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Posted at 12:30 PM ET, 07/ 8/2010

Ravitch on teachers and her critics

By Valerie Strauss

I am publishing an email I received from Diane Ravitch, the New York University education historian and author of the best-selling "The Death and Life of the Great American School System." Ravitch, once a supporter of No Child Left Behind and now a fierce critic of its impact, is traveling the country meeting thousands of teachers as she critiques the Obama administration's education policies. In the last few months I have written a lot about Ravitch, and published a number of her pieces not because I agree with her every word but because I think she is the most forceful voice right now speaking out for sane policy and our public school system would be far better off if administration policy better reflected her research and concerns.

By Diane Ravitch
Last Tuesday, I received an award from the National Education Association as its “Friend of Education” for 2010 and had the amazing experience of speaking at its convention in New Orleans to 10,000 teachers. In my talk (see above), I briefly described how high-stakes testing is corrupting education, how choice is being oversold, why NCLB [No Child Left Behind] is a disaster, and how NCLB and the Obama administration’s Race to the Top are tightly linked together. I got the most thunderous applause when I asked why the idea of a “race to the top” had replaced the idea of equal educational opportunity.

Almost immediately, Education Week posted a blog by one of its veteran reporters saying that I was singing to the choir and that some observers considered my evidence to be “selective.”

I responded to the post by wondering what was “selective” about the Stanford [University] CREDO study of charter schools—which found that only 17% of them outperformed a matched regular public school—or scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which since 2003 have never shown an advantage for charter schools as compared to regular public schools. Or NAEP scores for Milwaukee, which I cited in my speech, which reveal that African American students in that city—after two decades of choice-- have lower scores than African American students in Mississippi and Louisiana. Nor have I seen any evidence to contradict my conclusions about the predictable effects of high-stakes testing: narrowing the curriculum, cheating, gaming the system, systematic inflation of scores, etc.

The reporter, Stephen Sawchuk, pointed out that I am not in total agreement with some of NEA’s policies, and he is right. I have been a strong critic of so-called “21st century skills,” but that didn’t stop NEA from selecting me as its honoree. I certainly haven’t changed my view that the push for these “skills” is a weak refrain of the same activity-based approaches that have been popular in ed schools for a century. And, to the extent that it is about pushing more technology into the schools, it is pointless, as technology will never take the place of good teachers. Would NEA teachers disagree?

Sawchuk also says that the NEA doesn’t agree with my stance on the importance of a rich, balanced, coherent curriculum, but I didn’t see any evidence of that when I spoke. In fact, when I talked about the way that test prep was reducing time for the arts, history, civics, science, foreign languages, and even physical education, I was drowned out by cheers and applause before I could get through the list of subjects that are minimized by the pursuit of higher scores in basic skills.

These are important issues, and it’s useful to get them out front for discussion. So, I say, thank you to Stephen Sawchuk for doing so.

What I have observed these past few months is people from different camps are coming together to support public education. The privatization movement has driven one-time ideological foes into the same camp. It turns out that debates about bilingual education or whole language or progressivism pale in comparison to the importance of maintaining public education and the principle of equal educational opportunity.

CORRECTION: This was initially published with the first name of Stephen Sawchuk spelled incorrectly. It is now correct.


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By Valerie Strauss  | July 8, 2010; 12:30 PM ET
Categories:  Diane Ravitch, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Teachers  | Tags:  charter schools and research, death and life of great american school system, diane ravitch, ed week and ravitch, national education association and convention, nea convention, ravitch and nea, ravitch and teachers, ravitch and video, teachers convention  
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The portion of this post dealing with selectivity is highly misleading. In Sawchuck's article, he links to another article that actually explains the selectivity charge. ( Simply put, pointing out examples where reforms have failed without looking at where they have succeeded and (most importantly) examining why, is selective and distorts our policy debate. Just as charter proponents are wrong to ignore the substantial evidence that, in aggregate, charter schools do not improve public education, charter opponents are wrong to dismiss every example of successful charters as aberrational. If NYC charters are performing well, but charters other places aren't, why is that?

My fear as someone who is mostly outside these debates -- a future parent and the husband of a teacher in an inner-city school but with minimal school-based ties myself -- is that, on both sides, the desire to stake out a clear and sellable position is trumping the desire to find practical solutions.

Ravitch, like Rhee or Klein on the other side, may be making herself a celebrity. But she isn't getting us any closer to a better school system.

Posted by: Jessedavidam | July 8, 2010 2:02 PM | Report abuse

Diane Ravitch, Godspeed. Thank you!

