Diane Ravitch: A Prophet Without Honor

by Robert Pondiscio
February 26th, 2010

Last summer I had the great privilege of reading Diane Ravitch’s new book The Death and Life of the Great American School System in draft form.  It’s a splendid book and a must-read for anyone who cares about our schools and our education policy.  I have been eagerly anticipating the release of this book and the reaction to it. 

At Washington Monthly, Rick Kahlenberg frames his review as Ravitch’s return to her liberal roots, noting she has become “one of the nation’s leading critics not only of conservative educational policies like vouchers but of more centrist ideas too, like charter schools, testing, and merit pay for teachers.”

The new Ravitch exhibits an interesting mix of support for public education and the rights of teachers to bargain collectively with a tough-mindedness that some on the pedagogical left lack; she supports a strong core curriculum and a no-nonsense approach on discipline, while casting a skeptical eye on efforts to artificially prop up student self-esteem….Ironically, Ravitch’s return to the left comes precisely as centrist ideas are consolidating their hold on Washington. Even left-of-center thinking—at the Obama administration’s Education Department, leading foundations and think tanks, and the editorial pages of the New York Times—has galvanized around greater emphasis on charter schools and performance pay for teachers based on test score gains.

At the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog, Valerie Strauss urges readers to pick up the book and focuses on its most important takeway: Ravitch’s strenuous pushback against data-driven, business-minded reformers who ”imagine that it is easy to create a successful school.”

“They imagine that the lessons of a successful school are obvious and can be easily transferred to other schools, just as one might take an industrial process or a new piece of machinery and install it in a new plant without error. But a school is successful for many reasons, including the personalities of its leader and teachers; the social interactions among them; the culture of the school; the students and their families; the way the school implements policies and programs dictated by the district, the state and the federal government; the quality of the school’s curriculum and instruction; the resources of the school and the community; and many other factors. When a school is successful, it is hard to know which factor was most important or if it was a combination of factors.”

“Amen,” Strauss chimes in.  “The U.S. public school system would not be as troubled as it is if most of the reformers of the past few decades really understood this.”

Amen, indeed.  It has been dispiriting to see some in the ed reform community, including some I otherwise respect, dismiss Ravitch in the past several years  (no links; you know who you are) accusing her of anything from apostasy to idiocy.  Being right is the best revenge, however, and I suspect when some future Diane Ravitch writes the history of this era in education, he or she will wonder why more attention wasn’t paid to our best and clearest educational historian.  Too often a prophet without honor, she has spent the last several years of her career acting as a one-woman counterweight to the worst excesses of the ascendant, 0ften-wrong-but-never-in-doubt brand of ed reform.  The Death and Life of the Great American School System is her clearest and most powerful statement to date.

The Common Standards Mousetrap

by Robert Pondiscio
February 24th, 2010

Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door, said Ralph Waldo Emerson.  He did not say “states will not be considered for federal dollars for rodent extermination that have not pledged to follow common state standards for mousetraps.” 

Will the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) represent a better mousetrap?  Fordham’s Checker Finn is concerned that the initiative is already being laden with heavier and heavier burdens.  Only states that are on board are eligible for Race to the Top dollars.  Now President Obama now says he wants to link states’  Title I funding to the new standards and assessments.  Why are the DOE, the White House, the Gates Foundation and others  are “sounding and acting as if these standards and assessments had already proven themselves,” Finn wonders.  It’s “enormously risky and, frankly, hubristic,” he writes.

A little humility would seem to us to be in order. If these standards and assessments end up representing a huge improvement over those in use in most states today, then much that’s good may reasonably follow from their installation and use. But what if they don’t? And even if they do, what about those (few) states that have done a creditable job on their own and for which CCSSI may represent either a lateral move or a step backward? In any case, would it not be prudent to appraise their safety and efficacy before demanding that they become the center of America’s new education universe?

No Caloric Content

by Robert Pondiscio
February 24th, 2010

Suggesting that great schooling is all about teachers is like suggesting that great restaurants are all about waiters.  If the food is lousy, the service doesn’t matter.  And make no mistake, the food is lousy.  We continue to put thin, tasteless gruel on the menu, and blame the waiters when the customers leave hungry. 

