Thursday, July 24, 2008

This Week's Education Gadfly: Diane and Randi vs. Checker



Diane Ravitch: In which I differ with a friend

My longtime friend Checker Finn wrote a critique of Randi Weingarten's inaugural speech as President of the American Federation of Teachers. Checker chastised her for endorsing the idea that schools should help the neediest kids by offering health services and social services in addition to their customary academic fare. Checker notes, rightly, that Randi's vision echoes the manifesto of the "Broader, Bolder Approach."

Checker warns that this means that Weingarten and people like me are "abandoning hope for schools that significantly boost student achievement" just at the time that more states are reporting "stronger test scores" in reading and math. He labels ours a call for "schools that do everything but teach."

I couldn't disagree more. I care as much about academic achievement as Checker or anyone else in the world, but I don't see any contradiction between caring about academic achievement and caring about children's health and well-being. 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? Will it help or harm children's academic achievement--the children whose lives are blighted by the burdens of poverty--to have access to high-quality after-school programs?

Checker argues that the "'broader, bolder' crowd" (me, Weingarten, Tom Payzant, Richard Rothstein, Marshall Smith, etc.) are making an awful mistake because schools can do only one thing at a time--and they must focus on academics first. To the extent that they worry about character, social development, and physical health, he says, they lose that focus and abandon their pursuit of academic achievement. Hmm. Checker, wasn't it Secretary of Education Bill Bennett who said that "character, content, and choice" should be the three C's of American education? Was he wrong then? Should he have stuck with the three R's instead?

Surprisingly, Checker points to gains on state tests as proof that the strategy of standards & assessments & accountability is working. Surprising because it is Checker's organization, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute (I sit on its board), that published The Proficiency Illusion, which showed how phony many of the states' definitions of "proficiency" actually are, as compared to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Last fall, for example, NAEP reported that New York State had made no gains in fourth-grade reading, eighth-grade reading, or eighth-grade math, yet half a year later, New York reported that its own tests showed yet another round of dramatic gains in reading and math in almost every grade. Which shall we believe? NAEP or the states' self-reporting, the numbers from which soar toward 100 percent proficiency by 2014?

To make matters even more confusing to this reader, Checker notes that even as test scores are rising (even as we neglect poor children's health and well-being), "America's standing on international comparisons continues to sag and employers despair over their inability to find adequately skilled and knowledgeable workers for our faltering economy." It would take lots of time to unpack this illogical finding. If test scores are steadily rising, why do our standings in international comparisons continue to sag? If the schools are getting better and better just because of their testing regime, why are employers despairing?

Here is a clue: On July 20th, the Dallas Morning News reported that students in Texas are sailing through the high school language arts tests but can't write a coherent answer to a short-response question. Years of testing have prepared them to fill in the right bubble, but they cannot write a sensible sentence.

Checker, I ask you: Is this the kind of "academic achievement" that you find satisfactory? Is this what American employers are hoping for? Is this the performance that will raise our standing in the international league tables? I don't think so.

So, I explain my dissent briefly: One, what we are doing now--the standards & assessments & accountability strategy alone--bears little or no resemblance to genuine academic excellence. And two, children who come to school hungry and ill cannot learn no matter how often they are tested. And three, a good education must include attention not only to academics but to children's character, civic development, physical education, and physical health.

by Diane Ravitch


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Checker responds to Diane

It's never easy to disagree with Diane--not only is she a friend and colleague of long-standing, as well as a Fordham trustee, but also she's so often right about education. I've found over the years that when she and I work at a difference of opinion for a while, we usually discover that the domain of true disagreement is small. I believe that's the case here, but I'm pretty sure that's not true with regard to Randi Weingarten and many of the other "Broader, Bolder" signatories.

I'm convinced that many of them really are trying to change the subject, diverting attention away from U.S. schools' mostly-woeful academic performance while letting schools and educators off the hook for academic results by adopting the well-worn Rothstein story line about how we mustn't really expect kids to learn more until this or that other social problem is solved. Diane sincerely believes, as she says plainly here, that schools can and must work harder and more fruitfully on academics while also addressing some of poor kids' other needs. I agree. To me, however, it's akin to the arguments set forth by the Education Equality Project--the other recent manifesto that came out around the same time as the Broader, Bolder one.

