June 15, 2011

The Diane Ravitch/Deborah Gist Meeting, and What it Tells Us About the Failure of Progressive Education Reform

Carroll Andrew Morse

In mid-May, education reformer Diane Ravitch visited Rhode Island to speak with Governor Lincoln Chafee. We do not know precisely what she wanted to tell him, but we do know that she does not feel that she was afforded the opportunity to fully express herself. After her meeting with the Governor, Dr. Ravitch posted an item to her Education Week blog saying that an unexpected invitee to the meeting, Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist, had "dominated the conversation, interrupted me whenever I spoke, and filibustered to use up the limited time". Dr. Ravitch went as far as to demand an apology from Commissioner Gist, though she later retracted the demand. (Governor Chafee told a Providence Journal reporter in regards to the meeting that "Commissioner Gist comported herself in an appropriate and respectful way at all times during this discussion").

Meeting protocol aside, the incident invites speculation about what it was that Dr. Ravitch felt the governor needed to hear that he hasn't already heard and isn't likely to hear from anyone else. A broad outline of themes that Dr. Ravitch could have been expected to talk about can be found in a March 2010 Wall Street Journal op-ed where she explained her widely noted change-of-mind regarding educational philosophy. The op-ed concluded with Dr. Ravitch offering definite positions on several big-picture areas of education-reform: that "the current emphasis on accountability has created a punitive atmosphere in the schools" and that students need a "coherent curriculum" instead of a "marketplace". But why a "coherent curriculum" should be posited as the alternative to a "marketplace" is not obvious, and the juxtaposition is worth pondering -- especially when combined with the idea of reduced accountability.

* * *

Leftist phobias aside, the features that define a marketplace are that, within its structure, transactions only occur when they are individually agreed upon by all parties involved, and outside parties do not get to veto transactions they are not involved in. Obviously, Dr. Ravitch doesn't want curricular choices to be determined by the market; she wants the choice of curriculum to be set outside of the market, and not allow other curriculums to be offered by others who might try to create one. She is not alone in this belief, and this idea not inherently unreasonable. Not everything is best delivered by pure market mechanisms.

However, simultaneously rejecting markets and accountability is problematic. When someone, or some small group, is given strong powers to limit what others may choose, mechanisms must to be put into place to make sure that the choices provided are good ones. Something must be done to guarantee that people impacted by restrictions on their choices still get access to optimal-quality choices, especially if the option-setters can compel the selection of inferior options, even when better options might be possible. You could say that the answer to this problem is to create a system of accountability for those setting the options, but that answer is nearly tautological -- which is what makes the idea of reducing accountability seem to be such an odd focus for an education reformer.

One possibility is that Dr. Ravitch is using the term "accountability" in some way peculiar to the education reform community. It is possible, for example, that the accountability she objects to in her WSJ op-ed is the specific regime imposed over the past decade by the Federal No-Child Left behind Act, but the record indicates that this is not the case. In a Policy Review article written in 2002 on testing and accountability, Dr. Ravitch described a "professional education paradigm" that included the idea that professional educators should be "insulated from public pressure" and was "suspicious of the intervention of policymakers". After her change of mind, in a December of 2010 entry on her Education Week blog, Dr. Ravitch relayed a story of being told that there is "no word in the Finnish language for 'accountability'", while praising the education system of Finland. And in the more comprehensive exposition of her current thoughts on accountability contained in her recent book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, despite expressing support for the validity of testing, Dr. Ravitch criticizes an over-emphasis on accountability in education systems, on the grounds that education measures tied to consequences will always be gamed, no matter how accurate tests and evaluations might have a potential to be. Consistently throughout her career, Dr. Ravitch has treated the idea of accountability in its broadest possible sense, and not used the term as a shorthand for testing or a particular program like NCLB.

Alas, in opposing accountability at such a high conceptual level, Diane Ravitch -- and her union allies -- have proposed answers to old and familiar problems that are based on ideas that repeatedly have been shown to be unworkable…

* * *

If both markets and accountability are to be rejected, then how can parents and students gain access to an improved education, when evidence appears that the education system is not working for them or the people around them? For those who oppose accountability and market mechanisms in education, this question is without meaning. Progressives say there are no visible, definitively meaningful signs that can tell a parent if an education system is working or not. No system of student or teacher evaluation can provide a picture accurate and reliable enough to be useful, because observing authentic educational progress and aligning progress with potential are processes too "complex" for anyone uninitiated into the education profession to command, and even if an effective accountability system could theoretically exist, there is still nothing can be done with many students to improve their educational performance, because socio-economic status is unalterable destiny. There is simply no information adequate to the task of helping a parent or student determine on their own if they need to move to a new system, or make a major change in their existing system, that can lead to better outcomes than simple deference to the professionals in the education field.

If changes to the education system do need to be made, it is members of the education profession who will identify the key problems (using their methods that can't be wholly explained to those outside of the profession -- after all, if they could be explained, they could be built into a system of accountability) and who will make the necessary changes, because that's what professionals are supposed to do, and professionals must always be trusted to do what they are supposed to do. This, in turn, defines a proper role for those outside of the education system. Theirs is not to try to hold those responsible for education "accountable", or to ask for some freedom to make their own choices; the role of non-professionals is to assume that the people on the inside of the education profession are delivering the best education possible (at least within existing resource constraints), and therefore to give the people on the inside whatever they say they need.

Degeneralize this non-market, non-accountable system from the specifics of education field -- while holding on to the idea that the education of children is a critical task in society -- and you are left with a small, mostly self-identified, group of people assuming the right to take a critical role in bringing society forward in a way that they themselves decide, regardless of what the broader population thinks should be done. As a guiding principle for social and government organization, this may sound familiar to you...

* * *

Another education reformer, E.D. Hirsch, has noted the strong impact that "romantic" ideas, rebranded in contemporary dialogue on intellectual history as "progressive" ideas, have had on the American education system. Hirsch's primary interest in romanticism is on how its ideal of doing things in a "natural" way has appeared at various times and places in progressive education reform movements; one of his interesting observations is that justifying something as being "natural" takes on a role today that a justification of pleasing the divine once took in earlier ages.

But the rejection of a broad based notion of accountability makes obvious that educational progressives have absorbed romantic ideology not only in defining their goals, but also into their organizational ideas for achieving them. Romantically-influenced ideologies, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau's original writings, through the tragically influential Marxist variations and into modern progressivism, have stressed that average citizens are impeded from achieving their full "natural" or "human" happiness by societies that have been fragmented by competing, selfish interests, and that the only way to bring the great mass of citizens out of their confusion is to cede sweeping powers to a chosen group who has gained a true understanding of the natural order of the universe, so that they may structure a society that presents people with the proper, though limited, set of choices for fulfilling their potentials.

Of course, in none of its historical forms has romanticism/Marxism/progressivism solved the problem of actually identifying the group of people who can wield this considerable power over others. Romantics of various stripes have tried historically to fill this gap with a secular mysticism, assuming a "first legislator" (Rousseau's concept) or a "dictatorship of the proletariat" (the Marxist concept) possessing superhuman judgment and uncorrupted motives will appear when needed. This has been a key place where romantic ideas have met the less-romantic human reality, history having shown that giving one group of people unaccountable power over another never results in a system that works in the best interests of everyone. Still, the lessons of history have not dissuaded progressive education advocates from holding tight to the core romantic social and political concepts; i.e. a public trapped by a false consciousness and likely to be deceived by false choices, needing to be saved by an elite that possesses an unrivaled and authentic understanding of the natural, perhaps even divine, truths about the best ordering of society; in order to dismiss the significance of "accountability".

Take the false consciousness to be the idea that our schools could be doing better at their existing resource levels; take the false choices to be options for charter schools or cross-district choice, and take the divine truth that only the initiated can see about the natural order of society to be that top-down bureaucracies is the only viable way for organizing a school system, and you have a pretty accurate description of the position of contemporary progressive education reformers who reject both markets and accountability.

* * *

Understanding what possibilities remain, after progressive education reformers have taken both markets and accountability off the table, helps make sense of Diane Ravitch's out-of-proportion reaction to Deborah Gist's participation in the meeting with Governor Lincoln Chafee. Dr. Ravitch was eager to take an opportunity to pass along truths that she has spent a lifetime understanding, to an earthly authority that could reinforce their application on a broad scale. But the presence during her meeting of someone from outside of the educational elect introduced confusion into the communication stream. Dr. Ravtich felt her opportunity to share secrets with a high political authority was being compromised by pedestrian ideas that she and her elite had divined were distractions from the deepest truths of education like markets and accountability, and she worried that the Governor was losing his opportunity to hear an unfragmented message about the one true and natural way he should proceed reform for the good of all in the realm of education reform. Dr. Ravtich thus grew frustrated, and wrote her blog post lashing out at Commissioner Gist.

But in the end, markets and accountability cannot be simultaneously dismissed, to be replaced by monopoly leadership who claim they just understand more than the common people ever can. And the more that romantically-inspired education reform proponents claim that the results observable by the general public shouldn't matter, and that stagnation or decline in observable measures of educational achievement must simply be accepted, the more the result is a movement that marginalizes itself.

