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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 07/ 6/2010

Ravitch's 'modest' vision for school reform

By Valerie Strauss

This is another post written by education historian Diane Ravitch on her Bridging Differences blog, which she co-authors with Deborah Meier on the Education Week website.

Ravitch and Meier exchange letters about what matters most in education. Ravitch, a research professor at New York University, is the author of the bestselling “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” an important critique of the flaws in the modern school reform movement.

Here's her latest letter to Meier, and the last for the summer:

Dear Deborah:
This is my last blog until the fall. Time to take a break and recharge our batteries or whatever it is that keeps us going.

I have two parting thoughts before I head for the beach and the garden. First, I want to recommend a fascinating book. It is Michael Edwards' "Small Change: Why Business Won't Save the World."

Edwards led the Ford Foundation's program on governance and civil society. His book analyzes efforts by philanthro-capitalists to impose business principles and market thinking on institutions of civil society, where they are inappropriate.

The philanthro-capitalists, he writes, develop metrics for everything; it's a means of control. They love competition, and they love measurement. They don't understand that the values and qualities of civil society are different and are not measurable.

Civil society relies on participation; it changes the world by activism and social commitment. It teaches tolerance, love, solidarity, sharing and cooperation. Its goal is not the achievement of certain metrics, but social transformation. Edwards points to the great social movements of our lifetime—the civil rights movement, the women's movement—as examples of civil society at work, transforming society in ways that are fundamental. These were bottom-up movements, not movements that were controlled from the top by a master planner armed with data.

It is a good read, and a short one. My copy is littered with underlining and brackets and exclamation marks in the margins. (A new website tracks the activities of philanthro-capitalists: www.dferwatch.wordpress.com. This is worth reading and following.)

I highly recommend the book I am reading right now: Stephen L. Koss's "China, Heart and Soul: Four Years of Living, Learning, Teaching, and Becoming Half-Chinese in Suzhou, China." A math teacher and public school parent, Steve Koss is a regular contributor to the New York City Public School Parents Blog (one of the best in the nation). He writes insightful, incisive, hard-hitting posts about the latest distortion of test scores and other depredations of the New York City and state education bureaucracy. I bought the book on Amazon.com as a matter of loyalty to someone I admire (and have not yet met), but once I started reading, I found it hard to put down. It is funny, engrossing, informative, and delightful. Koss is a wonderful writer.

Other books that I plan to read: Barbara Torre Veltri's "Learning on Other People's Kids: Becoming a Teach for America Teacher," Alan Furst's "Spies of the Balkans," and Martha Minow's "In Brown's Wake." And I look forward to re-reading favorite poems.

My last thought before we say adieu. Critics say that I do not offer an alternative vision, merely complaints. This is not the place to sketch out a full-fledged vision, nor do I think it is my role to provide one. I am a historian, not a visionary. When a train is headed for the edge of a cliff, Job One is to stop it.

If I could succeed in getting the powerful in D.C. and in the foundation world to rethink their commitment to high-stakes testing, closing schools, and firing teachers; if I could persuade them that poverty does impair school achievement and that schools alone can't close the many gaps that are rooted in income inequality; if I could get them to seek positive ways to help schools and strengthen the teaching profession, I would be happy indeed. Just to stop the beatings would be a great outcome.

Then together, we can hammer out a better set of strategies to improve education. We don't need a guru or a mastermind to shape our destiny. At present, federal education policy is like a great beast trampling a garden that should be lovingly weeded and tended. If we can get the beast to stop the trampling, then we can all work toward wiser policies.

So here is a snapshot of one alternative vision. Grant you this is not an answer to every question, but it is a good beginning to a different approach. In April, I visited Dallas at the invitation of the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture.

When I got to Dallas, I learned about the work of the Institute, and I was impressed. It offers summer programs for teachers and principals where they study and discuss important classic and modern writings. I met with a dozen teachers who had gone through its program, and they talked with animation about their excitement as adult learners. One teacher introduced her English-language learners to Shakespeare and discovered that they became as excited as she was by reading Julius Caesar. Others reflected on what it meant to them to experience once again the joy of learning.

When I lectured in Dallas at the Booker T. Washington High School, I was preceded by Dr. Louise Cowan, the brilliant literary scholar who founded the Institute in 1980.

Dr. Cowan spoke about re-reading "Moby Dick," and she had the audience enthralled with her depiction of Captain Ahab as the first modern terrorist, determined to sacrifice everyone's life, including his own, in pursuit of vengeance. By the time she was done, this grand woman of 90-plus years had inspired many of her listeners to re-read that wonderful classic novel with new eyes and an open mind.

