Saturday, September 21, 2013

Ravitch versus Rhee; a Solid Comparison of Books and Views

From the New York Review of Books comes a comparison review of Diane Ravitch's new book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools and Michelle Rhee's book, Radical: Fighting to Put Students First.  (Ravitch's book just came out and is now #1 in sales at Amazon.  Ravitch will be speaking this week, Thursday the 26th, at UW's Kane Hall  from 7-8:30 p.m.)              
What is striking about this review comes almost at the end when the reviewer, Andrew Delbanco, gives them each a fair pro/con assessment.

You would think it possible to take ideas from both sides and put them to work together. In order to agree that America’s schools ought to be better (Ravitch), we don’t have to believe that they are worse than ever (Rhee). We don’t have to think, as Rhee does, that “great” teaching is a magic bullet in order to agree with Ravitch that the training of teachers ought to be more rigorous and that our nation needs “a stable workforce of experienced professional educators” who receive good compensation and respect. Rhee is right that our schools could use some shaking up. Ravitch is right that “the wounds caused by centuries of slavery, segregation, and discrimination cannot be healed by testing, standards, accountability, merit pay, and choice.”

Perhaps a starting point would be to acknowledge, as Ravitch does, that the golden age of master teachers and model children never existed, and, as Rhee insists, that the bureaucracy of our schools is wary of change. One thing that certainly won’t help our children is any ideology convinced of its exclusive possession of the truth.

I note this balance in this review because one thing I consistently see in ed reform rhetoric is the complete and total inability to be intellectually honest about the good and bad of ALL of public education. It's almost as if a memo when out - something akin to Reagan saying "Never speak ill of a fellow Republican" - that said, "Never admit anything could be wrong with any part of ed reform. We are always in the right."



 Rhee is indignant at the forces that have resisted her efforts to rescue children from incompetent and indifferent teachers. She has little to say about the setting in which many teachers work—the desperate circumstances into which roughly a quarter of American children (a higher percentage in the school district she led) are born—except to say, in passing, that poverty ought not to be invoked as an excuse for poor academic performance.

She repeatedly invokes her mentor, Joel Klein, who asserts that “you cannot solve the problem of poverty until you fix the public education system.”  

That statement is breathtaking in its implications.  Public education is the source of poverty?  Public education can fix poverty?  And it's public education's job to do so?

Ravitch, too, is indignant—at the callow arrogance of those who describe poverty as an “excuse” for not performing better in school. She is outraged by the persistence of poverty and its terrible effects: low birth weight with the associated risks of cognitive deficit, asthma, and the neurological effects of lead poisoning, among other debilitating conditions. She reminds us that poverty damages, often irretrievably, children who start school already hurt by having lived amid angry, often poorly educated adults prone to violence, having been parked in front of TV and tended by exhausted caretakers who rarely speak in complex sentences or about anything beyond the fraught incidents of day-to-day life. 

Through Ravitch’s eyes we see what Rhee refuses to see: the limits of what even the most skilled teacher can do in the face of such realities. “Poverty,” she says bluntly, “is the most important factor contributing to low academic achievement.” And so “we must work both to improve schools and to reduce poverty, not to prioritize one over the other or say that schools come first, poverty later.”


- The title of Rhee’s new book, Radical: Fighting to Put Students First, suggests, accurately, that her main subject is herself.  (And indeed, she works in the name of her organization - Students First - into the title of her book.)

Whether Rhee’s time in Washington had positive or negative effects on schoolchildren depends on who tells the tale. Her own book is remarkably self-praising and untroubled by doubt. Its cast of characters is divided between those who adulate her and those who despise her—in both cases, apparently, for her determination to do good.  

Even her detractors agree that she improved building maintenance and delivery of supplies—not trivial achievements, since the physical condition of schools makes a real difference to children as well as to teachers. 

TestingTests, she (Ravitch) thinks, can be useful diagnostic instruments, but as a high-stakes method for evaluating teachers and schools, they create more problems than they solve. She quotes Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond (who was Arne Duncan’s chief rival to become President Obama’s secretary of education) that teacher ratings based on tests “largely reflect whom a teacher teaches, not how well they teach.”

Most important to Ravitch, “the tests do not measure the many dimensions of intelligence, judgment, creativity, and character that may be even more consequential for the student’s future than his or her test score.”

