Thursday, March 31, 2011

What the school reform debate misses about teachers

A spot-on op ed in the Washington Post by Joel Klein:

As the debate rages over public unions and, in particular, over their role in school reform, an unfortunate dichotomy about America's teachers has emerged. On one side, unions and many teachers say that teachers are unfairly vilified, that they work incredibly hard under difficult circumstances and that they are underpaid. Critics, meanwhile, say that our education system is broken and that to fix it we need better teachers. They say that teachers today have protections and benefits not seen in the private sector - such as life tenure, lifetime pension and health benefits, and short workdays and workyears.

Both sides are right.

Teaching is incredibly hard, especially when dealing with children in high-poverty communities who come to school with enormous challenges. Many teachers work long hours, staying at school past 6 p.m., and then working at home grading papers and preparing lessons. Some teachers get outstanding results, even with our most challenged students. These are America's heroes, and they should be recognized as such. Sadly, they aren't.

On the other hand, there are also many teachers who work by the clock - they show up a minute before 8:30 and leave a minute after 3; when in school, they do the barest minimum. They get dreadful results with students and, if you spend time in their classrooms, as I have over the past eight years, it's painfully obvious that they belong in another line of work.

The problem is that our discussion too often fails to distinguish between these very different types of teachers, treating them all the same. This "group-think" not only pollutes the current public debate - either you're for or against teachers - it is also killing our opportunity to fix our schools. Any reform worth its name must start by recognizing that teachers are our most important educational asset. That's why we need to treat teaching as a profession, by supporting excellence, striving for constant improvement and ridding the system of poor performers.

Alas, we do none of this. Whether you are good or bad, work hard or don't, teach in a shortage area (such as math) or work in a highly challenged school, you get treated precisely the same: You have life tenure and generous lifetime health and pension benefits, and you get paid more money next year simply because of seniority.

Consider the fight over teacher layoffs. In many states, you must lay teachers off solely based on reverse seniority - last in, first out. That's nuts. Do you know anyone who would say "I want the most senior surgeon" rather than "I want the best surgeon"? Sure, experience matters. That's why, in baseball, the rookie of the year is almost never the most valuable player. But the rookie of the year is better than a whole lot of 10-year veterans, and every baseball team takes this into account when deciding its roster.

From the day I became chancellor of New York City's schools, the thing that shocked me most was that the entire system eschewed distinctions based on merit. The unions, in particular, well understood that once we began to differentiate based on merit, the public would be forced to deal with these clearly spelled out differences and would demand that consequences result from these differences. No one wants a low-performing teacher teaching her child.

Critics argue that we cannot fairly evaluate teacher performance, so the current lock-step system is the best we can do. That's ridiculous. Is there anyone who doesn't think that some of his own teachers were great and some terrible?

While there are no perfect evaluation systems, a reasonable, merit-based system is entirely achievable.


What the school reform debate misses about teachers

By Joel Klein

Sunday, March 13, 2011

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The Case for Paying Most Teachers the Same

Mike Petrilli with a compelling argument for how we should adjust the way teachers are paid (with a brilliant chart):

I know it's an article of faith in the school-reform community that we should "differentiate" among teachers and pay them "differentially" too. Highly effective teachers should get paid more than mediocre ones; individuals willing to work in poor schools should get bigger paychecks than those serving the well-to-do; those in high-demand fields (like math and science) should get more than their peers. I get all of that, and generally agree.

I also understand that the "single-salary schedule" is seen as the nemesis to smart teacher policy. And that's also true. But what makes the single schedule so pernicious isn't just its uniformity; it's its growth curve. Twenty-five years veterans are paid a lot more than five-year veterans even though, on average, they are equally effective. Changing that curve is at least as important as introducing more differentiation in pay.


The Case for Paying Most Teachers the Same

By Michael Petrilli 03/10/2011

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If Gov. Walker Thinks Wisconsin’s Illinois, Dream On

A liberal parent activist in Chicago, in an article on The Huffington Post, bashes Gov. Walker and defends teachers unions, yet REALLY bashes the insane system that protects lousy teachers (doesn't she understand that it's the unions who fight to maintain such laws?!):

it is maddeningly unclear why principals cannot easily remove the poorest-performing teachers from their schools, a fact I wouldn't have believed if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes. Eight years ago, when our group of mommy reformers first set foot in Nettelhorst, our neighborhood's underperforming and underutilized public elementary school, some teachers walked the hallways muttering obscenities, and one even had a restraining order against her for hitting students. I'm not saying these folks didn't love their craft, or that maybe, once upon a time, they were even decent educators, but by any reasonable standard, they didn't belong in any classroom, my kid's or anybody else's. We knew who shouldn't be there, the principal knew it, the students sure knew it, and so did all the other teachers. The stoic union investigators dispatched from central office even seemed to know it, too.

We didn't have time to sit around waiting for a Kafkaesque lumbering bureaucracy to self-correct. Our principal gave the curriculum team carte blanche to review curriculum and financial plans, weigh-in on hiring decisions, and most importantly, access to document teaching styles. Funny thing happened: with all those pesky parents roaming the halls and peeking into classrooms, within two years of our reform movement, almost every single ineffective teacher left Nettelhorst, voluntarily.

Unfortunately, it doesn't take too many disgruntled teachers to contaminate a staff. When the most negative forces left, the school's extremely toxic teaching climate improved dramatically. Test scores tripled across every demographic. My kids, who started at Nettelhorst in preschool, are now in fourth and sixth grade, and I'd put their education — one without any gifted program, selective enrollment or tracking system — on par with any private school in the country. Our teachers are that good.

While we can all cheer the parental pressures that helped to transform my little neighborhood school, and celebrate the extraordinary, award-winning teaching that's happening on the corner of Melrose and Broadway, the question still remains: In what backwards universe could adults allow this deplorable situation to fester? What about all those public school kids who don't have hyper-involved parents advocating for them, day in and day out?