I left Dallas not only with an appreciation for the Institute, but as a newly appointed fellow of this organization (no remuneration, no privileges, just the pleasure of being associated with an admirable group).

So, here is my alternate vision: Respect teachers as adults and professionals. Give them the time and opportunity to refresh their intellectual energy. Provide opportunities for professional development that promote their intellectual, spiritual, and professional renewal. Take concrete steps to strengthen the profession. Avoid policies and programs that imply quick fixes to serious problems.

A modest vision, to be sure. But unlike current federal policy, it is constructive, and it respects the men and women who staff our nation's classrooms.

Diane

-0-

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By Valerie Strauss  | July 6, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Diane Ravitch  | Tags:  bridging differences, death and life of great american school system, diane ravitch, ford foundation, michael edwards and small change, new york city public school parents blog, ravitch and new book, ravitch's book, stphen koss  
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Comments

Thank you, Valerie, for continuing to bring intelligent voices to the discussion of education. Do you think we could get Ravitch to be the DCPS school chancellor? (of course not, I know, but someone like her?)

Posted by: dccitizen1 | July 6, 2010 7:27 AM | Report abuse

Valuable excerpt. But to the extent Ravitch wants to go against the grain and thought of experts in management--in any field--she should continue to give education an out on metrics. Values and other nonquantitative concepts, things, actions, outcomes can certainly be measured. Every single one. The trouble with a great many, but not all, teachers, with DC a good example, is that they would love not to be measured-- while everyone else in society is. That is a non-starter for most parents, voters, taxpayers and alert Boards of Ed. and other overseers.
And to refer to criticism of teachers as "beatings" is irresponsible, signaling Ravitch is first of all a politician playing to the teacher crowds, not a scholar. If that word must be used, it could be also be applied in cases where teachers are ineffective, disrespect the children, give up on the children, give them incorrect model behavior, including bad English, just wait for retirement, or remain underskilled. That's a figurative "beating" that affects the students life prospects more than teachers who receive mere criticism, many would agree. BTW, our skilled, successful, competent teachers tend to think Ravitch's gospel is somewhat over the top, playing to the masses of teachers who may not be what the used to be, like the administrators. Too bad she does not have more real-world solutions.

Posted by: axolotl | July 6, 2010 8:45 AM | Report abuse

Yes, thank you Valerie, for being a sane voice in the DC education debate. Diane Ravitch's most recent book sums up my the experience of family in the District of Columbia Public Schools.

As a DCPS parent, I have watched things go from bad to worse in the past three years.

The things that did work at my child's school, have been eliminated by Rhee. It never ceases to amaze me that those who get to make the decisions about urban schools have, for the most part, barely set foot in one...

I appreciate that you have the courage and intelligence to question the status quo when it comes to Rhee/Klein/Duncan and the rest.

Posted by: Title1SoccerMom | July 6, 2010 9:25 AM | Report abuse

Thank you Valerie and Diane for presenting such beautiful, clear-sighted offerings.

"At present, federal education policy is like a great beast trampling a garden that should be lovingly weeded and tended..."

I wonder if Arne Duncan knows that the word Kindergarten comes from the German,
"Children's garden."

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | July 6, 2010 10:22 AM | Report abuse

axoloti wrote: Valuable excerpt. But to the extent Ravitch wants to go against the grain and thought of experts in management--in any field--she should continue to give education an out on metrics. Values and other nonquantitative concepts, things, actions, outcomes can certainly be measured. Every single one. The trouble with a great many, but not all, teachers, with DC a good example, is that they would love not to be measured-- while everyone else in society is. That is a non-starter for most parents, voters, taxpayers and alert Boards of Ed. and other overseers.
And to refer to criticism of teachers as "beatings" is irresponsible, signaling Ravitch is first of all a politician playing to the teacher crowds, not a scholar. If that word must be used, it could be also be applied in cases where teachers are ineffective, disrespect the children, give up on the children, give them incorrect model behavior,
_____________________
There are more effective ways to measure teacher performance. Unfortunately they tend to be somewhat costly which, of course, taxpayers and politicians don't want. They want to do everything on the cheap. Plugging test data into a computer is much cheaper than having people in classrooms evaluating the performance of the teacher. It can be done. This site: http://www.gse.harvard.edu/~ngt/par/ profiles the PAR system used in Montgomery Co. and several other districts across the country. It's a system that focuses on mentoring and improving teaching skills rather than punishing and firing.

