May 7, 2011

Contrasting Education Reformers

Marc Comtois

Education reformer Dianne Ravitch was in town the other day. Ravitch, a reformed school reformer, claims that the reform ideas she once espoused don't work and, as a result, has risen like the phoenix and hailed by groups in favor of maintaining the status quo.

Expanding charter schools isn’t the answer, she says.

Nor is paying bonuses to the best teachers, or tying standardized test scores to teacher evaluations and certification.

In fact, she thinks American students are tested too often.

And the real problem plaguing schools is not bad teachers, she says, but the insidious impact of poverty.

In short, Ravitch soundly rejects Rhode Island’s education-improvement plan, which is supported by a $75-million Race to the Top federal grant.

The policies embraced by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and by his ally state Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist have demoralized teachers, says Ravitch, herself a former assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush. Ravitch once shared their zeal for teacher accountability and market-driven incentives such as merit pay, she says, before she witnessed their damaging effects.

Now is the time to question their logic, she said, and to investigate more closely their ties to philanthropic arms of wealthy corporations that have their own agendas, in particular the Broad, Gates and Walton Family foundations that Ravitch refers to as “the billionaire boys club.”

While she raises several valid concerns, she is no stranger to hyperbole (which, ironically, is what made so many of her current allies inimical to her back in the day). She's flipped sides, but making the same "mistakes" as before. As Rick Hess once explained:
Diane Ravitch charges that accountability and school choice have been ineffective, destructive distractions from real school improvement...she is now making the same fundamental mistake, in reverse, that she made previously. Ravitch’s stance reflects the misguided premise that chartering and accountability are best seen as ways to improve instruction — like a new curriculum or reading program — rather than ways to create the conditions under which sustained improvement is possible....Ravitch is disappointed because she thought accountability and charter schooling were supposed to make schools better, and now sees that they don’t....[she's] missing the central point: These structural reforms are means, not ends. Choice and accountability can only make it easier to create schools and systems characterized by focus and coherence, where robust curricula, powerful pedagogy, and rich learning thrive.
However, perhaps realizing this critique, she has taken to criticizing those who would seek to work outside the system. She particularly has an ax to grind against the role that private foundations--"the billionaire boys club"--are having in education reform. For instance, she writes, how can we trust these free marketers? "This is what I don't understand. The free market nearly collapsed our economy in September 2008". I don't think Ravitch is a socialist, she just saw an opening to score a rhetorical point. That's nothing new. Her hyperbolic style is in contrast to reformers, like Hess, who take a more nuanced approach.

For example, while Ravitch has railed against teacher evaluation systems, Hess explains that the current paradigm--so called value-added--contains concepts that are important when evaluating teachers but he fears that reformers are placing too many eggs in the value-added teacher evaluation approach, explaining:

Today's value-added metrics may be, as I wrote, "at best, a pale measure of teacher quality," but they tell us something. Structured observation tells us something. Peer feedback tells us something, as does blinded, forced-rank evaluations by peers. Principal judgment, especially in a world of increasing accountability and transparency, tells us something. Well-run firms and nonprofits use these kinds of tools, in various ways, depending on their culture and workforce.

This is why I believe value-added metrics should be one useful component, but that "I worry when it becomes the foundation upon which everything else is constructed." My quarrel is not with value-added, but with the assumption that we can and should gauge the validity and utility of all other measures against today's math and ELA value-added results.

While Hess recognizes that there are multiple aspects to evaluating teachers other than test scores, he believes in their utility as a component of the whole (and hopes they don't become the end-all, be-all). Ravitch would throw any type of evaluation out the window. She offers few, if any, new ideas other than blaming the "free market" (which is like red meat for her fans) and throwing more money at the broken system. Who's the real reformer?

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"The policies embraced by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan"

Can anyone tell me what a cabinet level Department of Education has achieved? In fact, can anyone tell me why we have one?

Posted by: Warrington Faust at May 7, 2011 6:06 PM


How many public schools in RI are certified International Baccalaureate (IB) diplomat schools????

Hawaii just added its fifth school Iroquois Point Elementary school (K to 6) a public education school in the Ewa section of Honolulu to the list of 2 public education High schools and 1 private academy offering K to 12 and 1 private Institute offering (10 to 12).

Seems like Department of Education, teachers, parents, NEA public school teacher union and students are all working for change in education and making it happen here!

Posted by: Ken at May 8, 2011 12:29 AM

"The free market nearly collapsed our economy in September 2008."

When somebody makes an incredibly ignorant ideological statement like that, you have two unpleasant choices: explain to them, in detail, the exact roles of the FED, FDIC, Fannie and Freddie, and Congressional mandates in a highly complex financial system and how they perverted market incentives and induced the housing bubble which collapsed the economy, or simply write the conversation off as a waste of time and walk away.

Posted by: Dan at May 8, 2011 8:17 AM

"The free market nearly collapsed our economy in September 2008."

Anyone with an ounce of intelligence would recognize that line as a partisan propaganda rather than intellectual analysis. Coming from someone who is hailed as an expert in their field only highlights their lack of credibility.

Posted by: Max Diesel at May 8, 2011 8:48 PM

Agreed. Luckily reformers like Rick Hess exist who espouse comprehensive reform and care to fix education rather than buttress the teacher's unions.

Posted by: Rosie at May 9, 2011 9:57 AM

"Choice and accountability can only make it easier to create schools and systems characterized by focus and coherence, where robust curricula, powerful pedagogy, and rich learning thrive."

Wrong! And the process improvement literature is quite clear on this and the effect of so-called "accountability." As for choice, there's no reason that we need corporate run schools to create choices in the system. To borrow a phrase from you folks... PROVE IT!

I'd quote Deming again, but why bother?

Posted by: Russ at May 9, 2011 11:04 AM
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