More rebutting Ravitch
After my last email, a couple of folks said "Enough already about Ravitch – time to move on", but she's so prolific – and dangerous – that I feel compelled to keep rebutting her, especially when she's spreading her toxic views on the world's most influential op ed page, the NYT. Here's what she writes:
TEN years ago, Congress adopted the No Child Left Behind legislation, mandating that all students must be proficient in reading or mathematics by 2014 or their school would be punished.
Teachers and principals have been fired and schools that were once fixtures in their community have been closed and replaced. In time, many of the new schools will close, too, unless they avoid enrolling low-performing students, like those who don't read English or are homeless or have profound disabilities.
Educators know that 100 percent proficiency is impossible, given the enormous variation among students and the impact of family income on academic performance. Nevertheless, some politicians believe that the right combination of incentives and punishments will produce dramatic improvement. Anyone who objects to this utopian mandate, they maintain, is just making an excuse for low expectations and bad teachers.
To prove that poverty doesn't matter, political leaders point to schools that have achieved stunning results in only a few years despite the poverty around them. But the accounts of miracle schools demand closer scrutiny. Usually, they are the result of statistical legerdemain.
In his State of the Union address in January, President Obama hailed the Bruce Randolph School in Denver, where the first senior class had a graduation rate of 97 percent. At a celebration in February for Teach for America's 20th anniversary, Education Secretary Arne Duncan sang the praises of an all-male, largely black charter school in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago, Urban Prep Academy, which replaced a high school deemed a failure. And in March, Mr. Obama and Mr. Duncan joined Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, to laud the transformation of Miami Central Senior High School.
But the only miracle at these schools was a triumph of public relations.
[Ravitch then raises questions about whether these three schools, plus another in NYC, are as successful as they appear.]
What is to be learned from these examples of inflated success? The news media and the public should respond with skepticism to any claims of miraculous transformation. The achievement gap between children from different income levels exists before children enter school.
Families are children's most important educators. Our society must invest in parental education, prenatal care and preschool. Of course, schools must improve; every one should have a stable, experienced staff, adequate resources and a balanced curriculum including the arts, foreign languages, history and science.
If every child arrived in school well-nourished, healthy and ready to learn, from a family with a stable home and a steady income, many of our educational problems would be solved. And that would be a miracle.
This is Ravitch at her disingenuous best: she says a few things that are true, picks a few case studies to illustrate her point, and then reaches all sorts of wrong-headed conclusions. Let's go through her op ed line by line:
A) "or their school would be punished" How about: "or their school would have to take steps to make sure every child was proficient in reading and math."
B) "and schools that were once fixtures in their community" How about: "and schools that, year in and year out, decade in and decade out, were condemning large number of kids to broken, ruined lives by failing to educate them"
C) "In time, many of the new schools will close, too, unless they avoid enrolling low-performing students, like those who don't read English or are homeless or have profound disabilities." This is a lie. Where is ANY data or evidence to support this assertion?
D) "Educators know that 100 percent proficiency is impossible, given the enormous variation among students and the impact of family income on academic performance." Of course there are some kids are so far behind and/or come from such messed up family situations that they probably won't reach proficiency, but that cannot be an excuse for giving up on even a single child. And it's still important and noteworthy if a school can help a child move from, say, below basic in reading (functionally illiterate) to basic, even if the child doesn't reach proficiency.
E) "some politicians believe that the right combination of incentives and punishments will produce dramatic improvement" How about: "some politicians believe that high-quality schools filled with high-quality teachers, in an accountable system with rewards for success and consequences for failure, can produce dramatic improvement"
F) "Anyone who objects to this utopian mandate, they maintain, is just making an excuse for low expectations and bad teachers." How about: "is just making an excuse for a bureaucratic, dysfunctional system run primarily for the benefit of adults, resulting in far too many lousy schools filled with far too many mediocre (or worse) teachers who have low expectations of far too many children."
G) "To prove that poverty doesn't matter, political leaders point to schools that have achieved stunning results in only a few years despite the poverty around them." How many times do I have to say this: NOBODY thinks that poverty doesn't matter!!! This is what I wrote recently in response to Joe Nocera's misguided op ed that made a similar claim (http://edreform.blogspot.com/2011/05/responses-to-six-common-critiques-of.html):
Myth: Reformers don't acknowledge the importance of factors outside of a school's control like poverty, single-parent households, etc.