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Romantically-influenced ideologies... have stressed... that the only way to bring the great mass of citizens out of their confusion is to cede sweeping powers to a chosen group who has gained a true understanding of the natural order of the universe, so that they may structure a society that presents people with a proper though limited set of choices for fulfilling their potentials.

Umm, that's not it at all and kind of odd to see from someone defending a system of top-down accountability in the form of nationally mandated standardized testing as a solution. It's really as if you haven't read much about what actually consititutes progressive education.

I just visited a Montessori school which struck me as very progressive in structure and philosophy. From Wikipedia:

Self-construction, liberty, and spontaneous activity Montessori education is fundamentally a model of human development, and an educational approach based on that model. The model has two basic elements. First, children and developing adults engage in psychological self-construction by means of interaction with their environments. Second, children, especially under the age of six, have an innate path of psychological development. Based on her observations, Montessori believed that children at liberty to choose and act freely within an environment prepared according to her model would act spontaneously for optimal development.

That's exactly the opposite of what you describe in your caricature of progressive education.

Posted by: Russ at June 15, 2011 3:51 PM
Alas, in opposing accountability at such a high conceptual level, Diane Ravitch -- and her union allies -- have proposed answers to old and familiar problems that are based on ideas that repeatedly have been shown to be unworkable…

Which ideas? For example, here's what Kohn suggests:


Here's what would be new: questioning all the stuff that Papert's early 20th-century visitors would immediately recognize: a regimen of memorizing facts and practicing skills that features lectures, worksheets, quizzes, report cards and homework. But the Gates-Bush-Obama version of "school reform" not only fails to call those things into question; it actually intensifies them, particularly in urban schools. The message, as educator Harvey Daniels observed, consists of saying in effect that "what we're doing [in the classroom] is OK, we just need to do it harder, longer, stronger, louder, meaner..."

Real education reform would require us to consider the elimination of many features that we've come to associate with school, so perhaps the reluctance to take such suggestions seriously is just a specific instance of the "whatever is, is right" bias that psychologists keep documenting. At the same time, traditionalists -- educational or otherwise -- know that it's politically advantageous to position themselves as being outside the establishment. Our challenge is to peer through the fog of rhetoric, to realize that what's being billed as reform should seem distinctly familiar -- and not particularly welcome.

So your contention is that alternatives to memorization and lectures or elimnating the assignment of grades and homework have been repeatedly tried and shown to be unworkable? What schools were those?

Posted by: Russ at June 15, 2011 4:04 PM

That's exactly the opposite of what you describe in your caricature of progressive education.
No, actually I hit that nail on the head, pointing out the equivalence (pointed out by Hirsch) in romantic thought between natural and God-like. And how do we know if the Montessori methods works? Who cares say the progressives; because it's "natural" why even bother to ask.

Posted by: Andrew at June 15, 2011 4:04 PM

You would need a test score to know if your own kids were creative and independent thinkers?

What makes you think the status quo tells us what works? There's plenty of evidence that the expected results will be exactly the opposite of what is being sold as reform (again see Deming).

Posted by: Russ at June 15, 2011 4:10 PM

So someone has told us that Montessori way is the best way, and we should just accept that, because it comes from a source that must obviously be correct.

I think I captured that line of progressive thought in the main post pretty well.

Posted by: Andrew at June 15, 2011 4:16 PM

I'm noticing a distinct parallel between Russ's defense of untestable progressive education and unfalsifiable Keynesian stimulus spending.

How will we know if they're working? Conveniently, the progressive experts in charge will tell us whether they are.

Posted by: Dan at June 15, 2011 4:23 PM

Keep in mind, Andrew, that Progressivism is slightly less tolerant of diverse views as Islam. Watch your head.

Posted by: BobN at June 15, 2011 5:39 PM

Strawman, meet Andrew. Andrew, this is Strawman. Oh, but I believe you know eachother very well.

Posted by: Pat Crowley at June 15, 2011 9:05 PM

I think Crowley is feeling inferior after reviewing some of his own pitiful, text message-like blog entries on RIFuture.

Repost some more YouTube montages, Pat. Very professional.

Posted by: Dan at June 15, 2011 10:42 PM

It seems that Crowley has nothing to say.

Posted by: BobN at June 16, 2011 6:08 AM

What's apparent here is the lack of any new ideas from the right on how to improve the system. It's the same stale claim that markets combined with federally mandated, high-stakes standardized testing (as if we haven't been doing that for decades) will magically arrive at the desired solution. It's what Deming would call goals without method.

