Some experts suggest that the nation's approach to school reform is headed down the wrong path.

The president is wrong. Arne Duncan is wrong. The media are wrong. Many state administrators are wrong: This was the message on the current state of school reform in a Feb. 18 keynote session at the American Association of School Administrators‘ National Conference on Education.

You wouldn’t expect to hear these inflammatory statements boldly pronounced by a woman who looks more suited to serving lemonade to grandchildren than inspiring hundreds of attendees at 8 a.m. amid the mountainous backdrop of Colorado.

With her elegantly cropped gray hair, string of pearls, and deep blue eyes on a petite face lined with years of experiences, Diane Ravitch, research professor of education at New York University and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, had a few choice words on how current tough tactics supported by federal policy to encourage school reform are harming education rather than supporting it.

And just like that grandparent who always has a story that inspires and sheds lights on some fundamental truth in life, Ravitch read aloud the story of one fifth-grade teacher from California, which explains how school reform efforts are affecting his students and the community. The teacher’s remarks are published here, edited for brevity:

“Dear President Obama:
I mean this with all respect. I’m on my knees here, and there’s a knife in my back, and the prints on it kinda match yours. I think you don’t get it.
Your Race to the Top is killing the wrong guys. You’re hitting the good guys with friendly fire. I’m teaching in a barrio in California. I had 32 kids in my class last year. I love them to tears. They’re 5th graders. That means they’re 10 years old, mostly. Six of them were 11 because they were retained. Five more were in special education, and two more should have been. I stopped using the word ‘parents’ with my kids because so many of them don’t have them. Seven kids live with their ‘Grams,’ six with their dads. A few rotate between parents. Here’s the kicker: Fifty percent of my students have set foot in a jail or prison to visit a family member.
Do you and your secretary of education, Arne Duncan, understand the significance of that? I’m afraid not. It’s not bad teaching that got things to the current state of affairs. It’s pure, raw poverty. We don’t teach in failing schools. We teach in failing communities. It’s called the ZIP Code Quandary. If the kids live in a wealthy ZIP code, they have high scores; if they live in a ZIP code that’s entombed with poverty, guess how they do?
We also have massive teacher turnover at my school. Now, we have no money. We haven’t had an art or music teacher in 10 years. We have a nurse twice a week. And because of the No Child Left Behind Act, struggling public schools like mine are held to impossible standards and punished brutally when they don’t meet them. Did you know that 100 percent of our students have to be on grade level, or else we could face oversight by an outside agency? That’s like saying you have to achieve 100 percent of your policy objectives every year.
It’s not bad teaching that got things to the current state of affairs. It’s pure, raw poverty.
Charter schools and voucher schools aren’t the solution. They are an excuse not to fix the real issues. You promised us so much. And you want to give us merit pay? Anyway, I think we really need to talk. Oh, and can you pull the knife out while you’re standing behind me? It really hurts.”

“This frames what I’m talking about,” said Ravitch. “I get eMails like this every day from teachers and educators across the country. Race to the Top is hitting the wrong guys. It’s not the teachers, but poverty that’s failing our children. It’s not teachers, but failing communities that are hurting our children.”

What hit the audience the most weren’t the statistics quoted by Ravitch that proved the movie Waiting for Superman’s data were fundamentally flawed, but rather the common-sense revelations that are practically argument-proof.

For example, if the spirit of the U.S. Department of Education’s recent conference on Labor-Management Collaboration is to be taken seriously, and experts within national education organizations like AASA that promote teamwork are to be believed, the only way to reach success for students and public education is to support one another and be team collaborators.

However, what kind of leader fires staff rather than helps them, and what kind of team player places blame on others?

“The current corporate reform agenda isn’t helping; it’s only demoralizing teachers and giving them a sense of powerlessness. It’s not leadership when, instead of problem solving as a group, you point fingers, lay blame, and dismiss your staff,” explained Ravitch.

Ravitch drove her point home with the infamous Central Falls, R.I., example, in which a school board voted to fire all teachers from a low-performing school.

“True, they reached an agreement after this, and the staff did agree to work longer hours and attend more professional development, et cetera. However, instead of improving performance, the school is worse than ever today: Teachers aren’t showing up for work, students can’t attend their classes, and the school is in disarray,” said Ravitch. “Is it because they’re bad teachers? No. It’s because these get-tough tactics destroy trust and wipe away morale.”

She continued: “Public schools are not chain stores. Closing schools does nothing, absolutely nothing, to help children … but it sure makes for a great story.”

Ravitch argued that current school reform tactics aren’t being led by teachers and administrators, but rather by corporations that care more about dollars than community.

“Reform measures, with their emphasis on charters and vouchers, are trying to privatize education. I know parents want the best for their children, but we must work together as a community to give every child in that community a good education, not just the ones who can afford it. By allowing this to continue, we are unraveling the very social fabric of communities and undermining a cornerstone of democracy: public education,” she said.

Ravitch continued her presentation with what she called some other surprising truths:

  • Though President Obama calls the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s PISA results, and the country’s astonishment at its mediocre placing, a “Sputnik” moment, students today are actually performing better on tests than they were in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s, said Ravitch.
  • Finland, the top scoring country on PISA, doesn’t have standardized tests until students reach college.
  • Parents time after time tell Ravitch that they’d rather have an “inspiring” teacher than an “effective” one.

“There’s no silver bullet, no quick fixes like these corporate reformers would have you believe,” said Ravitch. “It’s going to take a while to get true reform, and it’s not going to happen with get-tough tactics and initiatives like Race to the Top.”

According to Ravitch, there are, however, some steps that can be taken to help students reach success: access to decent medical care; exposure to the arts and physical education, along with math and science; programs to help strengthen families and help parents; access to nurturing programs for children up to age five; and leaders with real education backgrounds, not those from the corporate sector with a year-long course in education.

She also mentioned that teachers will be marching on Washington, D.C., to get their voices heard July 28-30.

“These aren’t the bad teachers, the ones who don’t care. These are the ones who truly want to help their students and know that basing performance just on test scores, and firing the people who really care about their students’ lives, isn’t going to help,” she said.

As Ravitch concluded, and hundreds of superintendents and school board members gave her a standing ovation, it’s hard not to compare her with another seemingly demur, yet extremely influential woman from the past:

“So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!” —Abraham Lincoln, upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe.