Monday, April 25, 2016

An exchange of emails with Diane Ravitch, focused on what we AGREE on



I’ve had a lot of interesting conversations in my life – and this ongoing one with Diane Ravitch certains ranks up there.


If I recall correctly, we first exchanged emails a few years ago when I send her my presentation about K12, the awful for-profit online charter school operator. I knew we’d have common ground there, as she’d also exposed K12’s misdeeds in her book, Reign of Error.


I reached out to her again recently because I knew we’d have common views on North Carolina’s hateful HB2 law (in fact, we’ve both now published articles in the Huffington Post on this; here’s mine: An Open Letter to a North Carolina State Legislator; and here’s hers: That Dumb Bathroom Bill in North Carolina).


Our common views got me thinking: how is it that two well-informed people can agree on so much in almost all areas, yet apparently disagree on so much in one area (ed reform)? Is it possible that we agree on more than we think?


So I sent her the email below, in which I wrote 24 statements about which I thought we might agree, and asked if she’d reply, in the hopes that we might both learn something, find more areas of agreement where we could work together, and, in general, try to tone things down.


She was kind enough to reply, so I have included her comments (in ALL CAPS), interspersed and at the end of my original email (shared with her permission of course).


Overall, I was heartened to see how many things we agree on.


That said, we still disagree on many things, about which I will respond in due time. But in the interests of keeping this email to a manageable length, I’ll let her have the last word here – but not the final word, as we’ve both committed to continuing (and sharing) our ongoing discussion.


In the meantime, I hope you’ll find our initial exchange as interesting and illuminating as I did.


Hi Diane,


You know, despite our disagreements on ed reform, I’d bet we agree on 95% of everything else. I’m certain that we agree that the Republican party has been hijacked by extremists, Trump is a madman, Cruz is terrifying, and there’s nothing more important than getting a Democrat elected president in November (and, ideally, retaking the Senate and maybe even the House as well).


We agree. 


I’ll admit that this creates quite a dilemma for me: I want the teachers unions, which remain the single most powerful interest group supporting the Democratic party, to be strong to help as many Democratic candidates as possible win. But when it comes to my desire to implement the reforms I think our educational system needs, I usually want them to be weak.


I disagree.


I want the teachers' unions to be strong so they can defend their members against unfair practices and protect their academic freedom. Teachers have been blamed for the ills of society, most especially, poverty. Today's reformers have created the myth that great teachers--as defined by their students' test scores-- can overcome poverty and close the achievement gaps among different groups of students. I wish it were true, but it is not. The myth encourages lawmakers to believe that wherever poverty persists or test scores are low or achievement gaps remain, it must be the teachers' fault.


Race to the top required states to evaluate teachers to a significant degree by their students' test scores, which was a huge mistake that has cost states and districts hundreds of millions of dollars but hasn't worked anywhere. This method has proved unstable and inaccurate; it reflects who is in the class, not teacher quality.


Scores on standardized tests are highly correlated with family income, over which teachers have no control. In the past few years, some states have eliminated collective bargaining, and there is no correlation between the existence of a union and students' academic success. In fact, the highest-performing states on the national assessment of education progress--Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Jersey--are more likely to have unions than the lowest performing states, where unions are weak or banned.


Some states have enacted merit pay programs, which have never improved education or even test scores despite numerous experiments. There have been numerous assaults in legislatures and in the courts on due process (called "Tenure") and on pay increases for additional education and experience. I have often heard teachers say that they became teachers knowing they would never become rich, but at least they would have a secure job. Take that away and teachers serve at the whim of administrators who may or may not be skilled educators. How will it improve education if teachers have no job security, less education and less experience?


Sometimes it seems like the boys in the backroom are spending their time trying to figure out how to crush teachers' morale and freeze their pay. The consequences of these anti-teacher public policies have been ugly. Teachers across the nation feel themselves to be the targets of a witch-hunt. Many teachers have taken early retirement, and the numbers of people entering teaching has plummeted. Even Teach for America has seen a 35% decline in the number of applicants in just the past three years.  The attacks on teachers have taken their toll, and there are now shortages across the nation.


I believe unions are necessary, not only in teaching, but in other lines of work as well, to protect the rights of working people, to make sure they are not exploited and to assure they are treated fairly. Unions are by no means perfect as they are; some are too bureaucratic and self-satisfied, some are too complacent to fight for their members, some stifle any changes. But, in my view, unions built the middle class in this country. We are losing our strong, stable middle class as the private and public sectors eliminate unions. Income inequality is widening as unions shrivel. In education, unions are especially important to make sure that teachers are free to teach controversial subjects, like evolution, global warming, and contested books (you would be surprised how many classic books, like "Huckleberry Finn," "Invisible Man," and "Of Mice and Men" are on the American Library Association's list of the 100  most frequently banned books).


