A big crowd packed into the University of Wisconsin's Memorial Union Theater on Tuesday night to hear education historian Diane Ravitch, considered one of the most influential scholars in the nation on schools.
In her talk, she ripped into Gov. Scott Walker's budget, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's Race to the Top, the obsession with measuring student progress through high stakes testing, privatization of education through charters and vouchers and No Child Left Behind legislation that is closing schools and punishing teachers.
Her gloomy assessment of the current passion for "fixing" education and vilifying teachers is particularly striking because Ravitch herself is a former proponent of school testing and accountability and an early supporter of the No Child Left Behind legislation.
But she had a change of heart when she studied the data surrounding the NCLB system of rewards and punishments and discovered it simply did not help students' learning. Her latest book, "The Death and Life of the Great American School System" made national headlines last year because it detailed her very public turnaround. Since then, she has traversed the country, speaking to groups like last night's audience in an effort to sound an alarm about what she sees as a profound, organized and well-funded attack on public education.
I met Ravitch for breakfast in Milwaukee recently and wrote a Cap Times question and answer profile last week.
"I don't know whether we're in an age of insanity or stupidity," she told the capacity crowd, which included former U.S. Rep. David Obey, Madison School Superintendent Daniel Nerad, WEAC executive director Mary Bell, current and former school board members from around the area, UW scholars, students and many, many teachers.
As Ravitch sees it, the rewards and punishments of No Child Left Behind, and its Obama era incarnation, Race to the Top, are counterproductive to real advances in education, and destructive for children. She takes issue with the idea that performance data is the key to assessing how well kids are learning, and believes that measures favored in business are being inappropriately applied to the classroom.
Her comments, which drew repeated applause throughout, clearly outlined her concerns about the angry assault public education is facing but did not provide suggestions for any middle ground between critics and defenders of American public schools and teachers.
The free event was sponsored by the UW's School of Education, Wisconsin Center for Education Research and the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters. It was the kickoff for a series of discussions about the current status of education in America.