Friday, April 02, 2010

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.



samraat said...

Art said...

I am astonished that anyone is still claiming that NCLB "punishes" schools. NCLB directs funds to schools that serve large numbers of poor children and it requires districts and states to provide additional resources - more money, more
training, improved curriculum, and support from teams of educators - to schools where children have fallen behind. This constitutes a novel notion of punishment by any stretch.

Public discourse about education is ill-served by propaganda and disinformation, but that's all there is to the claim that NCLB punishes schools. If NCLB really did disadvantage schools that serve large numbers of poor children and minority children, the nation's civil rights watchdogs would be rising to overturn it. If anything, the opposite is true, as we saw from the opposition civil rights organizations mounted two summers ago to the "Recess" Act that would have put NCLB's accountability requirements on hold.

The Education Renegade said...

As the parent of an LD classified 9th grader in NY, I loath NCLB and its assumption that all students learn everything at the same rate. The accelerated pace of the curriculum and the amount of material to be covered before the state test leaves no wiggle room to spend longer amounts of time on concepts students may have a hard time grasping.

Unfortunately, I live in a district that is very NCLB and test gung ho. And every year I have the same arguments with my daughter's math teachers regarding her "poor work ethic." What they don't understand is that by November she's lost and doesn't know how to do the work. But they just keep insisting that "if she would just apply herself she would get it." Even though the middle school psychologist told the high school special ed. teacher at last year's annual review that the failing grade in math WAS the best my daughter could do, I'm still getting the same song and dance.

I also read your post on Daily Kos and agree wholeheartedly with your statement regarding the crafting of policies without teacher input. And I'm wondering why teacher unions don't lobby for, either teacher input, and/or having policy-makers visit classrooms to see how what may look good on paper is a disaster in the classrooms.

Unknown said...

I'm also wondering why teacher unions don't lobby for, either teacher input, and/or having policy-makers visit classrooms to see how what may look good on paper is a disaster in the classrooms.
my blog:

Priscilla said...

Art, you obviously have little knowledge of how NCLB works in actual schools. For just 2 examples let’s look at the much-ballyhooed high schools that recently fired their entire staffs in RI and GA.

Both schools had made significant gains in learning, as measured by their states standardized tests. Both had graduation rates higher or equal to the state average. Both had math score averages that were higher than the state average. Both had ESE scores that were higher than the state average.

Although both schools had made impressive learning gains they did not make gains with all subgroups, as defined by NCLB. The RI school made gains in all but a few subgroups; the GA schools simply failed to meet the state’s new higher benchmark, despite having over 80% proficient in math and reading.

And for their successful efforts the teachers, administrators, and staffs were fired. How you torture that into non-punishment is your own issue.

Art said...

Renegade ... NCLB does not assume that all children learn at the same rate. In fact, the reason why we have NCLB in the first place is to improve educational conditions for children who have not learned at the same rate. That seems like a great thing to me.

Priscilla ... Under NCLB, schools reach the mandatory restructuring stage after six consecutive years of failure to make adequate progress. NCLB provides five options for restructuring schools. Replacing school staff is one option. Note that even if a state chooses to replace staff, NCLB does not require wholesale firing of everybody. The requirement is to replace staff "relevant to the school's inability to make AYP." Don't blame NCLB for everything that states and districts do.

The Education Renegade said...

Art - I disagree, it does assume students learn at the same rate. The NY state test is in March. So from Sept. to March they have to become proficient in 5 content strands. Basically that gives a teacher x amt. of time to cover each. Whether the students grasp each strand or not isn't relevant since the teacher has to keep moving along to ensure all the material is covered before the test. There is no room for the teacher to do her job and tailor her lessons to the needs of the actual students in front of her.

Art said...

Renegade ... I'm sorry but you are standing the logic of NCLB on its head. NCLB says that schools should make the changes they need to make to help all students reach high standards. That means directing more time and attention to kids who are not learning as quickly as other kids. That's what I would want for my children, if they were in that boat, and if their school were not giving them what the law entitles them to, I would be asking why not instead of blaming NCLB.

Nancy Flanagan said...

There is what NCLB rhetorically intends (or what one would hope it intended)-- the "soft bigotry of low expectations" yielding to the raised bar of standards and accountability for educating all-- and the reality of what happens when test scores on narrowed, basic-skills curricula become the only data that matters.

If only Art's misconception--NCLB directing more time and attention to kids who are not learning as quickly as other kids--were actually playing out across the country. That would be a good thing, indeed.

As a teacher in a high-functioning school, I can tell you that the kids who get extra time and attention these days are those who are "on the bubble," and can quickly be pulled over the line with some test-cramming on basic skills. Kids who are truly struggling are re-classified, putting their data in a special category so it doesn't mess up the school averages.