As far as the "beatings" go--We're not talking about constructive criticism here. All anyone has to do is read the comments on any article about education on this website to see teachers referred to as "dead weight," "wastes," etc. etc. As a 34 year veteran, I find it extremely disheartening to read comments implying that experienced teachers care about nothing except coasting to retirement. I could've retired 4 years ago, yet I continue to build my skills and work tirelessly on behalf of my students. It is very frustrating to be characterized as "dead weight." People paint the entire profession with a broad brush based on their experiences with a handful of teachers. So, yes, it feels like a beating when it is you and your peers that are being characterized this way.

Posted by: musiclady | July 6, 2010 11:43 AM | Report abuse

Valerie,

You quote Ravitch here, "Respect teachers as adults and professionals. Give them the time and opportunity to refresh their intellectual energy. Provide opportunities for professional development that promote their intellectual, spiritual, and professional renewal. Take concrete steps to strengthen the profession. Avoid policies and programs that imply quick fixes to serious problems."

That is the underlying sentiment that I would wish Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee and others like them had. Unfortunately, I don't read anything that they say that sounds that way. They apparently do not think teachers are professionals.

Posted by: celestun100 | July 6, 2010 11:47 AM | Report abuse

Never mind DC, Ravitch should be Sec. of Education, but TFA would veto her too, just like Linda Darling-Hammond. Doesn't the TFA cult's control of the Dept. of Education violate the 1st Amendment?

Posted by: mcstowy | July 6, 2010 1:27 PM | Report abuse

Greetings from the NEA Convention in wet New Orleans!

Dr. Ravitch won the NEA Friend of Education Award for the 2010 year and was wildly received during her speech to our Representative Assembly today. She is truly an advocate of public education, public educators, and for the unions that represent us.

I just discovered today that President Obama's appointment for Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, only holds a B.A. degree in Sociology! I'm beginning to question Obama's judgement. No wonder Duncan has zero respect for teachers holding advanced degrees; he does not have one.

Who would appoint as Secretary of Education for the entire United States an individual with absolutely no qualifications? No wonder he is a Michelle Rhee fan!

Posted by: lacy4 | July 6, 2010 2:48 PM | Report abuse

Great article, thanks for always telling the truth about education!

Posted by: jlp19 | July 6, 2010 3:11 PM | Report abuse

While I find much to agree with in Diane Ravitch's letter, it further illlustrates why traditional public school defenders have so far failed.

Ravitch and others continually attack the education reform movement but offer little to nothing as an alternative. It is not acceptable for Ravitch to write an entire book savaging the reform movement and then simply shrug off responsibility for offering an alternative by saying she's "only a historian".

Clearly she has opinions...and she should offer them. Put up or shut up.

Posted by: holzhaacker | July 6, 2010 10:27 PM | Report abuse

As a former Teach For America teacher (who continues to work in the public schools, by the way), I am frankly tired of the continuous attacks on TFA from the traditional education crowd.

Spend a little bit of time in our country's struggling schools and you'll quickly see why many of those schools are abysmal failures.

It's true that some of the problems can be attributed to factors outside of the school....

BUT during my first two years of teaching, I was shocked to discover how many of the problems the schools face are FIXABLE. Yet too many principals, districts, and teachers are simply unable or unwilling to fix them...either due to bureaucracy, poor leadership, poor training, or complacency.

Ravitch is correct to acknowledge that outside factors play a role in a student's education....but we as teachers must accept responsibility for the things we DO control.

If the education profession continues to blame everyone and everything but itself for why our schools are failing, it gives itself permission to stop trying.

To be sure, TFA is not a perfect solution to the education problems in this country. But let's stop condemning them for calling attention to (and trying to fix) a problem that had long been swept under the rug in this country.

During my time in TFA, I was certainly a novice teacher....but let's not forget that EVERY TEACHER is a novice at some point. I've yet to see any teacher prep program that turns out veteran teachers upon completion.

I would gladly hold the average new TFA teacher up against any other new teacher any day.

There are lots of problems in our schools, but TFA isn't one of them.


Posted by: holzhaacker | July 6, 2010 10:46 PM | Report abuse

Ms. Strauss, Thank you for this great information. I love Ms. Ravitch's analogy that school reform is more a matter of lovingly weeding and tending a garden than being trampled on by federal education policy! And I completely agree that when a train is heading for the cliff, Job One is to stop it. Then we can find the solutions.
holzhaaker--did your experience in being "shocked that so many of the problems the schools face are fixable" inspire you to any ideas about how to fix them? If so, I would love to read them.

Posted by: 1citizen | July 9, 2010 1:00 AM | Report abuse

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