« The Emperor Wears No Clothes | Main | Summer Reading & Other Thoughts »

Those Lazy, Crazy, Hazy Days of Summer


Editor's Note: After this week, Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier begin their annual summer break. Their blog will return in September.

Dear Deborah,

We have had fun these past couple of years exploring our differences and our agreements. It is clear that the point where we diverge most strongly is whether anyone should set common standards or curriculum outside the individual school. And the point where we agree most strongly is on the role that schools should play in advancing our democratic purposes as a society.

This past week’s events in New York City have caused me, as well as many education advocates and parent activists, to despair about the prospects for democracy in education. The law that granted sole control of the public schools to the mayor expired on June 30, and many advocates hoped that this would provide an opportunity to rethink control of the public schools to expand democracy. For seven years, the mayor has run the schools without any checks and balances, which we know are integral to any democratic functioning. The law provided for a board of education, but our mayor renamed it the “Panel on Education Policy” and turned it into a rubber stamp.

The reason the law expired was that our state’s legislature has been tied up in knots for weeks. The lower house—the Assembly—renewed the mayor’s unrestricted ownership of the public schools with only a few cosmetic changes. The upper house—the state Senate—did not act, because the Republicans and the Democrats are locked in a 31-31 stalemate and unable to pass any legislation. The customary tiebreaker is the lieutenant governor, but there is none at present, because ours, David Paterson, was elevated to governor when the former governor, Eliot Spitzer, resigned in a scandal.

So, last week, when the mayoral control law expired, the former governing structure was resurrected. It now seems as if a corpse was hauled out of a graveyard. Under that structure, the mayor appoints two people, and each of the five borough presidents picks one. In the past, there was a presumption that the elected officials would each pick a distinguished community leader to represent them on the city’s Board of Education.

So, while parents and advocates celebrated what they briefly dreamed was a new day, the elected officials delivered a stunning shock. Rather than select distinguished community leaders, the mayor picked two deputy mayors to represent him. The borough president of Queens picked the mayor’s deputy for education to represent that borough. With only one exception, three other borough presidents picked one of their deputies as their borough representative. Only one borough president, in the Bronx, had the courage to select an independent person, the former president of Hostos Community College.

The new board, on which the mayor controlled six out of seven votes, quickly voted to vest all of its powers in Joel Klein, who has been running the school system for the past seven years, and to petition the legislature to promptly pass the mayoral control bill, thus preserving the status quo of the past seven years.

What a cynical sham. How shameless. How can we speak of democracy in education when democracy is so easily subverted by our elected officials?

On to happier subjects.

I finished the book on which I have been working for the past couple of years. It will be published by Perseus next spring. Those who are regular readers of our blog will recognize many of its themes. The blog served as a sounding board for ideas that I was working through as I was writing, and many of our readers helped me see things more clearly with their astute comments, questions, and challenges. One of our faithful readers, Diana Senechal, was my research assistant and crack editor these past few months. I was very lucky indeed to have her help.

I plan to catch up with my reading. I have only two books on my table. One was recommended by Mike, one of our readers. It is Gerald Grant’s "Hope and Despair in the American City." As soon as Mike suggested it, I ordered it because I so admire Grant. He is a wonderful writer. His book, "The World We Created at Hamilton High," is one of the best that I have read in many years.

My main summer reading is George Eliot’s "Daniel Deronda." I loved Eliot’s "Middlemarch," as well as "The Mill on the Floss" and "Silas Marner" (the latter is a book that I hated when it was assigned in high school, but loved as an adult). I have wanted to read "Daniel Deronda" for many years, but kept putting it off. The time is now.

Having just completed a book that required me to read dozens of education books, new and old, in the past year, I don’t want to read anything more about education this summer. I want to immerse myself in literature. I expect to read poetry, too, which I love. Every once in a while, I get tired of reading about education, and must attend to my own education in literature and history. I also hope to attend to my health and physical well-being by swimming, biking, and gardening. And I expect to undermine my mental health by beginning a partial renovation of the kitchen.

To you and to our readers, have a great summer!


P.S. Happy (belated) Independence Day! I took this picture of the Southold Public Library's float in the July 4th parade.


A beautiful day to celebrate our freedoms! It was my 2-year-old grandson's first parade. He loves books, just like his grandma.



