EDUCATION MATTERS: Arguing with the rock star of education


By Marsha Sutton

Heaven knows, I wouldn’t want to argue with the likes of Diane Ravitch. It would be like disagreeing with the Pope over religious ideology – even if you’re not Catholic, it’s just an irreverent, cheeky thing to do.

However, her speech before 400 San Diego Unified School District teachers, administrators and members of the public two weeks ago triggered unsettling thoughts about the credibility of her remarks and the assumptions upon which she bases her beliefs.

Ravitch’s fame in the world of public education is far-reaching and well-deserved. An education historian, research professor at New York University, senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, former U.S. assistant secretary of education and respected author of 10 books on the American system of public education, Ravitch commands respect. Her depth of knowledge, longevity in the field and close associations have placed her in pivotal roles over the years with the highest levels of politicians, policy-makers and education experts.

What’s made her a hero to teachers lately is her about-face on the issues of accountability and the testing focus of the No Child Left Behind legislation, as well as her opposition to charter schools and the Race to the Top competition for award money implemented under President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Ravitch wrote in a recent blog, “I now freely concede that I was wrong to support the expansion of testing and accountability. I believe that approach has created a major national fraud, as the more we rely on testing, and the more we emphasize accountability, the less interest there is in anything that you or I would recognize as good education.”

And this: “I now freely concede that I was wrong to support choice as a primary mechanism for school reform. It has become a mechanism to promote the privatization of public education and to create a cash flow of government funding for clever entrepreneurs.”

Ravitch expanded on these themes in her remarks in San Diego, slamming the controversial “Waiting for Superman” movie that assigns much of the blame for the failure of urban public education on the intransigence of teachers’ unions and policies that endorse job protection, tenure and seniority rights. She called the movie a “propaganda piece” and said its false message is that privatization in the form of charter schools is good and that unions protect bad teachers.

If we have so many bad teachers, Ravitch said, “then we have a problem with the people evaluating the teachers. Teachers don’t give themselves tenure.”

“Waiting for Superman” promotes the belief that schools need to be run like a business, Ravitch claimed, countering that public education is a public good that cannot be sold to the highest bidder and that it “belongs not to the Gates Foundation or the Broad Foundation.”

Charter schools “don’t take their fair share of English language learners or students with disabilities” and are not the solution, she said, pointing out that Stanford University’s CREDO Study of Charter Schools showed that only 17 percent of charters do better than their neighborhood schools – “not way better, just slightly better.”

Ravitch said that one of the movie’s heroes, Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone charter schools in New York, has the unique ability to reject students who do not improve academically. Because Canada operates a charter school in high demand, she said he can send an entire class of kids “back” to neighborhood schools if they don’t perform up to par. “Wouldn’t you like to be able to do that sometimes?” she asked an approving audience of San Diego teachers.

“I get so angry about it,” she said, referring to “powerful forces who want to dismantle public education.” These “corporate reformers,” as she called them, “want to destabilize public education” and “will set public education back 150 years.” With money but little teacher support, they are like generals who have no troops but all the weaponry, she said.

When asked what to do about bad teachers, she bristled. “There’s some kind of madness right now that says you fire people,” she said. “It’s mean-spirited. What do you do about bad teachers? You help them. Then you help them some more.” Only after prolonged training and assistance, and only as a last resort, should districts consider releasing teachers, she said.

Ravitch called the concept of value-added, which evaluates teachers on how well they improve their students’ performance on standardized tests, “horrible and disgusting,” saying it is a “disgrace” to publish teacher information like the Los Angeles Times recently did.

She cited a recent Vanderbilt University study showing that merit pay does not motivate teachers to work harder, saying that teachers are already working as hard as they can. Merit pay, she said, “causes people who should work together to compete.”

Today’s school reformers, she said, “continue to believe that without incentives and sanctions, we can’t make progress.”

School reform cannot work, she said, if hostility is directed at the people who do the work. “Collaboration and teamwork are essential ingredients of school reform,” she said.

Ravitch was critical of the proposal in San Diego to add four appointed board members to the five elected SDUSD trustees and said this structure, opposed by unions, has never been shown to work.

“Changing governance models has nothing to do with student achievement,” she said. They’re doing an end-run around the electoral process.”

