Ravitch:  A new agenda for school reform

this was written for and originally posted at Daily Kos. The links to my previous posts are to the Daily Kos versions of those pieces

I used to be a strong supporter of school accountability and choice.
So begin Diane Ravitch in an op ed in today's Washington Post titled A new agenda for school reform. And yes, she hotlinks in that sentence to an earlier Post piece about her new book, a book about which I wrote in this diary.

In today's piece Ravitch criticizes both accountability, telling us NCLB did not produce large gains in reading and math and that choice has been disappointing and provides data to support that assertion.

But Ravitch does more than criticize. After explaining both of the assertions, she tells us
It is time to change course
and that is the heart of her piece.

In case anyone reading this does not know, let me reiterate the following before getting to the heart of the Ravitch piece

1. I am, and have been since 1995, a public school teacher

2. I am on record as having expressed strong opinion of NCLB

3. I have been highly critical of much of what we do in public education

4. I have also been highly critical of the Obama administration's proposals for education, for example in this piece critical of the newly announced Blueprint

5. I have known Ravitch professionally for about a decade, consider her a friend, even though she and I disagree on some key points

Now let's get to the heart of what Ravitch suggests.

She begins by acknowledging that everyone - or should I say everyone sensible - agrees that education must be far broader than the skills tested under NCLB (which are still used in the Blueprint to ascertain the 5% or 5,000 schools still under the gun for reconstitution or worse. She supports " learning history, geography, civics, the arts, science, literature and foreign language. Schools should be expected to teach these subjects even if students are not tested on them." As one who teaches in the latter group of subjects and who majored in another, I agree. I also note, as Ravitch and others (including me) have done elsewhere, that it is often the "softer" subjects such as music, art, photography, phys ed, and the like that are the reasons that some students persist in school, thus giving us the opportunity to work on their basic numeracy and literacy and to expand their horizons.

And she focuses on good teachers. Sh would accept either a major in the subject they teach, or strong background in two subjects, and would require all teachers to pass a test on subject area content, as well as on basic literacy and numeracy. I might quibble some - I would be perhaps a bit more willing to have someone who has demonstrated expertise in one subject to teach that subject. Thus I would not care if a professional artist or photographer had majored in that subject provided s/he can demonstrate the expertise in that subject. Also, I do think that before stepping in the classroom those who teach need some background in things like basic pegagogy, classroom management and organization, human development, and the legal requirements of things like special education. I would accept an intensive 6-10 week training period provided there were ongoing support and supervision during the first 1-2 years of teaching.

Ravitch also focuses on principals. Here, before I quote the entire paragraph on this subject, I need to disclose that I explored an alternative program for becoming a principal, New Leaders for New Schools. I had one final round of interviews in the selection process for DC schools, but withdrew for several reasons, of greatest importance that I realized that I was not sure I wanted to leave the classroom. Thus I am not opposed per se to the idea of alternative routes to educational leadership.

Ravitch offers what I consider valid concerns:
We need principals who are master teachers, not inexperienced teachers who took a course called "How to Be a Leader." The principal is expected to evaluate teachers, to decide who deserves tenure and to help those who are struggling and trying to improve. If the principal is not a master teacher, he or she will not be able to perform the most crucial functions of the job.

As to district level leadership, Ravitch offers a similar set of concerns about Superintendents. She wants them to be experienced educators " because their decisions about personnel, curriculum and instruction affect the entire school system." And of course, they are responsible for picking principals and advising school boards on curricular matters.

The selection of district level leaders is perhaps the most problematic area of American schools. There have been a few examples of those not themselves professional educators who have been successful. There are very much the exception, and certainly should not be used as models. Thus just because a former General, John Stanford, was fairly successful in Seattle did not justify DC hiring former General Julius Becton, who turned out to be a disaster. We are seeing non-educators as the result of two sets of pressures. One is that of mayoral control of schools. Thus we have had Alan Bersin in San Diego (and Ravitch thoroughly explores his tenure in her book) and Joel Klein in New York (similarly covered in the book, and even more in her ongoing writing for newspapers and other print publications). OF course, the critical example is Arne Duncan first in his role in Chicago, and now as US Secretary of Education.