Schools make the changes they need to help all students get high test scores. They do not make the changes needed for all students to reach high standards. That would involve investment over the long term in a coherent plan for better instruction, better curriculum, better assessments and a plan for both quality control and innovation. I have very little faith that monolithic federal legislation can address the real, local problems.

The Education Renegade said...

Art - I do have to agree that you are right about the theory of NCLB, without accountability we're right back to having high school graduates that can't read. Before my daughter entered the grades of testing I also argued the merits of NCLB. However, NCLB's choice of assessment and the reporting of data leaves a lot to be desired as Nancy Flanagan points out so well.

Art said...

Renegade ... Don't accept the claim that NCLB forces schools into bad choices. For example, NCLB does not require schools to focus their efforts on children near the passing score, the so-called "bubble" children, and ignore children whose needs are greater. Flanagan calls a school that does that and other kinds of games-playing, "high functioning." I don't think that is high functioning at all, I think that subverting the noble intentions of the law is strictly low road. We have a right to expect better from public education, no matter how much Flanagan wants to place the blame solely on NCLB or on lack of resources.

A surprisingly and seemingly large number of people who work in public education come right out and publicly identify dysfunctional things their schools are doing and claim that NCLB is the sole reason. Accepting that premise would defeat all of of America's civil rights legislation. Having that nonsensical claim thrown in their faces repeatedly is precisely the reason that the civil rights community rose up to defend NCLB two summers ago.

Craig A. Cunningham said...

Art, you are correct that NCLB cannot be blamed for all the dysfunctions of schools. But for those of us who have observed its effects on a wide range of schools, it becomes an odious law precisely because it is used to justify the sorts of test-driven, mind-numbing, economically-skewed and socially-unjust curriculum emphasis that we see in those schools that are "failing" to make AYP. Yet the law does nothing to address the underlying (largely economic) causes of huge variations in educational achievement.

It is pernicious because its effects ("chosen" by the schools as they may be, rather than mandated by NCLB) are much more profound (and profoundly negative) on the "under-performing" schools, which are precisely the schools that need something more than teaching to the (really bad, for the most part) tests.

Nancy Flanagan said...

@Art: My school would be considered high-functioning under NCLB. We routinely make AYP, and our scores are higher than schools in surrounding, similar-SES districts--largely because the district has adopted a highly structured educational triage, a laser-like focus strategies to ratchet up test data. Look at the ads in Education Week: they're all about finding the programs (long-term and quick fixes) that will improve standardized test results.

Now, is this practice dysfunctional? No--it's highly functional--it precisely accomplishes the function it's intended to. I believe that putting the focus on "bubble kids" is dishonest, even immoral, but it's certainly functional. And I would agree that lots of similar functional quick fixes have been put in place to defeat civil rights policy. It's the old "unintended consequences" principle: Be careful about what you legislate, because the path to compliance will be strewn with "adaptations" you didn't anticipate and don't want.

Unlike some bloggers on this site (whose work I deeply respect), and like Diane Ravitch (whose highly experienced perspectives were the genesis of this conversation), I too thought NCLB was passed for all the right reasons, including civil rights. But it hasn't worked out that way, either in the neediest schools or in advantaged schools like my own.

BTW, if you re-read carefully, you'll notice that I didn't blame these negative practices on NCLB--and I never even mentioned resources. Systemic investment in improving what what's already in place is the exact opposite of excuse-making because of scarce resources.

The Education Renegade said...

@ Art - Of course NCLB doesn't "require" schools to focus on the bubble kids, but it's exactly what happens in my district. Granted my experience with school districts is extremely limited, but when kids are coming home saying that their teachers told them if they are going to be left back if they don't pass the test, are sent home with 10 page practice test packets every week for homework, and when the entire 6th grade doesn't have science for the 6 weeks prior to the state math test to use that period as an additional math class to prepare for the state test (without informing the parents) - then sorry, I have to blame the laws governing districts for the decisions made administrators. And the administrators are making these decisions because the BOE and the majority of parents where I live think NCLB is the greatest thing since sliced bread. They are screaming for improved test scores since they all believe that high test scores means good schools and are what drives property values. Since my daughter isn't one of the bubble kids she's going to end up stuck in a classroom with the rest of the "uneducatable" students doing nothing for 6.5 hours a day with an aide just so that the school has enough bodies on campus to get their money from the state.

Art said...

Craig … You say NCLB does nothing to address economic causes of variations in educational achievement. If by that you mean that federal education law does not directly redistribute wealth, your statement is certainly true. But federal education law is not the primary vehicle or even a reasonable vehicle for directly redistributing wealth. There are other remedies at the federal level for economic inequality and President Obama’s. Federal education law addresses a more proximate cause of huge variations in achievement – the huge variations in the quality of schools attended by poor students and better-off students. Federal education law is an appropriate (but not sufficient) vehicle for doing something about poor schools and that is a worthy end in itself. There are plenty of ways that ESEA/NCLB could be clearer and stronger, but criticizing it because it not redistribute wealth makes as much sense as criticizing it because it does not clean up air pollution.

