Friday, February 26, 2010

Ravitch Book Commentary

Valerie Strauss
Washington Post

Why you should read Diane Ravitch's new book

Among the many important lessons in Diane Ravitch’s new book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” this one keeps knocking about in my head:

“Reformers imagine that it is easy to create a successful school, but it is not. They imagine that the lessons of a successful school are obvious and can be easily transferred to other schools, just as one might take an industrial process or a new piece of machinery and install it in a new plant without error. But a school is successful for many reasons, including the personalities of its leader and teachers; the social interactions among them; the culture of the school; the students and their families; the way the school implements policies and programs dictated by the district, the state and the federal government; the quality of the school’s curriculum and instruction; the resources of the school and the community; and many other factors. When a school is successful, it is hard to know which factor was most important or if it was a combination of factors.”

Amen. The U.S. public school system would not be as troubled as it is if most of the reformers of the past few decades really understood this. They would have known that charter schools aren’t a silver bullet. Nor are high-stakes standardized tests. Nor is shaming teachers or reducing them to robots who repeat nonsense from bad textbooks.

These notions are not, of course, original to Ravitch. But she has put together a complete, compelling argument, and when she publicly advocates, her words carry far more weight than others.


If America has a leading education historian, Ravitch, an education professor at New York University, has long had a claim on the title.

For years, she was the darling of conservatives in education. She served as an assistant secretary in the administration of President George H.W. Bush, and was a vocal backer of the second President Bush’s education effort. She was, in fact, at the White House as part of a select group when Bush first outlined No Child Left Behind, and she wrote, she was “excited and optimistic.”

She has written a number of education books that conservatives liked, one of them a scathing critique of leftist historians who attacked the public schools as “an instrument of cultural repression.”

Her credibility with conservatives is exactly why it would be particularly instructive for everyone--whether you have kids in school or not--to read “The Death and Life of the Great American School System.”

Ravitch, who has spent some 40 years in education, explains how she went from supporting No Child Left Behind and its testing and accountability regimes to becoming a vocal critic who thinks the very things she once backed are destroying public schools.

Marshaling a mountain of facts that she reported over years, Ravitch tells through riveting stories and sharp analysis why she no longer believes that public schools should be operated like businesses.

Perhaps she is the one person who can’t be ignored by Education Secretary Arne Duncan and others in the Obama administration who are so far insisting on carrying forward with some of the most insidious aspects of NCLB.

It is an irony that Ravitch’s book has been applauded by Linda Darling-Hammond, a highly respected professor of education at Stanford University and founding executive director of the National Commission for Teaching & America’s Future. Darling-Hammond, who was Obama’s key education advisor during the transition, has long seen the world the way Ravitch views it now.

There had been hope in some corners of the education world that Obama would name her education secretary because of her clear understanding of educational excellence. He didn’t and instead selected Duncan, the former schools chief in Chicago who has become a frequent target of Ravitch’s wrath.

(Darling-Hammond, incidentally, also has written a new book which is a must-read; I’ll talk about it soon.)

Ravitch’s conversion was courageous; it is not often that you see someone in academia, in politics, or, frankly, in any arena, publicly admit they were wrong. Now she finds herself facing the powerful forces that have been arrayed against the kind of reform that she is proposing.

She wants teachers to be paid fairly and not earn “merit pay” based on standardized test results.

She wants public charter schools to stop competing with regular charter schools.

She wants a national curriculum that explains what every child in every grade should be learning.

And she wants people in the worlds of politics and business to stay out of education decisions.

Sounds good to me.

What do you think?

Peter Schragg in LA Times

Paul Moore
Caroline, Peter Schrag writes in the service of corporate vulture Sam Zell who barely outbid Eli Broad for the right to turn the LA Times into ink-stained fish wrap. His contempt for working people in general and teachers in particular can't really come as a surprise.

Schrag continues to propound the neo-con myth that class size reduction in California led to experienced teachers fleeing high needs schools to go elsewhere; when the actual research shows the reverse.

He is not to be trusted.

Leonie Haimson
Executive Director
Class Size Matters

From: []

Caroline Grannan

I mostly admire Peter Schrag, who has been a forceful critic of Prop. 13, the anti-tax initiative that has wrought near-total destruction on California. However, I bitterly disagree with his clear indication that two out of three or three out of four teachers are "stultifying drones." IMHO this reveals the fact that (like the think-tankers and policymakers) he never goes near an actual classroom and has no contact with actual children or teachers.> wrote:

Diane and her book are all over the place today; enjoy! If you dont yet have a copy, go buy it or order it online! we now feature her book and steve's on the right hand side of the blog.,0,2889453.story


'The Death and Life of the Great American School System' by Diane Ravitch

The educational conservative decries the 'hijacking' of testing, accountability and markets.

By Peter Schrag

February 28, 2010

The Death and Life of the Great American School System

How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education

Diane Ravitch

Basic Books: 284 pp., $26.95

Diane Ravitch, probably this nation's most respected historian of education and long one of our most thoughtful educational conservatives, has changed her mind -- and changed it big time. Ravitch's critical guns are still firing, but now they're aimed at the forces of testing, accountability and educational markets, forces for which she was once a leading proponent and strategist. As President Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, embrace charter schools and testing, picking up just where, in her opinion, the George W. Bush administration left off, "The Death and Life of the Great American School System" may yet inspire a lot of high-level rethinking. The book, titled to echo Jane Jacobs' 1961 demolition of grandiose urban planning schemes, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," has similarly dark warnings and equally grand ambitions.

Ravitch -- the author of "Left Back" and other critiques of liberal school reforms, an assistant secretary of education in the first Bush administration and a committed advocate of rigorous national academic standards -- here tells the story of what she calls the "wrenching transformation in my perspective on school reform." The educational ideas she had long been enthusiastic about -- testing, accountability, choice and markets -- have been "hijacked," she writes, by the privatizers, particularly the charter school movement. With their strong backing from government and deep-pocketed foundations, she argues, charters are gradually sucking the best students and most committed parents both from the public system and the good parochial schools (which, in their dependency on tuition, can't compete with tax-supported charters) and killing both. Ravitch became increasingly concerned "that accountability, now a shibboleth that everyone applauds, had become mechanistic and even antithetical to good education." Like the liberals she once criticized, "in this case, I too had fallen for the latest panaceas and miracle cures."

Many of those miracle cures have been written into both the state and federal school reform laws of the last generation, and most notably into George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind policy, which required schools receiving a large share of federal funds to be staffed by "highly qualified" teachers by 2006 and to bring all students -- including those with learning disabilities and English learners -- to "proficiency" in reading and math by 2014. As many pointed out, both were impossible goals and, since each state could set its own standards and definition of proficiency, the policy invited states both to cheat and to dumb down standards to avoid the loss of funds. When No Child Left Behind was first proposed, Ravitch writes, she was "excited and optimistic." But after five years, she concluded it was a "failure" because it "ignored the importance of knowledge. It promoted a cramped, mechanistic profoundly anti-intellectual definition of education." Although Obama intends to revise the law (and change the name), he plans to keep the tilt to charters, testing and the threat to close failing schools.

Ravitch is equally worried about the power of big foundations -- backed by the likes of Bill and Melinda Gates, the Walton family, Eli and Edythe Broad -- whose multimillion-dollar grants to school districts and charter school associations deeply influence policy, sometimes on the basis of little more than the whims of their funders and directors. A few years ago, after spending some $2 billion on a program to break up large high schools into smaller ones and establish new schools able to give students more personalized attention, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation realized that small high schools couldn't provide all the opportunities and resources of larger ones and abandoned it. "With so much money and power aligned against the neighborhood public school and against education as a profession," Ravitch writes of deep-pocketed school reformers, "public education itself is placed at risk."

Skeptics, most on the pedagogic left, have been complaining for years about the obsession with bubble tests and the neglect of liberal arts disciplines that can't be reduced to simple test scores. What is new is that Ravitch is saying these things, and saying them in terms as tough and with a bill of particulars as persuasive as in her dissections of progressive education.

She excoriates the statistical misreading that led to the illusory achievement gains in New York City's once-celebrated District 2 and slams what she describes as former San Diego Superintendent Alan Bersin's morale-destroying coercion of teachers and principals to follow liberal departures from direct instruction. Her argument -- that teachers can't successfully educate if they're "not treated as professionals who think for themselves" -- is reinforced by the model of Ruby Ratliff, one of her high school English teachers a half-century ago in Houston, who, in being tough, "did nothing for our self-esteem" but would have never been able to inspire her students' love of great literature if she'd been constantly forced to teach to a test. What Ravitch doesn't acknowledge is that for every Mrs. Ratliff there were (and probably are) two or three stultifying drones who cared little for great books (or math or science) and killed curiosity as readily as the test-bound.

Ravitch has obviously learned not only from the shortcomings of testing and accountability but also from the union members and liberals who have been saying some of the same things for years. Still, she remains fiercely committed to high standards, including the teaching of good behavior, but particularly to the Western cultural canon, the common vocabulary essential to all good education and the capable, dedicated teachers who can impart it. But beware of panaceas and magic bullets. They're as likely to kill as to cure.

Schrag, a columnist and former editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee, is the author, most recently, of " California: America's High Stakes Experiment."

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