Ravitch, Finn in a 'Clash of the Titans' on Education Policy
By ELIZABETH GREEN,
In a sign of how substantially her thinking on school policy has evolved, the education historian Diane Ravitch this week is engaging in an online debate with one of her oldest friends and collaborators, the education policy analyst Chester Finn Jr.
At issue: an emerging divide among education policymakers about the best way to improve America's schools.
Everyone seems to agree that the schools are in dire straits, but there is a divide about how to solve that problem.
On one side are leaders including the schools chancellor, Joel Klein; the Reverend Al Sharpton; the federal education secretary, Margaret Spellings, and the mayor of Newark, Cory Booker, who have started an initiative called the Education Equality Project, endorsing strong accountability measures such as those currently written into No Child Left Behind as well as choice options such as charter schools.
On the other side is a group calling itself the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, which has criticized No Child Left Behind and declared that students need help in more fields than just education to succeed, arguing for improved health care and after-school programs. That group includes the teachers union president Randi Weingarten, the labor economist Lawrence Mishel, and the former Boston school superintendent Thomas Payzant.
The debate between Mr. Finn, the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, and Ms. Ravitch, a trustee of Fordham, kicked off when Mr. Finn criticized the Broader, Bolder group, whose proposal Ms. Ravitch has signed.
Mr. Finn said in a Web log post that this camp reflects a dangerous move to shift away from an emphasis on academic excellence and toward a sloppier and less meaningful focus on the "whole child" that happens throughout American history.
"It's a darn shame," Mr. Finn wrote. "Yesterday's push for achievement hasn't yet produced the learning gains we need. But it may be starting to do so. The surest way to curb tomorrow's gains is to change the policy focus and ease the pressure."
He added, "As for the AFT's future direction, all I can say is that President Weingarten's early signals do no credit to Al Shanker's legacy."
Ms. Ravitch is fighting back with a counter-post on Fordham's Web site, edexcellence.net, which is billing the debate as a "Clash of the Titans."
"Will it help or harm children's academic achievement — most especially children who are living in poverty — if they have access to good pre-K programs? Will it help or harm children's academic achievement — most especially the neediest children — if they have access to good medical care, with dental treatment, vision screening, and the like?" she writes.
She also dismisses Mr. Finn's assertion that she is opposing academic standards by criticizing No Child Left Behind, asking how the law can have worked if American students have been falling behind international competitors through its inception.
Mr. Finn's response is that while he believes Ms. Ravitch is not straying from setting high standards, he worries that others are merely searching for diversions.