In nearly every profession, job performance is reviewed annually, and individual excellence is recognized and rewarded. In Chicago, however, most teachers receive lifetime tenure after working just four years with "satisfactory" performance, a rubber-stamp rating that's given out like PEZ. Imagine running a business with tenured employees who only need to demonstrate "competence." Imagine a system that makes it nearly impossible to remove individuals who fall short of expectations. What would your workplace climate feel like? And, what kind of product would you produce?

Let's be clear: I love, love, l-o-v-e teachers.


If Gov. Walker Thinks Wisconsin's Illinois, Dream On

Jacqueline Edelberg

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Rhee em

Speaking of teacher quality, here's an important email for New Yorkers from Michelle Rhee – please take a moment to sign the online letter:

With massive state budget gaps looming, teacher layoffs are imminent.  In New York City alone, 5,000 teachers are at risk of being laid off this year and under current policy, many of these will be the city's most effective teachers.

Last week, the New York Senate passed legislation to put an end to the harmful "last in, first out" (LIFO) policy which mandates that the last teachers hired are the first teachers fired, regardless of performance.  However, Governor Cuomo has introduced a new education bill that leaves LIFO laws untouched. This is unacceptable.

In a letter to Governor Cuomo, I urge him to eliminate seniority-based layoffs immediately. Here's an excerpt:

"... 85 percent of New Yorkers support ending last in, first out policies. New York students are relying on you to support ending last in, first out this year.  This policy makes absolutely no sense.  Why gamble on our children's future, when we can quickly enact laws that guarantee we save great teachers?"

Please show your support by signing my letter and forwarding it to your friends.

Click here:

Thank you for your support as we work together to make sure that New York laws put students first.



Michelle Rhee
CEO and Founder, StudentsFirst

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Teachers Unions Explained

I'm certainly not the only person making cartoons lampooning the teacher unions' behavior (mine is entitled "Teacher of the Year Laid Off" and is posted here: (2 minutes).  I got a kick out of this one, entitled "Teachers Unions Explained": (4 min).  Here's a sample of the dialogue between a supporter of the unions and a skeptic:


- The only way to improve public schools is money.

- How much money would it take?
- More

- How much more?

- A lot more

- Can you be a little more specific?

- How much does the country have left?

- I'm guessing not enough.

- Just keep giving them money until the unions say you can stop.

- No

- Why not?

- I'm worried they might forget to say stop.

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Teacher pay-tenure bill passed in Florida Senate

Florida continues to be among the leading states in shaking up the status quo:

Split nearly along party lines, the Florida Senate voted to abolish teacher tenure and link pay raises to student advancement today.

Sen. Steve Wise, R-Jacksonville, a retired teacher who heads the Senate public education committee, said the schools need serious reform if Florida is to compete. He likened the provisions of his "pay for performance" bill to management of a baseball team, with .205 hitters making less than .300 batters.

"I care about teachers," Wise emphasized. He said Florida has made great strides in public education over the past 12 years but still has seven of the nation's 10 worst school districts in terms of graduating black boys from college.

The bill is a revised version of one that touched off a firestorm last year, when teacher unions picketed the Capitol over a plan ending tenure and linking pay to performance. Then-Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed the measure, known as Senate Bill 6, but the state's teacher unions oppose the new plan -- which Democrats dubbed "Son of Six."


Teacher pay-tenure bill passed in Florida Senate

Bill Cotterell
Florida Capital Bureau

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Gates: Spending cuts don't have to harm learning

Kudos to Bill Gates:

Even in the midst of large spending cuts, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates said Monday that schools can improve the performance of students if they put more emphasis on rewarding excellent teaching and less emphasis on paying teachers based on seniority and graduate degrees.

Gates spoke to the nation's governors mindful of the severe financial woes that many of them face as they try to bridge deficits totaling about $125 billion in the coming fiscal year. He said there are some clear do's and don'ts. Among the do's: Lift caps on class sizes and get more students in front of the very best teachers. Those teachers would get paid more with the savings generated from having fewer personnel overall.

"There are people in the field who think class size is the only thing," Gates said in an interview with The Associated Press prior to his speech. "But in fact, the dominant factor is having a great teacher in front of the classroom."

Among his recommendations on what not to do, Gates told governors that they should not use furloughs to reduce costs because it's only a temporary fix that leaves compensation demands intact for future years. Nor should they put more dollars into compensating teachers based on the advanced degrees they've obtained and their years of service as a teacher. He said the ideal scenario would be to classify teachers and to compensate them based on how well their students learned.


Gates: Spending cuts don't have to harm learning


By KEVIN FREKING, Associated Press Kevin Freking, Associated Press – Mon Feb 28, 5:59 pm ET

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A Case of Senioritis

Jonathan Alter with more on Gates's powerful crusade:

"If there's one thing that can be done for the country, one thing," Gates says, his normally modulated voice rising, "improving education rises so far above everything else!" He doesn't say what the "else" is—deficit reduction? containing Iran? free trade?—but they're way down toward the floor compared with the arm above that multibillion-dollar head. With the U.S. tumbling since 1995 from second in the world to 16th in college-graduation rates and to 24th place in math (for 15-year-olds), it was hard to argue the point. Our economic destiny is at stake.

Gates had just finished giving a speech to the Council of Chief State School Officers in which he tried to explain how administrators could hope to raise student achievement in the face of tight budgets. The Microsoft founder went through what he sees as false solutions—furloughs, sharing textbooks—before focusing on the true "cost drivers": seniority-based pay and benefits for teachers rising faster than state revenues.

Seniority is the two-headed monster of education—it's expensive and harmful. Like master's degrees for teachers and smaller class sizes, seniority pay, Gates says, has "little correlation to student achievement." After exhaustive study, the Gates Foundation and other experts have learned that the only in-school factor that fully correlates is quality teaching, which seniority hardly guarantees. It's a moral issue. Who can defend a system where top teachers are laid off in a budget crunch for no other reason than that they're young?

