Tag Archives: Diane Ravitch

The Gooey Center: More Goo Than Center

This is your brain on education reform.

This is your brain on education reform.

I happen to believe that Americans who consider themselves political “centrists” are the intellectual midgets of the electorate.

Centrists and Democrats love to decry Tea Party types as the dumb ones. Sure, they show up to rallies with misspelled signs and tell the government to get their hands off of their Medicare. Obviously, their ideas are force fed to them by Fox News, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. Definitely, they have been voting against their own interests by electing Koch brother-funded troglodytes to local and national office. Worst of all, there is a streak of understated fascism in everything they say. Their vitriol against President Obama is punctuated by dog whistle racism. However, there is one thing that recommends them to me better than self-professed centrists: their vile ideas at least have conviction.

That is to say, Tea Partiers do not delude themselves into thinking they are open-minded. Many might even tell you they are proudly close-minded, which might be synonyms to them for being simple or traditional. At least one knows where one stands with them. Someone like me in their eyes would be just another big city, northeastern leftist who drinks lattes and wants to redistribute other people’s wealth. I respect this characterization, especially considering how it is not totally inaccurate.

Centrists, on the other hand, live in the delusion that they are fair and rational. They believe that listening to “both sides” and taking a little from each is Solomon-like. The past does not exist to these people. The notion that political discourse has been manufactured in such a way over the past 40 years that today’s Democrats were yesterday’s Republicans and today’s Republicans were yesterday’s frothing crypto-fascists does not exist in their world. Obamacare to them is a liberal program, despite the fact that it was created by a Republican think tank and implemented first by a Republican governor. To today’s centrists, the past does not exist and the present is merely an exercise in splitting the baby.

There is no other area of public concern in which centrists have run amok more than education policy. My favorite poster child for this type of centrist is Andrew Rotherham, a centrist Democrat who runs the Eduwonk blog and a reliable cheerleader for the cause of education reform.

Yesterday, Rotherham linked to an article from Politifact that ham-fistedly claimed Diane Ravitch’s interpretation of the NAEP scores in Reign of Error was “mostly false” .  Diane herself ably destroyed this claim. Both Rotherham and Politifact pride themselves on being rational centrists. Unfortunately, their attempt to split the baby of education policy does nothing but put them squarely on the side of education reform. It is unfortunate because education reform, as it is understood today, is a wholly radical endeavor.

Nothing captures the self-satisfied  attitude of education centrists than the comment left under Rotherham’s link:

” I completely agree about the confusion. I heard Ravitch speak last week in DC and found her rhetoric though inspirational at times, mostly divisive and combative, I have seen the same dramatics from hearing the reformers speak as well. I feel that the idea of proving one side right or wrong by cherry picking which test scores to use and which school systems to look at is almost completely missing the point. We aren’t in politics, we are in education. And as educators we need to do what we preach, work together, to find a solution.

I will continue to be optimistic and hope that one day Ravitch and Kopp will start a campaign to simply get all passionate educators talking to work together. That’s my two cents.”

This sounds like a laudable goal until one digs beneath what the commenter is actually saying. He essentially wants all educators to “work together”. Under the label of “educator” he includes Diane Ravitch, a professor of education, a former cabinet member in the Department of Education and someone who specializes in researching the history of education. On the other hand, he includes Wendy Kopp, a woman who wrote a thesis in Princeton on education, got millions of dollars to put her thesis into action and has been busily peddling her money-fueled program to school districts all around the country.

This is the first problem with education centrists. Anyone who has an opinion on education automatically becomes an “educator”. All opinions are valid, no matter the credentials, experience or motives of the person offering the opinion. Diane Ravitch is put on a par with Wendy Kopp or Michelle Rhee or anyone else who has jumped into the world of education policy without spending any appreciable period of time in a classroom teaching students. In this way, education centrists are just like political centrists who put Fox News, MSNBC and CNN all on the same par and believe the truth lies somewhere in between them.

Just like Fox News represents what used to be considered a radical brand of conservatism, Kopp, Rhee and others who have made millions from dabbling in education policy are arms of a decidedly radical brand of reform. Much like Fox News, their radicalism is a radical capitalism or, more specifically, radical corporatism.

Kopp and Rhee essentially advocate for a temporary, low-skilled and low-paid work force of teachers. Trade unionism and professional experience to them are not only antiquated notions, but notions antithetical to the types of reforms they wish to institute. It is the educational equivalent to the state of peonage to which big chains like Walmart reduce their own workers.

This type of workforce is in itself a reflection of a radicalized form of capitalism. Add to this the private charter and online schools that are hallmarks of education reform. Add to this still the standardized exams for students and prospective teachers created by private corporations. Finally, to top it all off, throw in private education data companies who wish to compile all types of sensitive information on children. What you have is a neat program of privatization punctuated by a creepy type of corporate surveillance. It is a wholly radical scheme.

Karl Marx rightfully saw capitalism as a revolutionary force. It seeks to turn everything into a commodity, whether consumer products, the natural world or education. Left unchecked or, even worse, aided by the power of the state, capitalism has the potential to dominate every facet of human life and civilization. The move to privatize education is of the same ilk as the move to privatize prisons. Both of these developments are part of a wider historical epoch that has seen the growth of massive multinational corporations. Education reformers are revolutionaries who champion the growth of unaccountable private power.

