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Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch is a historian of education and the former United States assistant secretary of education.Courtesy: Basic Books

Is Diane Ravitch the George Ball of Our Generation and Education Reform our Vietnam?

In the spring and summer of 1965, as US policy makers debated whether to send large numbers of US ground troops to Vietnam to insure that the South Vietnamese government not collapse, a longtime Washington insider named George Ball issued a fierce warning that the policy being recommended would be disastrous. Declaring that the conflict in Vietnam was a “civil war among Asians” not a front of a global struggle against Communism, Ball warned that sending US ground troops would lead to national humiliation no matter how large the force sent or the technological advantage it possessed because it would cement the character of the war, from the Vietnamese side, as a struggle against a foreign invader.

Ball’s advice needless to say, was disregarded, and the result was exactly as he predicted - a humiliating defeat for the US which extracted a terrifying toll in deaths and ecological damage on the Vietnamese people.

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In our time, a bi-partisan initiative of equal import, though less immediately destructive, a movement to revitalize public education in the US and eliminate racial and economic gaps in educational performance, has prompted an equally momentous dissent from a Washington insider, this time in the person of a education scholar Dr Diane Ravitch.

An Undersecretary of Education in the Bush Administration, and an initial supporter of landmark “No Child Left Behind” legislation, Ravitch became convinced that the fundamental assumption that undergirded the bi-partisan Education Reform, that the “achievement gap” between Black and Latino and White and Asian students was caused by “bad teachers” and recalcitrant teachers unions rather than entrenched poverty, would lead to policy recommendations that would demoralize teachers, destabilize the nation’s public school system, encourage privatization and profiteering and, in the long run, increase performance gaps between racial and economic groups.

As with George Ball before her, Dr Ravitch’s recommendations were systematically ignored not only by the administration that appointed her, but the administration which replaced it. And as with George Ball, her warnings are proving to be eerily prophetic. All over the nation, policies are being implemented which are leading to demoralization of teachers, to closing of schools which honorably served communities for generations, to marginalization of special needs and ELL students, to testing scandals in high needs schools and districts, and to an uncontrolled proliferation of tests that has put profits in the pockets of test companies, while pushing aside science, history and the arts, and making a growing number of students hate going to school.

The question is not whether these policies - an odd mixture of privatization, universal testing, and teacher/school accountability based on student test scores- will be effective in reducing the impact of poverty on educational performance. The question is how much damage will be done before a critical portion of the public, the media, and the nation’s political leadership realizes how counterproductive these policies are.

If Vietnam is any precedent, such a “national wake up call” on educational policy could be quite long in coming, and the damage inflicted immense. And as with Vietnam, only massive protest and civil disobedience will be able to stop the policy in its tracks.