"Daniel Deronda" is well worth the time, but it sure isn't as good as "Middlemarch"!

Congratulations, Diane, on a project completed!! And happy summer break!

I confess to being glad to see you two go! Its been a grand time, engaging on these topics. I learned a lot myself about what people are thinking when they are saying things. For instance the degree to which you both filter things through the lens of NY educracy is both inspiring and dejecting. Inspiring because 1.1 million kids are involved, many losing out. Dejecting because...no school system can ever serve 1.1 million kids, and... the lessons there are unduly extended by your followers to apply elsewhere.

Also learned: so many observers are focused on "serving the poor" rather than reducing their numbers! Its due to habit and language and conceptualization, I know. Yet, I believe the poor would rather be not poor than poor and well served.

And so to summer... I will return to park building! This writing has taken time which might have been devoted to duties like finding a solid board member, involving more volunteers, soliciting major donors, public relations, and just plain getting out and doing physical maintenance and construction!

My coding,...is finally coming to fruition. I am a terrible programmer, untrained and stuck in the technical wilderness of Appalachia, with no non-virtual helpmates. Its been a challenge! I think, though, we'll have something public after the break.

Indeed, I hope to begin testing with the teachers at Ashbrook's summer Masters in history/education program this week!

My reading will include (Mike,...Perhaps later in August for "Hope"?) People of the Book, by Brooks, and The Last Cavalier, a just recently found work by Dumas!! How cool is that?!

I would love to meet Margo for coffee! She'll have to write, my address is via below.

Congrats, again, Diane, and happy summer to all!

Diane writes "What a cynical sham. How shameless. How can we speak of democracy in education when democracy is so easily subverted by our elected officials?"

To the contrary, you have described democracy in action. No matter how you slice and dice it, voting is a form of delivering power to a group of people who then wield it for their own interest. For every alleged positive result you may ascribe to democracy there are five tragedies. These are the inevitable results of a theory resting on stark contradictions.

i.e. The democratic myth in mayoral control of education:

1) supporters of democracy claim that humans are too dumb/evil/selfish to live without mayoral control of schooling

2) but humans, too dumb/evil/selfish, should be allowed to vote for this "mayor", a dictator

3) the mayor is also human and therefore too dumb/evil/selfish

Ah, but you say that this mayor will be circumscribed by law or that democracy comes with rights. But these defenses only exemplify further contradictions (and confusions) because:

1) The law is made by these same elected folk- who

A) know that they only have to serve a certain percentage of the population to maintain control;

B) are aware that they may not be elected again so are incentivized to 'get while the gettin is good'; and

C) are shielded from accountability since 1) government, by definition, is not subject to the laws it imposes on its people and 2)democracy is exempt from consideration of property as justice.


2) Rights are derived from the concept of property, but democracy implies the 'right' of the majority to seize property. As soon as 51% of the populace figures out that they can enslave the other 49% via voting- they will do so.

There is a lot of truth to the joke "Democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for lunch."

A sensible and humane person would see democracy as something for civilization to avoid at all costs. This is, predictably, a lesson they won't teach in 'democratic' schools.


Lest we forget Winston Churchill's thoughts on democracy, "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." (from a House of Commons speech on Nov. 11, 1947). I've quoted this before on this blog to the adoration of Deborah but it's so well known by those of us over fifty it's almost a no-brainah!

New York City is unique for its population, diversity, sprawl, and especially its politics. Mayor Bloomberg has been posturing for years to run for the White House. He's going to have his head handed to him and there probably won't be many disappointed bystanders. He's managed to pull the wool over the eyes of many of the 8.2 million in the five burroughs with his vast wealth and accompanying political machine. Fortunately the rest of the country will be able to figure him out the way they vetted Mike Dukakis in 1980 - as a fraud and a bit of a megalomaniac.


You are a tireless workaholic (redundant?). You are to be congratulated on your efforts, your energy, and your enterprise. We all envy you. Can't wait to read your new book. Market it to the ed schools. They should make it mandatory reading coming from someone of your stature.

I'm selfish and therefore disappointed you and Deborah take the summers off from Bridging Differences. Look forward to your return and stimulating entries returning in the fall. Only come September, let's see if we can remedy some of these issues instead of beating around the bush (just kidding).

