Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Diane Ravitch myth

Washington Post blogger Valerie Strauss, whom I've called a shill for Randi Weingarten and Diane Ravitch, decided to strike back, saying that I and others who rebut Ravitch's nonsense are meanies and that she's just "a 72-year-old grandmother" without any power or influence.  Hang on a second while I pick myself up off the floor and recover from such total Alice-in-Wonderland absurdity…  To start with, I love the fact that she thinks I'm a billionaire – my wife will be so happy to hear of this exponential increase in our wealth (the widespread belief that every hedge fund manager from NYC is a billionaire can have its advantages, but it's far from reality).


Here's an excerpt from Strauss:

Anybody reading much of the commentary written on education policy could be forgiven for thinking that education historian Diane Ravitch is somehow the Wizardess of Ed, the woman behind the curtain secretly pulling the strings.

So many commentators take verbal shots at her that you'd think she had the policy-making power of, say, President Obama, or Education Secretary Arne Duncan, or billionaire education philanthropist Bill Gates. (When Gates decides to fund a particular initiative, it immediately becomes the reform approach of the hour.)

Gates has, in fact, mocked her. Billionaire Whitney Tilson has made a second career out of attacking her. Even my colleague Jay Mathews wrote a column on his Class Struggle blog that called "erudite" a Tilson piece in which Tilson personally attacked Ravitch, and then Jay took Ravitch to task for something she said about Teach for America about which I don't think she was wrong.

Ravitch has developed a powerful following among public school teachers, who have found in her a champion amidst what they see as a governmental assault on their profession. She is the most prominent voice articulating opposition to the corporate-driven reforms being pursued by the Obama administration, with Republican approval.

But having support from teachers doesn't equal an ounce of policy-making power, of which she has none. And let's be clear, her viewpoint isn't exactly winning the day.

…Who controls policy? Who controls the debate? Not Diane Ravitch.

Ravitch is a 72-year-old grandmother, education historian, New York University research professor, policy analyst, former deputy education secretary and author who essentially works alone. Her book, "The Death and Life of the Great American School System," became a best-seller last year and injected into the country's reform narrative a smart, dissenting voice.

I take the time to rebut Ravitch not only because she is enormously influential in her own right, but also because everything she says is exactly what is espoused by the teachers unions, who are the most powerful interest group in America (don't be fooled about this just because of a few recent setbacks).  That's why I've taken the time to respond to her many times, and have even put together a web page with everything neatly pulled together (here's the first part):

Rebutting Ravitch


Diane Ravitch is a well known and widely respected historian, author and commentator in the education arena. Her bio is extraordinarily impressive: a professor of education at NYU, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, the author of 10 books and editor of 14 more, Assistant Secretary of Education and Counselor to Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander from 1991-93 – you get the idea …


For many years, she was one of the leading champions of genuine reform of our nation's broken public school system, supporting No Child Left Behind, for example, and serving on boards of reform-minded organizations such as Education Next, the Koret Task Force at the Hoover Institution (Stanford University), and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. However, in recent years she has completely disavowed her earlier beliefs and has become one of the most vocal critics of her former colleagues and the reform agenda.


In my opinion, most of what she is currently saying and writing is completely wrong-headed, based on shoddy and one-sided research and analysis, yet because of her sterling resume and the fact that she was once a reformer, her views are quite influential and thus she is one of the greatest obstacles to the reforms our schools so desperately need.


My goal is to expose her for what I believe she is: a thinly disguised shill for the teachers' unions, advancing their agenda of entrenching the unacceptable status quo that's working very well for the adults, but hurting millions of children, especially the most disadvantaged ones. Ravitch is very clever in criticizing reformers and their efforts, and argues that because they haven't produced "the quantum improvement in American education that we all hope for," the solution is to abandon reform efforts entirely. Rather than offering a compelling alternative plan, Ravitch retreats into vague platitudes and nice-sounding nostrums that will leave the abysmally failing status quo unchallenged and unchanged.


Ravitch's Motivations


Ravitch criticizes nearly every type of meaningful reform, but saves special venom for Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein and their efforts to reform New York City's Public schools, where 2% of U.S. schoolchildren are educated (or not). Her attacks on Chancellor Klein in particular are so fierce and biased that it reeks of personal vendetta, which a New York Times article even alludes to it: "Some said she was nursing a grudge because close friends had lost jobs in the mayor's shake-up of the schools' bureaucracy." Thus, I'm not convinced that the reason she's changed her views 180 degrees is simply new thinking based on new evidence, as she claims. Klein has given as good as he's got here, so there's no love lost between these two. The reason I bring this up is that I think Ravitch's feelings toward Klein (who is one of the highest profile, most outspoken reformers), has poisoned her mind against all reform and everyone who works with and/or supports Klein and what he's trying to do. I also think her close personal relationship with Randi Weingarten, President of American Federation of Teachers, affects her views greatly.