The other is one result of the effort by Eli Broad to use his wealth to reshape American education in his vision. Ravitch explores some of this in a chapter in her book on the Billionaire Boys Club. When it comes to superintendents, Broad has established an Academy which says right on the home page: WANTED: THE NATION'S MOST TALENTED EXECUTIVES TO RUN THE BUSINESS OF URBAN EDUCATION. Except education, especially urban education, is very different than a business. There are aspects of a large school district in which business expertise is appropriate, and having an assistant superintendent with appropriate experience and expertise to address those domains is not something to which I would object. Like Ravitch, I am concerned with district leaders who do not fully understand the nature of education.

Ravitch cannot fully explore the topics she attempts to address in her op ed. She wants better assessments, more than picking one multiple choice answer out of four, the most common form of state assessments. She is in general opposed to labeling schools as failing, noting that many of such schools have a large proportion of the kinds of students who start as low-performing: they are English language learners, they are students
who live in poverty, who miss school frequently because they must baby-sit while their parents look for work, or who have disabilities that interfere with their learning. These are not excuses for their low scores but facts about their lives.

She offers suggestions for how to address their needs, including bringing in inspection teams to exam WHY such schools are not meeting the needs of the students and then suggesting target methods of addressing those needs. Here I note that simply closing the school down and/or firing all the staff neither identifies the causes nor fixes the problems. Ravitch has a standing challenge she often makes when she speaks - please point at a single school or district that has improved performance by an approach of firing all the staff and/or closing a school down. And lest you be inclined to point at examples in Arne Duncan's Chicago, I should warn you that the schools about which Duncan and his supporters were prone to brag did not contain the same student body as had been in the school before it was reconstituted, and thus you do not have an honest comparison or any way of controlling the educational background, readiness and preparation of the new student body.

For Ravitch, there is another reason we should rarely close down schools:
In many poor communities, schools are the most stable institution. Closing them destroys the fabric of the community.
. To this I would add that closing and consolidating often puts children in urban areas at risk, as they have to cross territory of hostile gangs to get to the schools to which they have newly been assigned. That in itself should remind us all that many of the factors that impact school performance are outside the control of school officials. Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone recognizes this. Let me quote from the ABOUT page:
In the early 1990s, HCZ ran a pilot project that brought a range of support services to a single block. The idea was to address all the problems that poor families were facing: from crumbling apartments to failing schools, from violent crime to chronic health problems.
This approach has been expanded:
In 1997, the agency began a network of programs for a 24-block area: the Harlem Children's Zone Project. In 2007, the Zone Project grew to almost 100 blocks. Today the Children's Zone® serves more than 8,000 children and 6,000 adults. Overall, the organization serves more than 10,000 children and more than 7,400 adults. The FY 2010 budget for the agency overall is over $75 million.
Note especially the inclusion of adults in addressing the overall needs of the schoolchildren.

I know my friend Diane will not mind that I have explored some of her points in greater depth than the space the Post granted her would allow, but remember, the exploration is mine, and while Ravitch would agree with much of what I offer, she might will disagree on some points.

Where we absolutely agree is the need to abandon the punitive mindset that underlies NCLB, and which, unfortunately, is perpetuated in the Blueprint and in the demands imposed if one is to qualify for funds under Race to the Top. We both would agree that this is requires a long term effort, that there are no magic bullets nor ready-made solutions that can be taken off the shelf and imposed wholesale on schools and districts.

Her last brief paragraph says it all:
We wasted eight years with the "measure and punish" strategy of NCLB. Let's not waste the next eight years.

Indeed, let's not waste another day in the failed approaches of the last eight years. It is unfair to too many of our children.


No comments:

Post a Comment