Friday, July 01, 2011

What Does Diane Ravitch Think We Should Do To Improve Education In The United States?

A spot-on rebuttal that captures my biggest complaint about Ravitch: she's great at articulating (and trashing) what she's AGAINST, but what, pray tell, is she FOR?  For example, specifically, what would she tell John White and Cami Anderson (the new supers in New Orleans and Newark) to do in their first year?  They don't have any control over poverty or anything else – just the schools (sort of).  I've studied Ravitch more closely than anyone except Warren Buffett, but I don't have the foggiest notion of how she'd answer this, beyond banalities like get more, better teachers in the classroom, enrich the curriculum, etc.

What Does Diane Ravitch Think We Should Do To Improve Education In The United States?

Dana Goldstein profiles Diane Ravitch, the distinguished education historian who after a long career as a "reformer" did a full about-face five years ago and has become the teachers union's favorite education pundit. My problem with Ravitch, and the general Ravitchian worldview, is that no matter how many things she writes or how many profiles I read, I can't really figure out what it is she thinks we should do. I know who Ravitch doesn't like (Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates) and I know who she feels is unfairly scapegoated (teachers unions) and I know what she thinks is overhyped (charter schools), but I have no idea what she would do if she were in charge of the education department of an American city.


Once a vocal proponent of No Child Left Behind, charter schools, vouchers, and merit pay for teachers, Ravitch decided sometime around 2006 that there was actually no evidence that any of those policies improved American education. She now believes that the "corporatist agenda" of school choice, teacher layoffs, and standardized testing has undermined public respect for one of the nation's most vital institutions, the neighborhood school, and for one of society's most crucial professions: teaching.

The best way to improve American education, the post-epiphany Ravitch argues, is to fight child poverty with health care, jobs, child care, and affordable housing.

I certainly favor all those things, and write extensively on the health care, jobs, and affordable housing issues. Probably I should write more about child care. But I'm a generalist political pundit. How is this point relevant to the job of a person who's in charge of running a school system? I can think of one way. Chancellor Ravitch might show up at a budget committee hearing and ask for more money to run the school system with. Someone might ask why the school system needs more money. Chancellor Ravitch might reply, "No no education is really important." And then the budget committee chair might strike back with, "Sorry, the best way to improve education is to fight child poverty with health care, jobs, child care, and affordable housing." There's an actual fiscal tradeoff between spending money on schools and spending money on non-school social services. But I don't think Ravitch favors reducing school spending. Certainly cutting school spending would be a strange way to express respect for schools and teaching.

Or take her criticism of Teach For America:

Ravitch — who says she'd probably apply for TFA if she were leaving college today — nonetheless thinks that instead of letting the much-publicized program suck up all the "psychic energy," there should be college loan forgiveness for people who become teachers. "Then you would have so many people applying to join this field that you could select the top 10 or 15 percent," she says.

Why would you think that there's a tradeoff between the "psychic energy" expended on TFA and loan forgiveness for public school teachers? Note that the United States already has a loan forgiveness program for public school teachers. Many states have additional programs. So it's a bit odd as a signature policy proposal. But you could make this more generous. The objection, obviously, would be that doing so would cost money. You'd need to raise taxes, which is tough, or cut some other spending. So how do you make the case for raising taxes to make loan forgiveness for teachers more generous while running around telling people that the best way to improve education is to fight child poverty with health care, jobs, child care, and affordable housing? If recruiting better teachers isn't the best way to improve education, then why are we talking about doing more to recruit good teachers?

And again, to return to my initial point, if Ravitch is running a city's school system, she doesn't have it in her authority to alter federal student loan policy. She doesn't have the authority to improve the macroeconomic situation. She doesn't have the authority to change the health care system. So how does she run the school system? What does she do?

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