Reminds me of George Washington who tho' desiring to retire the more tranquil life of Mt. Vernon, but whose sense of duty to country kept him most busy. Though I don't know if you have any desire to retire or choose less stressful pursuits, I am most appreciative of your sincerity and dedication in seeing democracy prevail in the matter of educating our youth.

Posted by: shadwell1 | July 8, 2010 2:07 PM | Report abuse

If Diane Ravitch's speaking truth to power about the misguided use of testing, accountability, and choice leads to richer and more equitable educational opportunities being offered in our public schools, we will indeed have improved our school system.

Posted by: Nemessis | July 8, 2010 3:19 PM | Report abuse

But wait! I wanted some of that test score money! If we follow Ravitch's sensible solutions, I won't make as much money!

Posted by: aby1 | July 8, 2010 3:49 PM | Report abuse

Finally there is a person of sufficient public stature to get media attention on the systematic denigration of American public schools. This process was launched during the Reagan administration with a book based on dubious methodology, “A Nation at Risk”, which got the pot boiling. Since then we have had vouchers, charter schools, privatization of school support staffs (which often means the same people do the same work without health benefits, thus creating profits for some company not headquartered locally) and teacher “accountability” punishing teachers with loss of income or jobs if their assigned students don’t make x amount of progress on whatever tests are currently considered by politicians to be hard enough.

The hammering that public schools are getting is just one front in the battle for low taxes and few government services. Instead of paying taxes for the public good we can now pay companies for private profit. I see charter schools as a midpoint in the road to total privatization. Then people can get what they pay for. The affluent should do well; the poor - well they can always opt for home schooling. Here in Michigan we have that option with little oversight. So parents can still go to work, if they’re lucky enough to have work, while their children study at home

Posted by: annk3 | July 8, 2010 4:45 PM | Report abuse

Sawchuk also says that the NEA doesn’t agree with my stance on the importance of a rich, balanced, coherent curriculum, but I didn’t see any evidence of that when I spoke. In fact, when I talked about the way that test prep was reducing time for the arts, history, civics, science, foreign languages, and even physical education,
None of the ideas of Diane Ravitch are directed to the problems of Title 1 public schools where national reading tests indicate 50 percent and above failing in 4th grade reading.

Yes the policies that came out of the ideas that Diane Ravitch once supported are wrong but Diane Ravitch still has not provided any new ideas to address the problems of Title 1 public schools.

In 2003 it was obvious that a national educational policy that solely focused all attention in a classroom on children who had problems in learning would divert all attention from those who were not having difficulty in learning and would degrade education to the lowest common denominator.

Those who do not believe this was obvious in 2003 should email Mr. Mathews since I emailed him information regarding this in 2003.

Yes it is obvious to get rid of the poor policies regarding Title 1 public schools that have been detrimental and forced upon public schools that were not Title 1 public schools.

At the same time Diane Ravitch needs to provide new ideas in regard to dealing with the problems of Title 1 public schools.

I hope that Valerie Strauss will forward the following idea to Diane Ravitch since since it addresses the problem of Title 1 public schools.

Test every child when they enter the Title 1 public school system and place them in classes based upon their current abilities and skills so teachers can teach to the level of the class.

There are already tests for testing children prior to entering kindergarten.

Divide primary education in half with schools of K to 2nd grade and schools of 3rd to 5th grade. This allows you to use existing schools and staff. On this basis each grade will have 4 different levels to match the current skills and abilities of children.

Now you are maximizing education for children in each class room. This method also allows you to spend more money for children that need more help since children are in classes based upon their current skills and abilities. Teacher aids can be assigned to lower level classes to assist in raising the skills and capabilities of these children. This allows schools to pin point resources where they are most needed.

Yearly tests would be used to indicate the level children are prepared to go into for the next school year. Knowing the current abilities and skills in their class will allow teachers to use the teaching method best suited to the class.

Do this for three years and you will dramatically increase the achievement in primary Title 1 public schools.

Posted by: bsallamack | July 8, 2010 4:46 PM | Report abuse

Jessedavidam raises some interesting questions. As an outsider, he notes that the debates over education seem to generate more heat than light, with two polarized camps lobbing verbal bombs at each other.

