Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A plea for peace among petulant pundits

Jay Mathews calls on Diane Ravitch and me to tone down the vitriol:

I thought about this as I read a long and erudite assault on the views of historian and author Diane Ravitch by investor and charter school advocate Whitney Tilson. I know both Ravitch and Tilson. They are among my favorite commentators. For the sake of the schoolchildren we all care about, I wish they were more willing to give credit to ideological adversaries for the good sense and good works on all sides of the debate.

Tilson attacks Ravitch's latest book, "The Death and Life of the Great American School System," as well as some of her recent magazine articles and speeches. Like many who read the book, Tilson believes it is a refutation of Ravitch's long support for more testing, higher standards, more charter schools and more parent choice. Tilson correctly identifies several instances in which Ravitch criticizes nonexistent straw men, painting a distorted picture of what people like Tilson believe.

In a speech in Houston, for instance, she urges the Teach For America organization, which recruits and trains recent college graduates to teach in low-income communities, to "stop claiming that TFA will close the achievement gap. That may be a nice slogan but nobody can teach for two or three years and close the achievement gap." This is in contrast to what the Teach For America Web site actually says: The organization is "working to eliminate educational inequity."

That's a big difference. They are not promising to close the gap. They are trying to do so, like nearly everyone in the education field, including Ravitch.

In her book and speeches, Ravitch castigates innovators who, she insists, say charter schools are the silver bullet that will save inner city schools. In her book she says a 2009 pro-charter study "suggested to editorialists at the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and other national media that charter schools were the silver bullet that could finally solve the most deep-seated problems of urban education."

The Washington Post editorial she referred to says nothing of the sort. Here is its wording: "The desperation of poor parents whose children are stuck on waiting lists for charter schools is well-founded."

Ravitch is a brilliant analyst. Her book and other recent pieces point out the failure of the charter school movement to make much headway nationally in raising student achievement. Her review of the hit documentary "Waiting For 'Superman,' " [bias alert -- I am in it] notes that the film went overboard in making teacher unions the villain and charter schools the hero of our national educational drama. So why does she have to stretch the facts when taking on what she considers unhealthy trends?

I understand what Mathews is saying, but don't plan to change my approach.  While some of what I write might sound like an off-the-cuff rant, every word I write about her is carefully thought out.  I don't lightly accuse her of bias, lies and distortions – and I'm careful to back it up with concrete example after concrete example. 


Most people DO tone it down when critiquing Ravitch – to be polite or because they aren't in a position to write and speak the truth, so I'm happy to be the bomb-throwing truth-teller who says the empress has no clothes.


I have no intention of toning it down, as long as she keeps up her lies/distortions, and simply tears down others' efforts rather than offering any positive ideas.


Regarding the email Ravitch sent to Mathews:

Tilson is one of the most energetic and generous supporters of the KIPP charter schools in the New York City area. He was offended by Ravitch's comments that charters like KIPP are robbing regular schools of their best parents and are too hyped by the press. He would feel better if he saw the e-mail Ravitch sent me a few weeks ago from Houston.

Mike Feinberg, the co-founder of KIPP, was showing her KIPP schools in Texas. They looked great to her, she said. She hasn't given up on any of the reforms Tilson is devoted to. She just wants them to do better. We should all, particularly we pundits prone to oversimplification and demonization, pursue the same goal.

I have no doubt what Ravitch's email says -- even she can't crap on KIPP -- but I don't care what she says in private to someone to smart and informed to be fooled.  What I care about is what she says and writes in public, which is hostile to ALL charter schools (she was the key speaker at Bill Perkins's show trial in NYC earlier this year, for example).


I'll tone it down when she changes what she says and writes.  For example, rather than waging a jihad against all charter schools, why doesn't she acknowledge what we all know is right: let's set the bar high to get (and keep) a charter and shut down lousy charter schools -- AND, of course, district schools as well.


The ONLY thing I care about is the maximum number of kids getting a good education, not whether it's at a district, charter or private/parochial school.


A plea for peace among petulant pundits

By Jay Mathews


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