In most states, pay and promotion of teachers are connected 100 percent to seniority. This is contrary to everything the world's second-richest man believes about business


A Case of Senioritis

Gates tackles education's two-headed monster.

by Jonathan Alter

November 28, 2010

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Khan Academy

Speaking of Bill Gates, his favorite teacher, Salman Khan of the Khan Academy, spoke at TED recently – check out his brilliant presentation at:  Here's background on him:


Salman Khan talks about how and why he created the remarkable Khan Academy, a carefully structured series of educational videos offering complete curricula in math and, now, other subjects. He shows the power of interactive exercises, and calls for teachers to consider flipping the traditional classroom script -- give students video lectures to watch at home, and do "homework" in the classroom with the teacher available to help.

Speakers Salman Khan: Educator

In 2004, Salman Khan, a hedge fund analyst, began posting math tutorials on YouTube. Six years later, he has posted more than 2.000 tutorials, which are viewed nearly 100,000 times around the world each day.

Why you should listen to him:

Salman Khan is the founder and faculty of the Khan Academy ( a not-for-profit organization with the mission of providing a free world-class education to anyone, anywhere.  It now consists of self-paced software and, with over 1 million unique students per month, the most-used educational video repository on the Internet (over 30 million lessons delivered to-date).  All 2000+ video tutorials, covering everything from basic addition to advanced calculus, physics, chemistry and biology, have been made by Salman. 

Prior to the Khan Academy, Salman was a senior analyst at a hedge fund and had also worked in technology and venture capital.  He holds an MBA from Harvard Business School, an M.Eng and B.S. in electrical engineering and computer science from MIT, and a B.S. in mathematics from MIT.

Also, check out this web site ( and this Fortune article from last summer:

Sal Khan, you can count Bill Gates as your newest fan. Gates is a voracious consumer of online education. This past spring a colleague at his small think tank, bgC3, e-mailed him about the nonprofit, a vast digital trove of free mini-lectures all narrated by Khan, an ebullient, articulate Harvard MBA and former hedge fund manager. Gates replied within minutes. "This guy is amazing," he wrote. "It is awesome how much he has done with very little in the way of resources." Gates and his 11-year-old son, Rory, began soaking up videos, from algebra to biology. Then, several weeks ago, at the Aspen Ideas Festival in front of 2,000 people, Gates gave the 33-year-old Khan a shout-out that any entrepreneur would kill for. Ruminating on what he called the "mind-blowing misallocation" of resources away from education, Gates touted the "unbelievable" 10- to 15-minute Khan Academy tutorials "I've been using with my kids." With admiration and surprise, the world's second-richest person noted that Khan "was a hedge fund guy making lots of money." Now, Gates said, "I'd say we've moved about 160 IQ points from the hedge fund category to the teaching-many-people-in-a-leveraged-way category. It was a good day his wife let him quit his job." Khan wasn't even there -- he learned of Gates' praise through a YouTube video. "It was really cool," Khan says.

In an undistinguished ranch house off the main freeway of Silicon Valley, in a converted walk-in closet filled with a few hundred dollars' worth of video equipment and bookshelves and his toddler's red Elmo underfoot, is the epicenter of the educational earthquake that has captivated Gates and others. It is here that Salman Khan produces online lessons on math, science, and a range of other subjects that have made him a web sensation.

Khan Academy, with Khan as the only teacher, appears on YouTube and elsewhere and is by any measure the most popular educational site on the web. Khan's playlist of 1,630 tutorials (at last count) are now seen an average of 70,000 times a day -- nearly double the student body at Harvard and Stanford combined. Since he began his tutorials in late 2006, Khan Academy has received 18 million page views worldwide, including from the Gates progeny. Most page views come from the U.S., followed by Canada, England, Australia, and India. In any given month, Khan says, he's reached about 200,000 students. "There's no reason it shouldn't be 20 million."

His low-tech, conversational tutorials -- Khan's face never appears, and viewers see only his unadorned step-by-step doodles and diagrams on an electronic blackboard -- are more than merely another example of viral media distributed at negligible cost to the universe. Khan Academy holds the promise of a virtual school: an educational transformation that de-emphasizes classrooms, campus and administrative infrastructure, and even brand-name instructors.


Bill Gates' favorite teacher

By David A. Kaplan, contributor

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Tight Budgets Mean Squeeze in Classrooms

A NYT article about how budget cuts are leading to increased class sizes – and how much of an impact this might have on students (a BIG part of the answer depends on WHICH teachers are laid off – if the worst are, then putting kids who were stuck with them into classrooms with better teachers, even classrooms with more students, then it could have a beneficial impact):

Millions of public school students across the nation are seeing their class sizes swell because of budget cuts and teacher layoffs, undermining a decades-long push by parents, administrators and policy makers to shrink class sizes.

Over the past two years, California, Georgia, Nevada, Ohio, Utah and Wisconsin have loosened legal restrictions on class size. And Idaho and Texas are debating whether to fit more students in classrooms.

Los Angeles has increased the average size of its ninth-grade English and math classes to 34 from 20. Eleventh- and 12th-grade classes in those two subjects have risen, on average, to 43 students.

"Because many states are facing serious budget gaps, we'll see more increases this fall," said Marguerite Roza, a University of Washington professor who has studied the recession's impact on schools.

The increases are reversing a trend toward smaller classes that stretches back decades. Since the 1980s, teachers and many other educators have embraced research finding that smaller classes foster higher achievement.

…In the 1980s, Ms. Bain persuaded Tennessee lawmakers to finance a study comparing classes of 13 to 17 students in kindergarten through third grade with classes of 22 to 25 students. The smaller classes significantly outscored the larger classes on achievement tests.

In the decades since, researchers, including the Princeton economist Alan Krueger, have conducted studies that they say confirm and strengthen the validity of the Tennessee findings.