This is why people who strive for some sort of gooey center in education policy effectively turn out to be education corporatists. They accept the underpinnings of education “reform” and then expect its opponents to meet them halfway. However, there is no meeting a revolutionary force halfway. Once one accepts its legitimacy, one automatically rejects any opposition. Indeed, that is the very definition of revolution. It is major, historical change. One is either with it or one is against it.  This is the decision that the privatizers of education have forced people to make. Those who consider themselves part of the gooey educational center have already cast their lot in with the revolutionaries.

Yet, centrists in both politics and education serve the purpose of making the opponents of revolutionary radicals seem like nutty, fringe characters. Political centrists today accept the legitimacy of the far right that has masked itself as modern conservatism. This means that radical leftists, or even legitimate liberals, are off the political spectrum and not part of civilized political discourse. They locate themselves within a very narrow range of political thinking that goes from far right crypto-fascists to centrist Democrats. This basically gives the field over to the political right.

This is why education centrists see people like Diane Ravitch as “divisive” or “radical”. They have already accepted that education reform is true reform and not revolution. They fail to see the greater revolutionary force of which education reform is a part. In so doing, they have inoculated themselves from seeing the validity in any of Ravitch’s, or any other public education advocate’s, ideas. To them, it is only a matter of total reform or less reform. If they were alive during the French Revolution, they would be debating over whether Robespierre should behead 100,000 people or 20,000 people and think of themselves as fair minded if they believed he should only kill 50,000. Whether anyone should be beheaded at all, or if Robespierre should even be in power, they would consider the talk of divisive fringe characters.

Education centrists, much like political centrists, should be disregarded as the vacuous tools they are. They do not have to be won over because they have already internalized the assumptions of a radical ideology. Instead, true defenders of public education should speak to the vast majority of Americans who have not been steeped in the doublespeak that passes for education policy in this day and age. This is the audience that Reign of Error seeks to reach, which is why it is scaring so many reformers.

Do not aim to be a centrist in anything. Instead, take a peek under the accepted paradigms and figure out whose purpose it serves.

What Does Reign of Error Mean?



Diane Ravitch has always been my go-to person for matters of American schooling.

Back in 2004, I was 25 years old and starting my fourth year as a history teacher. It was the year I decided to branch out and create a philosophy elective at my school. I wanted to enable my philosophy students to deconstruct the world around them. Since they had already spent a good portion of their lives sitting in American schools, I figured I would be derelict in my duties if I did not help them deconstruct the American school system.

Yet, I knew next to nothing about the history and structure of American schooling. It was an embarrassing knowledge deficit for a history teacher to have. Before I could break down the school system with my students, I would have to break it down for myself. This meant a spate of independent research for me. It was at this point when I first read Diane Ravitch’s work.

Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms was an honest, direct and well-researched survey of the American school system. Diane’s simple yet informative prose led me to read The Language Police and The Great School Wars as well in order to prepare for my unit on American schooling. Reading these books early on in my career, when I was thirsting for a deeper understanding of the institution in which I worked, meant that Diane Ravitch would have a major impact on my teaching style and educational outlook.

Yet, I was still largely unaware of this phenomenon known as “education reform” and Diane Ravitch’s role in it. I was also unaware of the fact that I was teaching in a system that was considered one of the hubs of this education reform:  Bloomberg’s Department of Education. What I did know was that Diane was appointed by two different presidents from two different parties to the Department of Education. In my mind, this not only made her even more of an authority on American education but also signaled to me that she must have a great deal of integrity. She did not carry water for any party’s agenda.

This was all back in 2004, before Diane had totally broken from this education reform movement. Even in her reformer days, Diane Ravitch was honest about her beliefs, persuasive in her arguments and informed about what goes in America’s schools. It was the education reformer Diane Ravitch who had such a deep impact on my career when I was a fourth-year teacher. She helped me construct the meaning and context of American schooling.

So one can imagine my excitement years later when I finally matured enough to understand the lay of the current educational landscape and Diane’s role within it. What disturbed me was not how she had changed her mind about education reform, but how so many people criticized her for it, as if it was a sign of opportunism or dishonesty. Being familiar with Diane’s work beforehand, I knew that neither of those accusations were true. It is the mark of intellectual integrity to change one’s mind about an issue after reviewing new evidence, especially if one does so publicly so millions of people know about it. I could not wrap my mind around those people who seemed to believe that “integrity” meant sticking to an idea no matter how wrong or destructive it is.

Now that I am in my 14th year of teaching and about to start my 35th year of life, I understand things a little bit more clearly now.

Reign of Error demonstrates, in typical Ravitchean fashion, how people are able to cling to ideas long after facts have passed them by. Many people much more able than myself have already written reviews of Diane’s latest book. What I hope to do instead is to locate this book in the context of the history of American schooling. What does Reign of Error mean as an historical event?

Critics of Reign of Error have already been trying to answer this question, even before they have bothered to read it. Most notably, Arne Duncan supporter Peter Cunningham wrote a hit piece this past summer in which he expressed sanctimonious outrage over a quote in the New York Times where Diane Ravitch questioned the Common Core’s focus on college readiness:

“We’re using a very inappropriate standard that’s way too high… I think there are a lot of kids who are being told that if they don’t go to college that it will ruin their life… But maybe they don’t need to go to college.”

