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Posted at 11:39 AM ET, 12/ 7/2010

Ravitch to Gates: Let's talk

By Valerie Strauss

This was 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. This post was in response to one by Meier which I posted, that was, in part, about civility in education.

Dear Deborah,
I agree that all of us who engage in these debates should adhere to a standard of civility. Last week, I engaged in exchanges with Bill Gates (see here, here, and here). I assume that Bill Gates wants better schools and is searching for the right answer. I hope that we might one day have the chance to discuss our differences. He said in the Newsweek article that he is "all ears"; so am I. I would be happy to have a public discussion of the issues with him at any time, with a moderator of his choosing. I hope he hears me!

Last Monday, I published an article in The Wall Street Journal calling on the Republicans taking control of the House of Representatives to remember their long history as defenders of local and state control of education. I urged them to stop the federal takeover of education policy and the top-down imposition of harmful policies. I wrote in response to what I repeatedly hear as I travel to different districts. Parents and teachers ask how it happened that the federal government took charge of consequential decisions for their schools. They ask: "Why are they closing our school?"; "Why are we so powerless?"; "What can we do?"

When I was in Worcester, Mass., last week, I visited a lovely school—the University Place Campus School. It's a small public school that collaborates with Clark University. It has a wonderful culture of teaching and learning. It gets high marks on the state exams. But this year it was unable to top its previous high marks, so it "didn't make [adequate yearly progress]." It bears a federal stigma, a mark of failing, which is the first step toward closure. My reaction: This is crazy. Why would the federal government create a system so mad that it labels a good school as failing?

When you see the same thing happening all over the country, then you realize that Congress must not just "tweak" No Child Left Behind, but start over. NCLB has become a vehicle for the destruction of American public education, not only because of its absurd mandate that 100 percent of all students must be proficient by 2014, and not just because of its requirement that schools must be closed instead of helped, but because it has focused the nation on basic skills test to the exclusion of every other important goal of education.

My old friend Checker Finn at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute has taken me to task for my column praising state and local control. He blames local control for everything that is wrong with public education. His rebuke reminded me of the friendly arguments we had for the past few years. He wrote:

"What [legislators] should do instead is re-imagine local control, clear out the dysfunctional bureaucratic underbrush, disentangle the responsibilities of different levels of government, make everyone accountable for their performance (as gauged primarily by student learning gains), quit throwing good money after bad, and unshackle education innovators and entrepreneurs so they can give their all to solving problems and creating alternatives."

Checker has been saying for years that we should "blow up" the public education system in this country. I see his vision as radical, not conservative. Since when do conservatives run around "blowing up" institutions? The picture he paints suggests thousands—or tens of thousands—of entrepreneurs running the nation's schools, judging "success" solely by test scores. Checker has long derided local school boards and unions, so those would disappear, as would school "systems."

I am not sure what to call this Brave New World of privately managed education, but I don't like it. I think it removes education from the public sector. It leaves entrepreneurs free to do what they so often do: to skim students, to "counsel out" students, to avoid the students who might drag down their test scores, and to become creative in their use of data. (A recent article in the New York Daily News documented how one "model" New York City charter school achieved stellar results by holding back students repeatedly and keeping them out of the testing pool. Many alleged "miracle schools" have huge attrition rates or other clever ways to juke their data.)

For now, Checker's view is clearly winning. Radical conservative governors who share his views were recently elected (in Florida, for example, where the new governor, Rick Scott, is working with Jeb Bush and Michelle Rhee to reinvent the schools, undoubtedly at the expense of public education). Secretary Arne Duncan's speechwriter David Whitman was previously a writer for Checker's organization (he wrote Sweating the Small Stuff, which praised "the new paternalism"). The secretary chose to make a recent major speech on the new budget realities during an appearance at the American Enterprise Institute, another conservative think tank.

My response to these developments is not merely a matter of nostalgia, as Checker seems to believe. (I went to public school, and he went to an elite boarding school.) I think that public education is a fundamental institution in our democracy. Free public education—open to all, free to all, controlled by democratic means—is a central promise of our democratic society. Its purposes are civic, not just utilitarian; it exists to strengthen our democracy and our society. I believe it is wrong to privatize it. We must continue to have schools that are the center of their communities, where children are students, not products, and parents are citizens, not customers.