Do unions protect "bad" teachers? Yes, they do. One can't know who is "bad" in the absence of due process. A teacher may be falsely accused or the administrator may harbor a dislike for her race, her religion, her sexual orientation, or her pedagogical beliefs. Those who wish to fire them after their probationary period (which may be as little as two years or as many as five years--and in many states, teachers do not have due process or tenure) must present evidence that they are bad teachers or that they did something that merits their removal. Probationary teachers have no right to due process. Teachers have sometimes been falsely accused. Teachers should be able to confront their accusers, to see the evidence, and to be judged by an independent arbitrator. If bad teachers get tenure, then blame bad or lazy administrators. The right to due process must be earned by performance in the classroom and should not be awarded without careful deliberation by the administrator.


Given the fact that a large percentage--as much as 40%, even more in urban districts--leave teaching within their first five years, our biggest problem is retaining good teachers, not getting rid of bad ones. Bad ones should be promptly removed in their first or second year of teaching. W. Edwards Deming, writing about the modern corporation, said that a good company hires carefully and then helps its employees succeed on the job. It invests in support and training. It makes a conscientious effort to retain the people it hired. Why don't we do the same with teachers and stop blaming them for conditions beyond their control?


This dilemma isn’t new – in fact, it’s one of the reasons I helped start Democrats for Education Reform: because I wasn’t comfortable joining forces with other reform-oriented organizations that existed at the time (roughly a decade ago), which were mostly funded, supported and run by Republicans with whom I shared almost no views in common other than in the area of ed reform (and even in that area, I disagreed with their union busting and overemphasis on vouchers).


I served as Assistant Secretary of Education for Research in the administration of George H.W. Bush, but realized over time that  I  did not agree with the Republican approach to education, namely, competition, school choice, testing, and accountability. It is ironic that the Obama administration adopted the same policies as the Republicans, with the sole exception of vouchers. The Democratic party used to have a core set of educational principles at the federal and state levels: equity of resources, extra support for the neediest students, low college tuition to increase access, vigorous enforcement of civil rights laws, and support for teacher preparation. That approach comes closest to providing equality of educational opportunity.


I oppose the Republican approach to education policy for the following reasons: 


A) They don't support public education at all; every one of their presidential candidates has endorsed some form of privatization and said nothing at all about the public schools that enroll 90% of our students.


B) They would be thrilled to eliminate all unions; they don't care about people who are poor or struggling to get into the middle class or to stay in the middle class.


C) The Republicans have swallowed the free market approach to schooling hook, line, and sinker, as a matter of ideology, not evidence. I don't believe in vouchers, because  I  know that vouchers have not worked in Chile and Sweden, and they have not worked in this country either. Many states have adopted vouchers, though usually calling them something else (education savings account, education tax credits, opportunity scholarships, etc.). Most are used to send children to religious schools, many of which have uncertified teachers, inadequate curricula, and no accountability at all. Furthermore, the religious schools receiving vouchers usually teach creationism and other religious beliefs. I don't think public money should subsidize religious schools. Vouchers have never won a public referendum, but Republican legislatures keep devising ways to get around their own state constitutions.


The creation of DFER helped resolve this dilemma because I could fight against union policies when I felt they weren’t in the best interests of kids, without fighting against the principle of collective bargaining, which I believe in. And I could happily limit my political donations to supporting only Democrats (reform-oriented ones, of course, like Obama, Cory Booker and Michael Bennet).


What Obama, Cory Booker, Michael Bennett and other corporate-style reformers have in common is that they believe in breaking up public education and replacing it with private management. They believe in closing schools where tests scores are low. I don't. The highest performing nations in the world have strong, equitable public school systems with respected, well prepared, and experienced teachers. They have wrap-around services to make sure that all children come to school healthy and ready to learn. They don't test every child every year from grades 3-8 as we do. They don't have vouchers or privately managed charters.


So why am I feeling this dilemma again right now? Because the stakes are so high: our country is politically polarized, the Republican party is spiraling out of control, mostly likely nominating either a madman or extremist, and there’s an opportunity for we Democrats to not only win the presidency, but also take back Congress. The election in November will have an enormous impact on so many critical issues that hang in the balance: a majority in the Supreme Court, income inequality, healthcare, immigration, foreign policy/our relationships with the rest of the world, environmental issues/global warming, LGBT and women’s rights…the list goes on and on.


I certainly agree. The Republican party has lost its bearings, and its candidate is likely to be someone abhorred by its leadership.