I challenge anyone to show me even one quote from one leading reformer who says that reforming the schools is all that is needed or who believes that great teachers and improved teaching methods are all that's required to improve student performance.
NOBODY thinks poverty is irrelevant, but there's a ton of research (Hanushek (http://edpro.stanford.edu/hanushek/content.asp?contentId=65), etc.) that shows conclusively that high-quality schools, filled with high-quality teachers, can make an ENORMOUS difference in life outcomes for even the most disadvantaged kids. At far too many schools, poor kids are making only half a year of progress every year, yet at others, in the same neighborhoods, often in the same buildings, with the EXACT SAME KIDS, the kids are making 1½ years of progress and 90% are going to four-year colleges vs. 20%. Why isn't this entire debate around what the great schools are doing and how we can replicate their success, instead of whining about how hard it is to educate disadvantaged kids (and there is no doubt that it is REALLY hard)???
H) "But the accounts of miracle schools demand closer scrutiny. Usually, they are the result of statistical legerdemain." Here, Ravitch picks four schools and questions whether they are as successful as they appear. I'm not familiar with any of them, so if you are, please email me and I'll include further information in a future email. But even if Ravitch is right about them, so what? Ravitch is using the technique a friend of mine calls "The Tyranny of the Anecdote." Obama, Duncan, Bush and Bloomberg visit HUNDREDS of schools each year, so it's hardly surprising that someone as biased as Ravitch can find a few examples of schools that aren't as great as they appear.
I) There four schools are all the evidence she can muster to support this sweeping assertion?! "The news media and the public should respond with skepticism to any claims of miraculous transformation." How about: "It's really hard to change the trajectory of a chronically failing school, especially one with a high proportion of disadvantaged students, so researchers, the media and the public should carefully examine schools that show dramatic gains to learn what's happening at such schools and, assuming the gains are real, take the lessons and apply them elsewhere. And, to the extent that such schools are run by people who are willing to replicate them, everything should be done to expand on genuine successes."
Why doesn't Ravitch reply to the letter sent to her by Ali Nagle, a teacher at KIPP's TEAM Academy in Newark (see: http://edreform.blogspot.com/2011/05/letter-to-diane-ravitch.html), and see what genuine "miraculous transformation" is all about? The four KIPP TEAM schools in Newark educate 1,300 kids (with 4,500 on wait lists) who have the following demographics (to rebut the inevitable nonsense about creaming) (see: www.teamschools.org/about): 95% are African-American (vs. 56% in Newark's public schools overall), 14% are special needs (roughly in line with comparable neighborhood schools; this percentage has risen every year), 85% qualify for free or reduced lunch (vs. 82% for Newark), student attrition is 7.7% and student mobility is a mere 2.5% (vs. 20.4% for Newark), and fewer than 1/3 of entering 5th graders are reading at grade level and half are two or more years behind. In short, it would be hard to find more challenging students (if you are born in Newark, you are more likely to be locked up as a teenager than you are to finish college), but KIPP TEAM seeks them out.
According to Ravitch, no school could possibly educate such disadvantaged children to a high level – but that's EXACTLY what KIPP TEAM is doing. According to the web site, "On the latest NJASK (New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge) test, we tied or outperformed the state in 9 of 18 categories, and NPS in every single category. Just as importantly, the only places where our performance was significantly lower than the state's were in 5th and 6th grades, which is to be expected given how far behind the state our kids come in." Of more than 400 8th grade graduates, only two (!) have dropped out of high school – a 99.5% persistence rate in a district that's maybe at 50% – and "90% of our first class of 8th graders went to college this fall."
If Ravitch truly cares about a high-quality education for disadvantaged kids and truly is a researcher (rather than the mouthpiece for Randi that she really is), why hasn't she ever visited a single nearby KIPP school?! (There seven in NYC are achieving similar educational miracles.)
J) "Families are children's most important educators." Yes, but schools are a close second, and can make an enormous difference in the educational and life trajectories of children, even those whose family situations are grim.
K) "Our society must invest in parental education, prenatal care and preschool. Of course, schools must improve; every one should have a stable, experienced staff, adequate resources and a balanced curriculum including the arts, foreign languages, history and science. If every child arrived in school well-nourished, healthy and ready to learn, from a family with a stable home and a steady income, many of our educational problems would be solved. And that would be a miracle." Ravitch concludes her op ed with her usual platitudes that no one can disagree with – but which are utterly useless in terms of what a governor, mayor or superintendent might do to actually improve things…