The obsession in America’s schools with getting kids into college has always been questioned by Ravitch, even in her reformer days. Yet, it is only now that reformers like Cunningham see fit to try to twist her point into something that it is not:

“When Dr. Ravitch says, ‘But maybe they don’t need to go to college,’ who exactly is she referring to? It’s certainly not rich white kids. It’s definitely not the children of middle class parents, who view college for the kids as one of the core pillars of the American Dream. That leaves low-income and minority children. It includes the children of immigrants who come here with an 8th grade education and desperately want their kids to do better than them — the kind of parents you meet at a graduation who speak little English and can’t stop crying for joy.”

Notice how, in typical Waiting for Superman fashion, he invokes the imagery of teary-eyed minority families to push his own agenda. If Cunningham would have read Ravitch’s book, he would know that she calls for America to invest more heavily in the schools of those teary-eyed minorities. Not only does this mean smaller class sizes and more materials, it also means vocational training. These things are of course expensive but, as Diane points out in her book, we somehow have the political and financial will to pour money into testing companies and for-profit online schools thanks in large part to Cunningham’s hero, Arne Duncan.

Vocational training is good enough for countries with stronger education systems. It was good enough for Americans 60 years ago. Many of our grandparents, including the grandparents of reformers like Peter Cunningham, could go to high school to learn a trade, then go out into the world and support themselves and their families by plying that trade. This was because we invested not only in education but in our economy and our workers. We provided more options for our young people than just retail and fast-food work. We had strong unions to ensure a measure of job and salary security. These are all things for which Ravitch passionately calls in Reign of Error.

Cunningham’s faux outrage is the stock-in-trade of the reformer movement. As Ravitch discusses in Reign of Error, reformers set themselves up as new age civil rights heroes fighting for the dispossessed and disenfranchised. Yet, their solutions involve pouring billions of public dollars into private pockets and breaking unions. Our anemic economy and impotent political leadership has led to the greatest rates of childhood poverty and infant mortality in the western world. Reformers like Cunningham are completely silent on these matters. In fact, their enthusiasm for union busting only ensures more childhood poverty and infant mortality. They want to tinker around with schools, pretend as if they are the new millennium’s version of Martin Luther King and then do and say absolutely nothing to improve the material conditions of the teary-eyed minority children they are so fond of invoking.

Another reformer who has criticized Diane Ravitch is the financier and human spambot Whitney Tilson. Tilson starts by citing the hit piece written by Peter Cunningham. He goes on to cite a Teach for America alum by the name of Grant Newman, who expresses the same sanctimonious outrage as Cunningham regarding Diane’s comments about college :

“Her line of thinking perfectly demonstrates the out-of-touch mentality of anti-reformers, who because of privilege (race, class, educational opportunity, health, etc) can make statements that demean the capabilities of all students without any retribution or questioning. Dr. Ravitch’s notion that ‘they don’t need college’ speaks volumes about what she will never understand–teachers CAN and ARE capable of dramatically impacting the lives of their students.

The sad irony however is that the students Dr. Ravitch writes off as possibly not having the potential to reach college are exactly the students who need that opportunity for any chance at upward mobility. Rich kids from Scarsdale can do fine in life through connections and experiences that grant them solid jobs and clear options.

My students in Bushwick, Brooklyn have little chance of reaching the same success as that peer from Scarsdale unless they get the most extraordinary education to somehow level the playing field. While she consistently says she is a supporter of teachers and students, it is clear that she actually doesn’t think either group can do much and instead should settle for maintaining the current state of affairs.”

Notice, once again, how the reformers invoke the image of minority children, this time from Bushwick, Brooklyn. In Reign of Error, Diane explains how the students in Scarsdale have experienced teachers. Yet, here are these children in Bushwick, Brooklyn who have a teacher who was trained for 5 weeks over the summer. In fact, Whitney Tilson says that Newman “taught for 4 years at Achievement First in Brooklyn”, meaning that he probably no longer teaches there or anywhere else. This makes Newman’s final paragraph about “my students in Bushwick, Brooklyn” misleading to say the least. He should have said “my former students”. Accuracy like that would only confirm Ravitch’s observations about TFA that she makes in Reign of Error. Not only are TFA teachers poorly trained compared to their more experienced counterparts, not to mention fellow rookies who went through an accredited teacher’s college, there is no evidence they do any better than any other teacher, and some evidence to suggest they do worse. What TFAers like Newman excel at, on the other hand, is using the schools of these poor minority children in Bushwick as springboards to other, more remunerative, employment. Newman is now either selling bonds on Wall Street or running a school somewhere in which he continues to push inexperienced teachers on the children of poor people.

One thing Whitney Tilson and Grant Newman are not doing right now is helping to ameliorate the poverty and suffering of children in Bushwick or anywhere else in America. If teachers do have as much of an impact on the lives of students as Newman suggests, then TFA and the rest of the reformers would have ended poverty a long time ago. As Ravitch mentions, the reformers are the status quo. TFA has been around for 20 years and yet inequality has just gotten worse. Could it be that wunderkins like Grant Newman are not as great as they think? Or could it be that the Wendy Kopps of the world are merely selling snake oil?