Ravitch spoke of innovation with disdain, as if it were something to be avoided at all costs. Although she said, “We’re not happy with the status quo,” it was hard to see any chink in her remarks that may have allowed for any new or creative ways of improving public education.

A new standard for success

My level of discomfort, already climbing, intensified considerably when Ravitch began to redefine proficiency in student assessments.

California students are categorized into five levels of achievement based on the results of standardized tests. They are: advanced, proficient, basic, below basic and far below basic.

School districts aim to help students reach the level of proficient (or higher) in all subject areas. It’s nearly universally accepted that basic or lower is considered below grade level – but, astonishingly, not by Ravitch, who said students performing at a basic level are at grade level, not below it.

This startling pronouncement was greeted by cheers from teachers in the audience, who seemed more than ready to accept a new standard by which to judge success.

She argued that advanced includes the top 1 to 2 percent of students, mostly all gifted, while proficient students are those doing above grade level work. Achieving a basic level is quite acceptable, she maintained, refuting every one of the principals, superintendents and educators I’ve ever heard talk about these levels of achievement.

Randy Ward, San Diego County Superintendent of Schools, strongly disagreed with Ravitch’s re-interpretation of achievement levels, calling her “an apologist for teachers” and saying she’s made a business out of her newfound alliance with teachers and their unions. “Ravitch has found her niche,” he said.

Regarding the testing craze, Ravitch said it has led to cheating scandals, teaching to the tests and an unhealthy emphasis on the memorization of facts. This has resulted in the inability of students to apply knowledge in ways they’ve not specifically encountered, “so children only know what they were tested on,” she said.

She bemoaned the data-driven principles that now preoccupy and guide administrators, saying, “We’ve taken all human judgment out of public education.” This focus, she said, means that “we are not preparing kids for the critical thinking that’s required in college.”

Many might agree with this view, but Ravitch seemed willing to throw the baby out with the bath water, in her scathing attack on testing.

Although testing has spiraled out of control, there are some significant benefits that have helped identify and engage students from traditionally lower-performing races, cultures and backgrounds.

As I wrote in last week’s column, the disaggregation of testing data has allowed educators to zero in on these students and their particular needs, in order to deliver instruction in ways that can begin to narrow the gap in achievement that has historically prohibited these groups of students from becoming successful learners.

“The worst thing that could happen is to take our eyes off that prize,” said Ward, referring to the need to close the achievement gap.

Few would disagree that there are serious downsides to the over-emphasis on standardized testing. But Ravitch seems to believe that there’s little, if any, upside. Yet to ignore the achievement gap issue is to turn a blind eye to a national disgrace.

Myopic viewpoints

Frederick Hess, another nationally recognized education guru, wrote in an editorial in the Nov. 10, 2010 issue of Education Week that Ravitch has gone too far when she assaults charters, testing, teacher evaluations, mayoral control and private money in public education. Little progress can be made until we recognize that we can’t remain “wedded to arrangements that may have made sense a century ago but that are poorly suited to today’s goals,” he wrote.

Old models should not be re-embraced simply because new ones may not always work, Hess claims. The battle between reform and the status quo is a game that has no winners. The assumptions of reform-minded leaders like Arne Duncan, Hess states, are as “myopic” as the opposing viewpoints represented by organizations like the mighty National Education Association.

The NEA, representing 3.2 million public school teachers and employees, is the largest labor union in the country and just named Ravitch its “Friend of Education” for 2010.

An ally of immeasurable clout, Ravitch was received enthusiastically by San Diego Unified’s teachers, part of the 8,000-member San Diego Education Association which is affiliated with the NEA.

Ravitch praised San Diego Unified’s new efforts to re-organize the district into separate areas comprised of high school clusters, and embraced this “community-based school reform.”

She said she was “excited that it’s not coming from Washington” and predicted that San Diego could be “a beacon to the nation.”

“Wherever I go, I will talk about the promising reforms in San Diego. Make them work,” she concluded.

It’s difficult to argue with that wish for success, but the assumptions underlying her faith in the ideas that can make it work seem suspect. But who am I to disagree with the latest rock star of education?

Marsha Sutton can be reached at: