Ravitch Ravages Reforms

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

There’s much truth in what Prof. Diane Ravitch says in “The Pattern on the Rug” (Ed Week, 3.27.12) and some exaggeration. She tars every single effort at improving our educational system with the same brush. However, education is not so simple.

The budget cuts have been devastating. Some even seem to believe that our education “deserves” this treatment. Right here at the beginning, everyone should recognize that we will not be able to survive as the preeminent nation in the world with a poor education system. Everyone should also understand that universal public education will not become 100% private in any believable scenario. Our K-12 public schools and community colleges are a bulwark of our free nation. Competition in schooling with a profit motive attached would spell disaster for schools. It’s just too difficult to measure success for a business except for gross revenues, profit, and market capitalization.

Ravitch turns the Race to the Top into white hats and black hats. I have some disagreements with this program, especially its definition of the “Top.” However, such programs can be a stimulus for our schools. As for NCLB, our problems lie not with the intentions but with the execution.

She lashes into the multiple foundations that fund education initiatives. Again, although I don’t agree with all of these, we have to try something to evaluate it. The effort by the Gates Foundation to make many small schools out of one big one had an obvious flaw before it even started, but the foundation did realize its error and withdraw its support.

She decries the effort to “perfect” a teacher evaluation system. I don’t see that such a system is possible, except at the extremes of teacher ability, but it’s still a nice idea to think about in depth. How should we evaluate the people who are responsible for our future as a nation? Should we try? Personally, I prefer Finland’s approach of evaluating teachers before hiring them and then providing all necessary support.

Prof. Ravitch threads her commentary with distaste for any effort to subdue teachers’ unions. Lots of schools don’t even have them. From what I can gather from teachers who are without unions, it’s not a good thing to be alone in this profession. At the other extreme, some very strong teacher unions have exacted contracts that only help the union and may help teachers a bit, but do little for students. I think this issue has room for compromise. Her uncompromising support just seems out of place given where we are today.

With regard to “infusing business values into education,” I completely agree. Education should not be run as a business because it isn’t one. Profit is not appropriate here. You might as well try to make the Army over into a profit-making enterprise. We must have much higher goals than profit.

Prof. Ravitch has identified a number of important issues that should be addressed and has highlighted them with examples. Then, she practically screeches her disgust for every reform effort being made. That’s no way to improve things. The sad truth is that I agree with much of what she says. I simply don’t like how she’s saying it. Perhaps she’s become so frustrated that she believes only the highest volume will produce any results.

Toward the end, she talks of online class sizes reaching 1:100, “even 1:200.” I recently spoke to an online teacher who handles 450 students. Clearly, she’s missing something here. A typical high school teacher may have five classes of 30 students. That’s 1:150 without online. Future improvements in educational software will allow teachers to cast off the dull part of their jobs and become inspiring mentors for their students, intervening as required to help students learn to think and to learn themselves for the rest of their lives. Good teachers will touch more young lives and uplift our entire country with the help of new software. These are good things. Turning them into horrible sounding numbers like 1:100 does the debate no service at all. These distortions miss the point, but Prof. Ravitch seems uninterested in this aspect of the debate.

She says, “The Common Core standards will create a national marketplace for vendors.” Her use of language makes standards seem venal. Consider what their lack does right now. It means that vendors must spend huge amounts of money customizing materials for each state, and the cost is passed on to the schools. That’s good? This high cost also makes it very difficult for new and innovative companies to enter this market. Would you prefer that the best new ideas from our U. S. companies go abroad to improve the education in other countries and not be used here?

She continues, “Public education will increasingly be handed over to businesses designed to maximize economic efficiency and produce dependable profits for investors.” Wait! That’s already happened for content providers such as textbook companies. In fact, the balkanization of our educational system has helped the few providers grow and acquire the smaller ones until there’s little freedom left for our schools.

We live in a relatively mobile society now. Large differences in education systems around the country make that mobility more difficult. Each educational jurisdiction makes and maintains its own standards at great cost. We can save money and improve education by having a central, transparent, and non-political body do this for us all. Saving money is not a demon. In engineering, the best improvement are those that simultaneously cut costs and improve the resulting artifact. I did software engineering for a long time. The holy grail there was to improve a program so that it was simultaneously better (more features, greater ease of use, etc.), smaller, and faster. Usually, you had to trade off at least one of those attributes to make one of the others better.