BTW, Diane, you mentioned recently the Stanford-CREDO report on charters.

Over at Fordham, Amber Winkler takes a look at the rigor of the study: The CREDO conundrum Or at least it's report. There she points out many of the frustrations I had: they headline a conclusion which is too easy bait for status-quo lovers, and yet fail to properly show the gritty details.

For example, like all transfer students, transfers to charters have adjustment issues. Yet, "When student performance is disaggregated by length of enrollment, first year charter students experience negative impacts on learning; second year students show no difference in learning gains; and third year charter pupils experience small but significant gains in reading and math." (-Amber)

Mike P also has a take, one post above. Amber's is more to the point.

She wraps up with a policy conclusion which seems just common sense, but isn't at all that common in the wild: The charter movement must remove barriers to entry and exit, for high-performing schools in the first case and low-performing ones in the latter.

I’ve been enjoying your back and forth. Thanks, Paul for your intervention, but I suspect Tony is right. Everything relates to everything. Maybe that’s why I love talking about schools.

And, it’s why—like Elisa—I’m so appalled at the idea that ACT and SAT folks are going to design a one-size fits-all curriculum for all. But, of course, this is not as big a change as one might think. Test publishers and test-makes have been one and the same in public K-12 schools for a long, long time, deciding the curriculum and providing the tests for a neat profit. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Why, Richard Munro, are you focused on education textbooks? They aren’t better in most other fields either. Dull, uncontroversial, and likely to be read only by a captive audience.

Ed—surely it's slightly more problematic than you suggest for employers and employees to be on the same page in terms of their interests. One has to imagine something more like a co-op to achieve these ends—which is why unions were invented. The current interest in medical co-ops is a similar experiment in trying to imagine how we could have greater trust—which in schools as in medicine is hard to do without. (And why we ran CPE and MH as co-ops.)

I'd also suggest that you might be surprised at how few jobs require advanced mathematics, although a healthy understanding of what an economy is all about would be a healthy step forward for all citizens. And that requires some sophisticated mathematical thinking, but perhaps not so much calculus and more statistics and probability.

I like Tony’s challenge for us to imagine a school district that all of us writing these comments, and Diane and I, might at least tolerate sending our own kids, too, and maybe even be happy to do so.

By the way Paul, while 88% of Boston’s students are people of color, by no means are they all or even mostly African-American. Which is a nice segue into your discourses about integration. It would help, as many authors have noted, had we pursued more integrated residential policy along with seeking school integration. In the absence of this, even a fine and smart and caring lawyer (judge) made a brave but hopeless effort to integrate Boston. It was an absurd plan if one knew anything about black or white families. And we won’t get too far if we persist in believing that an “integrated” school must be mostly white, or even mostly middle-class. Although the latter is at least reasonable, the former is both insulting and utopian.

What schools like Central Park East, Urban Academy, Beacon et al in NYC and Boston Arts Academy and Mission Hill in Boston have demonstrated is that you can have a predominantly nonwhite student population (even 75-80%) and still serve the minority of white kids well. It helps if there are both white and non-white middle-class families in the mix, and if the staff is also integrated, and if families are part of the school’s equation. It’s do-able.

Of course, making more people of color middle class – rather than doing the opposite – would help. The NY Times Magazine's story about the autoworkers in the middle west is a cautionary one. There may well be fewer lack Americans in the net generation as we lose our manufacturing base. As class gaps widen sharply—they are already the highest in our history since 1928—all other racially related problems will also grow harder to solve.

Have a good summer; I’ll miss you all.



I would like to just caution you that economics is not a mathematical science. Unlike in the natural sciences, where physical things may be measured and their interactions tested in the lab, there exist no such constants in human behavior. Hence, no mathematical equations may be derived.

This reality cannot be over emphasized since the lack of its recognition has aided totalitarian mindsets. Many of these people calling themselves economists today are just suffering from science envy.

In support, please see this short clip (under 2 mins) from the nobel prize winning physicist Richard Feynman:


I wish you and Diane a wonderful break. Hopefully, I have significantly added to your desire to do so. ;)



As a 10 year school board member from an urban district in Pennsylvania, I find your columns required reading for me to be able to put our success's and our not success's in a broader context. Looking forward to your return in the fall.

