June 3, 2020

Opting-out of justice, history, and good sense

After my previous blog post about Diane Ravitch and Randi Weingarten speaking out for the growing opt-out campaign it was hard to shut my mind off. Once done with writing that post I was bothered by thoughts of how Ravitch acts less like a historian and more like a populist, and how Weingarten isn’t reliable as a partner in the battle for better results in education.

For Weingarten’s part, she was for Common Core before she was against it.

For Ravitch, she fails to put opt-out in context. Opt-out has a history, one she once opposed – for good reason.

As the latter day labor-driven effort to sabotage educational testing is on an upswing, let’s not pretend it’s without roots.

The anti-testing, anti-standards, anti-accountability arguments we hear today have long, thin legs. They existed before Arne Duncan went to Washington, before Bill Gates had a foundation, and before No Child Left Behind used data to make invisible children visible.

When we see teachers and their unions egging kids on to skip tests in Seattle, Minnesota, and beyond, it feels like something new, like a movement, but it’s not.

Movements are moral.

Attempts to ruin the school data that helps education leaders intervene on behalf of children who have been historically marginalized, trivialized, and forgotten is dishonorable. Doing it under the misappropriated banner of “civil disobedience” is shameless and sleazy.

When children’s lives are on the line we have to drop the pretenses and call things what they are.

Fifteen years ago an Atlantic article called “High Stakes Are for Tomatoes” talked about parents, teachers, and activists who encouraged their students to fail tests and “take a zero” in boycott of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment. At the same time middle-class parents urged Wisconsin legislators to defund their state’s high school exit exam. Parents in Ohio, Virginia, and New York banded together with teachers to halt proficiency testing, standards-based education, and public school accountability.

Here the part where I say “to be fair.” A fair discussion will admit some parents had honest fears. They worried the proposal of higher standards and more testing would hurt schooling and transform the joy of learning into drudgery. In addition, some urban parents rightfully questioned whether the testing was racially discriminatory.

Duly noted. But those aren’t the parents driving hardest against accountability in education.

The Atlantic “Tomatoes” article reported strong support nationally for raising academic standards among the overwhelming majority of American parents. Back then, in 2000, Ravitch called opponents to public school accountability “crickets.” She said they were “…few in number, but making a disproportionate amount of noise.”

“There’s tremendous support for tests among elected officials and in the business community,” she said.

Now she leads the noise.

How nice it would be if Bush-era Ravitch could chat with Obama-era Ravitch.

She could remind her post-Bush self what she once said about opposition of testing, standards, and accountability in support of marginalized students:

…she says that a great many of those who profess to oppose the high-stakes tests oppose all testing and all but the fuzziest standards. They are the same people, Ravitch argues, who in the end cheat kids by demanding too little and forever blaming children’s inability to read or to do elementary math on the shortcomings of parents, neighborhoods, and the culture. Scrap the tests and we’re back to the same neglect and indifference, particularly toward poor, marginal students, that we had before. Letting students who can’t read, write, or do basic math graduate is doing no one a favor.

If the new Ravitch finds her earlier self unconvincing, maybe she could go the extra mile and check in with the father of modern teacher unionism.

Al Shanker might tell her teaching will never be a “profession” so long as it is unaccountable for results. He would remind her how he countered those in his ranks who were accountability phobic.

He once said:

I’m convinced that we in education, too, are not going to do the hard things needed to change the schools unless we have to. Unless there are consequences…something has to be at stake. There is, in other fields: Your organization could fail. People in these fields dislike change too. But they have to do it. We in education don’t. Because for us nothing is at stake.

That sounds like leadership. Prophetic almost. Too bad today’s unionists are fighting to lower the stakes for themselves, which raises them for kids on the margins who face enormous odds already.

Let’s opt out of that.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: