Walsh and Connolly’s educational reign of error
When Diane Ravitch speaks at the Memorial Church in Cambridge Thursday evening, she’ll be awfully close to enemy territory. Across the river in Boston, the two remaining candidates for mayor–state Rep. Marty Walsh and City Councilor-At-Large John Connolly, the latter a former charter school teacher–support many of the drastic changes and evaluation measures the renowned public education guru will be speaking out against.
The concept of so-called “education reform” has been squarely on the menu all throughout the race for City Hall. It’s come up in countless rhetorical pitches and proposals–screeds about lengthening the school day, cries to lift the cap on the number of charters. For his campaign, Connolly has gone whole pedagogical hog on schools, even presenting himself as the “Education Mayor.” As Ravitch would have it, though, such claims are utter bullshit. According to her, wannabe reformers like Connolly, the likes of whom argue that teachers and their unions must be reined in, have bought into a myth regarding why schools are in crisis.
“Our urban schools are in trouble because of concentrated poverty and racial segregation,”
Ravitch writes in her new book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. “But public education as such is not ‘broken.’ Public education is in a crisis only so far as society is and only so far as this new narrative of crisis has destabilized it.”
As evidence of the false narrative driving the current ed reform movement–much of which, she notes, is fostered and funded by venture capital vultures and various other for-profit interests–Ravitch points to the Bay State, among other places. Specifically, she notes that in 2012, an international assessment test determined, “In eighth-grade mathematics … Students in four American states [including Massachusetts] ranked among the world’s highest-performing entities … Black students in Massachusetts received the same scores as students in Israel and Finland. Imagine that! It should have been a front-page story across the nation, but it was not.” As for how Commonwealth institutions fared by national standards; “In Massachusetts,” she writes, “the state with the nation’s highest-performing students as judged by federal tests, 80 percent of the state’s public schools were “failing” by [federal No Child Left Behind] standards in 2012.”
When schools fail by federal standards, moneyed charter entities and others have an easier time swooping in to pocket public dollars.
As such, Ravitch says the burden put on teachers these days is as if Congress “passed a law saying that every city in America should be crime-free.”
Nevertheless, both candidates for Boston mayor have made regular stump fodder out of skewering instructors. Connolly has taken money and support from corporate-affiliated anti-union groups like Stand For Children and Democrats For Education Reform–both of which Ravitch says have “names that are appealing and innocuous,” but that “exist in a giant echo chamber, listening and talking only to one another, dismissing the concerns of parents, teachers, and communities.”
By Reign of Error standards, Walsh, a former head of the Boston Building Trades who is often linked to labor groups, is hardly better than Connolly on education. On the trail, he’s proudly used his House vote in favor of the 2010 Education Reform Act–a move that allows administrators to bend teacher contracts in districts determined to be failing, and that outraged members of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. At the time, Senate President Therese Murray said, “The changes provided in this legislation strengthen the Commonwealth’s ability to compete for federal Race to the Top funding worth up to $250 million or more.” Ravitch, meanwhile, blasts blind adherence to such ridiculous mandates.
“Almost every state agreed to adopt [federal standards],” she writes, “even states with clearly superior standards like Massachusetts and Indiana, despite the fact that these new standards had never been field-tested anywhere. No one can say with certainty whether the [federal standards] will improve education, whether they will reduce or increase the achievement gaps among different groups, or how much it will cost to implement them.”
Reality aside–reformers who wish to make it easier to fire older teachers, for example, “cannot show any connection between tenure and academic performance,” writes Ravitch–both mayoral hopefuls are steadily pedaling down the path to school privatization. Chances are that neither Walsh nor Connolly will be able to catch her in Cambridge Thursday, but if they can make it, the candidates will hear not just criticism, but also some ideas for how
Boston can improve schools without compromising public education in the state where Horace Mann wrote the blueprint.
“Schools need freedom from burdensome and intrusive regulations that undermine professional autonomy,” says Ravitch. “They need the resources to meet the needs of the children they enroll. But they cannot improve if they are judged by flawed measures and continually at risk of closing because they do not meet an artificial goal created and imposed by legislators … It is time for parents, educators, and other concerned citizens to join together to strengthen our public schools and preserve them for future generations. The future of our democracy depends on it.”