A few of problematic assumptions of pseudo-reformers

1. Standardized testing measures what matters. Clearly not the case, if you (like me) believe what matters for competiveness in the future is not our kids'ability to memorize and regurgitate facts, but their ability to think critically and independently, a skill that all evidence show suffers when curriculums are taiored to test taking.

2. That so-called accountability is effective in process improvement. This is the real concern. Decades of process improvement research warns against this approach.

3. No other possibilities for reform exist. This isy posts like this one must misrepresent what progressive education actually is. The most dangerous thing to the corporate agenda is a viable (and more effective) alternative. To admit that, is to expose the charade of "reform" for what it is, more of the same only meaner.

The problem for critics of this system is it's much easier to pretend that reform is easily achieved through things like "accountability." It's a simple proposition and appealing for that reason; unfortunately it's simple and wrong.

Brian Joiner in "4th Generation Management" says there are 3 ways to improve a system:

1. distorting the system
2. distorting the data
3. improving the system (which tends to be more difficult though likely what is desired)

The charade of assigning blame (read accountability) leads to option 1 and 2. Feedback is important in option 3, but the feedback must not be used to punish or reward those involved. I encourage everyone to read about Shewhart Cycles (plan, do, check, act).


It's not a "romantic" notion that fuels progressive education reform. It's the scientific method. IT'S WHAT WORKS!

Posted by: Russ at June 16, 2011 9:43 AM
So someone has told us that Montessori way is the best way, and we should just accept that, because it comes from a source that must obviously be correct.

Notice the sleight of hand here. Andrew says progressive education has been tried and doesn't work. I say, well Montessori has been around for decades and seems to work fairly well, so Andrew changes his story to dismiss the evidence out of hand rather than address the danger of an viable and tested alternative to corporate reform. There is no alternative, eh?

Posted by: Russ at June 16, 2011 9:55 AM

Russ - You still aren't addressing the main concerns expressed in Andrew's post. You claim that progressive education "works," but you characterize a system "working" according to nebulous, untestable concepts like "independent thinking" that can only be subjectively evaluated by your progressive experts in the know. And if parents disagree with your progressive experts and the way their children are being progressively educated, what will be their alternatives if competition is abolished per your recommendations?

This is the fundamental difference between our ways of thinking. You claim to know what works, and define what "working" means for all of those around you. We don't claim to know what "works" for everybody, which is why we entrust people to figure it out to themselves.

Posted by: Dan at June 16, 2011 10:14 AM

Aha, signs this fad may be starting to sputter out:
"New Recruit in Homework Revolt: The Principal"

The school board will vote this summer on a proposal to limit weeknight homework to 10 minutes for each year of school — 20 minutes for second graders, and so forth — and ban assignments on weekends, holidays and school vacations.

Galloway, a mostly middle-class community northwest of Atlantic City, is part of a wave of districts across the nation trying to remake homework amid concerns that high-stakes testing and competition for college have fueled a nightly grind that is stressing out children and depriving them of play and rest, yet doing little to raise achievement, particularly in elementary grades.

Huh, doesn't raise achievement? Who could have known? (ahem)


Posted by: Russ at June 16, 2011 10:19 AM

"You claim to know what works, and define what 'working' means for all of those around you."

No, I've defined what we know works for process improvement based on decades of work in industry and academia. It's hardly open to debate (well at least not in the business world). What we know doesn't work is measurement and false accountability. It's up to educators, parents, administrators to determine what success means in education, using the proven methods of process improvement.

I've offered what that means to me as an example of one of the reasons why high-stakes testing is so damaging. But, hey, the strawman is much more fun. Have another wack at him!

Posted by: Russ at June 16, 2011 10:30 AM

Here's what's especially infuriating, critics falsely claim that progressive education is some kind of top-down dogma, while at the same time holding that the flaw is that it lacks the simplicity of the standard metrics used by top-down reformers for measuring success (however erroneously).


If progressive education doesn’t lend itself to a single fixed definition, that seems fitting in light of its reputation for resisting conformity and standardization. Any two educators who describe themselves as sympathetic to this tradition may well see it differently, or at least disagree about which features are the most important.

Exactly the opposite of the strawman above, but why let that effect us when there's so many bubble sheets to fill?

Posted by: Russ at June 16, 2011 10:39 AM

Russ - Still waiting for an explanation of how we can meaningfully evaluate whether children "think independently" or not, or whether the other nebulous goals of progressive education are being achieved. I'll expect no substantive answer and more lemming-like blockquoting of Alfie Kohn from you (that I've stopped reading entirely, as I'm sure most of the readers here have).

