Ms. Reformer Speaks

One of the biggest lies generated by critics of education reformers is our dismissal of the effects of poverty on children. This is a straw man, a canard devised to mask the cynicism prevalent among people who throw out lines like “too hard to teach” or “not everybody should go to college.” And I can think of one prominent figure in particular who has erected enough straw men to populate a wheat field. Recently, Diane Ravitch, a person who has yet to meet an education reform she didn’t used to like, gave a talk at the Lehigh University College of Education. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a talk so much as an imaginary debate with a character of her own creation dubbed “Mr. Reformer.” It brings to mind the condescending stunt pulled off by Clint Eastwood at the 2012 Republican National Convention when he addressed an empty chair onstage filled by an invisible President Obama. Ravitch’s “debate” was no less disingenuous, or in the words of a Lehigh education professor who attended the event, “her depiction of Mr. Reformer was superficial at best, disrespectful at worst.” Then again, she was honest about this from the very beginning when she said, “It won’t be a fair debate because I will always get the last word.” But there is never such a thing as a fair debate with Ravitch. Not when she resorts to belittling those who disagree with her, resorting to sexist slams against a tenure critic, making outlandish claims comparing testing to child abuse, or, in this latest ploy, devising a cartoonish composite of people working for education reform that lumps us all conveniently into one undifferentiated morass. Thus, the birth of “Mr. Reformer” and her penchant for demagoguery. She’s a first-rate soapbox orator. “Mr. Reformer says poverty doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter to him because he’s not poor,” she said in her talk. I am not a man, I am not white, and I grew up poor. And I am an education reformer. Every time someone like Diane Ravitch says some kids don’t need to go to college, they imply schools can shirk the responsibility to provide an education that prepares them for college, they also strip students of the right to determine for themselves whether college is in their future. I am a Latina whose working-class parents, for a brief time during my early childhood, had to accept government assistance. I grew up in a violent neighborhood in Chicago’s West Side. My father was a physically abusive alcoholic. Given my background, as a close friend from college once said, it was miraculous that I did not end up a teenage mother, addicted to drugs or stuck in a series of dead-end jobs. But I am not the product of a miracle or grand social intervention. I went to good schools with supportive teachers coupled with friends who believed in my potential and my ability to realize it. If I had teachers who thought as Ravitch did—that the problem of poverty was too insurmountable for schools to take on and they might as well keep expectations for poor children low—I wouldn’t have dared to be so ambitious as to strive for more than a high school education, let alone graduating from Swarthmore College, my alma mater. Instead, I was encouraged to enroll in the International Baccalaureate program in my high school with its challenging European coursework and battery of AP classes, and to apply to the most selective colleges in America. To preserve Ravitch’s whitewashing, people like me don’t exist in this arena. I’m just another person of color whose voice gets muted because a histrionic white person has decided to assume the mantle for upholding good old-fashioned American values. Sound familiar? Cue the empty chair. No, we in education reform do not discount the toll poverty takes on children and their families, but we refuse to sit on our hands waiting for poverty to be eradicated when improving schools is one way, among others, to mitigate its severity. Why become involved in education if you don’t think schools have a real impact or the ability to change children’s lives? Why maintain a steadfast belief in the power of public education, the importance it has in fostering democracy, if poverty renders the work of teachers and principals meaningless? Why fight at all? If you adhere to this train of thought, you have no business being in education. Unfortunately, there are educators who do, as illustrated by an exchange started by my colleague, Chris Stewart. I can’t think of a more stark example of the belief gap. An educator so incredulous that a school primarily serving poor, black children is succeeding that it must indicate divine intervention—or they cooked their numbers. We can sit around and wait until the kids who come through school doors face less of an uphill battle, or we can do the best with what we have. And what we have are children who want adults to believe they can excel under any circumstances, not when it’s easier. I wouldn’t have achieved all I have if those believers didn’t exist. Setting aside the glaring inaccuracies Ravitch spews—reformers only know privilege, the only people who care about poverty are those held by its painful grip—it’s her baiting disguised as advocacy which strikes me as the most dishonest quality about Ravitch. She fans the flames on purpose and stokes them ever higher and higher. I’ll concede that it works to draw attention to her. And I admit that I am impressed by how well anti-reformers present themselves as a united front barreling through contradictions and fueling hysteria over Common Core or testing. We in education reform, on the other hand, do not fall lockstep in with one another; we disagree over issues, sometimes sharply. But in Ravitch’s world, it’s easy to omit the gray and make everything as simple as black and white. Except she leaves out the black, too. Like a certain movie star who decided that addressing imaginary people is easier than openly and honestly engaging with them face to face.
Caroline Bermudez
Caroline Bermudez is chief storyteller at the Charter School Growth Fund and former senior writer at Education Post. Bermudez has been a journalist for almost 10 years. She was staff editor at The Chronicle of Philanthropy, covering the nonprofit world, with a particular focus on foundations and high net-worth giving. She has interviewed prominent business, political and philanthropic leaders ...

Join the Movement