Sunday, March 28, 2010

Diane Ravitch can see clearly now. Can we?
by David Gilfix

The big news in the world of education reform is the stunning reversal in ideology of Diane Ravitch, former assistant secretary of education under President George W. Bush and one of the biggest supporters of the No Child Left Behind act.  Last month, Ravitch renounced the same program that she had advocated so persuasively.  In her new book, “The Death and Life of the American School System," Ravitch calls No Child Left Behind a strategy of “measuring and punishing" which led to “cheating and gaming the system.”

Speaking on National Public Radio, Ravitch said, “Instead of raising standards, it [has] actually lowered standards because many states have ‘dumbed-down’ their tests or changed the scoring of their tests to say that more kids are passing than actually are."  Moreover, Ravitch claims that the excessive time on testing and test preparation today has forced schools to de-prioritize important subjects like history, music, and art.   “The kids are getting a worse education as a result of No Child Left Behind.”  

Ravitch is a woman of integrity who admits that the very school improvement strategy that she made appear credible to the public has actually failed.  Unfortunately, President Obama, like George W. Bush, still hasn’t seen the light.  Obama supported the firing of the entire teaching staff in Central Falls, Rhode Island last month – a move which was justified and made possible by the No Child Left Behind act for which Ravitch used to advocate.  In a recent article about the dismissal of teachers in Central Falls, Ravitch wrote that "[Obama's] own education reform plans are built right on top of the shaky foundation of President Bush's No Child Left Behind program. The fundamental principle of school reform, in the Age of Bush and Obama, is measure and punish. If students don't get high enough scores, then someone must be punished!  If the graduation rate hovers around 50%, then someone must be punished. This is known as 'accountability'."

So what is wrong with insisting on accountability?  Nothing, as long as you know who is accountable.   No Child Left Behind has failed because it is based on an unproven premise – that the educational failures in many communities are due to failing schools rather than a myriad of other socioeconomic factors.  Yet No Child Left Behind was an easy ‘sell’ precisely because it placed the onus of educational improvement on the teachers and required nothing of parents, families, or whole communities except their support of the simplistic ‘get tough with teachers’ policy. 
But are teachers really responsible? If a fireman saves a few people from a burning building but is unable to save those caught in a raging inferno three floors above, do we still call him a hero or a failure for not doing the impossible?   In the educational world, many people blame the teachers for not doing the impossible instead of offering praise for making the most out of a very difficult situation.  Is it possible in the most difficult school districts -- beset with problems of poverty, violence, absentee parents, aberrant student behavior, ESL, and inadequate special needs resources -- that teachers are actually heroes for demonstrating unrelenting commitment to students and accomplishing what they can in suboptimal learning environments? 

The irony about No Child Left Behind is that the very strategy designed to promote clear analytical thinking in American youths was based on shallow, superficial, non-analytical thinking.  And a lot of American adults supported it without thinking.



smart-cuss said...

David Gilfix continues to make astute observations about the psycho/social/political/ethical.etc world we live in.
It's remarkable he's so resilient that he remains a warm, funny musical mensch.


Musing Wolf said...

This is my favorite of your articles. Your knowledge and understanding of the subject come through clearly in every sentence. Very persuasive.

Anonymous said...

David, great article. I have passed this on to both my parents who have spent their lives in education. I am continually impressed with each of your writings! Great stuff!!! Dave Fitz

ZW Opalka said...

Long diatribe, but this is an important topic that I think deserves discussion. I hope it makes some sense.

Whether we like it or not, responsibility for the education of our children does lie in the hands of our teachers and schools. Analogies aside, a pilot who fails to land a plane correctly does not have an option to blame society or his (her) parents. Similarly firemen do have a job and if they fail they also do not have society as a scapegoat. You expect an electrician to do a job they are trained to do. If they fail you take them to court, refuse to pay, etc. But the electrician can't blame society for their failure.

After all the discussion, I'm not sure I understand what our society expects of an educational system other then maybe a sophisticated baby-sitting service. In my view one of the primary goals of an educational system is to create a person with enough intelligence to become an independent, self-motivated member of society. Someone who can find a job and execute correctly. Someone who understands what debt means. Someone who has a "social" conscience but is able to take care of themselve. Someone who can find and keep a job.

It is the job of society (govt., etc) to provide adequate financial resources and tools to schools and teachers to train children in the necessary skills to be productive members of society.

As an example, consider engineering, where jobs are still in demand. Companies worry that we are losing foreign talent.