I've always viewed the struggle to change our public educational system as a journey of 1,000 miles – one that will last beyond my lifetime, if we define the end of the journey as high-quality schools for all children. The system is so big, so broken, and so lacking in market mechanisms that might force improvement that this is going to take a long time. That said, I'm not discouraged – I think we're making progress, and at an ever increasing rate in recent years – but I'm also realistic that 20 years after Teach for America was founded, 16 years after KIPP started, 9 years after No Child Left Behind passed, etc., we're maybe 50 miles (only 5%) into the journey – and it's been a brutal, bloody journey to date, with reformers being attacked constantly from all sides every step of the way.


The difficulty of this journey and the modest progress so far makes it easy for critics like Ravitch to stomp all over it. When you're only 5% of the way forward, it's easy to misread or distort the data and make it look like there's been no progress at all. And it's equally easy to blame the people on the journey for the lack of progress and many setbacks along the way, rather than point the finger where it really belongs: on those doing the attacking, who over and over again throw children under the bus to advance their own (adult) interests.


Yes, what Ravitch is doing is easy – and deeply, profoundly wrong, both logically and morally.


Ravitch's Latest Book: The Death and Life of the Great American School System


My one-sentence take on Ravitch's new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, is that I couldn't find a single sentence in the entire book that couldn't have been written by Randi Weingarten. It is just 296 pages of union talking points, utterly lacking in solutions, with no mention whatsoever of the educational malpractice taking place against millions of children in America.


The book certainly captures the failures of the existing educational system and takes delight in poking holes at reform efforts over the past decade (while playing fast and loose with the facts and/or only presenting one side of the story), yet there is a shocking, gaping void when it comes to any thoughtful ideas for alternatives. Her solutions to what everyone agrees is a horribly broken system are trite banalities that would not change the status quo that she rails against. Her primary "solutions" are to build a strong, robust curriculum and have more "well-educated teachers" but she silent on how to achieve this. In short, she longs for the utopian school system of yesteryear (that probably never existed), and has no cogent roadmap whatsoever for exactly how to get there. Instead, she is content to deride the people who are actually out there in the trenches trying to improve things. What a disgrace!


The book also lacks any acknowledgment of the educational malpractice – a crime of the highest order – that's being committed against millions of children every day (and we all know the skin color and the zip codes of these children). The fact that most schools, principals and teachers are adequate-to-good-to-great doesn't excuse the fact that a minority are completely failing – and in so doing, are ruining lives of the children who can least afford it. For example, the words "rubber room" don't appear in the book (I checked the index). Or the fact that 52% of black and 51% of Latino 4th graders are struggling readers (testing Below Basic on NAEP) – incredible in a book filled with so many facts. Or the fact that 2,000 high schools (of 14,000) account for half of the nation's dropouts. In a book filled with human stories about the evils of Alan Bersin, Joel Klein, and NCLB, where are the stories about the children who have multiple teachers every year, none willing or able to impart knowledge? In 296 pages, she couldn't have found one story about the horrors of some schools like this one!? Instead, she decries efforts to shut down even the most chronically failing schools, wrapping them in a cloak of nostalgic clichés, completely ignoring (or oblivious to) their horrific reality.


Is it possible that such an esteemed "scholar" as Ravitch has never visited a high-performing inner-city school and seen with her own eyes (as I have, at well over 100 different schools all over the country) that what she's saying is demonstrably false? To be sure, many disadvantaged kids do indeed have "very deep problems", but that simply means they need the best teachers and best schools to overcome the fact that they enter school with two strikes against them. When they get such teachers and schools – which, sadly, is extremely rare, as we have an immoral and despicable system in this country that systematically gives the neediest children the worst teachers and schools – we know with 100% certainty that these children can achieve at high levels and close – and even reverse – the achievement gap. Ravitch needs to get out of her ivory tower and hop in a cab and in 30 minutes she could be at any number of schools that would disprove her mistaken beliefs.


The Diane Ravitch myth

By Valerie Strauss

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