Guest Post: Dr. Patricia McMahon reflects on a visit by Dr. Diane Ravitch

Associate Dean and Professor of Carlow University's School of Education, Dr. Patricia McMahon, attended Dr. Diane Ravitch's speech and book talk at Temple Sinai last week and shares her thoughts on the invigorating experience.

As co-sponsors of Diane Ravitch’s talk this past Monday night, my Carlow University School of Education colleagues and I drove to Squirrel Hill, eager to hear Dr. Ravitch speak about her new book: Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. Within an hour, I would be thinking about the word movement to describe the collective force of those gathered at Temple Sinai.

Anyone who attended Diane Ravitch’s talk on September 16th participated in an event. Ravitch herself opened her remarks by stating that she had never experienced such a lively gathering for one of her speaking engagements. Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine a more celebratory expression of anticipation and purpose: the steel drum band, the drumming band, the cheerleaders—all helped to encourage a beat of hope. In the large, filled-to-capacity space, we met as a community: students, parents, clergy, teachers, union reps, principals, superintendents, board members, teacher educators, political dignitaries and candidates, policy makers, concerned citizens. And, in the midst of this focused energy of the evening, we all heard Ravitch say at one point that “Consumers look out only for themselves; citizens look out for the good of the whole.”

Ravitch was referring to the threat of privatization of public education, what she regards as the central hoax perpetrated upon the American public. The matter of charter schools and vouchers is not, she stressed, a civil rights issue but part of a reform agenda that detracts focus from two very real concerns, especially in urban schools: racial segregation and poverty.

Operating schools as though they were businesses misses the obvious point. They are not businesses. As Ravitch sees it, corporate reform manifests itself in a myriad of other hoaxes, such as No Child Left Behind—which has made school exponentially more complex, but not in ways that promote real learning—and Race to the Top, which she describes as “a market-based system designed to designate winners and losers.”

What public education needs right now is the shared passion of citizens working for the promise of each child in every school. Pittsburgh and its surrounding neighborhoods have this passion. We know the pivotal role each neighborhood school plays in its community. Unfortunately, like many other school systems, we also know debilitating budget cuts, teacher lay-offs, and the stress of high-stakes testing.

About teacher layoffs, Ravitch exclaimed, with a backward glance at Michelle Rhee, “You can’t fire your way to excellence!” To this I would add, “You can’t test your way to excellence either!” We have become a nation held hostage by the concept of accountability as it pertains to measurable outcomes related to student “performance.” Behind all the simplistic aggregated high-stakes test scores are the very complex realities of children and their teachers. The current performance management culture in education has eclipsed what is and must always be most important—the dignity of the learner and her/his individual journey toward realizing her/his unique gifts that lead to fulfillment as an honorable human being and citizen of the world.

This is what the best teachers know about their students, and this is what I see in our teacher candidates as well when they travel the many journeys along with their students. Teaching and learning are noble endeavors that cannot be reduced to a single high-stakes standardized test score. Narrow forms of assessment can never represent a child’s complex ways of knowing and being in the world or the intricacies of a child’s individualized path toward self-agency.

Here are two fundamental questions we need to keep asking ourselves: How do we extricate our schools (Pre-K through 12 and beyond) from the current antiquated education paradigm, one that is rooted in an industrial age mentality, the hallmark characteristics of which are efficiency, control, and standardization when the world has experienced a paradigm shift, the hallmark characteristics of which are complexity, connectivity, and customization? And how do we shift our attention to the learner so that s/he can become a critical thinker and problem solver who possesses the capacity to imagine, deliberate, and create in a global society?

Reclaiming this focus on the learner is the goal of Carlow’s School of Education High Performance Learning programs. For Carlow’s School of Education faculty, this is a matter of social justice based on our Mercy mission and our belief that education is not a commodity but a basic human right. As scholar-practitioners, we believe that it is our obligation not only to voice our concerns about unjust reform policy that harms children and communities, but to embody the principles of ethical stewardship and create viable pathways that enable communities of practice to collaborate and address the problems we face. For us, our High Performance Master’s programs are those pathways. They are designed to refocus learning performance on the learner and the process of learning and to reframe education problems in new ways, making them amenable to new solutions, because it is becoming increasingly evident that a broken paradigm cannot be fixed by applying solutions embodied within that paradigm.

Spending some time with Diane Ravitch at Temple Sinai was thought-provoking, to say the least. Education historian, best-selling author, and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education, Ravitch beautifully illuminates for us the back story—the policy makers, politicians, and the circumstances that fed and continue to feed education reform in this country. I was fairly spellbound by her candid narrative when I read The Death and Life of the Great American School System. She was brutally honest with us at Temple Sinai as well. She has the requisite cause and credibility to take this stance, given her career path. As one of the key supporters of No Child Left Behind, Ravitch powerfully depicts what was, for her, the promise of the standards movement as well as her dawning realization of the stranglehold standardization has on children’s lives. In her remarks to us at Temple Sinai, she stated that she speaks to groups around the country now as a means of redressing her former position on reform.

Diane Ravitch’s unflinching examination of the education landscape will continue to inspire us as we move forward with our work. All of us—educators, parents, students, administrators—must work together to effect positive, meaningful change at the policy level.

I think Pittsburgh is at the center of this movement. And I think that the one thousand people who attended the Ravitch event at Temple Sinai would agree with me.

Published September 30, 2013