Ned Barnett

Ravitch backs NC teachers targeted by ‘reform’

March 23, 2013 

It wasn’t a debate, but it was a powerful back-and-forth about what’s best for North Carolina’s public schools.

On Tuesday, state Sen. Phil Berger, an Eden Republican and president pro tem of the Senate, introduced Senate Bill 361 calling for sweeping changes to repair the state’s “broken” public schools, mostly by getting tough with teachers.

The bill would end teacher tenure and offer bonuses to the most effective teachers. It also dictates that grades A through F be applied to schools based on their performance on state tests, national exams and graduation rates.

“The days of accepting a broken education system in North Carolina are over,” Berger said at a news conference.

On Thursday, Diane Ravitch swept into the capital city for a talk at Marbles Kids Museum and delivered a rousing rebuttal to Berger and a host of other would-be reformers who Ravitch thinks are taking public education over a cliff.

Ravitch, a historian of education, a research professor at New York University and a highly regarded author and prolific blogger on education issues, hammered Berger’s proposals from the start of her talk, sponsored by the NC Justice Center and Public Schools First NC.

“North Carolina seems determined to destroy the teaching profession and demoralize every teacher in the state,” she said.

Republicans hadn’t included that in their legislative goals, but it’s clear they’re getting there. North Carolina teacher pay ranks 46th in the nation. Now Berger proposes taking away teachers’ slender job protection – tenure. Tenured teachers – those with four or more years of service in the same district – can only be fired for causes defined by statute. Newer teachers can be dismissed for any reason.

Demoralization wasn’t Berger’s intention. His aim is to motivate good teachers and weed out those who perform poorly. But that’s the wrong aim, Ravitch said, because teachers don’t need to be threatened, prodded or inspired by bonuses. Most are already going all out. “People are not holding back. They are working their hearts out, and they’re getting a lot of grief,” she said.

And while politicians and some education officials think merit pay creates healthy competition among teachers, Ravitch said that’s not how teachers work. “Teachers do not want to compete with their colleagues,” she said. “They want to cooperate and collaborate because they’re working toward the same goal with the same children.”

She also takes a dim view of grading schools, an idea initiated by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in 1999 and adopted in North Carolina in 2012. “The main thing that grades do to a school is to stigmatize it. It does nothing to improve schools,” she said. “It says, ‘This is a bad school. Everyone in it must be bad.’”

Ravitch gets angry when she hears people say the public schools are broken. In North Carolina, for instance, the high school graduation rate is at an all-time high (80.4 percent), and the dropout rate is at a record low. The state ranks 12th in fourth-grade math and 24th in fourth-grade reading despite being in the bottom 10 states in per-pupil funding.

Ravitch said teachers are working with sparse resources and with many children who come from poverty and difficult family situations and are managing to educate them. “You may say our society is failing, but our public schools are not failing,” she said.

But schools will fail if they continue to be undermined by those who think that teachers need more motivation and that parents need more publicly funded choices through vouchers or charter schools. And that’s the thinking among North Carolina’s leaders now.

“North Carolina was once viewed as the most progressive state in the South. It is not anymore. It’s a shame. Those days are over. Now North Carolina is viewed, among other things, as being a hostile environment for public education and for people who teach in public schools,” Ravitch said. “Some of your political leaders look at the public schools as a fiscal burden rather than a public responsibility and an engine of social progress.”

Ravitch’s criticism extended beyond conservative Republicans. She doesn’t like the “Race to the Top” program pushed by the Obama administration because it relies on standardized testing. She doesn’t care for reforms pushed by philanthropists who know little about teaching, such as Bill Gates, Eli Broad or New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Ravitch said the hot ideas in education – vouchers, charters, virtual charters, merit pay, standardized testing, school A-to-F grades – have not improved education but have distracted the nation from improving the basic dynamic of learning, a process as old as Socrates: teachers teaching.

It wasn’t a debate this week, but Ravitch’s views must win the argument. We should back teachers with better pay and public support. If we want children to learn, we must enable and entrust their teachers not to teach to tests or compete for bonuses but to do what they love and, particularly in pay-stingy North Carolina, what they do out of love – teach.

Editorial page editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@newsobserver.com

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