Education reform

Participants line up to sign a declaration of principles at a weekend education conference in Los Angeles that took on corporate-inspired education reform. (Howard Blume/Los Angeles Times / October 6, 2013)

Los Angeles was the scene last week of two events that took on corporate-style school reform, which emphasizes competition and accountability and is promulgated by many state governments and the U.S. Department of Education.

The first consisted of two L.A.-area appearances by education historian Diane Ravitch, whose new best-selling book is “Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools.” Ravitch spoke at Occidental College in Eagle Rock and at Cal State Northridge. Both events were packed.

Ravitch, 75, is widely seen as a leading spokeswoman for a movement that calls for collaborative school reform, which emphasizes social services for families and anti-poverty economic policies. She opposes the widespread use of standardized testing as a means to assess teachers and schools.

"There is an obsession with bad teachers," she said in Northridge. "It is destroying the teaching profession."

She defends schools as delivering better results than they are given credit for and likes to highlight abuses and scandals in the charter-school movement.

Charter schools, which are free but independently run, are popular among Los Angeles parents.

Ravitch’s critics cast her as a defender of a status quo dominated by teacher unions and other adult-interest groups, which, they say, use poverty as an excuse for failed schools.

In her appearances, Ravitch countered that poverty remains the fundamental issue to address, but that efforts to improve schools can be undertaken concurrently. She said she is, in fact, fighting a status quo based on a counterproductive, unproven orthodoxy that holds sway over both Republican and Democratic leaders.

Ravitch called for an opposition movement--and that’s what was underway over the weekend at a downtown “human rights” conference organized in conjunction with the nation’s two major teacher unions.

The Reclaiming the Promise conference had the goal of bringing together students, parents, clergy and community organizations into alliance with the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Assn. More than 500 people attended from across the country.

“We see that the wrong side has been winning,” in part because they’re louder, said Michael Cook, a community organizer from Cleveland. “We need to stop being quiet.”

“It doesn’t matter how much money the other side has,” the Rev. John Welch of Pittsburgh told the gathering on Sunday. “We have the people.”

The effort includes making common cause with supporters of immigration reform—embodied at the convention by a march for legislative changes.

The focus on immigration rights could directly benefit some of her students, said bilingual preschool teacher Montserrat Garibay, who also is a local union officer for her Austin, Texas, school system.

She added: “I want my students to be critical thinkers. An exam filling out bubble sheets does not make a student a critical thinker.”

Houston teacher Pamela Davis said it wasn’t prepping for a standardized test that changed her life but a first-grade teacher who cared, even taking the time to visit her at home. Davis’ decision to become a teacher also was inspired by her own child’s special needs.

She said she’s weary of following the advice of consultants “who’ve never been in a classroom and who tell you what to do.”

In the pursuit of test preparation, she added, “we’re racing through that curriculum, just throwing information to the students.” She said she tutors students before and after school because “there’s no room for good teaching unless you do it on your own.”

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Twitter: @howardblume | howard.blume@latimes.com