Those folks, too, are concerned above all with poor and minority kids but contend that those kids are being ill-served by far too many schools today and that properly reformed schools alone can make an enormous contribution to their future lives and fortunes. (I was somewhat surprised not to see Diane on that list--but then, again, it was co-led by the lamentable Al Sharpton.) Let me also admit that she astutely picked up on the most confusing element of my initial commentary, my citing recent gains on state tests as encouraging even while lamenting America's sagging performance on international assessments. Though it shouldn't be possible to have this both ways, regrettably it is, because state tests, "cut scores," and proficiency definitions are so elastic. Find Fordham's pathbreaking study of this problem here.

by Chester E. Finn, Jr.


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Randi Weingarten responds to Checker (and Mike)

Mike Petrilli is spot-on in this sense: Clearly, a good education is much more than test scores. He's right about the importance of extracurricular activities in providing that education--and I hope he'll agree that we should find ways to make sure kids in our highest-poverty schools have access to those kinds of activities. But as a former social studies teacher who taught my students civics and debate, I know that the skills to which Mike refers also can and should be learned in the classroom--not just after 3 p.m.--while students are debating the causes of the Civil War, drawing conclusions from science experiments, and planning group art projects. I'm stating the obvious when I say that No Child Left Behind's testing regime has left little time for these kinds of in-class activities.

As for Checker's suggestion that my proposal leads to "schools that do everything but teach," let me say this is not an either-or approach. Relying on testing and sanctions, NCLB's message to teachers and schools has been: It's all you. In other words, if teachers would just work harder and care more, all our students would succeed. Teachers, by themselves, even without additional support from families or the community, can help kids immensely, especially if they can work one-on-one with students, are well-trained, and have access to excellent curriculum materials. But teachers alone can't get kids all the way to proficiency, when disadvantaged children typically enter school already three years and 30 million words behind.

In my inaugural speech as president of the American Federation of Teachers, I called for a bolder view of what schools should do, and said that while high standards and accountability must be a centerpiece, NCLB's approach does not work.

But if you read my speech closely, as Checker urges, my message was twofold: first, let's put in place a federal education program that, unlike NCLB, provides space and opportunity for children to be taught a rich, well-rounded curriculum, with standards and accountability that support rather than undermine that curriculum; and second, let's--at the same time--try to address the outside factors like nutrition and healthcare that affect a child's ability to reach her full educational potential. And yes, I said that we also should try to help parents so they can better support their children's learning.

The AFT's goal is to ensure that children are learning to their potential, and that teachers are teaching effectively. To suggest otherwise means you don't understand what drives teachers--or their union, for that matter. Look at a union-run charter school (the UFT Elementary Charter School) in New York City: 81 percent of this year's third-grade students met or exceeded state standards on the state English Language Arts test, and 98 percent of third-grade students met or exceeded standards in mathematics.

We know that without a rich, rigorous education, so many of the kids we teach will be lost in our 21st-century economy. And no one wants to go back to the pre-1990s education world, in which standards were lax or nonexistent.

The AFT hopes to put forward a third way, one that learns from the best of the standards movement and other school improvement efforts, and draws on the collective wisdom of the more than 1.4 million people we proudly represent. Stay tuned.

by Randi Weingarten


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Checker responds to Randi

Because I'm mostly home playing grandpa to a four-year-old this week (and doing my small part to assure that at least one small child is ready to succeed in school and beyond), this must be very brief. To my eye, Randi's explanation is clearer and better balanced than her speech was, maybe because it lacks some of the crowd-pleasing anti-NCLB rhetoric. I'm sorry not to see her even acknowledge that NCLB, for all its flaws, has done at least one good thing for American K-12 schools, which is to focus attention as never before on their academic performance and to shine unprecedented beams of sunlight on that performance. Ending NCLB's focus on standards and assessments would, I fear, place the performance of many U.S. schools back in the cave-like darkness that previously enveloped it. My one other comment to Randi is that the praiseworthy academic performance of the AFT-run charter school in New York that she rightly boasts about seems to have occurred without any new multi-zillion-dollar federal cradle-to-grave social services program--and with all the pressures (for both good and ill) that come with NCLB in its present form.

by Chester E. Finn, Jr.

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