As such, I’m going to be extra careful in my writings, when I’m critical of the unions, to make clear that these are policy differences and that I don’t support attempts to demolish unions altogether, whether in the education sector or elsewhere.


Writing about things I think we agree on outside of ed reform has gotten me thinking: what might we agree on within the area of ed reform?


As one of my mentors, Charlie Munger, always says: “Invert, always invert.”


So I have tried to compile a list of statements that I believe that I think you might agree with as well. I’m not trying to change your mind about anything or put words in your mouth – I’m genuinely trying to find areas of agreement, at least on general principles (the devil’s usually in the details of course, but a good starting point is agreeing at a high level):


                   Every child in this country has the right to attend a safe school that provides a quality education.


We agree. 


                   The color of a child’s skin and his/her zip code shouldn’t determine the quality of school he/she attends.


We agree. 


                   Poor parents care deeply about ensuring that their children get a good education.


We agree. 


                   Sometimes the closest neighborhood school isn’t right for a child, so parents should have at least some options in choosing what public school is best for their children.


I pause here, because this is moving into school choice territory, where Republicans have sold the idea that parents should choose the school as a matter of consumer choice (Jeb Bush compared choosing a school to choosing what kind of milk you want to drink--fat-free, 1%, 2%, whole milk, chocolate milk, or buttermilk). Unfortunately, many choice ideologues take this argument to its logical conclusion and pursue an all-choice policy, in which the one choice that is no longer available is the neighborhood school. That is the case in New Orleans. It often seems that reformers--like Republicans--consider public schools to be obsolete and want to replace them with an all-privatized district. 


                   It is not the case that too many children are failing too many of our schools; rather, the reverse is true.


I don't agree. I would say our society is failing our children and their families by allowing so many of them to live in poverty. We have the highest proportion of children living in poverty of the world's advanced nations--about 22%. That is shameful, the schools didn't cause it. As  I  said before, family income is the best predictor of standardized test scores; that is true of every standardized test, whether it is the SAT, the ACT, the state tests, national tests or international tests. If poverty is directly related to low academic performance, then target poverty and pursue public policies that will improve the lives of children, families and communities. At the same time, work to improve schools, not to close them. There is now a considerable amount of research showing that state takeovers seldom improve schools; that charters perform on average about the same as public schools; that voucher schools on average perform worse than public schools; that the charters that get the highest test scores exclude or remove students with disabilities, students who don't read English, and students who get low test scores.


                   Poverty and its effects have an enormous impact, in countless ways, on a child’s ability to learn.


We agree. The child who is homeless, who lacks medical care, who is hungry is likely not to focus on his or her studies and is likely to be frequently absent because of illness or caring for a sibling. It really hurts children when the basic necessities of life are missing.


                   If one had to choose between fixing all schools or fixing everything else outside of schools that affects the ability of children to learn (poverty, homelessness, violence, broken families, lack of healthcare, whether parents regularly speak and read to children, etc.), one would choose the latter in a heartbeat.


I certainly agree because reducing poverty and its ill effects would improve schools at the same time.


                   Schools should be rigorous, with high expectations, but also filled with joy and educators who instill a love of learning.


I might have agreed with you in years gone past, but  I  have come to see "rigor" as a loaded word. It reminds me of "rigor mortis."  I  prefer to say that teachers should teach academic studies with joy and enthusiasm, awakening students to the love of learning and inspiring intrinsic motivation.


                   Some testing is necessary but too much testing is harmful.


I agree that some testing is necessary. I believe based on many years of study of standardized testing that most testing should be designed by the classroom teachers, not by outside testing corporations. I would prefer to see more time devoted to essays, projects, and any other kind of demonstration of what children have learned or what they dream and imagine and create. Standardized testing should be used only diagnostically, not more than once a year, and it should not figure into the students' grade or the teachers' evaluation. I say this because standardized tests are normed on a bell curve; the affluent students cluster at the top, and the low-income students cluster at the bottom. In short, the deck is stacked against the kids in the bottom half, because the tests by their nature will always have a bottom half. Why not have tasks that almost everyone can do well if they try? Give children a chance to show what they can do and let their imaginations soar, rather than relying on their choice of one of four pre-determined answers.