Nancy … I’m sorry but I’m a hard sell on your claim that it’s “functional” for schools to look for short cuts or game the system or otherwise work against the interests of parents and children. In fact, I find your argument bizarre to the point of self-mocking, because clearly the only function in what you describe is betrayal of what should be a sacred trust.

Nancy and Craig … I do not know whether to laugh or cry over your outrageous doublespeak that NCLB is at fault because states, districts, and schools subvert its noble intentions. People who act in socially invidious ways do not do so because of “unintended consequences” of civil rights legislation. Your argument turns morality on its head. Accepting it would defeat all of America’s civil rights legislation and justify abuses of all kinds.

Renegade ... As a parent I sympathize with you because your child seems to be caught up in some horrendous decisions. However, if administrators and teachers are giving your child problems instead of solutions, work with them on solutions instead of blaming NCLB. Science is an excellent and natural subject to bring in mathematics, by the way.

The Education Renegade said...

Art - I appreciate the sympathy and you're right, science is an excellent subject to bring in math, but they did away with science completely for 6 weeks to prepare for the test - they didn't integrate the two subjects - there was no science, just test prep. for the state math test. I think you and I are at a stalemate. We can argue til the cows come home, leave and come home again and the school system will just march on business as usual. Such a shame . . .

Nancy Flanagan said...

@Art--I'm with Renegade here: this argument is going nowhere. I would like to point out (again) that "functional" is not a synonym for "OK" or even "defensible." School districts that put all their focus on raising test scores for a handful of kids to boost their numbers (paying less attention to either the promising students at the upper end or those who *appear* to be hopeless) are being rewarded for this strategy. They make AYP. They look good on paper.

I have not "accepted" this--and I fully agree that a narrowed, test-prep curriculum is a violation of a sacred trust, and subversion of the stated goals of NCLB. I'm only sharing what I increasingly see in the field: raising statewide standardized test scores--by whatever means work-- has become the #1 goal of both good schools and atrociously bad schools. The behavior is so widespread and endemic that it's hard to say that good ol' noble NCLB is not correlated, if not causative.

BTW, there are plenty of examples of legislation passed with the intention of promoting social good that turn out to have extremely negative consequences--Prohibition springs to mind. Perhaps if we'd just stuck with Prohibition, having faith in its power to strengthen families and productivity, we'd have outrun the organized crime boom and other negative consequences. But with people dying from drinking grain alcohol and an increasing % of the population turning into lawbreakers, the writing was on the wall. Sometimes, good intentions are not enough, and the actual policy needs changing.

For a great take on the changes needed to salvage good intentions, while tweaking policy specifics, I recommend Sherman Dorn's brief take:

The Education Renegade said...

Nancy - We tried :) The sad part is that as long as things continue to look good paper most people feel the same way as Art about NCLB. And that is the heart of the problem.

Art said...

Renegade ... Turning NCLB into a paper chase doesn't make me feel good at all. As to the "most people" part I think you underestimate your fellow citizens. On another matter, if I understand correctly, your child is having some problems in school and on top of that you think the school is shortchanging your child. It seems to me that by interpreting everything to do with your child in the context of national education policy, you might be losing sight of the forest for the trees.

Nancy ... It's true that many districts, schools, teachers, and principals have made very poor choices in response to NCLB, but many others have made good choices, so blaming NCLB for poor choices in public education just doesn't cut it.

The Education Renegade said...

Art - If it were only my child having trouble and being shortchanged I wouldn't be here. And I certainly wouldn't want entire laws changed just for my kid. I'm also not shortchanging my fellow citizens, I'm shortchanging the professionals and politicians who are snowing them with the puff pieces about that equate high test scores with actual education. But in the end it doesn't matter because NCLB will be reauthorized and it will be business as usual. In three years my daughter will be free. I'm just glad that I learned early on not to by into the system hook, line, and sinker therefore letting her enjoy her childhood and explore life outside of school unlike so many of her friends who spend the school year grounded over homework and poor grades. I did enjoy the discussion with you though, so thanks :)

Art said...

Renegade ... I see no evidence that the public confuses test scores with "real education." If anything I think the opposite is true, evidenced by the success of charter schools that get more out of kids than their traditional school did. (That said, I do know people who value test scores for their own sake - or rather for the competitive edge). The Blob is hard to move, but giving up means giving up not only on your own child, but on vulnerable children everywhere. That's what keeps me going, because I sure do not believe that NCLB is perfect and the only problem is that the system doesn't appreciate its great qualities.

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