Reforms meant to boost Tennessee schools actually could end up harming public education.
That's the message coming to Chattanooga tonight from educational researcher and author Diane Ravitch, who said she hears regularly from Tennessee teachers who are fed up with changes to teacher evaluations, tenure and teaching standards.
"Most of them say it's a disaster," Ravitch said.
After bringing in education reform activist and former District of Columbia Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee last year, the Hunter Lecture Series will kick off this year with Ravitch's lecture. Ravitch is a research professor of education at New York University, a former U.S. assistant secretary of Education and is the author of 20 books on education.
She argues that the American education system isn't as bad as reformers such as Rhee say. And she views standardized testing and "privatization" through charter and virtual schools as some of today's biggest threats to public education.
That's a stark comparison to Rhee, who argues for increased teacher accountability through evaluations and compensation linked to student test scores.
"This is an opportunity to hear more and to hear the other side," said Corrine Allen, executive director of the Benwood Foundation, which sponsors the lecture series together with the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
Education has been a key area of focus for the series, Allen said, and hearing both sides of the spectrum falls in line with the overall goal that people will "seek not that with which you agree, but that which causes you to think and consider."
In a Chattanooga Times Free Press interview, Ravitch pointed to the continuing strike in Chicago, where teachers have been out of the classrooms and on the streets for more than a week, protesting issues such as teacher evaluations, job security and length of the school day.
While Chicago is much more friendly to labor unions than many U.S. cities, Ravitch said teachers there are indicative of widespread frustration in the profession across the country.
"I think what you'll see more of, as opposed to strikes, is demoralization and people quitting teaching," she said.
Ravitch said test-heavy policies such as the federal No Child Left Behind law and its ensuing state waivers have driven experienced teachers out of the classroom, leaving a young, inexperienced workforce.
"If you like the idea that your child is being taught by a first-year teacher, then we're headed in the right direction," she said.
Ravitch supports teachers unions, which she said were key in the civil rights movement. Unions have been a frequent target of reformers such as Rhee, but Ravitch said those reformers often promote ideas unpopular with the teaching force.
"The things that the reformers are pushing, teachers don't want," Ravitch said.
Sandy Hughes, president of the Hamilton County Education Association, said many teachers value Ravitch's opinion, given her extensive research on what works and what doesn't in U.S. education.
"I feel like experience adds to the validity of her opinion," Hughes said.
Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6249.