I must be not very bright, because I still can’t get my head around how we can create measures of teacher effectiveness without agreeing on what they’re supposed to teach first.


by Robert Pondiscio
February 23rd, 2010

As a rule of thumb, a scandal has reached a tipping point when it inherits the suffix “gate,” and the story of the Pennsylvania school district accused of spying on its students through school-issued laptops is now being referred to as Webcamgate. 

At This Week in Education, Alexander Russo, as he is wont to do, chides the media’s sensationalizing the story. ”The spyware was intended only to be used in cases of theft rather than as some sort of ongoing monitoring program and was only used in ‘a handful’ of cases by two authorized IT officials, according to the district,” he writes.   A-Rus surely–I hope–doesn’t mean to imply an abuse of authority is OK if it’s only done in “a handful” of cases, rather than as part of a program of abuse.   A major problem is that users of the school’s laptops reportedly were not explicitly made aware of the security feature and made to sign a waiver acknowledging it.  Plus, there are lots of ways to track down missing laptops other than by remote cameras.

Here’s a surprising piece of this story that I’ve not heard discussed:  The Philadelphia Inquirer reports “more than a year ago, two Harriton High School student council members privately confronted the principal when they learned that the school could covertly photograph students using the laptop’s cameras.”

When [the principal] said it was true, the students told the principal they were worried about privacy rights, and asked questions about other kinds of monitoring. Could, for example, the school system read saved files on their computers? At a minimum, the student leaders told the principal, the student body should be formal warned about any surveillance. But nothing happened, according to other council members who were briefed afterward, and the student leaders returned a short while later to once again tell the principal that they were greatly concerned about a potential invasion of privacy. Again, nothing happened.

Say what?  Student council members knew of the potential for the laptops to take pictures for over a year and said nothing?  Perhaps those students need to brush up on their knowledge of the Constitution, specifically the 1st Amendment.   I can’t help but wonder why they didn’t make noise about this before the issue blew up.  A lost teachable moment, at the very least.

For a detailed disussion of the case, see The Volokh Conspiracy, a group blog written largely by law professors.  George Washington University’s Orin Kerr offers a tentative bottom line: “The schools violated the Fourth Amendment rights of students when they actually turned the cameras on when the computers were at home. On the other hand, the schools did not violate the federal statutory surveillance laws.”

Why Do Students Go to School?

by Robert Pondiscio
February 23rd, 2010

If you know what your goals are in education, you know what outcomes to measure, observes Dan Willingham.  Sounds obvious, right?  But if it’s so obvious, what exactly are our goals for schooling?   Writing at the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog, Willingham notes that while measurement is essential to progress, there’s “remarkably little discussion of big-picture goals.”  Why do students go to school?  He offers three possible reasons:  1) So that they can better carry out their civic duties;  2) To prepare for the workplace, and 3) To maximize the potential of each student, whatever his or her talents and interests might be.

“That parents might hold very different goals for schooling seems inevitable,” Willingham concludes.  “Rather than having schools try to be all things to all people, this diversity of goals strikes me as a good (but not definitive) argument for school choice.”

I worked for a principal who liked to say “you must inspect what you expect.”  At present, we apparently expect kids to read on grade level and graduate more or less on time.  That doesn’t directly address any of the big picture goals Willingham describes.  Nor is it a very satisfying definition of “educated.”

A Bronx Science Tale

by Robert Pondiscio
February 22nd, 2010

Funny thing happened on the way to work this morning.   I walked into the subway at 149th Street and 3rd Avenue in the Bronx a few blocks from my former elementary school.  Two police officers were questioning a kid who I immediately recognized as one of my former 5th graders, a very bright, straight-arrow kid.  I asked the officers and my student what was going on and was told he had jumped the turnstile.  The police asked me his age and a few other questions. I assured them he was a terrific kid and one of my best students; they let him leave with me without issuing a summons. The kid was clearly shaken up and didn’t deny he had jumped the turnstile, but said he was late for school.  No excuse, obviously.  I was just about to read him the Riot Act when he dropped the bombshell: he just got admitted into Bronx Science, a hypercompetitive selective New York City high school. I was stunned.  And elated.  So much so that I forgot my lecture. 

As a teacher, you live for moments like this. I’m still going to chew him out for being so irresponsible.  Just not today.

A “Social Agenda Trojan Horse?”

by Robert Pondiscio
February 19th, 2010

An Obama Administration education official wants school safety measurements – ”a data system so parents know what kind of environment a kid will encounter in a school” — included in the Common Core State Standards.  And that has one prominent ed watcher asking if there’s a social agenda bait-and-switch in the works.