The beauty of offering parents a range of school choices and allowing them to decide what works for themselves is that we don't have to make such subjective and difficult evaluations in the first place. I'll be the first to admit that I *don't* know what works for somebody else's children, and I don't think your "decades of experience in industry and academia" make you a qualified judge of that either. The market-based solution is both simple and elegant - a private or charter school that fails to meet parental expectations will lose its students and close down. What's top-down is your insistance that taxpayers be forced to fund and send their children to one specific type of school - your preferred type - and that all competition to your brilliant model be eliminated. It's elitist, authoritarian madness and the results will be predictable, at least to those of us who still care about measuring results.

Please tell us all again about how this is all a "corporatist" strawman and how well progressive education an work for us all if we only hand over the keys to those like you and Kohn. What we aren't getting are the difficult answers about how your system would be evaluated and kept in check. You seem to take extreme offense to the simple asking of that question.

Posted by: Dan at June 16, 2011 11:06 AM

"...that I've stopped reading entirely, as I'm sure most of the readers here have."

No surprise to me. It's quite obvious that many or most here know little about the subject of process improvement or what progressive educators really espouse.

Posted by: Russ at June 16, 2011 12:06 PM
Still waiting for an explanation of how we can meaningfully evaluate whether children "think independently" or not, or whether the other nebulous goals of progressive education are being achieved.

Whatever can be measured doesn't matter. Don't measure. You can measure or you can improve the system. Take your pick. Keep in mind, I have the word "data" in my job title. I'm not against metrics, only the misuse of them.

My suggestion would be to ask students, parents, faculty, and administrators what they think how the system is serving their needs. The answers are sure vary depending on the student, but again that's among the tenets of progressive education. I don't need to have a standardized test for me to know that my daughter's school is making strides in her development. Do you?

You seem to be asking how can progressive education be more like the demonstrably harmful standardized top-down approach that marks the current pseudo-reform. Which of course it can't because it isn't.

Posted by: Russ at June 16, 2011 12:17 PM
I don't think your "decades of experience in industry and academia" make you a qualified judge of that either.

You're mistaking me (I'm not that old). I was talking about process improvement generally which has been going on in industry since the end of WWI or so (TQM, 6 Sigma, etc.). You might not like to read what these folks have to say, but you can't simply pretend they don't exist.

Posted by: Russ at June 16, 2011 12:24 PM

More non-answers from Russ. Just empty promises that his authoritarian cabal of progressive education experts in charge of the system will listen to parents and teachers and respond appropriately based on their expertise. And if they don't listen, what consequences will there be and what recourse will parents have? Absolutely none. Their thinking will need adjustment, that's all.

Posted by: Dan at June 16, 2011 12:25 PM

Russ, I both agree and disagree with you. I too happen to be against metrics or standardized tests as a way to measure successful education, in terms of a school or teacher. I do think that a student should be able to pass a standardized test to be able to go the next grade but those results should only apply to that specific issue – whether the student goes onto the next grade.

But your suggestion of asking all the players what they think about how the system serving their needs … if that is the tenets of progressive education then count me out. The problem with that is it is not possible to serve everyone’s needs. To even attempt to is a recipe for failure. It’s downright silly. The problem is trying to put the onus of ‘successful’ education on a school or teacher. Back when I was in school, you went to school and the teachers taught you. If you didn’t pass tests, you failed. If you didn’t behave, you were out. The role of education has changed and not for the better. Now, everyone (the students, parents, teachers and administrations) all have their own individual agenda and none will take responsibility. I personally think most of the blame goes to the teachers union and irresponsible parents. But, for me, the problem starts with the whole definition of a ‘successful education system’. Because it cannot be defined – except one student at a time. And too few people on both sides will ever accept that. It’s too complex for our simple “measurement-hungry / lack of responsibility” culture.

By the way, I too have “data” in my title and used to be a teacher.

Posted by: msteven at June 16, 2011 12:46 PM

"The problem with that is it is not possible to serve everyone’s needs."

Really? Not possible? Markets do a good job of accomplishing exactly that in most areas. There are cars for rich people, cars for poor people, gaudy cars, functional cars, fast cars, big cars, etc., all of them get you where you need to go and people are free to choose which they want. To claim that education is somehow fundamentally different from food, clothing, housing, employment, or any other type of individualized service is a difficult argument. It certainly doesn't meet any of the traditional "market failure" criteria that economists talk about. Socialized education is an unfortunate accident of history - there is no legitimate economic argument in favor of it. The claim that the poorest 1% of the population would be left out is only an argument for vouchers, not for an entirely public system. Economically speaking, it's probably worst possible service to socialize and the unintended consequences have been horrendous. It's in the same category as sugar quotas - an embarrassingly inefficient creation of powerful special interests in government at the expense of the many.

