Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Pt 3 (Chapter 5)- Ravitch Book Review


All right, so I didn't get so far today- had some awesome beach time with my Mom, Dad, and Emily (my 3-yr-old), then naps and general laziness. I did get through chapter five, though.

Also want to throw a disclaimer out there- these review posts are not going to be well written. They are mostly my own gut reactions and gibberish and since I'm on vacation they will read more like that kind of nonsense rather than anything sequenced or actually analyzed. These are just reactions and first reflections!

I'm going to split the rest of these posts into two sections- chapter review, then my reactions.

Here we go. Back to New York City (would be nice to see something other than urban reforms, incidentally):

Chapter Five- The Business Model in New York City

Chapter Review:

This chapter told the story back in NYC, between 2002 and 2009. Mayor Bloomberg did some nifty political manuevering to pretty much take sole control of the NYC school system. Of course, Bloomberg is a businessman, so he laid out a corporate model going forward. He hired an antitrust lawyer named Joel Klein to run the system to his specifications. Klein visited and modeled a lot of his efforts from Alan Bersin, the evil corporate guy in San Diego. So now we've got a lawyer and businessman setting the agenda for all 1,200 schools in the NYC area.

There was a swift consolidation of power and the micro management began. They followed the Balanced Literacy program that appeared in the previous chapters and basically told teachers how they need to teach. Teachers were required to fall in line. The focus was on raising test scores in reading and mathematics, so that's what got taught. The other subjects were shuffled to the side and of course, suffered.

In order to bolster numbers, they secretly changed the requirements for passing. There are four levels (I'm sure most that would read this know about this)- Levels 3 and 4 are passing, Level 2 is almost there, and Level 1 is the lowest kids. In NYC, the Level One kids were held back. In an effort to make it look like more kids were doing better, they re-normed the tests so that more kids would make it to Level 2. Students in NYC needed only a 17.9% to score Level 2 in reading and 22% to score Level 2 in math. This means that a student can completely randomly guess answers and get a Level 2.

The other aspect of NYC reform was choice and charter schools. Parents and students were offered choices and high schools were developed that met specific goals- a school for future socialologists, a school for future firefighters, etc. Large high schools were closed and new smaller schools (500 kids) were opened instead. What ended up happening to the high schools is that the majority of kids would apply and get accepted to some of the smaller high schools- but the hardest to reach kids were shuffled to another large high school, which then had a timetable for it's closure.

Ravitch also goes on to tell about how the natural effect of focusing on test scores is for the school system to game the system- fudge the numbers, teach to the test, only include certain groups in grad rate numbers, etc. In other words, the same stuff that happens nearly everywhere because of NCLB and it's focus on test scores. And the end results were statistically insignificant improvements in reading and math and a decrease in science skills (and all other subjects that weren't tested as well).

My Reactions:

The first thing I'd like to say is that so far it seems like all reform that Ravitch talks about is poor. The way she writes makes it seem like every idea is horrible and no good came of any of it. That's hard to believe. In this chapter she talked about high schools being an place of choice that can offer specialized programs based on student wants and needs. Well, I'm sorry- but that's a pretty cool idea. I bet a lot of those schools really served those students well.

The corporate takeover of school policy has brought some really evil things along with it, primary to me is the introduction of unchecked corruption and fudged numbers. With all of the emphasis on test scores, people all over the place are gaming the system to make themselves and their systems look better. The graduation rate is a prime example of this. SAT scores are as well. There are so many ways to define/delineate graduation rates that it's easy to fudge the numbers in whatever direction you like. In Moore County, NC, where I taught for 8 years, our superintendent actively had principals encourage college bound students to take the SAT and encouraged other students not to. In other words- to boost SAT scores, he wanted the smart kids taking it and the not as smart kids to take some other alternative. Slimy....

Another slimy aspect is the Levels for the testing- 1, 2, 3, and 4. I know in North Carolina the percent you have to get for a level 3 was around 45%. In other words, you are proficient if you score a 45% or better on the test. This is dumbing everything down and fudging the numbers to make things look better than they are. It's the same thing that happens in corporations- they fudge numbers so that their business looks better on paper to stakeholders. Here's the difference, though- at least there are laws and oversight agencies to take corporations to task for doing this kind of thing. Where is the accountability for school systems when they essentially do the same thing? Where is the oversight? Are we leaving it up to the media to uncover? If so, is this smart???

Reading all of these stories of centralized power consolidated by businessmen and lawyers makes me sad. It demonizes teachers and makes it look like they have no clue what to do, when the reality is the exact opposite. Here's a radical idea- what if we gave TEACHERS a voice in curriculum/pacing/testing, then asked THEM what they needed to teach it, then actually provided what they request to make it happen? They develop what content students should work on, what skills they need, and then the school system delivers any materials or support they need to make it reality. Is there a school model out there that gives the primary voice/respect to teachers, instead of administrators and policy makers? My guess is that you would see an amazing school system that actually serves the needs of the students, where teacher morale and flexibility would be at an all time high.

I've got some other things jotted down but may save them for some other time. I'm off to watch a movie and go to bed. More to come tomorrow for sure!

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