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This Strange New Era of "Reform"

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Bridging Differences returns today with this entry from Diane Ravitch.

Dear Deborah,

Welcome back from vacation. School is open, and it’s time to start bridging differences. Let’s see what we can do to clarify the deep undercurrents in American politics that are changing what happens in the schoolhouse, and, in some cases, seem likely to change the very nature of the schoolhouse.

In my historical studies, I have usually found that the public debates about schooling may be heated, but teaching and learning change glacially. This has always been a source of frustration to reformers, whether they are progressives or essentialists, because they would like to prescribe big changes and see them happen fast. Ordinarily, that doesn’t happen.

Yet in these past six years, since the enactment of No Child Left Behind, we have seen bigger changes in daily classroom life than anyone could have imagined. The testing requirements of the law now define teaching and learning. As the old adage goes, what is tested is what is taught. So in district after district, all across the land, students are being prepared for the state tests in reading and math, often to the exclusion of other subjects, even recess.

This we all know. But something else is happening that is in some ways even more ominous than the Sword of Damocles that hangs over so many public schools.

We used to see a partisan divide about the big issues in education policy. The Democratic party advocated more funding for disadvantaged students and policies that promoted equity. The Republican party advocated choice, privatization, merit pay, and accountability, and criticized the teachers’ unions as the main obstacles to reform.

In this election cycle, that familiar divide has changed dramatically. The Republicans still advocate choice, privatization, merit pay, and accountability and are still critical of the teachers’ unions. But now there is a significant movement within the Democratic party that advocates the same positions as the Republicans.

The leading advocates of choice, privatization, merit pay, and accountability appeared in a panel discussion during the Democratic convention, led by Chancellor Joel Klein of New York City and Chancellor Michelle Rhee of Washington, D.C. Along with such colleagues as the Rev. Al Sharpton and Mayor Adrian Fenty of the District of Columbia, they present themselves as the true voices of “reform.” Listen to them and what one hears is the same views that the Republicans have been expressing since at least 1996, when Republican candidate Bob Dole launched an attack on the teachers’ unions. Now it is Rhee and Fenty trying to persuade D.C. teachers to abandon the tenure rights that their union won for them.

The “reforms” of the Klein-Sharpton-Rhee group are not at all new. They attack the teachers’ union, bash teachers, demand merit pay, promote charter schools and private management, and laud testing, lots more testing. They love NCLB, and they want it toughened. At bottom, they would like to see the public school system of the United States run like a business, with employees hired and fired at will. They are ready to privatize and outsource whatever they can, trusting private managers to succeed where the public sector (with themselves as leaders) has failed.

A number of articles recently have jumped on the idea that charters, testing, merit pay, etc. are the cutting edge of reform. (See here and here.)

It is curious, is it not, to see these two superintendents present themselves as successful reformers. Rhee has only recently begun her tenure, so it is indeed premature to anoint her a success, as so many in the media have already done, based solely on her bold rhetoric and her audacious effort to undercut the teachers’ union. Klein has been chancellor of the New York City public schools since the fall of 2002; he implemented his “reforms” in 2003. Since then, NYC has seen no significant gains on NAEP in 4th grade reading, 8th grade reading, or 8th grade math. The city’s gains in 4th grade math are suspicious, since the exclusion rate for that grade and subject was an eye-popping 25 percent, something not seen in any other district tested by NAEP. At the same time, the city’s education spending increased by a startling 79 percent.

Some formula for success. Some business model.

So this is the strange new era we are embarked upon, in which the mantle of “reformer” has passed to those who would dismantle public education, piece by piece.

Diane

10 Comments

Diane,

It is not the testing that is at fault here but the over-reliance on the tests to shape what a quality education should be.

Tests have a good role in learning. They can tell us if the student learned what was intended. Motivation to do well on tests can help students focus and apply themselves. But tests should be developed and used only after the specific learning goals are established, quality methods of teaching have been developed (to see what is possible) and the tests should be highly scrutinized to ensure that they completely align to the pre-set goals and specific implementation. The tail (tests) should not be wagging the dog (education).

The problem with these reform models is that they erroneously equate education with business.

Businesses live and die by the marketplace. If a product doesn't sell then the business goes out of business. The marketplace is Smith's "invisible hand".

But education is more akin to the commons. There is no "invisible hand" guiding what a quality education might be like. Quite the opposite. A quality education can only come out of a thoughtful, explicit delineation of the concepts, ideas and content necessary to constitute an educated person.