The fact that in the US we worry about losing foreign talent is unforgiveable. The US is the 3rd most populous country in the world and we can't train enough engineers is ridiculous. We spend more time investing in China then we do in investing money in training local talent. Why is it that we can't train enough engineers but MBAs are so plentiful that they spend years looking for jobs (recent NPR story)?

But then again consider higher education. Colleges are an extension of previous education. What are the expections there? More of the same?

Gee, consider our universities as an educational paradigm, I wonder if they have spring break in China.

Enough said (at least for now).

David Gilfix said...

Hi ZW,
Very interesting comments. Your goals for an educational system are about as good as any I have seen: to produce a person who is independent, responsible, employable, financially literate, and socially responsible. That seems to cover it. And yet, I wonder if the “experts” in educational reform have missed a crucial step by not defining their mission (as you have).

Also, you write, “I’m not sure what society expects of an educational system…” Great comment, and I would take it one step further: I’m not sure society has thoroughly considered the definition or process of a healthy educational system. Is it a multi-tiered process involving parenting, media, peers, socioeconomic systems, or is it a one-stop factory called the “school”? Does society believe that education works by sticking the raw material, the students, into the school “factory” and – voila – out comes an educated person?

Tangential to those thoughts, I would like to offer a different perspective to your comparison of teachers with pilots, electricians, and firemen:

You said that, “a pilot who fails to land a plane correctly does not have an option to blame society or his (her) parents.” That is true, because parents don’t raise airplanes! However, if an investigation revealed that people responsible for designing, constructing, or maintaining the airplane were lax in their responsibilities then certainly those people would be held responsible for a bad landing, not the pilot. Taking the analogy one step further, a pilot who could imperfectly land a broken airplane would be called a hero - even if there were injuries.

Similarly, firefighters are rarely held responsible for loss-of-property or injuries caused by fires. When a fire causes major property damage or casualties an investigation is undertaken to determine direct or contributing causes such as building safety violations and arson. Rarely is the firefighter held responsible for the fire (if they were, most firefighters would probably resign).

Regarding electricians, we do hold them responsible for poor wiring. However, many if not most of the 67,800 home electric fires each year which claim 485 lives and 2305 injuries (yes, I looked it up) are caused by misuse and poor maintenance of electrical appliances, overloaded circuits, and failure to follow safety regulations. Society does not hold electricians responsible for electric fires due to those causes.

We are way too sophisticated to attribute all the credit or blame of a safe flight or a safe building to members of any single profession. Yet in the field of education many people seem to lose all their sophistication and pretend that teachers alone are responsible for success or failure. This, I believe, is a recipe for failure.

agnosticcynic said...

Once again, Mr. Gilfix impresses us with critical thinking, applied to one of the most important issues currently confronting America. However, I fear that some of the thoughtline for his article may have been culled from very recent statements on the subject made by Bill Maher. I look forward to part 3 of the series, where the bar will be set high, with regards to the expectations for Mr. Gilfix to deliver his agenda for solving the education crisis in America.

David Gilfix said...

Hi Agnostic Cynic,
I don't get HBO so I couldn't watch Bill Maher. However, good to know that he shares some of my views about education! - He was hysterical in the movie "Religulous."

esssay said...

What a shame that Diane Ravitch gets so much press for explaining how she used her power stupidly without really offering any solution (for a detailed comment on a recent example of her not being useful, see

You discussion is great. Can you imagine how you might take it to a level that would have more impact? What would a long term strategy for improving the situation be? Or is it that everyone has to continue to try to shelter themselves from the policial winds (and windbags) and just get on with doing their job as best they can, including teachers and parents?

jrberkley said...

I think you hit the nail on the head when you said: "Does society believe that education works by sticking the raw material, the students, into the school “factory” and – voila – out comes an educated person?"

I think that is what most of society thinks. People mistakenly view teachers as the foremen/women who should be able to make the students learn.

Solutions, to me, are so radical, no one in authority would consider them. No one learns best in a mandatory setting -- nor as one number of many. Learning is a personal thing we come to naturally when given the opportunity, if the desire isn't beaten out of us first. If public schooling were there for the taking, supported by the communities that need it, but not a required prison for many, what kind of learning might take place there? If teachers were paid as much as we actually expect of them (rightly or wrongly!) in terms of our children's learning and the consequences of that learning on society... and if there were simply many more of them in relation to class size... hmmm.... that would be an interesting way to spend our money!