In an interview in Phi Delta Kappan magazine, Kevin Jennings, Assistant Deputy Secretary for Safe and Drug-Free Schools, says, “just as we have standards around academic goals, we need standards around school climate because what gets measured is what gets done.”  The interviewer for the Kappan asks Jennings if he wants school climate standards included in the Common Core Standards, and Jennings says yes.

If we don’t get this one right, the other ones don’t matter. Right now, they’re really focused on the academic standards. This one is much newer…We’re still fighting over the definition of school climate. But I can promise you it does not include air conditioning. Once we have standards and a scientific way of measuring school climate, state and local authorities will be able to pinpoint which schools need improvement and implement policies and programs to drive that process.

At his new blog, the American Enterprise Institute’s Rick Hess reads Jennings remarks and says, “Seriously? A high-ranking administration official is telling us that the common standards being financed by $350 million in Race to the Top funds “start” with academics but will eventually encompass “school climate” standards too?”  To Hess, Jennings desire to codify and measure whether kids feeling  emotionally safe “sounds like a summons to social agendas, culture clashes, and political fisticuffs. In other words, the stuff that sinks standards.”  Hess writes:

Mr. Jennings’ remarks raise concerns about the old bait-and-switch. If he is speaking for Secretary Duncan and the President, they seem to have been less than truthful so far when discussing their vision for common standards. If not, a President seeking bipartisan comity might want to encourage Mr. Jennings not to suggest that the Department is covertly planning to drive a massive 48-state effort into a familiar ditch…or to turn it into a Trojan Horse.

I agree that school climate is enormously important, but schemes that try to codify such conditions are fraught with problems.  For a time, New York City principals were judged in part on school discipline–the fewer suspensions, the tighter your ship was perceived to be.  Thus principals had every incentive not to suspend students, regardless of the infraction.  No consequences meant no discipline, and some of the worst climates were the schools with the best numbers on paper. 

Jennings was something of a lightning rod to political conservatives even before this interview.  Now that Hess has asked if the Common Core standards are a social agenda Trojan Horse, I suspect we’ll be seeing a lot more chatter about Jennings’ remarks, a clarification from DOE, or both.

Update: At Eduwonk, Sara Mead thinks Hess has strayed into “tinfoil hat” territory.  But two paragraphs later she worries that school climate surveys accountability “could water down accountability for academic outcomes.”

Update II: “We do not believe in national standards for school climate,” DOE’s Justin Hamilton tells me in a phone call.  “Kevin Jennings was taken out of context.”

Somewhere, H.L. Mencken Smiles

by Robert Pondiscio
February 19th, 2010

Waggish Atlanta Journal and Constitution eduscribe Maureen Downey has dubbed the standardized test cheating scandal in Georgia “Erase to the Top.”

School Turnaround Secrets of The Queen of Hearts

by Robert Pondiscio
February 18th, 2010

The Queen had only one way of settling all difficulties, great or small. ‘Off with his head!’ she said, without even looking round.

Identifying and replacing 6 percent of a school system’s least effective teachers can turn around student performance and have a greater and more positive impact than any other expenditure designed to stimulate economic growth, according to Stanford University economist Eric Hanushek, who gave a speech last week on teacher quality at the University of Kentucky.

Speaking to a rapt audience of faculty and students, Hanushek lamented the years the United States has wasted on resource solutions to improve student outcomes that have not worked. Among the factors not found to impact student achievement were per-pupil expenditures, class size, pupil/teacher ratios, whether or not teachers have master’s degrees, years of experience possessed by teachers and teacher certification. Hanushek concluded the United States is enduring the consequences of “losing focus and failing to direct sufficient attention to teacher quality and teacher effectiveness.”

“What would happen if we simply adopted policies of systematically removing the most ineffective teachers?” Hanushek asks.  Here’s my guess:  we’d have a brand new bottom 6%, while doing nothing to make the other 94% any better.   There’s nothing wrong wanting to improve teacher quality — who wouldn’t want to replace the worst teachers? — but we’d get further, faster if we attended to curriculum and pedagogy, rather than simply looking at bad teachers and shouting “off with their heads!”

