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Clashing data

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Dear Deb,

Your discussion of knowledge and trust sounds right to me. We are likely to accept statistics on topics far from our own field, but be skeptical about claims made in areas where we are better informed. This new world of 24/7 news, information, and opinion can sometimes seem overwhelming. We know so much more than we did in the past about happenings all over the world, yet our understanding of this constant flow of information does not appear to be especially deep. It is a constant source of frustration to me, which I have vented in our exchanges, that the media are unusually shallow when it comes to education. It annoys me that reporters typically repeat whatever the press release says, that they exhibit no curiosity about the truth claims of the press release.

For this reason, I am glad that Education Week exists. I appreciate the fact that this publication has reporters who do take the time to probe beyond the superficial story line and to assess the data that they are presented. Not only does Education Week take education seriously, but it does not have a "party line." In this era when even education has become politicized, we should be grateful that there is at least one publication that strives for straight reportage without tailoring the facts to fit the views of its readers.

It has been interesting in the past year or two to watch the evolving story about the comparative performance of charters and vouchers. One batch of studies attributes gains to students in these schools; another batch of studies finds no differences. I don't know how the public "reads" these disputes or interprets the clashing data claims. My guess is that over time, as more districts have more experience, we will eventually reach some sort of consensus that these changes make a difference—or not. It seems that the major structural issue in the next decade will be not about vouchers—which affect only a small number of students in a few districts—but charters, which now enroll well over a million students. This is a discussion that I hope we will return to when we resume our conversations in September.

Enjoy the August break!

Diane

9 Comments

I'm not so sure about Edweek not having a "party line." Doesn't it seem like every piece they write about Gates and the big foundations seems to be puffy? They never seem to be concerned about the disproportionate power accruing to the giant funders who help drive top-down reform strategies in N.Y and elsewhere. Could this be related to the fact that particular Edweek articles are underwritten by these same funders. Edweek is probably on solid ground accepting badly-needed grant money. But is it proper for specific articles, even those written about foundations, to be directly underwritten? Isn't this what the Dept. of Ed. did with Armstrong Williams, to pump up NCLB in the media? Edweek need to elevate its professional standards.

August break? You guys are going on break again? What are you a couple of school teachers or something? Come on! The best opportunity for a regular intelligent exchange and your readers can't get get enough of you two, what with your trips to China and your summer breaks.

Yeah--exactly. Actually, I became a teacher so I could have a two month "break" -- and I've never been without it. But like all good school teachers we've assigned summer reading. We'll have a test ready for our return. Thanks, Paul. Deb

Michael,
I think you are right about the financial tie between the Gates Foundation and Education Week. I greatly respect EdWeek but wish that it was not taking money from the single biggest money machine in American education.
It is hard to find anyone who has not asked for or gotten Gates money. (I have not, and I would guess that Deborah has not either.)
Many school districts have been funded by Gates, and the others have their hand out looking for some Gates dough.
Bill Gates may be a fine and honorable man, but this concentration of vast wealth in one institution is dangerous to our democracy.
And I repeat: I am sorry that Education Week is funded by the Gates Foundation. The publication would be freer to criticize the foundation if it had no financial ties to it.

Diane Ravitch

Re taking money from Foundations! Full disclosure. Actually while I have never directly been lucky enough to have gotten money from Gates, many projects I admire have. And at the moment I'd take money from almost any surce for our In Defense of Childhood (indefenseofchildhood.org) project. There are extreme cases, but generally we've accepted money for our schools where and when we could. We once did have a debate about Phillip Morris--but it came to naught. Lucky for us. And the project that started the breaking up of big high schools into small schools was the outgrowth of generous funding from a whole host of NYC foundation (preGates). It was the work of an amazing network of foundations, led by Sophie Sa of Panasonic. It's a good story for another day. And the Annenberg Foundation has been a supporter of work I've been involved with for a long time, and I appreciate it enormously.
But it is still true what both Michael and Diane say--it's hard to talk or act as honestly when one's work is dependent on a nonpublic funder. Even more to the point it distorts ones priorities, agenda, pacing, etc. Still I'd do it again. Furthermore every magazine whose Board I'm on (e.g. The Nation and Dissent) also accept occasional funding for special issues, articles, investigations. It's a thin line.

Deborah

I'm more concerned about the direct influence of foundations on education policy than on editorial policy. In NYC, Gates has bankrolled the small schools movement, a policy with no evidence to support its efficacy, especially in comparison with small class sizes. While the two policies are not mutually exclusive, they both compete for capital spending. The unfortunate result in NYC has been a diversion of NYC's own capital budget funds to reconfigure large schools into small ones in order to provide sites for Gates small schools. That expenditure comes at the expense of spending to create more seats. So the foundation money dictates the policy and pulls tax dollars along with it.

To me, the real threat to democracy is the loss of public debate about what the decisions the big foundations make mean. When we are left as only choosers among a menu of beliefs (which grnt to go for!), we are limited in our efforts to help students. Gates money began the smll schools movement and schools believed being small was the answer. Having grown up in a small school, and having taught in large schools, I know it's not the smallness that is the answer, since it is possible to feel just as isolated and sperated in small as large - in fact more so. And so it became a fight for the money and writing grants that complied rather than looking at our own school. Where can we find the public debate that forms democracy in the land of Huge foundations????

Diane and Deb,
I wouldn't expect Edweek or their parent organization (or anyone else in their right mind) to turn away Gates money. But I would expect them not to let Gates or any other foundation, fund individual articles, especially those articles written explicitly about foundations or funding. If you look at the many articles in that have appeared in Edweek over the years, about Gates, you'll find not a single critical comment or even a note of concern about the size and power of the foundation or the extent of its influence over public schools. Nearly all self-promoting puff pieces. That's a problem--and not just with Edweek.

I am requesting an opportunity to interview Diane Ravitch. I am a graduate student in Mesa, AZ. We were given an assignment to write a biography about someone that has influenced the development of American Education and I chose Ms. Ravitch. My professor had a long list of names from the history of education starting around 1600 to 1880. I wanted to read about someone more current. Please, let me know if this is possible and if we should do this stictly through email?
Thank you,
Mary Arroyo

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