Hi All....

Diane, congratulation on your newest book being completed!

As your are relaxing this summer... here is a favorite poetry site you may want to check out...

Every one else.... enjoy your summer!

be well... mike

Dan, LOL! What a great video to end with..a fantastic cliffhanger of sorts! Particularly the words at 1:15, "I know what it is to know something. I have the advantage of having found out how hard it is to really get to know something; how careful you have to be about checking the experiments, how easy it is to make mistakes and fool yourself..."

I love it!!! Too many policy books recommended to me take but five minutes standing in the bookstore to see that the author has exactly these problems. And yet their word becomes fact.

Deb, I understand exactly how few jobs require advanced math, having worked at the closest thing to rocket science, system-of-systems weapon system engineering. You'd be stunned at how much of the work requires little more than sophomore geometry.

And yet, reality is that we have a test for the desire to do these jobs, a test of mettle. For whatever its worth, you must get a degree from an institution which wants you to study advanced math. Its not about actually doing the math on the job; its about the discipline of mind and body required to survived the gauntlet of the degree.

At a lower level, here is an irony: come to Appalachia and you will be hard pressed to get a job without a HS diploma. In the cities, you can get away with it, parking attendant, server, maid, guard, valet, on and on. Not here, you'll be filtered out in and instant.

The more so at manufacturing jobs.

I am starting to think beach...or mountains? Decisions!

I had a look at Feynman's video too, in which he disparages social sciences. I think that his Nobel Prize has gone to his head. If he wants to know something about the nature of knowledge (both in the social sciences and his own sciences), he should go back and read carefully some of the great works on hermeneutics and epistemology--it would give him a more humble sense of the limitations in the social sciences, as well as his own field.

Diane, it has been a great honor to edit your book. I hope that many people read it when it comes out and long afterward. I expect it will stir up much thought (as it does for me) and much discussion.

Like Deborah, I am intrigued (and amused) by Tony's idea of all of us working at a school together. This morning I was remembering G. K. Chesterton's novel The Ball and the Cross in which a devout Catholic and an atheist try again and again to engage in a duel with each other, only to be interrupted and thwarted at every turn. They come to realize that they have something in common that is more important than their differences: they both care passionately about the question of God. The real enemy, they realize, is apathy. Here on Bridging Differences we are doubly fortunate, because we have no apathy and no duels (except duels of words, which allow for the survival of all involved.)

Speaking of duels, one of my favorite Chekhov stories (a long short story) is "The Duel"; I plan to reread it this summer. Another favorite is "Ward No. 6"; still another, a lesser-known story titled "At Home" (or in some translations simply "Home"), which I recommend heartily.

I have been thinking about Deborah’s idea, “We need citizens with many different forms of expertise to weigh in on the kind/level of mathematical problems 18-year-olds should be able to make sense of.” Yes, there should be public forums on math. When it comes to writing math textbooks and curricula, I would add three criteria for participants: first, that they care deeply about math; second, that they have mathematical knowledge; and third, that they value math for its own sake as well as for its usefulness. Then schools, families, and individuals should have the opportunity to review the books and curricula and offer feedback. It should be an open process, in which we discuss not only what “works,” but what we want to accomplish in the first place.

Thank you, Diane and Deborah, for another great year of dialogue and commentary. Deborah, I look forward to your column tomorrow. A happy summer to all.

Diana Senechal


Are congratulations in order for the appointment of your ex-husband, Richard, to New York's Lieutenant Governor? Congrats, I guess. It's quite an honor for him and hopefully it will end the 31-31 stalemate in the state senate so New York can move forward. Hope it passes legal muster.

How can you leave -- right in the middle of a debate on merit pay and value-added? Jesse Rothstein has examined a sample of almost 100,000 North Carolina students to show that value-added can reveal teachers' effects on students they never had. That study set statisticians scurrying about, debating whether their statistical problems can be fixed. But the problems with value-added are not really mathematical at all, at least not in North Carolina.