Tilson ends his post against Diane Ravitch by citing this “balanced” review of Reign of Error in the Atlantic written by a charter school teacher. Some of the criticisms the author has with Reign of Error are in the following passage:

“Ravitch presents Reign of Error as an overture to dialogue with opponents, but her subtitle suggests otherwise: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. Her tour of the research is littered with bumper-sticker slogans—she indicts, for example, the “Walmartization of American education”—likely to put off the unconverted. The book reads like a campaign manual against “corporate reformers.” The first half challenges the claims of their movement; the second offers Ravitch’s alternative agenda. Her prescriptions include universal pre-K, smaller class sizes, better teacher training, and more measures to reduce poverty and school segregation.

These are worthy goals—and not one of them is necessarily incompatible with many reformers’ own aims. Yet Ravitch doesn’t address competing priorities or painful trade-offs. Further reducing class size in better-off suburban districts, for example, may leave less money for more urgently needed early-childhood programs in poorer communities.”

While seemingly “balanced”, the author betrays his own biases with phrases like the book “is littered with bumper-sticker slogans… likely to put off the unconverted.” My reading of Reign of Error did not uncover any bumper-sticker slogans. The one example he gives of such a slogan, the “Walmartization of American Education”, is not a slogan at all and certainly does not make for a good bumper sticker. How such a phrase is likely to put off the unconverted the author never explains.

The trade-offs the author mentions in the last paragraph are not trade-offs at all. How might reducing class size in one district leave less money for another district? Again, the author never explains his thinking behind this. Reign of Error is more than just a call for greater investment in our public schools. It is a call for greater investment in our communities. Ravitch shows that poverty and scholastic achievement are heavily linked. It is a statistical fact that the reformers themselves have failed to disprove, either through alternative statistics or through examples of their reforms in action. As Ravitch points out many times, a charter company or private organization has yet to take over an entire impoverished school district and show the rest of us how their reforms can overcome poverty.

So, if poverty is the greatest predictor of achievement in school, does it not stand to reason that ameliorating poverty would help boost achievement? This is one of the central arguments of Reign of Error. While reducing poverty is not necessarily at odds with what the reformers want, it is something on which they have been silent. What is worse, their insistence that poverty is merely an “excuse” downplays the impact poverty has on learning. In short, the reformer agenda acts as a smokescreen for the very real and very structural problems that exist in our economy.

The author goes on to try to quote Ravitch’s earlier writings to shed light on Reign of Error and demonstrates he has misunderstood both:

“Ravitch the counterrevolutionary may be right that the reformers’ cause is primed for derailment. But Ravitch the historian once foretold what typically follows a contentious drive for school improvement: ‘It was usually replaced,’ she observed in 2003, ‘by a movement called back to basics, or ‘essentialism,’ which didn’t herald new progress but rather ‘a backlash against failed fads.’ Ravitch herself is the ‘essentialist’ now, urging that we go back not to basics but to a past when issues of equity and adequate funding dominated debates about education. At a time of growing income inequality, this correction is overdue.

But let’s not get too nostalgic about those old debates. There’s a reason the younger Ravitch was impatient decades ago to discover new choices for families in America’s worst-off districts. I hope I’m not alone in searching her new book for traces of the writer who, as recently as 2010, could still see beyond a politicized landscape to understand what draws many hard-pressed parents to charters. They’re not set on this curriculum or that pedagogy, as some reformers suggest. They’re looking, as Ravitch appreciated, for academic ‘havens’—which is what parents at the inner-city school where I teach, once nominally parochial and now a charter, often tell me. They want a place where their children can join peers already driven to achieve in school—a search with another bleak trade-off. The departure of these students leaves other peers, without parents resourceful enough to find better alternatives, stranded in schools that become all the harder to improve.”

Ravitch’s analysis that waves of school reforms are usually followed by waves of “back to basics” referred to pedagogical fads. It is one of the driving themes of Left Back. Throughout the book, she never explained whether she preferred one wave to another. To Ravitch, that was just the ebb and flow of American schooling.

Yet, Reign of Error does not discuss pedagogical fads. The reforms to which she refers in Reign of Error are fundamental disruptions to the way schools are governed and how they are funded. In Left Back, the reformers she mentions usually meant well but either misunderstood how children learned, how teachers would receive their recommendations, or both. In Reign of Error, some reformers mean well while others are out to ruthlessly push their agendas in order to benefit themselves. In Left Back, the worst the reformers ever did to public schooling was foist on it some fuzzy-headed curriculum. In Reign of Error, the reformers are destroying the public school as an institution.

Diane Ravitch is not a “counterrevolutionary”, as the author states. A counterrevolutionary implies that one is an old mossback bent on bringing back the status quo ante bellum. Diane Ravitch is nothing of the sort. Reign of Error is revolutionary. It is revolutionary in the sense that she calls for the amelioration of poverty and inequality. It is revolutionary in that she wants society to make a serious investment in the schools of the disadvantaged. It is revolutionary in the sense that she calls for the children and parents of the poor to get adequate medical and prenatal care. It is revolutionary in the sense she calls for the elevation of the teaching profession. To call Diane Ravitch a “back-to-basics” counterrevolutionary is to imply that America has already done these things at some previous point in our history.

The author says that Ravitch has “politicized” the education debate. This assumes that the debate was not already “politicized” by the reformers themselves. This assumes that a discussion about education policy or practice can at all be separated from politics. Education is political. The education system is a reflection of the political, social and economic priorities of the nation. This is a point Diane Ravitch argues with great eloquence in Reign of Error.