Look outside any school and you will not see a line of superstar teachers waiting patiently for the broken bats to be removed to make room for them.  Economically, we may never see a large enough raise in teacher salaries sufficient to attract a stable, permanent number of bright, superbly trained professionals to the field.  Hanushek, a first-rate scholar, surely knows this.  But the dialogue around teacher quality threatens to reduce it to just another ed reform bumper sticker. Consider:

1)      We define teacher quality as the ability to raise test scores, which is narrow, insufficent and unsatisfying.

2)      We think we can raise teacher quality through incentives like merit pay, which is naïve at best.

3)      Talk of teacher quality tends to ignore curriculum, which can improve the quality of teaching by letting struggling teachers focus on delivery, engagement, differentiation, etc. – the “how to teach” rather than the “what to teach.”

It’s faster, easier, cheaper and far more practical to give every teacher a good curriculum than give every kid a good teacher–and again, it’s NOT a question of either/or–plus a solid curriculum may improve the efficacy of mediocre teachers.   The bottom line is that improving curriculum can be done today; without it, improving teacher quality will likely remain a distant, ill-defined and therefore unachievable goal.

You can’t uncouple effective instruction from the content of the instruction, a point that is typically overlooked in teacher quality talk (What exactly do you think effective teachers do all day?).   Personally, I’d be a lot more excited about the move to improve teacher quality if its advocates showed they understood the crucial role of curriculum and pedagogy in making teachers effective and promoting true student achievement.

The Decline and Fall of Student Writing

by Robert Pondiscio
February 18th, 2010

Writing aids such as spellcheck may mean fewer technical errors in student work than a generation ago, but English professor Joel Shatzky’s comparison of student work from earlier decades leads him to the conclusion that the quality of student writing has declined markedly.  In a piece on Huffington Post, Shatzky cites samples of 9th grade writing from the 1950s and 1960s:

Color is rampant and the woodlands and countryside are ablaze with every hue of the spectrum; lemon yellow, bright saffron, tawny orange, lively russet, flaming scarlet, brilliant magenta, deep crimson, and rich purple… With such a prelude it is no wonder that the contrast of the weird subterranean world of the Caverns strikes one with tremendous impact. . . . Instead of the sparkling sunlight there is a Stygian darkness pierced by colored lights.” — Ninth grader, Crestonian, Creston JHS,1957 (SP class)

The drab clothing and scenery helped to set an unpleasant, solemn atmosphere and helped to annoy the captive audience a little bit more. Annoying the audience was probably what made this such a compelling moment in theater. With the lights, the sharp, harsh pounding of the gavel, and the drab atmosphere I began to realize I wasn’t being entertained and I wasn’t having a happy time of it, but rather I was being told the truth, the cold, blunt, horrifying truth.”– Review of “The Investigation,” Ninth grader, Inwood Chatter, Inwood JHS, 1967

Shatzky concedes the pieces he cite were probably edited, however they were written by public school children from average public school in New York City fifty years ago.  “Can we say that this is typical of the kind of writing students, even in the more ‘specialized’ high schools, do today?” he asks.   Shatzky notes there is no definitive study that firmly establishes a decline in the quality of student writing, however there is “increasing evidence” that vocabularies and ability to comprehend college-level texts are declining.

“Educational quality in a healthy democracy is not something that can be taken for granted, even among students who are fortunate enough to be in a “good” school whether measured by standardized tests, graduation rates, or even the rankings of the colleges such students attend,” Shatzky concludes. ”If you have doubts that the ‘dumbing down’ of America is a serious problem, just compare the writing I’ve cited from fifty years ago of public junior high school students with those today.”

Shatzky connects good writing with good reading, and cites writing guru Nancie Atwell’s recent Education Week essay which notes “our 13-year-olds aren’t reading well because they’re not reading enough.”  However (advocates for a “print rich” environment take note) an exhaustive recent study from UC San Diego found we’re actually consuming more text now than ever before.  Thus the issue is not whether kids are reading.  The problem is that the depth, complexity and vocabulary of what they’re reading is not particularly good or challenging.  

Shatzky doesn’t say so, but I have to believe that a process-heavy approach to teaching writing and de-emphasizing academic content in the elementary and middle school may also be a factor here.  Will Fitzhugh of the Concord Review has long lamented how nonfiction reading and research papers have become endangered species.  Writing personal reflections about one’s own life and experience may engage students, but a steady diet of it surely doesn’t help develop the kind of mature, capable writers Shatzky sees disappearing from college campuses.