Posted by: Dan at June 16, 2011 1:54 PM

"...his authoritarian cabal of progressive education experts in charge of the system..."

I never proposed top-down reform of any sort. Process improvement works best bottom up. Again, a misunderstanding of what it is being proposed by critics of the one-size fits all approach currently in vogue.

Of course the rest of Dan's comment is enlightening. This pseudo-reform isn't about improving students' education; it's about punishing teachers under the flawed premise that will somehow make things better.

Posted by: Russ at June 16, 2011 2:12 PM

"But your suggestion of asking all the players what they think about how the system serving their needs … if that is the tenets of progressive education then count me out."

That was my suggestion on how to set goals. As with any system, priorities must be set. What I object to is the idea that those goals should be set in Washington (the irony is that this doesn't seem to draw the anger of the folks who wrongly paint progressive education as dogmatic). As for individual students, I absolutely think the student and parents should have a say. I wouldn't stand for less for my own kids.

The idea in progressive education is that students should have flexibility and choice in their education, not that a school should provide for every possible wish that someone might concieve. So I think we agree on that.

Posted by: Russ at June 16, 2011 2:26 PM
Really? Not possible? Markets do a good job of accomplishing exactly that in most areas.

Really? I'd like quality education programming without ads targeting my toddler. Or how about a DVD without 19 previews on the front of it?

Yes, markets work well in some areas but they also work poorly in others. btw, there is already a market in education. They're called private schools, and you're welcome to use them.

Posted by: Russ at June 16, 2011 2:29 PM

"Socialized education is an unfortunate accident of history..."

Interesting way to describe the ideas and work of Thomas Jefferson. Thank god for unfortunate accidents.

Posted by: Russ at June 16, 2011 2:36 PM

Russ - I'll again excuse your reading incomprehension. "Top down" is not in reference to methods of improving student achievement, which you (conveniently) claim is impossible to measure anyway. It is in reference to your adamance that school choice be eliminated in favor of a single unionized public school system that students are forced to attend, run according to the policy recommendations of a set of elite progressive "education experts."

I don't care in the slightest whether teachers are "punished" or not. I simply want families to be given a choice of where to send their children. I think they are capable of making that highly personal and subjective choice and marketized schools will respond to those consumer preferences accordingly. Speaking of straw-manning, why are you incapable of discussing the totally legitimate idea of a marketized school system on its merits? Again, I'm not the one claiming to know the best way to teach everyone else's children or boost achievement - you are. I want to let people innovate and figure that out for themselves.

Posted by: Dan at June 16, 2011 2:40 PM

Thomas Jefferson, like every human being who ever lived, had some really bad ideas, Russ. Your constant appeals to authority are becoming frustrating and pathetic. It doesn't prove anything to say, "So-and-so supports me," not even when it's Thomas Jefferson or your beloved Alfie Kohn. For a self-proclaimed educated person and policy expert, you commit some very basic logical fallacies on a regular basis.

Posted by: Dan at June 16, 2011 2:45 PM

"Really? I'd like quality education programming without ads targeting my toddler. Or how about a DVD without 19 previews on the front of it?"

LOL. Those products and services are available if you actually cared enough to look for them, Russ. But your treatment of the above situations as market failures or consumers getting screwed is totally laughable and illustrative of your deep economic ignorance. A specific type of product not meeting every one of your individual hopes and expectations is not a market failure. The correct question is whether government could provide a better selection of movies and at lower cost - the answer is an obvious no.

"btw, there is already a market in education. They're called private schools, and you're welcome to use them."

Yes, the private school market is extremely successful. That's neither here nor there, although you could learn something from it if you actually investigated why it is successful. The problem is the lack of a market in public schools. Let's stick to that.

Posted by: Dan at June 16, 2011 3:01 PM

Which regime would be more likely to foster innovation and quality "from the bottom up"? A federally-directed, top-down, soviet-style system owned and run by the government and its political allies in Leftist academia and the teachers unions? Or a free-market system of private schools?

Posted by: BobN at June 16, 2011 3:29 PM

Or how about this: lop off the layers of administration that sit on top of actual schools in municipal systems and maximize site-based autonomy. Then, instead of assigning students to one-and-only-one school based on their address, let them choose the individual school they think best serves their needs, with their portion of public education funding going to that school.

Sounds to me like a system that would facilitate bottom-up reform.

Posted by: Andrew at June 16, 2011 6:57 PM


1. I'd just like to know how someone who tells me that it is somewhere between meaningless and harmful to try to measure education outcomes can guarantee me that the Montessori method "works". I could find some places where human sacrifice was practiced for a few decades. It didn't make it a good idea.