Others, including Eric Hanushek, a Stanford economist, have argued that the impact of small classes on achievement has been exaggerated and that giving students a skillful teacher is more cost-effective.

Those who support that notion include Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who last Sunday told governors gathered in Washington to consider paying bonuses to the best teachers to take on extra students.

Mr. Duncan said he would prefer to put his own school-age children in a classroom with 28 students led by a "fantastic teacher" than in one with 23 and a "mediocre" teacher.

Bill Gates made a similar argument to the governors, portraying the movement to reduce class sizes as one of the most expensive and fruitless efforts in American education.

The federal Department of Education collects nationwide class size data every few years, and the average has declined steadily for half a century. In 1961, the average elementary school class had 29 students, and the average high school class had 28. In 2007-8, the most recent year with data, the elementary school average was 20, and the high school average was 23.4.


Tight Budgets Mean Squeeze in Classrooms

Published: March 6, 2011

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I'm in Forbes's billionaires issue--NOT!

My wife handed me the latest issue of Forbes, which is the annual "Billionaires Issue".  Her comment (tongue firmly in cheek): "I hope you're in this." (Per my last email about Valerie Strauss's silliness.)

I'm often asked why I spend so much time on this issue.  It's certainly not because I have any direct self-interest – no, contrary to claims of the union kooks in the blogosphere, I'm not profiting from my involvement in charter schools (in fact, I shudder to think of how much it's cost me), and I have little personal experience with the public school system because I'm doubly lucky: my parents saw that I wasn't being challenged in public schools, sacrificed (they're teachers/education administrators), and my last year in public school was 6th grade; and now, with my own children, I'm one of the lucky few who can afford to buy my children's way out of the NYC public system, which despite Mayor Bloomberg's and Chancellor Klein's herculean efforts, there are probably fewer than two dozen schools (out of nearly 1,500) to which I'd send my kids.


So what does motivate me?  OUTRAGE!  I've been doing this for 21+ years, so you'd think that by now I've heard and seen it all, but noooo.  In fact, almost every day, I read and hear stories that shock and infuriate me.


What I'm fighting for is really simple: I just want every kid in America to have the same educational opportunities I had and that my children have.  The richest nation in the history of the world should be able to do this.

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YPO ed event

It was a great YPO education seminar/dinner last night.  Joel Klein, Dave Levin, Evan Rudall and Darla Romfo, as always, knocked it out of the park.  My favorite line from Joel (from memory): "The key thing you have to understand is that the system isn't broken: it works pretty much the way it's supposed to – namely, to serve the interests of adults."

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Jon Stewart on teacher pay

The Daily Show had a hilarious segment last night, mocking Fox "News" for making it seem like teachers are overpaid: (see about 2 minutes in, where Samantha Bee visits two teachers in their (very modest) homes).

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CA Parent Trigger

GREAT news on the CA Parent Trigger – from a friend:


Must read piece this morning from John Fensterwald summarizing yesterday's State Board meeting on Parent Trigger regulations.  


Not only did the Board renew the "emergency regulations," but they agreed to call a special meeting on April 21 in order to help finalize Parent Trigger regulations.  The Board also decided to work off of the existing draft of regulations and to NOT pursue any of the "clean up" legislation that editorial boards from around CA have derided as a naked attempt to roll back or repeal the law.  These decisions represent big victories for parents who have traveled to two consecutive State Board meetings from Los Angeles to demand fair and empowering regulations that give power to parents, not bureaucrats.  


The huge shift in the fate of these regulations over the last two months is yet another testament to the power of community organizing and parents standing up for their children's future.  This process, however, is not yet over, and parents will of course continue to organize and hold the State Board, the Superintendent Torlakson, and everyone else accountable for finishing these regulations in a fair and timely manner.


Kirst: Expedite parent trigger regs

No need to get Legislature involved

By John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

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College the Easy Way

Lots of good stuff in recent NYT op eds.  Here's Bob Herbert a week ago, with some frightening statistics on our college students:

The cost of college has skyrocketed and a four-year degree has become an ever more essential cornerstone to a middle-class standard of living. But what are America's kids actually learning in college?

For an awful lot of students, the answer appears to be not much.

A provocative new book, "Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses," makes a strong case that for a large portion of the nation's seemingly successful undergraduates the years in college barely improve their skills in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing.

Intellectual effort and academic rigor, in the minds of many of the nation's college students, is becoming increasingly less important. According to the authors, Professors Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia: "Many students come to college not only poorly prepared by prior schooling for highly demanding academic tasks that ideally lie in front of them, but — more troubling still — they enter college with attitudes, norms, values, and behaviors that are often at odds with academic commitment."

Students are hitting the books less and partying more. Easier courses and easier majors have become more and more popular. Perhaps more now than ever, the point of the college experience is to have a good time and walk away with a valuable credential after putting in the least effort possible.

What many of those students are not walking away with is something that has long been recognized as invaluable — higher order thinking and reasoning skills. They can get their degrees without putting in more of an effort because in far too many instances the colleges and universities are not demanding more of them.

The authors cite empirical work showing that the average amount of time spent studying by college students has dropped by more than 50 percent since the early 1960s. But a lack of academic focus has not had much of an effect on grade point averages or the ability of the undergraduates to obtain their degrees.

Thirty-six percent of the students said they studied alone less than five hours a week. Nevertheless, their transcripts showed a collective grade point average of 3.16. "Their G.P.A.'s are between a B and a B-plus," said Professor Arum, "which says to me that it's not the students, really — they share some of the blame — but the colleges and universities have set up a system so that there are ways to navigate through it without taking difficult courses and still get the credential."


College the Easy Way

Published: March 4, 2011

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The Modesty Manifesto

David Brooks in today's NYT on our absurd overconfidence and the resulting problems:

American students no longer perform particularly well in global math tests. But Americans are among the world leaders when it comes to thinking that we are really good at math.