North Carolina has apparently just instituted a retest policy that allows for almost immediate second-chance tests of students who failed state NCLB tests. "Sterling Elementary, for instance, saw reading pass rates rise from 35 percent to 48 percent and math from 52 percent to 76 percent, even before retesting. With the second-try scores, pass rates were 59 percent for reading and 84 percent for math" ("CMS shows big gains on N.C. tests," 6-25-2009, Ann Doss Helms, Charlotte Observer). That is an 11% gain in proficiency for reading and an 8% gain in math for the same students the same year on the second try. Why wait a year to show academic progress when you can have it next week?

So, if you have the perfect statistical model, which test score do you use: the first test or the second? Would you award the money to the teacher who taught the child most of the year or the one who tutored the child for the retest? If it is the same teacher, how did that teacher get so good so quick? Do any of these statisticians have any idea what is going on in the real world?

After eight years of test-based education reform, the policy makers, emboldened by cargo cult science, have lost any strain of doubt. They have policies to carry out; don't bother them with facts. And don't even dare to question the real education reformers because they are the real Americans who really care about our children and if you don't agree with them, then you are on the wrong side of history, blah, blah, blah.

Meanwhile, the economists argue about whether the King of France is wise.

And Arne Duncan asks for more money for more of the same.

It is going to be a long summer without you.

To "Happy Trails,"
Thanks for the great tip about retests in NC! My new book (out next April) has a chapter about VAA and merit pay. This is a nice point that you raise. It is bizarre that Duncan has $100 billion to push, prod districts into doing what he thinks best. This despite the fact that Chicago showed no progress on NAEP during his tenure. I keep remembering the decades in which it was widely understood that the federal government would not use its power to tell everyone what to do re curriculum and pedagogy. Now is the time for wisdom, courage, knowledge, insight, and the ability to separate from the herd. The herd is running fast, in the wrong direction.
Thank you, Happy Trails. Keep writing, I treasure your comments.

Maria Montessori wrote, almost a century ago, that three- and four-year-old preschoolers will learn to read spontaneously if they get "sufficient" practice forming alphabet letters. Although boldly claimed in her "The Montessori Method" this possibility has strangely never before been subjected to a scientific test.

In 2002-2004 I found five kindergarten teachers on the Internet who provided experimental data on 106 experimental kindergarten students as they practiced printing fluency and we monitored their reading ability (and also five other first-grade teachers who did NOT make the effort of inducing printing practice, but who only measured how much of the serial alphabet students could print in a timed, twenty-second period of time, and the correlation with reading skill. These 94 students formed a control group).

The correlation was very obvious in all ten classrooms. We found that all but a very small percentage of students read well, and with good comprehension, shortly after the point in time when they were able to print at least the first thirteen letters within 20 seconds. Multiplied by three, this equates with a fluency rate of 39 letters per minute.

The children enjoyed the practice sessions, and observing their gradual increase in fluency as the weeks passed. No apparent stress was noted, and it was found that the median kindergartner, after spending five minutes daily of each school day practice printing, was "printing fluent" after a mere three months. But printing fluency didn't correlate with reading skill among older students, according to our results with a group of fifty fourth-graders.

The kindergartners wrote and read with about the same skill as the first graders at the end of the winter of school. The fact that kindergartners were reading and writing at a level of children a full grade ahead shows that the early acquisition of literacy in the kindergarten (experimental) group was caused by the dedicated attempt to induce practiced fluency in printing, and not just a coincidental marker of some third, and unknown, causative factor.

At the present time (May, 2008) I have collected another group of kindergarten and first-grade teachers on the Internet. Fourteen K-1 teachers have already submitted correlations of the printing fluency and reading skills of their pupils. In each case the correlation has been obvious and strong. Anyone wishing to join and monitor (or participate on) this free list need only send any email to [email protected] Returning the automated "confirmation message" to the computer will result in automatic list membership.

Printing practice and fluency training in the early grades has completely gone out of style during the twentieth century, though it is still practiced (though not specifically tested) in India and China. This rediscovery of this important principle offers an inexpensive and effective means toward ensuring reading and academic success from the earliest grades for children of all races and ethnic backgrounds.

It has also been found that second-graders able to give correct answers to simple addition facts more fluently than 40 answers per minute rarely have problems with math or science thereafter.

Bob Rose, MD (retired), [email protected]
Jasper, Georgia

Comments are now closed for this post.


Most Viewed on Education Week



Recent Comments