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Posted at 03:00 PM ET, 01/24/2012

Ravitch: Why California gives me hope

This was written by education historian Diane Ravitch for her Bridging Differences blog, which she co-authors with Deborah Meier on the Education Week website. Ravitch and Meier exchange letters about what matters most in education. Ravitch, a research professor at New York University, is the author of the bestselling “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” an important critique of the flaws in the modern school reform movement that she just updated.

Dear Deborah,

I have been barnstorming across California. I spoke to several hundred teachers in Los Angeles, then to nearly 1,000 in San Francisco, on to Berkeley to speak to a packed house. My tour, punctuated by interviews on NPR stations, concluded in Sacramento, where the local teachers' unions, principals, district leaders, school board members, parent groups, and universities hired the Sacramento Convention Center for the most stupendous event I have ever seen: Some 3,500 people showed up in a driving rain on a Friday night to hear state Superintendent Tom Torlakson, our fellow Education Week blogger Anthony Cody, the great Linda Darling-Hammond, and me. (The event, by the way, was organized by the remarkable Erik Knudson of the Sacramento City teachers' union.)

The highlight of the week was Gov. Jerry Brown's State of the State message, in which he announced his intention to reduce the amount of testing across the state. Standardized testing in California has spun out of control. Children in second grade spend five hours on mandated state tests, for no reason at all. And it is no better, even worse, in other grades! He also made this remarkable statement: "My hunch is that principals and teachers know the most ..." Can you believe it? He acknowledges that the people who do the work may know more than those who sit on the sidelines taking pot shots at them.

Gov. Brown is a visionary. I met with him and his top staff for over an hour and, unlike the policymakers in Washington, D.C., and other state capitals, he understands that over-testing distorts the purpose of education. He understands that Washington has gotten arrogant and has no idea about how its mandates are warping education. He has a deep understanding that education must liberate the minds of students, not chain them to a format that demeans thoughtfulness and punishes independence and divergent thinking.

California's Tom Torlakson is the wisest and most experienced state superintendent that I have met in my travels.

I was inspired by my visit. First, because there are so many thousands of teachers who have absorbed budget cut after budget cut, yet continue to do their best despite rising class sizes and lack of basic resources and the public obloquy heaped on them daily by the media and pundits. Second, because the state has leaders like Cody and Darling-Hammond, who insist on telling the truth about children, learning, and the needs of the schools.

But I was inspired above all because California has courageous, wise, and bold leadership that is prepared to stop the insanity that has undermined education across the nation.

Gov. Brown and state Superintendent Torlakson are on the side of children and teachers. They are on the side of learning, not testing. They are on the side of thinking, not parroting. They are on the side of supporting educators, not punishing them for daring to choose a low-wage profession that serves the needs of children and society. They have taken a stand against the ruinous, heavy-handed mandates from Washington that will stamp out the creativity of children and the idealism of teachers.

Not only in his State of the State address, but in his much earlier broadside against Race to the Top, Gov. Brown made clear that the great state of California will not bow to those who know only carrots and sticks and know nothing of learning and education. The state has asked for waivers without preconditions or mandates from Washington. This makes sense. Education is a state and local function, not a federal one.

California gives me hope. Its current leadership may provide the spark that ignites a national revolt against the current tide of bad ideas.

Diane

By  |  03:00 PM ET, 01/24/2012

 
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