Returning from New York, where FairTest honored Diane Ravitch with the Deborah W. Meier Hero of Education Award, I was slow to recognize the best thing about the trip. It could have been the amiable banter between Meier and Ravitch about their differing accounts of their transformation from being policy opponents to friends and, ultimately, allies. Or, the best part of the ceremony might have been Ravitch and Meier introducing their families and explaining how they are keeping the struggle alive.
In fact, a great observation by Deborah Meier grew out of her son's experience a generation ago. He was told that, unfortunately, "geology this year is not as good as last year." How does an academic discipline weaken in one year? Because of misguided changes in the Regents exam, teachers did not dare teach the class with the same excellence as before.
Meier also reminded us that in education today, the goal of testing research is finding the answer that "works psychometrically," not the answer that is true. She added that the purpose of testing is to "control teachers" and that today's reforms are driving out teachers with "spunk" while getting rid of "ornery people who occasionally disagree."
Meier has previously written that the problem with the contemporary school reform movement is that is too narrow; educators must be accountable but, more importantly, we are responsible for our students and families, as well as our traditions of democracy and of the clash of ideas. Ravitch added a telling detail. In Finland, educators use the word "responsibility" because they have no such word as "accountability" in the context of education.
Ravitch, with her deadpan wit, mused that Deborah is "more mature" than she is. Ravitch explained how testing is creating a "climate where no one is trusted." Then, she wryly noted how the new superintendent in Dallas does not grasp the irony of his quantitative goals. In 18 months, the superintendent's target is a staff who all will agree with his goals. This corporate-style reformer has a vision of public schools where, next, the entire community will agree with him!?!
Another great part of the FairTest reception was exchanging ideas with AFT President Randi Weingarten, and great educators who schooled me on the nuances of their research and/or their exciting interactions with students and parents. Even better, it was located at the Julia Richmond Education Center, which is home to six schools that provide respectful and engaging instruction to prepare children for citizenship and creativity in the 21st century. Its walls are covered by glorious products of student work and they stood as testimony to the continued dynamism of this generation's students. But, curiously, I didn't see a data wall comparing test scores ...
An equally wonderful part of the trip was the anti-testing rally at the corporate headquarters of the Pearson testing company. The students were so proud of their handmade signs that proclaimed, "I am more than a test score," "We are not guinea pigs," "June is for field trips not field tests," and "Pineapples against Testing."
On the other hand, the best part of the visit, as is typical, might have been the drive to New York and strolls around the city. A small business owner said, "welcome to Brooklyn," and then reinforced the greeting by piling additional ox tails on my plate. To add emphasis to another storekeeper's "welcome to the Bronx," he knocked 50 cents off the price of a cup of coffee. And a stranger detoured far out of his way to guide me back to the New Jersey Turnpike, making sure that I didn't get lost again.
The warmth and decency of all types of people on the road and in the neighborhoods was a reminder of the foundation on which Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch built. Education involves the exchange of ideas across diverse communities and across generations. The entire trip was a reminder of the wisdom of Randi Weingarten's affirmation that our schools must be built on the concept that Jewish people describe as L'Dor V'Dor, or "from generation to generation."
And that was the greatest thing about the week. Deborah Meier, Diane Ravitch, Weingarten, and the other FairTest educators who honored them grew organically out of our constitutional democracy. They reflect the egalitarian culture that produced our public school system. Ravitch's The Death and Life of the Great American School System is a part of the seamless web that also produced Jane Jacob's The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Both are products of the authors, of our scholarly traditions, and the democracy that inspired them. Ravitch's use of twitter and the edu-sphere to defend teaching and learning comes from the same pioneering spirit that produced Deborah Meier's innovations.
The most glorious part of Deborah W. Meier Hero of Education Award ceremony was not the well-deserved praise of Diane Ravitch, or even the chance to hear her wisdom. It was celebrating Meier and Ravitch as heroes because they are prophets that reflect honor upon their own land. We must listen, debate, and reflect upon their words because they came from deep listening, debate, and reflections on the best of America and of public schools.
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