I agree that it might look this way, but I think you need to understand what is happening in K-12 education. When Obama was elected, many of us thought we would see an honest, open debate, based on sound science and reasoning. I'm sure Ravitch was in that group, and as a serious scholar, she can certainly exchange in measured, sensible debate with the best of them. But what we are waking up to -- some sooner than others -- is a set of policies promoted by what Ravitch calls "the billionaire boys' club." There are many good proposals for education reform put forth by serious groups (typically composed of actual educators, researchers and academics) floating around, but the US Dept of Education headed by Arne Duncan simply ignores them, and continues to push the crazy schemes that he pushed in Chicago. (Duncan was CEO of Chicago schools for 7 years, with lackluster results.) They can't provide any evidence that the schemes they are ramming down on the country will work. Arne Duncan pretends to listen, but does not hear. Media pundits, with the notable exception of the wonderful Valerie Strauss, drink the kool-aid in big gulps without even asking the most basic critical questions.

So if it seems like a war, it is one. Diane Ravitch is right. What is at stake is the future and soul of our public education system. And I'm glad she's out there leading the charge.

Posted by: dz159 | July 8, 2010 10:51 PM | Report abuse

It's curious that Mrs. Ravitch uses standardized test scores to support her thesis about charter schools, yet derides the use of standardized tests to assess public schools.

I enjoyed the historical foundation her book 'Death and Life..' provided for our current education debates. Yet I also found her solutions general yet insufficient in solving the desperate problems parents in our urban cores have.

You get one shot to educate your child; a parent living in the zone of a poorly run school cannot 'wait' for reform. They need the best school possible for their child RIGHT NOW, and choice, in whatever form it takes, meets their needs. How shameful that we don't have to wait on Target to 'give us what we want' and can go to Mervyn's or Wal-Mart, but cannot do the same when the local public school does not meet the needs of our child.

One of the 800 lb gorillas Mrs. Ravtich avoids revealing is the adverse impact of teacher work rules/contracts on providing quality teachers to the neediest students. Here in LA 2 of the 3 neighboring feeder middle schools were forced to fire their younger staff, staff members who had made a difference in last year's 9th grade class at our high school. Shockingly to some, but not me, they could not automatically replace those teachers with 'seasoned veterans' because few of them, quite frankly, volunteered to teach deep in South LA/Watts. No where in Mrs. Ravitch's critique of our education system does she deal with this directly, but these are the issues urban parents face, and this dilemma drives so many of them to charter schools.
Politically today people characterize Republicans as 'the party of No'; right now, teachers may be able to claim this title since we do not like either NCLB or Race to the Top. Either we come up with concrete, viable alternatives to improving education or we be seen as just another interest group fighting for survival.

Posted by: pdfordiii | July 9, 2010 12:52 AM | Report abuse

This is amazing. Ravitch has a best-selling book, receives an award from the largest union in the nation - where she was treated as though she were the Second Coming - and because she was lightly criticized by a single reporter (who cited evidence to back up his criticism), the Washington Post hands her an entire column to complain.

Whether you agree with Ravitch or with Sawchuk, I would expect the Washington Post to defend the right of the reporter covering the event to characterize it as he saw it.

Posted by: MikeAntonucci | July 9, 2010 9:47 AM | Report abuse

Ravitch is against charter schools yet I see nothing wrong with poor/minority parents FINALLY being given a choice as to where to send their children to school, previously afforded only to families of wealth.

She opposes linking student test scores to teacher evaluations but offers no alternative for injecting objective data into the existing and embarrassing teacher evaluation process. She also insists linking student test scores to teacher evaluations will create systemic gaming/cheating. Not everyone cheats and those who do should have their teacher license revoked for life and be prosecuted.

Finally, she objects to the way Obama/Duncan want to deal with the nation's "drop out factories" by closing these perpetual failures and making all the teachers re-apply for their jobs in the new school. Great. Protect the teachers/adults at all costs while the poor/minority kids continue to fail. Some solution. No, it's definitely not all the fault of the teachers in these schools but they have to presume some of the responsibility.

Again, she's against the administration's plans for education reform and then cops out on offering alternative solutions by stating she's only a historian, and not a policy adviser.

Come on! She's apparently got the sale/popularity of her book more in mind than fashioning what could be viable reforms for our public schools.

And oh, BTW, anyone, and I repeat ANYONE, who receives the NEA's award for the year as their "Friend of Education" is clearly on the wrong track for offering any helpful assistance to public education in this country. You've really distinguished yourself with that award Diane. What a joke!!!

Posted by: phoss1 | July 9, 2010 7:45 PM | Report abuse

Diane Ravitch tells the truth about education, and for that reason I support her.

Posted by: jlp19 | July 10, 2010 9:52 AM | Report abuse

Thank you for all you are doing!
Thank you for speaking for all the silenced educators, families and communities.

Public schools are the cornerstone of democracy.
The labor movement helped teachers get due process and fair compensation. What does our country want for its citizens?

Posted by: olas10 | July 10, 2010 9:27 PM | Report abuse

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