Ironically, the author of the review quoted above confirms Ravitch’s point about charter schools skimming the best public school students. He says parents send their children to charters because they want them to sit in classrooms with other motivated students.  This is because charters, by and large, do not want to teach students with special cognitive or emotional needs. They do not want to educate children who come from other countries and are still learning English. They find inventive ways to bar or expel these types of students, something public schools cannot do.

Public schools cannot do these things because public schools are public, in that they belong to all of the people. Charters take the students who are easiest to educate, siphon money away from public schools and then dump a whole bunch of private money in on top of it. Despite these advantages, there is no evidence that charter schools outperform public schools. Therefore, what kind of education are the children of these parents who are fleeing public schools actually getting? With inexperienced teachers, militaristic discipline codes and an obsession with test prep, charter school children on the whole are not getting educated much at all.

What Diane Ravitch has accomplished in Reign of Error is a distillation of everything that is wrong with what has been dubbed education reform. All of the facts and arguments are laid out in plain language backed up with compelling evidence, or “data”, as the reformers love to say. She has hoist the reformers with their own petard by measuring their failures with the same yardstick with which they have been measuring public schools: test scores. In 100 or 200 years, Reign of Error will be an invaluable primary source about this episode in America’s educational history. She has rolled up into one convenient book the spirit of our educational times. This is why the criticisms of Reign of Error that have been proffered impotently melt away when one starts analyzing them. Their view is to push a narrow agenda now. Ravitch obviously wrote this book with one eye on the long view of things, both the history of the past and the history of now that has yet to be written.

Just like Diane Ravitch helped me construct my view of American schooling almost 10 years ago, she has helped deconstruct what education reform is about. Moreover, she has pointed the way towards how to reconstruct our public schools.

Relay Graduate School of Education is Intellectual Boot Camp

Relay trains its teachers in the questioning of Socrates, meaning the questioning he experienced before he was forced to drink poison.

Carol Burris and Diane Ravitch have been offering insights into a video posted by the Relay Graduate School of Education entitled “Rigorous Classroom Discussion”.

Relay is a newly accredited teacher training program that measures their prospective teachers by their students’ test scores. They must teach in one of Relay’s associated charter schools for a set time. If, by the end of that time, their students’ scores are not up to snuff, no accreditation for the teacher.

This is exactly the type of teacher training that the National Counsel for Teacher Quality has been calling for. As Diane Ravitch points out, prospects do not take classes in cognitive theory or the history of education. It is skill and drill from start to finish. Not to mention, it seems like an ingenious way for the associated charter schools to get some cheap labor for a school year.

At the end of the video the host, who describes herself as the head of middle school programs, says “that’s great teaching”.

And as Burris and Ravitch have pointed out, no, it is not great teaching.

Superficially, the classroom is the education reformer’s dream: a young white female teacher stalking a classroom of minority students in uniforms. She gives orders in cold, halting tones: “hands down, start position, you are back reading, right now.” She cuts off the student Omari while he is in the middle of giving an answer. Before that, she “phones a friend” by calling on a girl who gives a really nice answer. And what is the teacher’s response to this answer? Nothing. She gives no acknowledgement or praise, nor does she let it be known that she is building upon it in any way. She just coldly barks another question to the next student.

Reformers and people in the general public often say they want teachers who are motivated and love what they do. However, this teacher conveys no love or passion for the students or subject. At times, she seems downright hostile, standing there with her hands on her hips, repeating herself over and over again.

Ask yourself, is this how you want your own children to be educated? Is this a healthy classroom environment? If you answer yes, you are not being genuine. This is the reformer’s dream of how minority students should be educated. This is an environment not meant to stimulate young minds, but to stifle their spirits.

I really took a disliking to this video because my teaching method can be described as the “sage on the stage” approach, which is also “teacher-centered”. My students sit in rows while I walk around the room and ask questions. These are where the similarities between my classroom and this classroom end. All I can say is that if this becomes the template for what great teaching is in the future, then the teaching profession is in a whole heap of trouble.

This entire discussion is in pursuit of a correct answer. The teacher is after a character trait in the story, as well as a definition of this trait. This is low-level, mind-crushing teaching. First of all, Omari starts off by saying “ambition” is a trait contained in the story. What does the teacher do? She harps on this student and puts him on the spot so that she can get him to define what ambition is.

She asked a one-word question: what character trait do you see? She got a one-word answer: ambition. Now, one-word responses are not always bad. I usually get those as a way to move to a bigger question. That is not what was happening here. This one word, ambition, was the entire show. In my mind, the sage on the stage would follow up with the question “how was this character ambitious?” It would not be an Omari question. It would be a question open to everyone in the class. That is because I reserve my one-word questions for the students who do not usually feel comfortable participating. I usually get a totally different group of hands in the air when I ask one of these questions compared to a higher-level question. To harp on that one kid after the fact totally goes against the dynamic and what my students would feel comfortable with. I would praise Omari and move on.

Asking these “how” questions, as most teachers know, requires students to do much more talking. If Omari did not know what ambition meant, it would be clarified by a classmate on the next question. Also, asking a general follow-up question ensures that the other students will be paying attention to Omari’s answer. If they know I am going to harp on Omari, they have no reason to pay attention. They can sit there and wiggle their fingers and pretend they are sending “energy” to him. That is not learning. I do not even know what that is.