I agree that too much testing is harmful, and it is also harmful to attach high stakes (like promotion, graduation, or teacher evaluation) to a standardized test because it makes the test too important. Standardized tests are not scientific instruments; they are social constructions. They favor those who come to school with advantages (educated parents, secure homes, books in the home, etc.) when the tests are high stakes, the results are predictable: teaching to the test, narrowing the curriculum, cheating. When schools and teachers will be punished or rewarded for test scores, the measure itself is corrupted (Campbell's Law). It no longer measures what students know and can do, but how much effort was spent preparing for the test. Teachers engage for weeks or months in test preparation, schools cut back or eliminate the arts, physical education, history, science, and whatever is not tested. Teachers, administrators, schools, even districts will cheat to assure that their scores go up, not down, to avoid firings and closures and instead to win bonuses.


All of this corrupts education, and in the end, the scores still are a reflection of family income and opportunity to learn. And children have a worse education even if their scores rise because of the absence of the arts and other important parts of a sound education.


                   Tests should be thoughtful and cover genuine knowledge, not easily game-able, which too often leads to excessing teaching-to-the-test.


We agree. 


                   Expanding high-quality pre-K, especially for poor kids, is important.


We agree. 


                   Teachers should be celebrated, not demonized.


Yes, absolutely. Teachers have one of the hardest, most challenging jobs in our society and they are underpaid and under-respected. When I was in North Carolina last week, I was told by an editorial writer that the entry pay is "good," at $35,000, but the top salary is only $50,000. Teachers should be treated as professionals and earn a professional salary that enables them to live well and send their children to college.


                   They should be paid more, both on a relative and absolute basis.


We agree. 


                   Some teachers are phenomenal, most are good, some are mediocre, and some are truly terrible.


This spread is probably the same in every other profession. Those who are "truly terrible" should be removed before they achieve tenure; most, I suspect, leave early in their career because they can't control their classes. We actually have many more successful teachers than most people believe; as states have reported on their new evaluation systems, more than 95% of teachers have been rated either "Highly effective" or "Effective." Very few fell below those markers. Frankly, teaching these days is so difficult that it takes a very strong person to handle the responsibilities of the classroom.


                   All teachers should be evaluated regularly, comprehensively and fairly, with the primary goal of helping them improve their craft.


I agree, although I think that teachers who receive high ratings from their administrators and peers should not be regularly evaluated. That is a waste of time that should be devoted to those who need help in improving. The top teachers should be offered extra pay to mentor new teachers.


                   The best teachers should be rewarded while struggling ones should be given help so they can improve.


I don't believe in performance bonuses. The research shows them to be ineffective. I agree that those who struggle should receive help so they can improve.


                   If a teacher doesn’t improve, there needs to be a timely and fair system to get them out of the profession.


We agree. 


                   There should be a timely process to handle disciplinary charges against teachers so that there is no need for things like rubber rooms, which are a costly and dehumanizing embarrassment.


We agree. 


                   In fighting for the interests of teachers, unions are doing exactly what they’re supposed to – and have done it well.


We agree. 


                   The decline of unionization (which has occurred mostly in the private sector), has been a calamity for this country and is a major contributor to soaring income inequality, which is also a grave concern.


We agree. 


                   What Gov. Scott Walker did in Wisconsin as well as the Friedrichs case were wrong-headed attempts to gut union power, and it was wonderful that the Supreme Court left existing laws in place via its 4-4 tie in the Friedrichs case last week.


Agreed. I would say the same about the overturning of the Vergara case in California, which threw out a lower court decision intended to eliminate due process for teachers.


                   Charter schools, like regular public schools, should: a) take their fair share of the most challenging students; b) backfill at every grade level; and c) follow comparable suspension and expulsion policies.


I agree to an extent. In the present situation, where charters compete with public schools for students and resources, I think these are fair requirements that ensure a level playing field. However, if we were to take your good suggestions, we would have two publicly-funded school systems, one managed by public officials, the other by private entrepreneurs. I see no reason to have a dual school system--one highly regulated, and the other unregulated, or as you propose here, regulated to a greater extent than at present. If charters do continue as they now are, your proposal would make them fairer and less predatory. In their current state, they are bankrupting school districts and skimming off the easiest to educate students, and that's not fair. 


I would like to see charter schools return to the original idea proposed in 1988 by Albert Shanker and a professor in Massachusetts named Ray Budde. Charter schools were supposed to be collaborators with public schools, not competitors. Their teachers would belong to the same union as public school teachers. They were supposed to have freedom to innovate and expected to share their innovations with the public schools. At the end of their charter--say, five years or ten years--they would cease to exist and return to the public school district. Shanker thought that charter schools should exist find innovative ways to help the kids who were not making it in public schools, those who had dropped out, those who were unmotivated, those who were turned off by traditional schools. I support that idea. We have strayed very far from the original idea and are moving towards a dual school system, one free to choose its students, the other required to accept all who show up at their doors.


