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Jonathan Alter: Don’t Believe Critics, Education Reform Works…is completely Wrong-Headed and it is a Hit Piece on Ravitch

June 4, 2011

Full Disclosure: I have seen Mr. Alter on many MSNBC programs and always thought him to be fairly intelligent and insightful.  With his latest article, which is truly a “hit-piece” on Diane Ravitch I see him in an entire new light, which isn’t burning all that brightly.

Like I tell my kids when they are facing a daunting task, which to them is something akin to sitting down to write a three paragraph essay: “Get to it!”  That is how I felt when I read this article by Alter, like I needed to “get to it,” and write a rebuttal.  To me, Diane Ravitch has done more for teachers over the past couple of years than anyone I can think of.  Certainly, she has out-shined and advocated more for teachers than our feckless Education Secretary Arne Duncan and she has given a very accurate voice to what many teachers are currently feeling.

Through the “education reform zeitgeist” which I am assuming Mr. Alter is including himself as a part of, teachers have become that “bad guys/girls” – this is not my experience in public education.  If you ask the parents at my school they would not consider us teachers to be villains, they love what we do when trying to teach and help their kids.  We are respected in our communities, but we are belittled, besmirched, threatened, maligned and ridiculed by many in the “reform” movement.  Why is this?  I have blogged about deep-pocketed interests who clearly have designs on public school funding as sources to increase their private wealth.  If you follow the money you can usually find who is behind a particular theme.

Let’s start with this from Jonathan Alter’s charade of an article:

America’s education-reform movement – – the most significant social movement of our time — is just completing another productive school year, with hundreds of districts beefing up accountability and standards.

By stating that “America’s education-reform movement” is the most “significant social movement of our time” Alter is deifying this movement, which we know has an agenda to oppose and destroy public schools and public unions on the grounds that they are bad for our students.  Studies have shown that when poverty is controlled for US students do very well in reading and mathematics, but you will never hear that uttered from anyone involved in the “reform” movement.  In the same “studies have shown” link above it is also quite clear that Charter schools are NO better than public schools when it comes to educating students.  Alter knows all of this, or he should, but his eyes are clouded by what he probably perceives as a future meal ticket.  I mean, write favorable articles about billionaires and it is sure to pay off somehow…maybe an invite to Guggenheim’s cocktail parties.

Unfortunately, the forces of the status quo are still working overtime. Obstructionists with a talent for caricature are determined to discredit important progress under way in some of the poorest school districts in the country.

Empty quote by Alter.  Nothing backing it up besides rhetoric.  Forces of “status quo” and “obstructionists” are so old by now that they are not given any credence.  See above links, the “status quo” and “obstructionists” are actual teachers who are working every day in classrooms and helping our kids.  We are not some evil force “working overtime” to destroy education…we are working overtime, but it is to help our students, not harm anyone.

Ravitch moved the other way, from right to left, where she now uses phony empiricism to rationalize almost every tired argument offered by teachers unions.

Again, Alter is comical in his criticism of Ravitch.  She uses “phony empiricism” – Jonathan is phony empiricism what you find when you quote real information?  She is quoting real information Jonathan…get it?  She isn’t making anything up like you are in your contrived ode to the Billionaire Boys Club.

Arne Duncan, President Barack Obama’s normally mild- mannered education secretary, has finally had enough. “Diane Ravitch is in denial and she is insulting all of the hardworking teachers, principals and students all across the country who are proving her wrong every day,” he said when I asked about Ravitch this week.

Jonathan, a bit of advice here.  When you quote Arne Duncan as a credible source in your article you instantly lose credibility.  Arne has about zero credibility with those that he was chosen to oversee.  See: here and here.

What’s most infuriating to me about Ravitch is the way she assembles straw men. It’s simply false for her to charge that political leaders are trying to prove that “poverty doesn’t matter.” No education reformer has ever challenged the idea that conditions in the home and in the larger society are hugely important. They merely insist that such conditions not be used as an excuse for inaction.

Ravitch and her allies specialize in sliming reformers by creating powerful myths. The most pernicious is that reformers aren’t professional educators and therefore don’t have the standing to criticize the status quo. This isn’t true — many reformers, including the heads of many charter schools, have education experience — but what’s wrong with business executives or other interested outsiders devoting time and money to public schools? Would it be better if they ignored them as they did for so long? That went well for this country.

No one, especially Diane Ravitch is advocating for inaction when it comes to our public schools.  She has advocated time and time again for action in addressing issues like poverty amongst minorities and how this affects their academic lives.  As to your point about reformers not being professional educators and how this isn’t true: Let me see: Bill Gates – Educator – Nope.  Eli Broad – Educator – Nope.  Guggenheim – Educator – Nope.  Walton Family – Educators – Nope. There are others but I think you get the point.  The people with the deep pockets, the people who get attention in education reform are NOT educators, your point is incorrect and disingenuous.

Alter is a big disappointment in this article but it does help me to realize how a certain portion of supposedly liberal writers and wealthy individuals have been so taken with the whole “education-reform” meme.  It seems they are incapable of doing any real research of looking at the data which I linked to above which shows that US students do quite well when you take high-poverty minority students out of the statistical calculations.  This is telling us that work needs to be done, but much of the work needs to be done politically to help these long suffering multitudes get the help they need to overcome the dire poverty in which they live. Don’t count on that happening anytime soon as the Tea Party nonsense has just started making a name for itself.


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  1. Exactly. The other thing that’s really sneaky about his note re: education experience is that most of these people’s education experience is through programs like Teach for America. They aren’t career educators who took the time to train like career educators before working in the classroom, but a casual reader wouldn’t notice that.

  2. I agree Sabrina. Alter is really skirting the lines of reality in this piece. He actually sounds “snotty” as a writer which makes it all the more aggravating.

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