This discussion on ambition should have been (and it might have been in this video) part of a larger lesson. Maybe the lesson calls for an overall analysis of one of the characters. In that case, the word ambition is a small thing. It is part of a larger vision and should not require so much wasted effort and pressure. This brings me to the next concern: where are the students recording all of these answers? Why is the teacher not writing on the board? If they are highlighting the traits of a character, why not list the traits and examples somewhere? That way, Omari feels vindicated when he sees his answer go on the board, as do all the other students who participate. The entire class sees that there is a bigger, overarching idea at stake in this lesson, not a bunch of choppy, isolated factoids.

Quite simply, nowhere in this lesson were the contributions of the students validated, praised or justified. There is no give-and-take between student and teacher, or student and student. There is no reason for a student in this class to care or pay attention other than the fear of embarrassment. There is nothing organic in this lesson. Everything is forced: from the tone of the teacher, to the answers of the students to the wiggling of the fingers. Instead of finding what is right and good about Omari’s answer, she harps on what she thinks it lacks. Instead of praising and then using the answers of the other students, she ignores them and rolls on with the lesson.

A great teacher finds a way to use every response from students, no matter how off the wall or off base it seems. A great teacher can take the tiniest grain of truth, thought or insight contained in a student’s response and use it to build the next question. A great teacher can do this by instinct and the students will learn that, every time they raise their hands, they will contribute something and not be put on the spot. Most importantly, students learn that the “truth”  or “knowledge” is a process, not a correct answer to a fill-in-the-blank question.

This is not humanistic education. This is inhuman education. It is a scary glimpse into how reformers, charter school operators and the general public see teaching. Of course, no thinking person would want themselves or their children to be taught in this way. No, this is education for “those” people’s children. The ones that need a warden and not a teacher.

Maybe I am being too harsh here. As Carol Burris says, this teacher was merely showcasing the method they wanted her to showcase. At the same time, many teachers will probably be trained in this program. To think that a generation of people, most likely from affluent suburbs, are going to be trained to teach bright inner city students in this way makes me want to weep. This is authoritarian, thoughtless, soulless education. This is how you train people to follow orders and fill in blanks.

One thing is for certain: this is not the “lighting of a fire” that Carol Burris describes as true learning.

What do Diane Ravitch and I Have in Common?

Both of our blogs are censored on New York City Department of Education computers.

Actually, Dr. Ravitch is not sure if it is just certain NYC schools or all of them. Time will tell. As for me, I have been blocked in all schools for months.

It is indeed a great honor to be in the same category as Diane Ravitch.

To be sure, WordPress blogs are generally accessible from DOE computers. Therefore, it is obvious someone, somewhere in the DOE’s IT department has an issue with what I write.

It is funny, since both Diane Ravitch and I (it feels good to type that) take care to use appropriate language and sentence structure at all times, even though I fall short from time to time. Is the DOE afraid that students will be exposed to big words?

Out of all the NYC teacher bloggers who have been lambasting education reform for much longer and much more articulately than me, it is I who somehow ends up on the black list.

Whatever the reason is, I take it as a badge of honor. To be in the same category as Diane Ravitch only makes it sweeter.


Great Speech by Diane Ravitch

I saw this today on On the Edge and it is too good not to share. There is also another good video on public education there as well.

Diane Ravitch on Bobby Jindal and Other Governors

From Bridging Differences:

Gov. Jindal has submitted a legislative proposal that would offer vouchers to more than half the students in the state; vastly expand the number of privately managed charter schools by giving the state board of education the power to create up to 40 new charter authorizing agencies; introduce academic standards and letter grades for pre-schoolers; and end seniority and tenure for teachers.

Under his plan, the local superintendent could immediately fire any teacher—tenured or not—who was rated “ineffective” by the state evaluation program. If the teacher re-applied to teach, she would have to be rated “highly effective” for five years in a row to regain tenure. Tenure, needless to say, becomes a meaningless term, since due process no longer is required for termination.

Education has become a venture field. Bobby Jindal was the up-and-coming darling of the Republican Party back when he gave the response to Obama’s first State of the Union speech. Jindal’s speech sucked and he slunk back into the type of national oblivion that the governor of a state like Louisiana deserves (except for Huey Long, who was an exception).

But now he is rebuilding his name by pushing a massive privatization and union-busting education scheme through his state’s legislature. It is the post-Katrina New Orleans school system writ large.

Jindal is just one of a new breed of governors who are making a name for themselves by trying to privatize education.  Diane Ravitch also mentions Scott Walker, Mitch Daniels, Rick Scott and John Kasich. The only time a national audience ever hears their names is when they are out to privatize education. It is a surefire way to get some press, especially after getting applause from Uncle Arne in Washington.

Education is the new venture politics where governors try to make a national name for themselves.

They had some more localized trailblazers in this regard, like Michael Bloomberg here in NY.

Go back further to the two presidents who preceded Obama, Clinton and Bush, and they both made their national names by being education governors. They were the Rosetta Stones for the flood of education governors we have today.

Only now it is a much different ballgame. Boatloads of public monies are up for grabs like never before. On top of that, we now have all the money flowing in from the Gates Foundation and other assorted members of the billionaires boys’ club.

Education has become the new venture capital, which has caused it to be the new venture politics. National recognition gets that billionaire money flowing into their states, not mention their campaign coffers. It is just another example of our broken political system, where a few people with fabulous wealth can dictate to the rest of us how our own children will be educated.