                   For-profit online charters like K12 are providing an inferior education to far too many students and thus need to be much more carefully regulated and, in many cases, simply shut down.


For-profit online charter schools are a scam and a fraud. They should be prohibited. I applauded your frank dissection of K12 Inc., which surprised me because virtual schools grab on to the coat-tails of the reform movement. For another great expose of the K12 virtual charter chain, read Jessica Califati's outstanding series in the San Jose Mercury News, which was published just days ago:




Students who enroll in these schools have lower scores, lower graduation rates, and learn little. A study by Stanford University's CREDO earlier this year said that they learn essentially nothing. Why should taxpayers foot the bill?


In addition, I would like to see for-profit charter schools prohibited. The public pays taxes for schooling and believes that the money will be spent on education, not on paying a profit to investors in a corporation. The purpose of a for-profit corporation is to make a profit; the purpose of a public school is to prepare young children to live a full and satisfying life as citizens and members of the community. There should never come a time when school leaders choose the need to show a profit over the needs of students. I would also stop spending public money on for-profit "colleges." They have been chastised in congressional investigations time and again for their predatory practices, but they always manage to survive, thanks to skillful, bipartisan lobbying. I recommend a new book by A.J. Angulo, titled " Diploma Mills: How For-Profit Colleges Stiffed Students, Taxpayers, and the American Dream" (Johns Hopkins Press).


                   Voter IDs laws are a despicable and thinly disguised attempt by Republicans to suppress the turnout of poor and minority voters, which in turn hurts schools serving their children.


We agree. 


So what do you think? Do you disagree with any of these statements? What have I missed? What do you believe that you think I would agree with? I think it would be productive and interesting to come up with a long of a list as possible.


Best regards,




Here are a few of my beliefs that you may or may not share.


* I believe in separation of church and state. Public money should not be spent for religious school tuition. People should not be asked to subsidize the religious beliefs of others. Once we start on that slippery slope, taxpayers will be underwriting schools that teach creationism, white supremacy, female subjugation, and other ideas that violate both science and our democratic ideals.


* I believe that every child, regardless of zip code or family income, race, gender, disability status, language proficiency, or sexual orientation, should be able to enroll in an excellent school.


* I believe that an excellent school has small classes, experienced teachers, a full curriculum, a well-resourced program in the arts, science laboratories, and a gymnasium, situated in a well-maintained and attractive building. Students should have the opportunity to study history, literature, the sciences, mathematics, civics, geography, technology, and have ample time for physical activities, sports, and exercise. The school should have a well-stocked library with a full-time librarian. It should have a school nurse, a social worker, and a psychologist. The principal should be an experienced teacher, with the authority to hire teachers and to evaluate their performance. Teacher evaluation should be based on peer review and classroom performance, not on test scores.


* I believe that the primary purpose of public schools, based on my studies as a historian of education, is to develop good citizens. The most important job that citizens have in our democracy is to vote thoughtfully and to be prepared to sit on juries and reach wise decisions about the fate of others. Citizens must be well informed and knowledgeable. They should know how to collaborate with others to accomplish goals. They should care about the fairness and future of our democracy. They should be knowledgeable about American and world history. They should understand the basic principles of government, economics, and science so they can understand the great issues of the day.


* I believe that public education is one of the basic building blocks of our democracy. As citizens, we have an obligation to support a good public education for all children, even if we have no children or if our own children are grown or if we send our children to religious or private schools.


* Because I believe in the importance of public education, I oppose all efforts to privatize public schools or to monetize them.


* I believe that the primary responsibility for shaping education policy should be in the hands of educators, not politicians. Educators are the experts, and we should let them do their jobs without political interference.


* I believe that teachers should not only be respected, but should be paid more for their experience and education. I do not believe that education will get better if teachers have less experience and less education.


* I believe in school choice, but I do not believe that private choices should be publicly subsidized. Anyone who wants their child to have a religious education should pay for it. The same for those who want their children to attend a private school or to be home-schooled. Parents have a right to make choices, but they should not expect the public to pay for their choices.


* I would like to see today's reformers fight against budget cuts to public schools, against segregation, and against the overuse and misuse of standardized tests. I wish we might join together to lead the fight to improve the living standards for children and families now living in poverty. I wish we might advocate together for higher salaries for teachers, smaller classes for students, effective social and medical services for children who need them, and excellent public schools in every neighborhood.


* I would like to see all of us who care about children, who respect teachers and want a great education for every child, join together to persuade the public to invest more in education and to consider education the most important endeavor of our society, the one that will determine the future of our society. Let us recognize together that poverty matters, teachers matter, schools matter, and that we must strive together to reach the goals upon which we agree.

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