Our goal as a nation should be the best education possible for every single one of our children without regard to zip code or parentage or any other aspect. Neither profit nor union dogma should stand in the way of this goal. I love profit, and I like unions because they help the powerless to achieve some measure of participation in our national success. I have my own personal views on how best to pursue our national education goals. I’ve expressed a few here. I look forward to a continuing dialog about this very important, even critical, subject.

Prof. Ravitch is right to raise the alarm about “reforms.” These reforms are often about some political goal and have nothing to do with improving education. However, she should reduce the volume by a few decibels and not toss every possible change out. Doing as we have been doing is not the solution either.

3 Responses

  1. Thank you for this post. I have educational friends who will not even read anything that Ravitch writes based on her former involvement with the big reform that put us behind NCLB. Sometimes Washington is a game of chess, the players retreat, react , remake themselves and go after a different direction with new funding. Teachers unfortunately
    suffer from the results of the “reform” and get damaged by the results of whatever it is that does not work.

    Maybe you are a good teacher when you realize that some of the new ideas don’t work and you hang on to your dreams and ideas while watchng the “new” play out. With so few people wanting to be teachers
    based on the media witch hunt, perhaps the time new teachers “stay” in the profession. If they stay less than 3 years they will have no institutional memory of anything. New ideas will roll over them and they will accept them without caution. Note the new commission that Ms. Spellings belongs to and the one that Jeb Bush is getting in shape to back his educational program , when he decides to run for President.

    I guess people in Washington “castle” and when they come back out , no one remembers what or who they supported. Teachers who stay do
    but the media is unconsciously unaware of the philosophic timelines in education. I remember Unit Method, Gifted and talented isolation , team teaching, the inquiry approach, Theme based education and then with Nation at Risk that anything innovative was trashed. I should
    have mentioned : New Math: but that was so short lived, that most do not remember it at all.

    All administrations seem to change the path of education. I think it is a hard row to hoe.


  2. It’s helpful to remember that Ms. Ravitch is an apostate who has renounced for the most part her earlier involvement in the reform movement. Her most recent book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, is in part a mea culpa which echoes many of the criticisms she made in this article.

    I don’t have many problems with most of her criticisms in this article. To let Race to the Top (as well as Common Core Standards) off the hook because they have good intentions is disingenuous IMO. As Harry points out, NCLB had good intentions also, and turned out to be the proverbial road to hell. Race to the Top and CCS have the potential to do the same for the same reasons: because there doesn’t seem to be much attention being paid to the inevitable systemic problems which the current structures, like NCLB, are designed to create. For example, CCS will encourage schools to use standardized assessments (perhaps even a national test) which encourage teaching to the test, ignore classroom instruction which fosters deep understanding, and pour resources into learning siloed, disconnected content.

    Where I do share concerns about Ms. Ravitch’s new approach is that I don’t really know what she would have American education do instead. She spells this out more clearly in her book, but her solution seems to be to turn back the clock to 1983 and implement the recommendations of A Nation at Risk, only the right way this time. (This notion reminds me of the Bugs Bunny episode where he pops out of a hole and observes, “ehh — must’ve taken a wrong turn at Albuquerque.”) Ms. Ravitch also seems to be have a very jaundiced, and outdated, view of technology, perhaps because she’s seen it misused so often in the service of Standards Rule and Free Market Rules principles applied to educational misadventures.

    We do have a better choice: there are lots of way to use technologies, and especially digital technologies, to improve education. Perhaps we can figure out how to get Ms. Ravitch to see their potential in a more positive light…

  3. One more thought on this post. In fashion we know that there is a certain color, style and way of wearing things. In education we have so many changes that it can give a person who is trying to write a book a headache just in one subject, and for those who have to balance, local, state and national ideas a huge headache. That is one of the reasons we have a retreat from people investing in education as a career. The winds of change are fierce and politics drives most of it.

    Reality would be better,…

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