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SXSWedu: Weingarten and Ravitch on Schools

Highlights from the education conference

By Richard Whittaker, Fri., March 7, 2014

Diane Ravitch
Diane Ravitch
Photo by Richard Whittaker

SXSWedu – the education intro to the high festival season – kicked off on Monday, March 3, but American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten got an early start. Prior to her formal panel on the value of community schools, she had a chance to see in action two of the Austin Independent School District's most collaborative campuses. Accompanied by AISD trustees Gina Hinojosa and Lori Moya, Education Austin President Ken Zar­i­fis, and Council Member Mike Mar­tinez, she visited Webb Middle School in North Austin and Travis Heights Ele­men­tary in South Austin. Both campuses have been through major changes, but under very different conditions. Last decade, Webb was under a state threat of repurposing before the neighborhood rallied to save its school, while Travis Heights is Austin's first "in-district" charter.

The AFT has a particular connection to Travis Heights: It was a union grant that provided seed money to enable the community to reshape its campus while remaining in the district. In a series of classroom visits, Weingarten saw the results of that newly won latitude, including new analytic tools in "blended learning," using game-based computer education to supplement and guide classroom instruction on a child-by-child basis. She was particularly impressed by project-based service learning. Fifth graders explained how they had taken a survey of bullying on campus to understand its roots, while second-grade students discussed how, as part of their lessons on conservation, they will carry a bucket of water nearly four miles – a common experience for people in parts of the developing world. The result, Weingarten told the school's Thunderboard parent/teacher advisory group, was a testament to "the underlying notion of caring and relationship building."

There was much discussion of how to use the Travis Heights model elsewhere in Austin. Weingarten said, "The catchy thing to say is, 'Can you bottle it?' But you know you can't." Instead, Trustee Hinojosa told her, "It's about how we inspire parents and teachers at other campuses."

One simple step that could make that easier is changing the name. AISD has a troubled history with charters – especially in East Austin, where district pupils have been aggressively recruited by private groups – and the term "in-district charter" carries some negative connotations. Applauding the Travis Heights commitment, Zarifis said, "I don't care what you call it, let's just start doing it."

Ravitch: Stop the Bandwagon

That sentiment echoed in that afternoon's speech by the community schools movement's leading thinker and researcher, former Assistant Secretary of Educa­tion Diane Ravitch. Her talk was a rallying cry for the movement, and left some bruises on education reformers. She was, she acknowledged, initially a major supporter of initiatives like standardized testing. But, she said, "I got off the bandwagon, and I'm trying to push the bandwagon back."

Her speech was less a push-back than a concerted effort to rip off the wheels. She said, "'No Child Left Behind' was a hoax. The 'Texas Miracle' never existed, but you already knew that." She attacked what she called education's "bad news club. ... To listen to them, you'd think we were in a third-world nation, not the greatest, most powerful nation on the planet."

As a former member of the National Assessment Governing Board, Ravitch was particularly pointed about the worthlessness of standardized tests. Even though the board is supposed to be the last line of review, she regularly saw multiple-choice questions where there were two right answers, or none. She said, "I can give you example after example where, if a child thinks twice, they're lost." Noting that Amer­ica is "the most overtested nation in the world," she questioned not just the use of testing, but its value as a barometer of student assessment, describing it instead as "a great way to distribute privilege amongst people that already have privilege." Rather than predicting student achievement or potential, she argued, test scores are primarily an indicator of family income and parental education. She concluded, "The scores of 15-year-olds on a standardized test do not predict the future. Period."

Yet the bad news club has used those scores to ram through measures like charter takeovers and "parental trigger" laws, all in the name of "choice." As Ravitch wryly observed, the last time right-wing politicians talked about school choice it was Strom Thurmond and George Wallace defending segregation. Now she sees a new wave of virtual charter companies, such as K12 (owned in part by convicted junk bond dealer Michael Milken), sweeping in to take even more money out of public education, and using inaccurate and worthless student test grades as an excuse. For Ravitch, the challenge is to rebuild the understanding of what education is supposed to do. It's not to get every student scoring all As. "If that happens, then you can make accusations of grade inflation," she said. "The purpose of education is to make good citizens."

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