Obama, Duncan, Jindal, Walker, Cuomo, Christie, every last one of them is on the take. I shudder to think that the history books will celebrate this generation of so-called leaders as heroes for their education reforms.

Then again, if their reforms succeed, nobody will be able to read history books anyway.

Leo Casey “Sets the Record Straight” on the New Teacher Evaluations

Is the UFT selling us another bill of goods?

Over at Edwise today Leo Casey, Vice President of the United Federation of Teachers, addresses the criticisms of Diane Ravitch and Long Island principal Carol Burris of the new teacher evaluations here in New York State. Mr. Casey acknowledges the complexity of the new evaluation regime, then goes on to say:

“Unfortunately, complexity has provided a fertile ground for commentaries on the New York teacher evaluation framework that reach alarmist conclusions, with arguments built on a foundation of misinformation and groundless speculation. A widely circulated piece by Long Island Principal Carol Corbett Burris, published on the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog, is in the thrall of this alarmist alchemy. Burris decries the law and last week’s agreement as allowing “test scores… to trump all.” Under its scoring, a teacher could be “effective” in all components of the evaluation and yet still receive an overall rating of “ineffective.” The law, Burris concludes, is creating an evaluation system in which schools and students will “lose great teachers.” At the Bridging Differences blog, Diane Ravitch has now taken up Burris’ argument, repeating her main points as gospel.”

Casey then goes on to explain why their criticisms are unnecessarily alarmist.

“First, Burris incorrectly assumes that the entire 40 points in the measures of student learning will be derived from standardized state exams. But the use of value-added growth measures from state standardized exams need not take up more than 20% of the total teacher evaluation – and then only for a minority of teachers, those teaching English Language Arts and Mathematics, grades 4 through 8. Standardized state exams can only be used as the basis for the local measures of student learning if the union local agrees to their use in collective bargaining. I know of no significant New York district where the local union has agreed to the use of standardized state exams as the basis for the local measures of student learning. In New York City, the UFT has taken the position that under no circumstances would we agree to the use of standardized state exams for the local measures of student learning…”

Now, I still have some respect for Leo Casey. He has written some very good things at Edwise and has had moments of eloquence in defense of teachers. Unfortunately, his counter-argument here seems to be a matter of splitting hairs.

The key word throughout this entire post is state. 40 percent of the new evaluations will be based on “measures of student learning”. Only half of that (20 percent overall) can be based on state standardized exams. The other half will be local assessments which must be agreed to in collective bargaining. In fact, Casey consistently reminds us that most of the details of the new evaluation framework will be filled in by what local unions and school districts agree to in collective bargaining (more on that later).

First, what is a local assessment? Notice how he does not use the word exam. Also notice that he did not mention that any assessment agreed to in collective bargaining must be approved by the State Education Commissioner. In reality, these local assessments will be more tests. They might be different from the state exams but they will be exams nonetheless. And, remember, all local assessments must be approved by the State Education Commissioner.

Local standardized exams do not yet exist in New York City. Furthermore, many grades and subjects do not have established state exams either. What this amounts to for the children of New York City are two exams, one state and one local, for every grade and subject. This is a mouth-watering prospect for companies that make standardized exams; a stream of millions of dollars in state and municipal contracts.

This new testing regime has been the major criticism of Diane Ravitch. In her vision:

All such schemes rely on standardized tests as the ultimate measure of education. This is madness. The tests have some value in measuring basic skills and rote learning, but their overuse distorts education. No standardized test can accurately measure the quality of education. Students can be coached to guess the right answer, but learning this skill does not equate to acquiring facility in complex reasoning and analysis. It is possible to have higher test scores and worse education. The scores tell us nothing about how well students can think, how deeply they understand history or science or literature or philosophy, or how much they love to paint or dance or sing, or how well prepared they are to cast their votes carefully or to be wise jurors.

Leo Casey never really addresses these arguments. He only responds that half of those tests will be agreed to by the union in collective bargaining (but must be approved by the State Education Commissioner.) I do not see how this is supposed to allay Diane Ravitch’s “alarmist” fears.

What is collective bargaining worth anyway, if the State Education Commissioner can give a thumbs down to whatever was bargained?

And what about that other 60%, the one that deals with “teacher performance”?

According to Leo Casey, this entire 60% will be shaped by collective bargaining as well. 31 of those percentage points must be administrative observations based on a research-based framework (i.e. Danielson) that must be agreed to in collective bargaining. The other 29 percent can be anything from peer observations, lesson plans (wait, I thought the contract said that principals cannot judge us based upon lesson plans?) and “artifacts” such as student work (does this mean the bulletin board police will continue to be out in force?) Whatever this 29 percent ends up being for New York City, it must be agreed to in collective bargaining between our own UFT and the DOE.

Therefore, according to Leo Casey

“…80% of the total evaluation – the measures of teacher performance and the measures of student learning based on local assessments – are set through collective bargaining at the district level. This provides teacher union locals with an essential and necessary input into teacher evaluations, allowing us to ensure that they have educational integrity and are fair to teachers.”

That really does seem like a sweet deal for teachers, but it is misleading. We have already dealt with 20 of this 80 percent, so let us look at the remaining 60.

