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Commentary: Pump Down the Volume on Rhetoric

Ellie Herman | October 16, 2013

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Can we tone down the rhetoric a little? It’s getting hard to hear in here.

I’m an English teacher. Though I taught at a charter school for five years, I’ve been reading Diane Ravitch’s work for a long time and think she’s raising some very important concerns about the at-risk kids left behind by the charter school movement, the testing industry and the push for privatization by some of the foundations funding some CMO’s. She raises points that were by many accounts ignored by Education Reformer Michelle Rhee at her Town Meeting in September; because Rhee had not-very-helpfully scheduled the meeting on Rosh Hashanah, I was unable to attend. Apparently Rhee pre-screened questions and skewed the evening toward the views of her organization, StudentsFirst, whose name itself lobs an implicit insult at anyone who disagrees with her.

So when Ravitch spoke recently at Occidental, I went hoping to hear rational discussion. But it was hard to hear what she was saying over the din of overheated metaphors.

Her new book, “Reign of Error,” was originally entitled “Hoax”; Ravitch’s central idea is that the American public education system has been the victim of a series of hoaxes and lies perpetrated by the government and large corporations. If the central narrative of the Ed Reform movement is that the educational system is broken and entrepreneurial ingenuity can fix it, Ravitch’s central narrative is that the forces of corporatization are colluding to take over public education for their own profit. “We’re back to the age of the robber barons,” she said at one point, positioning herself as a tiny David against the Goliath of the corporatocracy. “I don’t have money,” she said. “I don’t have a foundation. I have words.”

Now, I am no fan of the corporatocracy; unlike Ravitch I actually do not have words to describe how distraught I am at the widening income gap in this country and its devastating effects on children in poverty. But I get off the bus at conspiracy theories. I mean, I have no doubt there are greedy bastards out there in some gleaming office tower scheming to make money off of education. And hell, they might pull it off some day, which would be horrible. But I actually don’t believe that right now, when we look at charter schools and standardized testing, what we’re actually seeing is evidence of a series of deliberate, long-running malicious hoaxes designed by oligarchs.

Prove me wrong and I’ll get back on the bus. But conspiracy theories in the absence of evidence instantly make me stop listening. Conspiracy theories are the low-hanging fruit of rhetoric. They make people angry and self-righteous and more than anything, passive. Why fight when the forces of evil are allied against you? All we can do is sit home, curse the other side and eat popcorn. My students sometimes didn’t bother to vote even though many of them were 18-year-old citizens. Why? Because the Illuminati rigs the election.

What distressed me was that beyond the amped-up rhetoric, Ravitch is raising a lot of crucial concerns. My friend Dennis Danziger, who teaches English at Venice High, tells me that nearby charters and magnets have eviscerated his student population, drawing out those students with parents who can advocate for them and leaving behind the most at-risk students in a system drained of resources and morale.

To contemplate his point, though, is not to say that charters are a hoax—a deliberate scam perpetrated against the American people. It’s to say that we’re in the throes of some very painful, not entirely successful efforts to improve a profoundly unequal educational system that both reflects and entrenches the racial and economic inequity in this country. Ravitch herself, at the end of her speech, admitted that charters could be a whole lot better if not for the public’s continual demand that schools demonstrate high test scores in to survive.

I feel it’s an important idea when she says that we need to balance our need for accountability with an understanding that when we demand swift, measurable results from schools that are serving our most at-risk children, and we don’t even really know what these results mean. (Seriously, raise your hand if you actually know how an API score is calculated.) We do this while also saying these schools need to produce results without our giving them any additional resources, we may be putting untenable pressure on schools that are stretched to the limit. The casualties are our most fragile students. And all of us, in our impatience for quick fixes, are complicit.

Unfortunately, you had to be listening really hard to hear this point. It came around the end, along with the short list of excellent suggestions she also made in her Op Ed in the L.A. Times, a list that a charter advocate, commenting pseudonymously as “mindopened,” mocked as crazy dreams (“why not just demand world peace?”) But her suggestions are not crazy. And they are not that dissimilar to a lot of what’s being developed at some good charter systems.

My friend Ben asked Ravitch at the end of the speech if she could see anything positive in the Ed Reform movement. She thought a moment and said no. “I’ll write about it if I think of anything,” she said, dismissing him. But the truth is that both sides have some good ideas and both sides have flaws; both sides have had their fair share of corrupt bad apples and big egos, but also of dedicated people who are devoting their lives to the same crazy dream. What’s crazier than believing that it’s possible to give all children an equal opportunity in life?

But we’ll never be able to hear that if we can’t stop yelling.

Read more by Ellie Herman at gatsbyinla.

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