have the nerve to say they’re leading the civil rights movement of our time,” she said. But “no excuses” charter schools and miracle school turnaround stories, Ravitch said, only simplify the complex problem of poverty. “Some poor kids nevertheless manage to succeed, but let’s not kid ourselves: The deck is stacked against them.”

While there are certainly bad teachers who shouldn’t be in schools, she said, it’s naive to think that getting rid of them will be the answer, as if you could “just keep firing until you reach greatness.”

For a decade, we’ve rewarded states, districts and schools for test scores, giving them an incentive to cheat their numbers—leading to the scandals in Houston, Atlanta and Washington, D.C. President Obama’s Race to the Top program is expanding the use of teacher merit pay based on test scores, which Ravitch said is only making the problem more serious. “Teachers will start gaming the system, and they will try to avoid the children who might lower their score,” she said.

“Education is far more than a score on a bubble test,” she said. “Education involves not just the mind, but the heart, and the will. It’s not just about intellect, it’s also about character.”

On Sunday afternoon, Ravitch stood behind a wooden podium on a less glamorous stage, in the Eastside Memorial High School gym, where a crowd a few hundred strong gathered to hear from her and a panel of local education activists, including from the parents’ group TAMSA. Her message of community support for schools, and warnings against charter takeovers, found a ready audience on the Eastside, where Austin ISD’s plans to hand schools over to the charter operator IDEA Public Schools has left many parents feeling betrayed.

Ravitch railed against online charters—”home-schooling paid for by the state—and “parent-trigger” laws that turn neighborhood schools into charter with enough signatures on a petition, which she called “one of the phoniest things around.” (Texas has a weak parent-trigger law, which has never been invoked.

Prizing school choice over community ownership, Ravitch said, fosters a narrow-minded set of values around education. “This is nonsense when you sow dissent between students and teachers and parents,” she said. “We all have to work together.”

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Patrick Michels is a reporter for the Texas Observer and a former legislative intern. He has been a staff writer and web editor at the Dallas Observer, and a former editor of the Texas Independent. He has a bachelor's in journalism from Northwestern University, a master's in photojournalism from the University of Texas at Austin, and is a competitive eating enthusiast.