Students in the Middle East, Africa and the United States have the greatest faith in their math skills. Students in Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan have much less self-confidence, though they actually do better on the tests.

In a variety of books and articles, Jean M. Twenge of San Diego State University and W. Keith Campbell of the University of Georgia have collected data suggesting that American self-confidence has risen of late. College students today are much more likely to agree with statements such as "I am easy to like" than college students 30 years ago. In the 1950s, 12 percent of high school seniors said they were a "very important person." By the '90s, 80 percent said they believed that they were.

In short, there's abundant evidence to suggest that we have shifted a bit from a culture that emphasized self-effacement — I'm no better than anybody else, but nobody is better than me — to a culture that emphasizes self-expansion.

Writers like Twenge point out that young people are bathed in messages telling them how special they are. Often these messages are untethered to evidence of actual merit. Over the past few decades, for example, the number of hours college students spend studying has steadily declined. Meanwhile, the average G.P.A. has steadily risen.


The Modesty Manifesto

Published: March 10, 2011

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Leaving Children Behind

Paul Krugman on how budgets cuts being pushed by Republicans are likely to disproportionately hit children:

Will 2011 be the year of fiscal austerity? At the federal level, it's still not clear: Republicans are demanding draconian spending cuts, but we don't yet know how far they're willing to go in a showdown with President Obama. At the state and local level, however, there's no doubt about it: big spending cuts are coming.

And who will bear the brunt of these cuts? America's children.

Now, politicians — and especially, in my experience, conservative politicians — always claim to be deeply concerned about the nation's children. Back during the 2000 campaign, then-candidate George W. Bush, touting the "Texas miracle" of dramatically lower dropout rates, declared that he wanted to be the "education president." Today, advocates of big spending cuts often claim that their greatest concern is the burden of debt our children will face.

In practice, however, when advocates of lower spending get a chance to put their ideas into practice, the burden always seems to fall disproportionately on those very children they claim to hold so dear.

Consider, as a case in point, what's happening in Texas, which more and more seems to be where America's political future happens first.

Texas likes to portray itself as a model of small government, and indeed it is. Taxes are low, at least if you're in the upper part of the income distribution (taxes on the bottom 40 percent of the population are actually above the national average). Government spending is also low. And to be fair, low taxes may be one reason for the state's rapid population growth, although low housing prices are surely much more important.

But here's the thing: While low spending may sound good in the abstract, what it amounts to in practice is low spending on children, who account directly or indirectly for a large part of government outlays at the state and local level.

And in low-tax, low-spending Texas, the kids are not all right. The high school graduation rate, at just 61.3 percent, puts Texas 43rd out of 50 in state rankings. Nationally, the state ranks fifth in child poverty; it leads in the percentage of children without health insurance. And only 78 percent of Texas children are in excellent or very good health, significantly below the national average.

But wait — how can graduation rates be so low when Texas had that education miracle back when former President Bush was governor? Well, a couple of years into his presidency the truth about that miracle came out: Texas school administrators achieved low reported dropout rates the old-fashioned way — they, ahem, got the numbers wrong.

It's not a pretty picture; compassion aside, you have to wonder — and many business people in Texas do — how the state can prosper in the long run with a future work force blighted by childhood poverty, poor health and lack of education.

But things are about to get much worse.


February 27, 2011

Leaving Children Behind


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Degrees and Dollars

Krugman with some interesting arguments and data on how globalization is hitting not just people with low education levels, but also with college degrees:

the idea that modern technology eliminates only menial jobs, that well-educated workers are clear winners, may dominate popular discussion, but it's actually decades out of date.

The fact is that since 1990 or so the U.S. job market has been characterized not by a general rise in the demand for skill, but by "hollowing out": both high-wage and low-wage employment have grown rapidly, but medium-wage jobs — the kinds of jobs we count on to support a strong middle class — have lagged behind. And the hole in the middle has been getting wider: many of the high-wage occupations that grew rapidly in the 1990s have seen much slower growth recently, even as growth in low-wage employment has accelerated.

Why is this happening? The belief that education is becoming ever more important rests on the plausible-sounding notion that advances in technology increase job opportunities for those who work with information — loosely speaking, that computers help those who work with their minds, while hurting those who work with their hands.

Some years ago, however, the economists David Autor, Frank Levy and Richard Murnane argued that this was the wrong way to think about it. Computers, they pointed out, excel at routine tasks, "cognitive and manual tasks that can be accomplished by following explicit rules." Therefore, any routine task — a category that includes many white-collar, nonmanual jobs — is in the firing line. Conversely, jobs that can't be carried out by following explicit rules — a category that includes many kinds of manual labor, from truck drivers to janitors — will tend to grow even in the face of technological progress.

And here's the thing: Most of the manual labor still being done in our economy seems to be of the kind that's hard to automate. Notably, with production workers in manufacturing down to about 6 percent of U.S. employment, there aren't many assembly-line jobs left to lose. Meanwhile, quite a lot of white-collar work currently carried out by well-educated, relatively well-paid workers may soon be computerized. Roombas are cute, but robot janitors are a long way off; computerized legal research and computer-aided medical diagnosis are already here.

And then there's globalization. Once, only manufacturing workers needed to worry about competition from overseas, but the combination of computers and telecommunications has made it possible to provide many services at long range. And research by my Princeton colleagues Alan Blinder and Alan Krueger suggests that high-wage jobs performed by highly educated workers are, if anything, more "offshorable" than jobs done by low-paid, less-educated workers. If they're right, growing international trade in services will further hollow out the U.S. job market.

So what does all this say about policy?

Yes, we need to fix American education. In particular, the inequalities Americans face at the starting line — bright children from poor families are less likely to finish college than much less able children of the affluent — aren't just an outrage; they represent a huge waste of the nation's human potential.