2. You can't have a scientific method without making measurements. You are trying to replace science with a book of spells and incantations, and assure us that it was written by very smart wizards, and that is about as romantic as is possible.

2b. How exactly did you get your "data" if no measurements were made?

3. All of your process improvement examples assume people agree on a common goal that everyone involved can perceive. To modify an example I used in the preview of this thread, if one automobile assembly line produces cars that go to 0-to-60 in whatever, and another assembly line produces cars that don't go anywhere because they don't start, the progressive ideology you advocate says don't make any measurements to try to determine why the cars from line 2 don't work.

Posted by: Andrew at June 16, 2011 7:06 PM

The real danger is the misuse of data to attempt to rank students, teachers, schools, and districts. It's a bad idea and one that runs contrary to what process improvement experts recommend. Ignore that advice if you like.

Also I'm not interested in arguing the relative benefits of Montessori schools. The point was that progressive education ideas are being practiced in varying degrees in many schools. But since you asked (and to my larger point)...


A method of schooling that focuses on personal development rather than exams produces more mature, creative and socially adept children, scientists have found.

Psychologists in the US found that across a range of abilities, children at Montessori schools out-performed those given a traditional education.

Five-year-old Montessori pupils were better prepared for reading and maths, and 12-year-olds wrote "significantly more creative" essays using more sophisticated sentence structures.

Some of the biggest differences were seen in social skills and behaviour.

Montessori children displayed a greater sense of "justice and fairness", interacted in an "emotionally positive" way, and were less likely to engage in "rough play" during break times.

What a shock!

Let me try again with regard to process improvement. Consider this one: how do you know if your child has an effective art program at their school? Do you count the number of projects they create? How about the number of colors used in their latest assignment? No, why not? But if you don't measure the program that way then no one could tell if the program was effective, right?

I'm not sure your point about having "a common goal that everyone involved can perceive." Although, it strikes me that this is a product of having to many items in the cart. It's sometimes useful to debundle the concerns and then address each one in turn. I think many in the "reform" camp think standardized testing as some sort of instant pudding that will solve all ills.

Posted by: Russ at June 20, 2011 3:19 PM

"Which regime would be more likely to foster innovation and quality 'from the bottom up'?"

Notably absent, bottom up process improvement efforts without the requirement of corporate profit taking. That one can't be considered for fear it might actually work.

Posted by: Russ at June 20, 2011 4:04 PM

Dan, you seem to misunderstand the appeal to authority logical fallacy. You are of course welcome to condemn the founding ideals of this country and to ignore the decades of process improvement literature supporting my take on education reform.

Posted by: Russ at June 20, 2011 4:09 PM

Russ, the grammar in your response makes your meaning indecipherable. Are you saying that you can't have process improvement without profit? If so, we might actually agree on something for once.

Posted by: BobN at June 20, 2011 9:30 PM

No, what I'm saying is that nothing about corporate profit taking will magically make a process improve, except of course the process of maximizing profit. That you choose to compare this to a stawman rather than what actually is being suggested by progressive educators is entirely telling about the underlying weakness of the corporate approach.

Posted by: Russ at June 21, 2011 9:47 AM

btw, still waiting for Andrew to tell us specifically which ideas espoused by progressive educators have repeatedly been shown to be unworkable.

As for unworkable ideas, I suggest folks take a hard look at whether "accountability" is anything more than a public spectacle.

"The Near Impossibility of Testing for Teacher Quality"

Defining quality in teaching is unusually difficult. Were anyone serious about this issue, they would soon realize that quality is an ineffable concept, as the best-selling book by Pirsig (1974) made clear. Defining quality always requires value judgments about which disagreements abound...

In the United States, we see quality teaching taking on different characteristics in programs such as Success for All for inner-city youngsters, in contrast to the schooling offered advantaged students in middle-class suburbs. Quality in reading and mathematics instruction has been vigorously fought over for decades, as has the nature of quality kindergarten instruction.

Under the best of circumstances, it would be difficult to define a quality teacher; under political mandate to do so, it is likely to lead to silly and costly compliance-oriented actions by each of the states. The discernment of quality, an integral part of the identification of a highly qualified individual, always requires keen insight and good judgment (Fenstermacher & Richardson, 2005). It is unlikely that any federal law can mandate the employment of keen insight and good judgment.

This is pretty much the same take I had on how standardized tests for students don't really measure what matters. It's sort of the like the story of the guy who is searching for his contact lens under the street lamp instead of across the street where he lost it because the light was better.

"Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts."
-- Sign on the wall of Albert Einstein's office at Princeton

Posted by: Russ at June 21, 2011 1:02 PM

There was no strawman in my comment; but knowing that hallucinations are part of the Leftist diagnosis, I can understand your response.