First, this is a disaster for administrators (where is their union, by the way?) They effectively have had all of the power to rate teachers taken out of their hands. The 31% that they are actually guaranteed to be a part of must use a “research-based” rubric to rate teachers. No longer can principals walk into a class, observe what is going on and know whether or not students are learning. Believe or not, there are still a few administrators in the system who have been veteran educators who know when a class is learning and when they are going through the motions. None of that matters anymore. All of them, from the 20-year pro to the Leadership Academy neophyte who would not know good teaching if it was standing in the front of the room conducting a lesson, must refer to some pre-packaged rubric.

Maybe the account of a principal from Tennessee, where they have already started using some of this research-based stuff, can give a clue to the problem with this:

But under Tennessee’s new teacher-evaluation system, which is similar to systems being adopted around the country, Mr. Ball said he had to give the teacher a one — the lowest rating on a five-point scale — in one of 12 categories: breaking students into groups. Even though Mr. Ball had seen the same teacher, a successful veteran he declined to identify, group students effectively on other occasions, he felt that he had no choice but to follow the strict guidelines of the state’s complicated rubric.

“It’s not an accurate reflection of her as a teacher,” Mr. Ball said.

Ever call for tech support for your computer only to end up talking to someone in another country reading from a script in which there is no place for your individual problem? That is what this 31% percent is. No matter what is agreed to in collective bargaining, the assumption will be that good teaching looks the same in every classroom every day. Maybe you forgot to write the date on the board, maybe the aim is not focused enough, maybe the class gets so into a discussion that the original lesson does not get completed, or maybe you just did not wear a tie (or female equivalent) to work that day. No matter what, it all counts. It can all be used against you if your classroom does not look like every other good classroom as determined by “research” done by people who have not been in a classroom since the term classroom was coined.

The other 29 percent is pretty much up in the air and, chances are, whatever is agreed to in collective bargaining will disaggregate that 29 percent into smaller percentages. However, it does not matter in the end because according to Leo Casey:

“At the behest of Governor Cuomo, the New York State Education Department set overall scoring bands for the teaching evaluation system which are quite stringent: very low scores in both the state and local components of measures of student learning (0, 1 or 2 out of a possible 20 in both components) will lead to an overall ineffective rating, regardless of how a teacher scored on the measures of teacher performance.”

So, as has been said on every blog and news column at this point, that 60 percent is irrelevant because the 40 percent can make or break a teacher’s entire rating.

Leo Casey goes on to make this murky point:

“If both components were based solely on standardized test scores, using unreliable value-added models with high margins of error, as Burris incorrectly claims, these scoring bands would have the potential of producing unfair ratings among outlier cases. But with at least one of these two components being a local assessment that, as it is collectively bargained, should be an authentic assessment of student learning, this objection does not hold. Teachers and their unions have always said that we wanted to be responsible for student learning – our objection was to the idea that standardized exams provided a true measure of that learning. With the inclusion of authentic assessments of student learning, student achievement must be a vital part of our evaluation.”

Wait a minute, what is an “authentic assessment of student learning?” Does this mean that me, Diane Ravitch and the rest of the teaching blogosphere who fear that 40 percent (the vital 40 percent) of our worth as teachers will be judged on test scores are wrong? Has Leo Casey put our fears to rest?

Unfortunately not. What I fear is happening in the paragraph quoted above is a bit of sleight of hand. The term standardized sticks out here. I take this to mean that Leo Casey believes that because each school district will decide on the other 20 percent (in conjunction with the union) on their own, whatever assessment they agree upon is not standardized. It will be an assessment that is tailor-made for that particular district instead of a “one size fits all” approach for children throughout the entire state or nation.

It is difficult to see what can be a district-wide assessment that is not a test. Can it be a portfolio? Are contractors from the DOE going to pour over millions of stacks of portfolios every year in order to assess each individual student? Will the State Education Commissioner approve this?

Not bloody likely.

The only thing that it can be is something that is digestible in numbers. That can mean either: a) a city-wide exam or b) semester grades. Knowing how Bloomberg loves to crow about the rising graduation rate in New York City, it is possible to imagine him pushing for teachers to be assessed by the grades their students receive, which would pretty much end up institutionalizing the “social promotion” to which he claims to be so opposed. After all, if teachers know they can be fired if enough kids do not pass their class, you can bet that kids will end up passing along to the next grade.

But most likely the other 20 percent will be a city-wide exam. Maybe Leo Casey is setting the stage early for the collective bargaining farce to come between the UFT and Bloomberg. Bloomberg wants a city-wide exam and the union puts up one of their fake oppositions. Mulgrew and Bloomberg exchange mutual recriminations in the media to sway the hearts and minds of New Yorkers. The State Education Commissioner signals his support for a city-wide exam, making the UFT look like a roadblock in getting the new evaluation system finalized. Mulgrew goes silent on the issue for a few weeks, and then emerges from a backroom deal with Bloomberg where he reveals he has conceded the point on the city-wide exams. There will be huzzas from education deformers across the country and the UFT will turn to us and say it was the best possible deal under the circumstances.

As much as I would like to believe Leo Casey’s characterization of the foremost historian on American education’s concerns as “alarmist”, I do not see anywhere in his post today where he silences those alarms. All I see is a dark time ahead for the children and teachers of New York City.

This does not even touch on how the new evaluation regime destroys tenure for teachers. According to Leo Casey, his next installment will address this concern. I can only say I hope it goes over better than his latest defense of this horrid new system.