But there are things education can't do. In particular, the notion that putting more kids through college can restore the middle-class society we used to have is wishful thinking. It's no longer true that having a college degree guarantees that you'll get a good job, and it's becoming less true with each passing decade.

So if we want a society of broadly shared prosperity, education isn't the answer — we'll have to go about building that society directly.


March 6, 2011

Degrees and Dollars


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Falling Demand for Brains?

Krugman once again, on his blog, with more interesting data:

Larry Mishel wrote recently about the overselling of education, pointing out that the college wage premium, after rising sharply in the 80s and 90s, has stagnated lately. Indeed. Here's the ratio of earnings for full-time working men with college degrees versus those with high school, from the Census: Source.

In my mind this raises several questions. One is whether emphasizing education — even aside from the fact that the big rise in inequality has taken place among the highly educated — is, in effect, fighting the last war. Another is how we have a decent society if and when even highly educated workers can't command a middle-class income.

I know, it's rushing ahead a bit; but remember, the Luddites weren't the poorest of the poor, they were skilled artisans whose skills had suddenly been devalued by new technology.


March 5, 2011, 5:08 pm

Falling Demand for Brains?

Paul Krugman, NYT blog

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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Kevin Huffman is named Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Education

STOP THE PRESSES!  Continuing the pattern (albeit a nascent one) of ed reformers coming into positions of real power, Kevin Huffman, Teach For America's Executive Vice President of Public Affairs (and a former teacher, lawyer, and husband of Michelle Rhee), was just appointed Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Education.  Here's what I sent around about him last month:


Washington Post columnist (and Exec VP of Public Affairs for TFA) Kevin Huffman wrote a brilliant op ed entitled 'A Rosa Parks moment for education' ( about the women in Ohio who was jailed for trying to give her kids a chance in life by sneaking them into a better school.  Here's the email Kevin sent out yesterday in which he comments about the incredible response he's gotten to his column:


I wanted to just note some quick thoughts. First, many thanks to everyone who pushed the column out through email, Facebook, Twitter, etc., and many thanks to people who sent notes. It makes a huge difference. This was - by a large margin - my most widely read piece and was my first piece to be number one on the op-ed page. Also, to date, more than 2,200 people have shared it on Facebook from the Post site.


I read a lot of emails yesterday, and was struck by a couple of things.


The practice of lying/cheating/maneuvering in order to get kids into a better school is incredibly commonplace, among both low-income and middle-class people. I was stunned at the sheer volume of people who had a story about friends, neighbors and relatives.


Second, there is a huge appetite for discussion about inequity in our education system. It can be disheartening to spend time in the blogosphere and comments sections of websites, but the emails I read from strangers were inspiring and gave me a window into the broad appetite to engage in taking on issues of poverty and educational equity.


PS--I did an online chat for the Post today, to follow up on yesterday's column:


Here's the opening of his column:

Last week, 40-year-old Ohio mother Kelley Williams-Bolar was released after serving nine days in jail on a felony conviction for tampering with records. Williams-Bolar's offense? Lying about her address so her two daughters, zoned to the lousy Akron city schools, could attend better schools in the neighboring Copley-Fairlawn district.

Williams-Bolar has become a cause célèbre in a case that crosses traditional ideological bounds. African American activists are outraged, asking: Would a white mother face the same punishment for trying to get her kids a better education? (Answer: No.)

Meanwhile, conservatives view the case as evidence of the need for broader school choice. What does it say when parents' options are so limited that they commit felonies to avoid terrible schools? Commentator Kyle Olson and others across the political spectrum have called this "a Rosa Parks moment for education."

For me, the case struck an additional nerve. As a young teacher nearly two decades ago, I taught bilingual first grade in Houston. Some of my students were in this country illegally; by my third year, a number of them also lived outside the school and district zone. Given their substandard neighborhood options, some parents drove 30 minutes or more each way just so their kids could be in my class. I was supportive of, and flattered by, their efforts. These were good parents, doing the best they could for their families.

In this country, if you are middle or upper class, you have school choice. You can, and probably do, choose your home based on the quality of local schools. Or you can opt out of the system by scraping together the funds for a parochial school.

But if you are poor, you're out of luck, subject to the generally anti-choice bureaucracy. Hoping to win the lottery into an open enrollment "choice" school in your district? Good luck. How about a high-performing charter school? Sure - if your state doesn't limit their numbers and funding like most states do. And vouchers? Hiss! You just touched a political third rail.

Williams-Bolar lived in subsidized housing and was trapped in a failed system. In a Kafkaesque twist, she was taking college-level courses to become a teacher herself - a dream she now will never realize as a convicted felon. It's America's version of the hungry man stealing bread to feed his family, only to have his hand cut off as punishment.

I asked Kevin if he wanted me to include anything when I announced this and he replied:


Yeah, I'm hiring. :) Looking for smart, hard-working people who believe deeply in the potential of kids. Summer positions as well as full-time. Data, Race to the Top, political will - all the pieces are in place. Who wants to join? My email address for resumes is


Below is the press release:


Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam today announced Kevin Huffman, Teach For America's Executive Vice President of Public Affairs, as Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Education.


Gov. Haslam conducted a nationwide search and consulted many in the education field to find the right candidate to take advantage of state opportunities to transform Tennessee's education system.


"I put a special effort into finding the right fit for Education Commissioner, and I'm very excited to announce today that Kevin Huffman will become Tennessee's Commissioner of Education," Haslam said. "Kevin combines the experience of having been a bilingual first and second-grade teacher to helping oversee a national organization with 1,400 full-time employees and a budget of $212 million.


…"I'm incredibly inspired about the opportunity in Tennessee right now. We have the best data system in the country and an alignment around a plan with Race to the Top – an alignment that is bipartisan spanning a Democratic and Republican administration," Huffman said. "My professional focus has always been on expanding opportunities for kids, and I can't think of a better way to do that than in this role.

