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Posted at 9:04 AM ET, 11/17/2010

What Ravitch told KIPP and Teach for America

By Valerie Strauss

Education historian Diane Ravitch gave a speech at Rice University about school reform in which she directly challenged officials from Teach for America and the Knowledge Is Power Program who were present -- the very people who had invited her.

REEP, KIPP and TFA Lecture Series from Jon Paul Estrada on Vimeo.

Ravitch, the author of the bestselling book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” and a former assistant secretary of education, spoke at Rice as part of a lecture series sponsored by The Rice Education Entrepreneurship Program (REEP), the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), and Teach for America.

Point by point, she picked apart school reform measures pushed by the Obama administration, leaving no topic untouched: charter schools, value-added teacher assessment, punitive sanctions on low-performing schools, No Child Left Behind, how Finland became an educational model by supporting teachers in ways the United States doesn't, the Texas educational miracle that wasn't, etc.

You can watch the video at

Noting that most public charter schools are not any better, and often worse, than traditional neighborhood public schools, Ravitch addressed officials from KIPP, one of the country’s most successful public charter school networks:

“What I want to say to KIPP, because I really really admire what you are doing. You have an excellect reputation, you get great results. Thousands of new charters will be created in the wake of your success. But your results are not typical. Warn President Obama and Secretary Duncan.... that the wonderful results you get are unusual they are not typical of the charter sector. You must disassociate yourself from the educational robber barons, dilettantes and incompetents who are following in your wake making false promises and delivering a low-quality education to poor and minority children.”

That got a loud applause from the crowd.

Mike Feinberg, co-founder and superintendent of KIPP Houston, listened to the speech and participated in a discussion with Ravitch after the speech. He didn’t mention the challenge.

She also spoke about Teach for America:

“If I were just graduating from college, which I wish were true, I would surely want to join Teach for America. I understand why tens of thousands of idealistic college students sign up for a two-year term as a teacher in a school serving poor students. I have met many many young people who are in TFA now and I have been impressed by their intelligence, their enthusiasm, their sincerity and dedication.

“But I would urge you please, stop claiming that TFA will close the achievement gap. That may be a nice slogan but nobody can teach for two or three years and close the achievement gap. Closing the achievement gap requires a lot more than really smart and dedicated young people with five weeks of training and a lot of enthusiasm. It requires highly skilled career professionals with deep experience who are willing to stick to the profession.... You send out a false message that your corps of young people is all that it takes and that’s not true.

"The TFA message is supporting efforts to undercut professionalism in every part of education. Not only do we now have superintendents who were never educators but now we have many programs to train non-educators to be principals.

"TFA supposedly proved that no professionalism was needed, just really smart people. So now we have the George W. Bush Institute, allied with TFA, planning to train 50,000 new principals over the next decade, many of them drawn from business, the military, sports and other non-educational fields.

"As I was driving into Houston yesterday, my brother pointed out to me a billboard that said: 'Want to be a teacher?' As we were driving past, I got my cell phone. You just have to put down $395 [the full cost, according to the website, of getting alternative teacher certification is $4,195]...

"Does TFA want to be remembered in history as the leading edge of a movement that destroyed the education profession? "

Tough talk (that also drew applause from the crowd). Terry Bruner, Teach for America executive director for the Houston Region, listened and was part of the after-speech panel. He, not surprisingly, didn’t reply.

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By Valerie Strauss  | November 17, 2010; 9:04 AM ET
Categories:  Diane Ravitch, School turnarounds/reform  | Tags:  arne duncan, charter schools, diane ravitch, finland, finland education, kipp, knowledge is power program, nclb, no child left behind, obama school reform, president obama, rice university, secretary duncan, teach for america, teachers, tfa  
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Excellent as always, Valerie. As a teacher, the deprofessionalization is becoming quite unbearable and demoralizing.