Forcing student testing into that "marketplace role" over-relies on a very fallible device; tests. And completely skips over the essential element of a quality education: What is it and how do we achieve this in our children?

And because we can't even agree on what to teach our children, why would we ever changes the tests from the simple basic math and reading skills tests that we currently give our children?

You have written well on the narrowing of the curricula and classroom instruction. What is to prevent schools from completely becoming a test prep factory, particularly when some of our more experienced/thoughtful teachers are "retired" due to this new era of “teacher accountability”?

Because the feds are not responsible for ensuring that our children receive a quality education, they have little *positive* influence on our children. But it looks like both political parties are determined on implementing "reforms" that will influence schools, just not in the direction that we would all hope for.

Diane,

It is not the testing that is at fault here but the over-reliance on the tests to shape what a quality education should be.

Tests have a good role in learning. They can tell us if the student learned what was intended. Motivation to do well on tests can help students focus and apply themselves. But tests should be developed and used only after the specific learning goals are established, quality methods of teaching have been developed (to see what is possible) and the tests should be highly scrutinized to ensure that they completely align to the pre-set goals and specific implementation. The tail (tests) should not be wagging the dog (education).

The problem with these reform models is that they erroneously equate education with business.

Businesses live and die by the marketplace. If a product doesn't sell then the business goes out of business. The marketplace is Smith's "invisible hand".

But education is more akin to the commons. There is no "invisible hand" guiding what a quality education might be like. Quite the opposite. A quality education can only come out of a thoughtful, explicit delineation of the concepts, ideas and content necessary to constitute an educated person.

Forcing student testing into that "marketplace role" over-relies on a very fallible device; tests. And completely skips over the essential element of a quality education: What is it and how do we achieve this in our children?

And because we can't even agree on what to teach our children, why would we ever changes the tests from the simple basic math and reading skills tests that we currently give our children?

You have written well on the narrowing of the curricula and classroom instruction. What is to prevent schools from completely becoming a test prep factory, particularly when some of our more experienced/thoughtful teachers are "retired" due to this new era of “teacher accountability”?

Because the feds are not responsible for ensuring that our children receive a quality education, they have little *positive* influence on our children. But it looks like both political parties are determined to implement "reforms" that will influence schools, just not in the direction that we would all hope for.

Diane, How good to have you back! Yet,...one wonders where you spent the break.

"Dismantling public education piece by piece." Where have we heard that before?

A mega-millionaire basketball star wants to spend his money and time redeeming his failing alma-mater, returning the 20%-reading-at-grade-level performance to a more respectable 80%? How many lawyers can $750 million buy to stop this travesty, to stop the "dismantling of public education piece by piece'?

The state of Ohio, an otherwise perfectly average and balanced state, wants to reverse the 50% dropout rate among its inner city minority students? To finance experiments with different forms of education management with a batch of new-to-education dollars? For shame. We're clearly 'dismantling education piece by piece'.

The people of many cities get tired of years of intractable systems spending twice and thrice the national average per student, producing 50% dropout and 30% basic literacy; move to give control of the schools to the mayor rather than a reactionary, entrenched school board? What fools! This is the 'dismantling of public education piece by piece.

Unless,...maybe,...maybe, "public education" means something besides public employees with public titles and public salaries and public benefits and public contracts.

Could public education mean the right of children to receive a good, meaningful education? Learn history and civics and math and science and literature and music and art?

Would Thomas Jefferson approve of such a definition? Would he think basic literacy to all students deserves the name 'public education'?

And, would he and Ben Franklin--the original public activist--agree with the perspective in my response to Deb below?

Diane,

I think that you are correct in your observation that the current sense of urgency is creating some "strange bedfellows." I think that many people along the traditional political right-left spectrum are re-thinking their positions on many issues.

You wrote an OpEd in the NYT in 2005 that personally woke me to this trend. I thought that I "knew" where you would come down on the issue of national standards and your "Every State Left Behind" essay surprised me...

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/07/opinion/07ravitch.html

I have been similarly surprised by some "non-traditional" views expressed by organizations such as the Fordham Foundation. (Though they continue to express lots of "traditional" views too.)

From my own perspective, though I tend to live on the left of our political spectrum, I find that I have overcome my ("our") traditional wariness "of testing in general." We have to measure things to the best of our ability if we hope to make progress on these tough problems.

As someone who passionately believes in public education (reading the The Race Between Education and Technology by Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz has increased my appreciation for the role it played in the unprecedented economic rise of the U.S. and has intensified this passion) I also worry about what I perceive as an erosion of support for it.