Your statements on the education issue are schizophrenic. Sometimes you say that quality in education can't be measured, other times you quote (usually wrongly) WE Deming, the Einstein of quality measurement. Do you even listen to yourself?

Posted by: BobN at June 21, 2011 1:12 PM

Deming was quite critical of "management by numbers, numerical goals" (see Deming's 11th point). But if you'd like to cite the section of his writings you have in mind, I'm all ears.

"The most important figures that one needs for management are unknown or unknowable (Lloyd S. Nelson, director of statistical methods for the Nashua corporation)..."
Out of Crisis, p.121.

Posted by: Russ at June 21, 2011 3:12 PM

"There was no strawman in my comment..."

The irony, of course, is that you're defending a "federally-directed, top-down, soviet-style system owned and run by the government and its political allies." Progressives like me think that' s a mistake (as is ignoring academics and the teachers themselves).

Posted by: Russ at June 21, 2011 4:44 PM

We have now entered Bizarro World...or 1984. Either way, reality is far, far away.

Posted by: BobN at June 21, 2011 4:52 PM


The central progressive idea, in education and elsewhere, that has repeatedly demonstrated unworkable is that good outcomes can result from one group of people forcing another into a system without markets or accountability. Without one of those mechanisms, what is necessarily left is one group of people claiming the power to forcibly limit the freedom of others, regardless of the consequences for the group of people shut-out of the decision-making process.

And when those negatively impacted by the limitations of their freedom speak out to say that a system is not working for them, that they would like to try something that might work a little better, they are told they only want the improvements they are asking for because they lack the deep understanding of reality that only the decision makers can possess -- and that their silly desire for something better is further proof that decisions must continue to be made for them without their participation or any accountability for the results

Posted by: Andrew at June 21, 2011 8:56 PM

Russ, you're going in circles. If it's impossible to judge teacher quality, then why should I favor an ed-school credentialled teacher whose been in the classroom for a decade over, say, a professional wrestler? There's no way to tell the difference between them, because teacher quality is impossible to assess, right?

The answer driven by romantic ideology that you keep returning to is that some folks who have divined the secrets of education have everything figured out and they need unaccountable power over others to implement the perfect system that the common folk (like parents) can't understand in detail anyway.

Posted by: Andrew at June 21, 2011 9:32 PM

If you read the article, the point was that quality could not be measured on the cheap using test results, etc. Deming would say substitute leadership. Experience being a necessary part of good leadership, no?

The "romantic" premise is still utter bs, btw. My primary objection to the plan is based on quality improvement best practices, and, yes, there are folks in industry who know what they're talking about. You're not suggesting there's no difference between a process improvement expert who's spent decades working in the field and a professional wrestler, are you?

Not to mention that it's not even what Ravitch thinks.

The Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action is a grassroots movement dedicated to restoring educator, parent, student, and community influence over education policy and practice. We are a varied group of people with different perspectives, experiences, and views on education. But we agree that those who know the most about education, our schools, and our communities—the educators, students, families and communities in and around them—should be the ones to have the most influence over education policy and practice. Our goal is to put public school stakeholders back at the center of all education policy conversations, and to refocus national, state, and local efforts on providing the resources and support schools need in order to provide a high-quality education for each and every student.

So what you're saying is that Ravitch has "divined the secrets of education" and needs the "unaccountable power over others" in order to implement her plan to put control back in the hands of parents and local communities? Bellylaugh doubleplusgood!

Posted by: Russ at June 22, 2011 12:58 PM
The central progressive idea, in education and elsewhere, that has repeatedly demonstrated unworkable is that good outcomes can result from one group of people forcing another into a system without markets or accountability.

As for "accountability," you might as well say the problem is that we don't have enough pixie dust. It's a nonsense term with no grounding in process improvement best practices (quite the contrary in fact, attempts at assigning blame tend to make things worse). While the effect of misguided attempts at accountability can be to make education less progressive that's not the same as to say that lack of accountability is an inherent part of the progressive model.

As for "markets," there of course are many private schools to choose from. You just seem to think public money needs to subsidize those private schools. That's not about markets.

Not to mention that public schools are not an essential part of what's meant by "progressive education." In fact I find the private schools to be much more progressive in approach than any public school I've visited. As I've mentioned previously, visit the best private schools in the state and see what model is in place.


Posted by: Russ at June 22, 2011 1:17 PM

What's occurred to me is that you're not against "progressive education;" you're against public education (and perhaps you've confused the two concepts). Fair enough but then have the courage to come out and say it!

Posted by: Russ at June 22, 2011 1:19 PM
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