Posted by: mrteachbad | November 17, 2010 10:01 AM | Report abuse

Going out on a limb here, but Ravitch just lost some respect points in my book due to the KIPP praise (really really admire) and saying that if she was just graduating from college, she would surely want to join TFA. The expanding siphoning of public funds to the detriment of neighborhood public schools (and seemingly without public accountability for such funds - open accounting sheets / books?) is a snowball of a mess. Visions of churning money filling many pockets.... There are some philosophical issues as well....

Posted by: shadwell1 | November 17, 2010 10:24 AM | Report abuse

Diane Ravitch is not only smart, she is also very brave. Keep speaking the truth, Dr. Ravitch!

Posted by: lacy4 | November 17, 2010 10:51 AM | Report abuse

I think it's OK that Ravitch said she'd want to join TFA if she were right out of college. After all, it's an opportunity for young people to do good -- just like young people who go into the peace corps.

The problem comes when TFA is seen as the solution to improving public education. That's just as laughable as Peace corps volunteers being the solution to US foreign policy.

I wish more people couldsee that.

Posted by: efavorite | November 17, 2010 12:08 PM | Report abuse

Actually, I think Ravitch meant she would joint TFA for the same reasons most TFA's join: It's great for the TFA, not so for their students.

Posted by: mcstowy | November 17, 2010 1:16 PM | Report abuse

Maybe you're right about Ravitch's intention, Mcstowy, but like the peace corp, TFA is not bad in and of itself (in my opinion). It's just not that great and it should NOT usurp the teaching profession.

I'd like to see it change to providing teachers' aides instead of teachers. That way the TFAers could learn about teaching while helping competent, experienced teachers (who could use the help) and deciding whether or not to stay in teaching.

Posted by: efavorite | November 17, 2010 1:37 PM | Report abuse

I, too, am disappointed with Ravitch's praise of KIPP as their practices are disturbing to me. As a parent here in DC, I try hard to avoid KIPP, TFA, and related charter schools. It's increasingly difficult.

Posted by: dcparent | November 17, 2010 2:03 PM | Report abuse

I wish Jay Mathews would take Diane's comments more to heart. Then maybe he would get off his unrealistic high-horse of unconditionally praising KIPP and TFA. (Best results I've ever seen)!
Diane at least knows to praise them where it is due but point out their limitations with the strength to say it to their faces.

Posted by: 1bnthrdntht | November 17, 2010 3:00 PM | Report abuse

Diane Ravitch is absolutely fearless. She does not tailor her message to her audience, does not grease the wheels (as so many politicians do) with happy talk.

That's why she can congratulate the KIPP schools for developing one model that is yielding some success, but warn them about becoming a commodity. She can support the good intentions of TFA teachers while pointing out that the TFA juggernaut is counterproductive in building a highly skilled, professional teaching force.

Ravitch totally rocks. Absolute honesty, combined with intelligence and integrity. You don't get that very often in Ed World.

Posted by: nflanagan2 | November 17, 2010 3:08 PM | Report abuse

Diane Ravitch for Secretary of Education!!!!!!

Posted by: UrbanDweller | November 17, 2010 6:14 PM | Report abuse

KIPP cannot be trusted. Why didn’t the national media follow the KIPP fiasco in California?

TFA wastes millions by serving as an unnecessary middleman in the hiring process. Public schools have the capacity to hire teachers without outsourcing and without duplicating existing personnel services.

TFA’s five week training program DOES NOT produce highly effective teachers.

Posted by: nfsbrrpkk | November 17, 2010 6:16 PM | Report abuse

Well, we can at least say that KIPP and TFA are more open-minded and honorable than most of their opponents (who wouldn't be caught dead inviting, say, Rod Paige to speak).

Posted by: educationobserver | November 18, 2010 9:27 AM | Report abuse


Exactly my point, but while both TFA and Peace Corps are POTENTIALLY harmless ways for young people to claime they "helped" for a while before moving on to real careers, TFA ceased to be harmless when they began displacing real teachers with ignorant interns. That's where we are now. Another problem is that the benefits go almost exclusively to those that need help the least, already well-to-do graduates of elite colleges, while the harm is inflicted exclusively on poor communities that are already at a disadvantage.