As for Rhee’s view of such concerns, she is dismissive. “There will always be doubters,” she writes, and comments on the cheating scandal with a conditional sentence: “If audits and investigations expose cheating on tests, we are cheating our kids.”  

Ed Reform
Her (Rhee) fervor for competition exemplifies what is fast becoming the national education dogma, which boils down to a few variations on a single theme: (1) Students should compete for test scores and their teachers’ approval. (2) Teachers should compete for “merit” rewards from their principal. (3) Schools should compete for funding within their district. (4) School districts should compete for budgetary allocations within their state. (5) States should compete for federal funds.

His aside is priceless:

For one who grew up, as I did, in the 1960s and 1970s, it is strange to hear such faith in the salutary power of competition from someone who calls herself “radical.” That word once implied deep discontent with the basic structure of society and a revolutionary zeal to overturn it, beginning with the distribution of wealth. Now it apparently means the determination to remake public institutions on the model of private corporations.

For true believers, the promise of privatization is the enlargement of consumer choice and, through the pressure of competition, improvements in quality and efficiency. When it comes to education, this has meant mainly two departures from past practice. 

The first is the growth of charter schools—publicly funded schools (often with supplementary private support) that are granted, through renewable charters, greater freedom than conventional public schools to hire and fire teachers, accept or reject student applicants, and dismiss students who fail to thrive.

Charter Schools
The leaders among them, such as the Promise Academy and the KIPP schools, provide what Ravitch calls, approvingly, “wraparound services”—prenatal counseling for expectant mothers, programs for preschoolers, longer school days, after-school and summer activities, and other support services urgently needed in low-income neighborhoods. Children whose families do little to encourage them to learn can greatly benefit from such services.

Her central concern is that pressure to show quick improvement in test results will create a “publicly funded dual school system”—one, consisting of some charter schools, will mainly appeal to the “motivated and willing”; the other, including public schools, will serve the “rejects.”

Despite our much-lamented political “gridlock,” some liberals and conservatives have found common ground on issues ranging from civil liberties to military intervention in foreign affairs. You would think there might be room for some agreement on how to improve public education. To find it would require all sides to moderate their tone. Rhee is incredulous at what she considers the stupidity and irresponsibility of just about everyone who disagrees with her. Ravitch imputes bad motives and a grand design where there may be good intentions and overblown confidence.

At the heart of the dispute between Ravitch and Rhee are their conflicting views of the teachers’ union. For Rhee, it is simply a thuggish interest group that stands in the way of reform and holds the Democratic Party in thrall.  

Ravitch, in defense of the union, is equally tenacious but makes her case with more nuance and depth. She sees it as “the strongest voice in each state to advocate for public education and to fight crippling budget cuts.” Tenure, she points out, was established long before the advent of the union, and means the right to “due process” rather than a guarantee of continued employment.


David said...

That is a great article, Melissa, thanks for pointing it out.

Ravitch's point on poverty is particularly good. We are asking our schools to do too much, both be a social safety net and teach children, for the meager amount of funding we give them.

Ravitch says "we must work both to improve schools and to reduce poverty". Presumably, she means outside of the schools, but, if we are going to keep asking our schools to both deal with poverty (by providing food and health care for children), and we expect them to still have enough resources to teach children, we are going to have to fund them with a lot more money.

And, to me, that is where a lot of the difference comes between Rhee and Ravitch. Rhee and other reformers are trying to find a way to improve public education without spending more money. Ravitch and others say the problem is poverty, the weak social safety net in the US, and the schools simply do not have enough resources to help children with all of the costs of poverty (and the data agrees here, with public school test scores in the US as high as in Europe if you exclude children in poverty, and successful programs like Harlem Children's Zone that cost a lot of money but do provide free food and clinics and other support and do yield much higher test scores).

Rhee and others have been unable to find a solution that doesn't cost more money, despite years of trying, and, if Ravitch and others are right, they never will. If we want public education to improve in the US, we will have to decide, as Americans, that we care about our children in poverty and are willing to spend money to help them.

Mark Ahlness said...

Comparing Ravitch's new book to Rhee's flop, good grief, that's like comparing Moby Dick to an Archie comic.

I just finished Reign of Error. It is a simply amazing book. Read it.