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Memphis Votes for County to Run Schools

Speaking of Tennessee, where MAJOR reforms are underway, this is interesting – an issue that is faced by many cities and surrounding suburbs:

Memphis residents voted Tuesday to transfer the administration of the city's schools to the county, supporting earlier moves by city officials and effectively putting an end to the city school system.

The referendum is the first time that voters have weighed in on the fate of the schools, a racially and politically charged issue that has fueled months of debate and political brinkmanship and pitted the city against its suburbs and many state lawmakers.

Voters decided roughly two-to-one that the 103,000 students in the city's schools should join the 47,000 suburban students in one countywide system. State law limited the vote to city residents.

Still, the issue remains in uncertain legal territory, subject to numerous lawsuits. In the short term, it is even unclear just who will be in charge of city schools.


March 8, 2011

Memphis Votes for County to Run Schools


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Diane Ravitch was on The Daily Show

Diane Ravitch was on The Daily Show last week.  The first segment of the show is a must-watch, as Jon Stewart shows the unconscionable teacher-bashing going on at Fox "News", and has AWESOME video clips showing the hypocrisy of the Fox commentators, who all said a couple of years ago that the government couldn't touch the contractual salary guarantees made to the jokers at AIG and on Wall St. who got us into this mess, yet are now all saying that Wisconsin and other states should feel free to rewrite the union contracts:


Ravitch appears at minute 13:00 and did her usual shtick for 8 minutes bashing tests (she actually asked the audience, "How much do you like testing?" and they of course booed – like that means anything), said "under NCLB schools have turned into testing factories", Finland should be our role model (in many ways, I agree – more on this later), it's all the fault of poverty, reformers are attacking teachers, etc. 


Here's a partial transcript:


Ravitch: "I think the things that are being done now by Sec. Duncan, by the Gates Foundation, by the Broad Foundation, by all of these very wealthy and powerful people, are taking us on the wrong track because they're focused solely on 'how do we find the bad teachers'?  I don't think America is overrun by bad teachers.  I think America is overrun by too much poverty, too much poverty among children.  If we're going to talk about what works, we're not going to talk about which teacher do you find and punish because their kids didn't get high scores.  We should be talking about is how do we make sure that our children have adequate healthcare, and that we have pre-K education, birth to 5-year-old education, because there's a gap when kids start school, there's a gap at age 3 where poor kids begin and they're already behind because they don't have access to healthcare or vocabulary."


Stewart: "The whole bad teachers argument blows my mind too.  Have you been in the world?  There's bad everything.  You know what I mean?  How many fast food restaurants have you ever been in where you go, 'What's the hell's going on here?'  How many times have you been to the bank?  There are crappy people in almost every field.  And yet somehow teachers don't have a luxury of having a couple of crappy ones."


Ravitch: "I was with a principal the other day in California, in Los Angeles, and I asked, 'How many teachers have you supervised?'  She said, 'I've been a principal now for about 15 years and I've supervised maybe 300.'  'How many of them would you say are bad teachers,' I asked and she said, 'One.  And I got rid of that bad teacher.'" [Note that she doesn't say what kind of school she visited – or what kind of school, serving what demographic of kids, that 1 bad teacher was sent to (because he/she surely wasn't laid off!).]


I wonder how Stewart would feel is one of his kids were stuck with one of those crappy teachers he's so unconcerned about.  Too bad he wasn't better prepped on this.  We need to get a real reformer on his show!


Ravitch's last sentence is noteworthy – it's almost a STOP THE PRESSES: for the first time EVER, to my knowledge (and I follow her and read her book closely), she admits that there might be ONE bad teacher in America. 


So, you have Ravitch saying that 0.3% of teachers might be crappy vs. the estimate of 48 inner-city teachers whom I surveyed, who say it's 45% -- that's quite a range!  I think the answer, nationwide, is in the single digits, but they're almost all concentrated in schools (and, within schools, in classrooms) with the poorest kids.  And then for Ravitch to say it's all about poverty.  It's obscene!  Yes, poverty matters a lot, but I've been to too many schools that are sending 80-90% of poor, minority kids to four-year colleges (without creaming) to believe this you-can't-hold-schools-accountable-when-kids-can't-read argument.  It's just excusing failure.  (To my knowledge, Ravitch has NEVER ONCE admitted that there might be even ONE failing school in America.)


The only thing that worried me about this is that Stewart's interview with her was juxtaposed with the nitwits at Fox attacking teachers, which makes it seem like real reformers are attacking teachers, instead of the truth: celebrating them.

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Education historian Diane Ravitch criticizes testing, says poverty hurts student success

Ravitch was in Detroit recently, with the same talking points:

Noted education historian Diane Ravitch today criticized a current emphasis on testing in U.S. schools, saying "we live in a time of national insanity," during a day-long symposium on education reform in Novi.

Ravitch had a welcome audience, getting a standing ovation before and after she spoke at the conference co-sponsored by the Michigan Education Association, the state's largest union that represents school employees, including teachers.

She said national policy makers say they want to reform education.

But, what they're really doing "is tearing education apart and demonizing teachers."

She alluded to Detroit as she talked about districts that are eliminating programs, laying off thousands of teachers, getting rid of art education and increasing class sizes, saying it's kids in Detroit "who need much smaller classes."

A friend who sent me this article wrote:


Ok, so usually I just enjoy the Ravitch stuff you post, but now she's in my hometown. I don't know her well at all, but she has no idea what Detroit children need and I think that it's really problematic when folks like her won't tackle what happens in the classroom and leverage poverty as the primary reason children of color are lagging behind their peers.  Black people have fought far too long and too hard in this country to be educated – we are the only people that can literally lay claim that in the face of death – a determination to be literate by "sneaking" to read.