My fear is not derives not from reformers "who would dismantle public education," but from being dismayed by the number of people I personally know who are submitting themselves to great financial strains to put their kids in private schools. The folks I am thinking of are not the traditional "rich" who have avoided public schools for generations, but rather, highly educated, well employed people who choose to drive 13 year old cars, forego vacations, and deny themselves the sunroom they have been dreaming about to be able to send their kids to private schools. I know enough such people that I think that I am seeing a trend that scares me.

If a community’s educated, well-to-do, and well-connected all decide to abandon our public schools who will ensure that public schools get the resources that they need?

G.B.

GB,

Why are the people you know sacrificing so much to send their children to private schools? Do they not value public education or are the schools so poor in your area that they subject their kids to them?

Erin,

No, these folks are sheepish, or even express open amazement with themselves, about abandoning public education. And I am not talking about DCPS here but some of the suburban districts.

I am aware that I, the big proponent of rigorous research, am talking about anecdotes here. But it is happening often enough to scare me. I look at these folks and think. "You are ones who know how to work a system, fight a bureaucracy. You, more than most, know what it will take to be competitive in the coming century. You should be demanding the reforms--not abandoning the playing field!"

I am not sure why this is happening. I suspect that there are many reasons. Disgust with the chaos that often characterizes education, even in good districts. A narrowly "selfish" choice to give their own children the best shot. In some cases, the folks I am thinking of are recent immigrants who simultaneously have no sense of loyalty to our public education system and an understanding of just how far some of our public schools lag behind.

I am usually an unflagging optimist. But this has happened enough to me that I am a bit rattled.

GB

Diane,

Thank you for bringing up outsourcing. This trend is troubling and deserves more attention. Some school districts are hiring hundreds of teachers from other countries such as the Philippines:

http://www.spectator.org/dsp_article.asp?art_id=13678

We are avoiding our problems in this way. Yes, many qualified people from poorer countries will do hard work here for little pay, without complaint. This does not mean that it is easy or pleasant for them. Many are doing this just to support their families back at home, whom they don't see any more. From what I have read, many are bewildered by the lack of discipline in the schools.

And it is just one more way for the privatizers to say: "look, what are you teachers complaining about? These teachers from India aren't complaining!"

Of course. They aren't complaining, at least not for now, because they can't afford to complain. But that only lasts for so long. There used to be a myth that the working-class poor were happier than the rich, and less prone to depression and so forth. This is far from true. Often the most industrious and agreeable workers suffer beyond the reasonable, but hide it until they break down.

To make our schools better, we have to understand and face them. Outsourcing obscures the problems and creates new ones. The structure is inhumane, separating teachers from their countries and families, and leaving others without work. While the figures flash success, the damage is profound.

I worked at a publishing company that did quite a bit of outsourcing. The most tedious tasks were performed far away, in India and elsewhere. We would get the results electronically. People were embarrassed whenever it came up. They knew something was wrong with this system, but were also glad that we didn't have to do the tedious work ourselves, or pay full wages for it.

Diana Senechal

Diane,
Please explain the difference between "teaching to the test" and "teaching to the curriculum".

Also, if the mantle of reform is being passed on, who is it being passed from? The status quo that has taken twice the money and not turned it into an iota of improvement over the last 30 years?

It's about time that the Democratic Party started to represent the interests of students and parents in the education debate instead of solely the interests of teachers, who are certainly disproportionately represented already.

Absent the reforms being pushed by DFER and other organizations, what exactly would the Democratic platform for education be? More money and less accountability? Seems like we've tried it your way for a long, long time.
John

What is so bad about firing and hiring teachers at will? What is wrong with merit pay?

Why does education get a pass at market forces? (Answer, it really doesn't).

It may very well be the case that at will education could improve education quality.

It may very well be the case that higher turn over in education puts better teachers in the class room.

Or we could keep with the antiquated model that has no explanatory power on providing real incentives for teachers.

Diane

as I have noted before, it has been interesting watching your positions evolve as you examine both the reality of what some "reforms" have done and seen the motivations of some who have pushed such "reforms"

It is also interesting to see how infrequently the voices of those most impacted by decisions on educational policy - those of teachers and students - are allowed to be heard in the policy debates. Perhaps if those with such voices were allowed seats at the table when policy is being discussed the policy makers might not making the same mistakes over and over and yet argue that they were making "progress."

Peace

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The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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