Monday, April 5, 2010

Ravitch Book Review- Part Two

This is the 2nd post in a series that I'm doing, attempting to review and comment upon Diane Ravitch's new book, The Death and Life of the Great American Education System. Today I read chapters 3 and 4- not at the beach this time. At the pool. And with Pepsi instead of beer. Not sure how that will affect the review :)

Chapter 3- The Transformation of District 2

This chapter tells the story of changes that swept through District 2 in New York City in the late 1990's, which consisted of 50 schools and over 20,000 students. It had a cross section of races and some pockets of poverty, but housed many of the wealthier neighborhoods of NYC. In comparison to the rest of NYC students, District 2 was affluent and housed a much greater percentage of white/Asian students than the overall NYC student population.

Under the direction of Superintendent Tony Alvarado, District 2 made some significant changes- they focused on a literacy program called Balanced Literacy, which was 3 hours of literacy every day, K-12. It involved a lot of stations and very little whole group instruction. The teacher was facilitator. It actually sounds like a pretty good program that had emphasis on both phonics and constructivist learning. The district poured tons of money and staff development into their key improvement piece. Coaches were placed in schools, teachers and principals were trained in methods and vocabulary, etc.

The program produced improved reading scores (imagine that, 3 hours of literacy a day improves reading scores!). But it shortchanged other areas of the curriculum. It made instruction less of an art and more of a prescribed process that teachers were expected to follow without questioning. Coaches became less of coaches and more enforcers/reporters. District 2 improved their scores, but Ravitch points out that the scores were not improving any faster than the rest of NYC schools. She also points out that the demographics of District 2 changed as well- basically, it got whiter and Asianer (like that?). So the actual improvements were questionable.

Now, one thing I don't like is how things so often come back to race and demographics in these conversations. It's a topic we shouldn't dance around, but it still feels slimy to say "well, of course these schools were better- they had more white kids." But that's a topic for another post.

Another thing that keeps popping up that feels slimy is the idea of quantifying a good school completely through test scores. Those of us that have worked in different types of schools know that this is far from the truth. I'm proud to say that I've worked primarily in low income schools whose test scores will probably NEVER be the best. But those schools, those teachers- they love those kids and they'll do anything for them. You can't tell me that schools with low test scores are bad schools. That doesn't fly with me at all. I've seen some awesome schools with some awesome yet challenging kids with some not so awesome test scores. Focusing on proficiency rather than growth is always a poor idea.

Anyway, back to District 2- Ravitch says:

"District 2 is important because it caught the eye of the corporate reformers who came to prominence at the turn of the 21st century. They became convinced that District 2 was the model for success in an urban district, that Balanced Literacy was the key to the district's success, and that other districts would experience experience similar improvement if every teacher were compelled to adopt District 2's methods unquestionably." (p. 33)

As the program wore on, teachers started rebelling against the micro management of their classrooms. They were fearful of reprisal, however, because they were being watched! This of course happens all the time. Those that refuse to include teacher's in the process of reform will always see teachers being subversive in order to do what's best for their kids. That's what rocks about most teachers- they know better than anyone what their particular class needs. If those needs don't match up with the latest initiative, they'll find a way to get around it.

So the end of chapter two says that the corporate minded reformers thought they had found THE formula for improving schools and sought more places to implement it. This brings us to chapter four....San Diego.

Chapter Four- Lessons from San Diego

Man, you think your school is a hot mess? San Diego from 1998 to 2005 has to have you beat (unless you were there). A dude named Alan Bersin was elected by the board to be the new superintendent. Here's the thing- he had never been in education before. He was a former federal prosecutor (fun boss!). He stormed in with the philosophy of instant change, complete centralized control of reform, and take no prisoners. Those that would not toe the line were fired- teachers and principals alike.

Bersin brought with him Tony Alvorado from NYC as his partner in crime. Together, they "got tough" with teachers, principals, and schools. They implemented Balanced Literacy with an iron fist- reprimaned resistant teachers and fired principals. They created fear and obedience.

Here's my first question- since when do we have to "get tough" with teachers? There seems to be this huge opposition to teachers because of teacher unions. All of us fat, lazy teachers who want huge salaries and all....right? I just don't get this perception. Yes there are bad teachers and yes there are teachers that shouldn't be in the job at all. But is the solution to get tough and create fear among the good ones?

Anyway, back to San Diego. This basically comes down to two schools of thought- one, evidenced by Bersin in San Diego, is to forge ahead with a vision regardless of what any of the stakeholders feel, want, or believe. The other is to build consensus, take input from all stakeholders, and work change slowly. My thinking is that neither of these are good. The first creates fear, obedience, and stifles differentiation. The second leads to paralysis/death by committee. The best solution lies in the middle- get input for key/large decisions and move forward without discussion on the smaller ones. The important thing is to remember to keep learning #1. The impact on student learning should be considered for every decision.

So the reformers in San Diego made a big splash, completely changed the system, created fear, and in the process completely alienated the teachers and parents. The major complaint was that they were never consulted on anything- they were told exactly how to teach and reprimanded if they wavered. This resulted in just what you might expect- huge teacher turnover, massive revolts, and all time low morale. But the scores improved, even if only slightly. So this model was seen as "working".

I can see where Ravitch is going here. These models for urban schools were probably the ones that influenced NCLB. She hasn't talked about it much yet, but I'd imagine part of the urban solution was providing choice, where the school system will pay for bussing to a better (as in, higher test scores) school. Which is all fine and dandy for urban schools. As a teacher in rural North Carolina, I can tell you that this policy is a joke when applied anywhere but in urban areas. There is no way a parent is going to put their child on a bus for 1.5-2 hours every day to go to ANY school. And the folks living in poverty are the least likely to be able to take their own kids to school- either because they don't have a working car, or their job would never permit it. So from my perspective the provision of NCLB that promoted school choice was never thought through on a national perspective.

All right, that's all I'm going to write for now. I'm surprised if any of you made it this far, but I'm just getting this stuff down for my own notes anyway, mostly! These two chapters were interesting background/history. So far I'm enjoying this book and the insight it gives behind the scenes of policy. It's sad and disturbing, but you can't fix something if you don't know how it broke.

Ok, one more thing- the main reservation I have so far is that I want to know the REAL stories. I'd love to hear more from actual teachers in District 2 or San Diego. I'd love to actually hear what the real deal was. I never take writers about education for their word when they speak in a historical sense. I've seen too many crappy school systems shined up with fake numbers and shiny gadgets. I've been in schools where the perception of the school is terrible, but the reality inside is a wonderful place for kids. So I'm skeptical. Still, it's been interesting.

1 comment:

SMeech said...

The real stories are what takes a book from good to effective in my opinion. Thanks for the review!