When Ravitch and other liberals take such an absurd position on the educability of black children it compromises the real debate which should be about quality education and building community assets – not having classroom educators fix poverty. Black educators have always taught around deficits and built institutions that still exist to serve those considered uneducable – Tuskegee, Bethune-Cookman…. For far too long, Ravitch and others, especially in New York, have essentially blamed children and families for their poor classroom outcomes and while I don't agree in entirety with the education reform debate- especially the blinding absence of women of color as leaders – we have to stop this poverty is the primary reason children of color lag behind.


Our country's history  does not bear this truth – the black community has produced strong, thought leaders – hell, I was born on the eastside of Detroit to two teenagers who were pushed out of school and it was my neighborhood public school educators that helped raise my parents as parents and me as a learner. Enough with the poverty benchmark – just teach and if you can't then damn let someone else try – childhood is too finite a period to stay fixed on one answer. Besides, good schools work to meet the needs of families by developing relationships with community institutions so that children are more stable and likely to engage in school.


When something does not work for middle class parents we move on to another solution – why don't we afford low-income and working class parents that same freedom? 


Education historian Diane Ravitch criticizes testing, says poverty hurts student success

4:40 PM, Mar. 7, 2011  ||newswell|text|FRONTPAGE|s

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Prominent Anti-Education Reformer, Diane Ravtich, Blocks Me on Twitter

This story, from a Princeton student who is a member of Students for Ed Reform, tells you all you need to know about Ravitch.  Blocking a student who challenges your views – ya can't make this stuff up!


Diane Ravitch, an education historian and prominent teachers' union advocate, had been prolifically tweeting long before Rhee or I even discovered the blue bird. Following Ravitch has been an exercise in anger management, and is likely inadvisable to education reformers who are not in good health. Whenever I felt particularly bold, and a claim of hers particularly unfair, I would foray into the conversation and respond to one of her tweets. Understandably, most of these went unacknowledged—the woman does have over 8,000 followers, after all. Yet there is one tweeting habit of hers that it would be unfair to ignore: every once in a while, she tweets back.

I have written more than I would like about my frustrations with Ravitch and her advocacy, and was certain I could adjust my reform-focus elsewhere. This was until I made a recent discovery that gave my experience with Rhee as a number-one-Twitter-event a run for its money. Diane Ravitch blocked me. Still free to include her in my tweets (she will still get notifications if I do this), still free to access her tweets, I am simply no longer able to "follow" her such that her messages come directly to my news feed.

It is a sad day for teachers' unions- and all that Diane Ravitch espouses- when the ideas and arguments contained in that advocacy are so fragile that the mere instantaneous exposure of their 140 character iterations to a curious undergraduate, is a threatening event. Indeed, it is a sad day for the entire education reform conversation when a major voice expresses such disinterest in there being much of a conversation at all. Ravitch writes books advancing her ideology, and travels the nation giving keynote addresses to crowds of teachers. Any questions about her intention were answered in my mind the moment she demonstrated even her short, social media musings were really only meant for those that already agreed with her.

It's important to take a look at the specific conversations we had that seemed to precipitate her decision to disallow me as a Twitter follower of hers. One of our more recent conversations (reproduced below) began when Congressman Jared Polis challenged Ravitch's claim about charter schools as "fads." I tried very hard to find common ground on the need for "holistic evaluations" of schools not simply based on test scores, and solicited her thoughts on what factors might need to be included in her estimation. Apparently, however, her expertise as an historian means she "doesn't do evaluations"—she just criticizes them. Then, when presented with an example of schools (a KIPP charter school network, nonetheless) that were using holistic evaluations, she promptly left the conversation.

Our final conversation (also reproduced below) further illustrates Ravitch's propensity to speak in broad binaries that create an unproductive us-versus-them mentality (at one point claiming to "side with David, not Goliath" and calling on me to pick a side; the fact that unions get to be David is quite a fantastical assertion that I won't go into further here). Ever proving her mastery of logic-gymnastics, she moved quickly from her usual claim of charter school underperformance to her accusation that charter school over-performance was motivated by an eagerness "to beat" other schools.

And then she was gone. But this time, forever.


Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Prominent Anti-Education Reformer, Diane Ravtich, Blocks Me on Twitter


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Ravitch: 'A moment of national insanity'

I hope you're sitting down, but Ravitch actually praises Joe Williams and DFER:

I'm beginning to think we are living in a moment of national insanity. On the one hand, we hear pious exhortations about education reform, endlessly uttered by our leaders in high political office, corporate suites, foundations, and the media. President Obama says we have to "out-educate" the rest of the world to "win the future."

Yet the reality on the ground suggests that the corporate reform movement --- embraced by so many of those same leaders, including the president --- will set American education back, by how many years or decades is anyone's guess. Sometimes I think we are hurtling back a century or more, to the age of the Robber Barons and the great corporate trusts.

Consider a few events of the past week:

In Detroit, the school system will reduce its deficit by closing half the city's public schools and placing students into classes of 60. These are among the poorest and lowest performing students in the nation. Parents and teachers should be rioting in the streets of Detroit, along with everyone who cares about these children and our future. This is an outrage.

The school board of Providence, Rhode Island, sent notice to all of its teachers that they could be terminated at year's end to address its deficit. Most will be retained, but now the board has maximum flexibility to choose which ones. At the same time, Providence's leaders are humiliating every teacher, breaking the bonds of trust that are essential for the culture of a good school. Will anyone hold these reckless, heedless, unprofessional "leaders" in Rhode Island to account?

And the business leaders in Idaho have a plan to lay off 770 teachers and replace them with online learning. Do they know there is no evidence for the efficacy of virtual learning? I don't think they care. For them, this is just a cost-cutting measure. And it's other people's children who will get this bargain basement training, not their own.

If more was needed to strip away the mask of "reform," consider the deafening silence of the corporate school reformers in response to these events. A few, like Joe Williams of Democrats for Education Reform, surprised their confreres (and me) by siding with the teachers of Wisconsin.


Ravitch: 'A moment of national insanity'

By Valerie Strauss

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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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