There is a strong rationale for public support of public education. As Robert Hutchins once wrote, they are part of the res publica, the public thing. Like public parks, public libraries, and fire departments, they are part of our communal responsibility. We must strengthen them, make them far better than they are now. To blame them for all the ills of our society, for all the demographic changes of the past generation, for all the burdens imposed by courts and legislatures, is wrong. To destroy them would be a civic crime.



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By Valerie Strauss  | December 7, 2010; 11:39 AM ET
Categories:  Diane Ravitch, Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  bill gates, checker finn, diane ravitch, education policy, federal control of schools, local control of schools, obama and school reform, republicans in congress, school reform, school reform policies, wall street journal  
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Ms. Ravitch, as I've said before: I'll buy a ticket and pop the popcorn for that throw down!
The two of you should meet first in a bar, or over dinner, then meet in public.
WaPo, are you listening? I see ratings here. This would be better than watching some pro football teams..ahem...cough(REDSKINS)..cough

Posted by: pdfordiii | December 7, 2010 12:34 PM | Report abuse

to pdffordiii: Exactly the wrong take on the Gates/Ravitch. "Throw-down?" How about an intelligent discussion instead? How about starting the "new road" back to civility? How about telling Governors like Christie in NJ that civility is the basic requirement for great school systems. Let's get off these bully pulpits and join hands to help all children. We don't have to wait for Superman or any other "super hero." There are numerous models for success in excellent public, catholic, christian, other private schools and Charters that we can use to fix failing schools. Let's stop the rants and learn collegiality. Don't let the "yelling heads" get the upper hand. Just say no to rants!

Posted by: fsg2118 | December 7, 2010 1:09 PM | Report abuse

Ravitch comments on the collaboration between Clark and a public school. How often does that happen? What are the results? We continually hear colleges and universities screaming about student knowledge and ability on applying for degree programs. I rarely, very rarely read where area professors conferred with public education administration.

If I had problems getting the right information or resources from another, I would sit with them and discuss our needs and abilities. Where are those results?

I don't think we need to start over with NCLB; however I am willing to listen to the alternative. I do think we need to review our expectations and actions toward the results. Students and schools draw a penalty for doing good (as Ravitch noted) and then for poor results. Not a workable solution.

Let's redefine our actions based on the test results. What do we learn from the results that will improve our students? If the results show a need in reading, and this addresses current students, then as an example those students get a remedial reading class the next year. Don't just drop the issue, use test results to determine how to proceed. Likewise, let's look at what happened to cause a reading issue and address it as well. The follow-on students should get the "upgraded" reading materials and teachers the knowledge of where to emphasize reading.

I believe it is our culture and our inability to embrace what we have. We don't like it so trash it. I didn't want it to begin with so remove it. It is a tool that when used properly, addressed and embraced by everyone, given as a learning opportunity for everyone, then we will see results.

Starting over means we didn't gain a thing. We did make gains; we just haven't used them yet.

Posted by: educ8er | December 7, 2010 2:57 PM | Report abuse

Maybe you mistook my enthusiasm for such a discussion, but I expect these two to be rational. In my response please note my suggestion of them meeting privately first, which I'm sure is where all the 'yelling' would happen.

Posted by: pdfordiii | December 7, 2010 4:02 PM | Report abuse

I've noticed a positive move toward collaboration by Mr.Gates. My guess is that he did not intend to contribute to the deep divisions that have developed in education. As a highly intelligent and successful man, he surely must understand that teachers must be invited to the table of reform, otherwise there will be no real change.

"When the largest stakeholders in any endeavor are seen as the opposition, you will fail."

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | December 7, 2010 8:02 PM | Report abuse

I got my Criminal Justice degree from "United Forensic College" I got a job in 2 months and now solving crimes. You can also do the same, search internet.

Posted by: sveinyael | December 8, 2010 3:54 AM | Report abuse

If you are looking a good Criminal Justice degree I strongly recommend "United Forensic College" there you can get the best training to solve crimes.

Posted by: sveinyael | December 8, 2010 3:57 AM | Report abuse

sveinyael, is that really you, Dhume1? Good show; best of luck, eh?

Posted by: axolotl | December 8, 2010 1:11 PM | Report abuse

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