KIPP, on the other hand, presents a Faustian bargain: They offer the poor inner-city student a safer environment, and thus an opportunity to learn, in exchange for adopting the behaviors and attitudes of the dominant culture and becoming Clarence Thomas.

Posted by: mcstowy | November 18, 2010 11:17 AM | Report abuse


Have you ever heard Rod Paige speak? He needs cue cards to remind him of which buzzwords to use. When he was secretary of ed, you could see interviewers becoming visibly frustrated at his inability to engage in any kind of conversation. All he could do was recite the same formulaic comments over and over, even when they were disconnected to the topic of the questioning. He was put in that position to be used as a tool by the business community to push their agenda through.

I taught in Houston during his administration, and the district was rife with stories about his need for ghost writers to handle his emails and public statements. I had a parent who worked for a TV station who told some very funny stories about how his staff had to try to prevent him from saying something stupid in front of the camera. He rarely appeared on screen, and then only to read some canned comments. He had a hired talking head to make most statements for the district.

There's a reason why no one invites him to speak.

Posted by: aed3 | November 18, 2010 12:39 PM | Report abuse

On the other hand, maybe Ravitch and company should invite Rod Paige to speak. It might enlighten a few people about the moronic genesis of NCLB.

Posted by: aed3 | November 18, 2010 12:43 PM | Report abuse

BTW Diane was a moronic genius of NCLB who has now tried to reform her ways.

"Terry Bruner, Teach for America executive director for the Houston Region, listened and was part of the after-speech panel. He, not surprisingly, didn’t reply."
Hmmm the conspiracy theorist in me think that perhaps TFA is one convenient valve corporate siphoning of our children's educational resources.

And honestly... just like the doughnut
KIPP Creams. While it is quickly narrowing the educational 'choices'(oxymoron) KIPP has a crappy habit of offloading children back to their local middle school where they are worse off than if they had just started there to begin with. This model presumes that black& latino children need to be in school 8 hours per day and treated like 'miscreants'. Such education would never be put forth for white children.
Diane you lost my vote on this one. Both programs are BS.

Posted by: rastajan | November 18, 2010 5:37 PM | Report abuse

Page 11 of the NAEP 12th grade study states:
“Racial/ethnic gaps persist
Score gaps in reading persisted between White students and their Black and Hispanic peers (figure 5). Neither the 27-point score gap in 2009 between White and Black students, nor the 22-point gap between White and Hispanic students was signifi¬cantly different from the score gaps in previous assessment years.”

Since “Teach for America” concentrates in low income majority Black/Hispanic areas, this suggests that TFA is doing nothing to affect the achievement gap.

Huge amounts of money go into supporting a program for already successful college grads that does nothing for the poor minority students it’s supposed to help.

Posted by: efavorite | November 19, 2010 6:56 AM | Report abuse

As a TFA alum, teaching a third year at my placement school, I have to agree with Dr. Ravitch's comments. The constant overturn of new teachers at schools undermines the image of a long term professional teachers because so many students never see that person. All they see, especially in schools with a high percentage teacher from TFA or similar programs, such as Baltimore City Resident Teachers, are teachers who are relatively young and inexperienced.

At the same time, I strongly disagree with the comments describing TFA corps members as ignorant interns and as self-serving resume minded privileged brats. The amount of time that corps members put into planning researched lessons and working to improve the implementation of these plans to best benefit the students serves as direct evidence that they are not ignorant, interns, or simply self-serving. I would challenge those who claim that they have no interest in anything but their future resume to follow a TFA corps member for a week and try to keep up and achieve half as much in twice as much time.

TFA is not a perfect program by any means. I won't begin to list the problems I have with it, but the corps members who comprise the heart organization are hard working, energetic people, who work for their students.

Posted by: ashmc | November 20, 2010 8:51 PM | Report abuse

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