Sunday, April 4, 2010

Ravitch- Death and Life of Great American Education System - First Thoughts (Ch 1 and 2)


I first saw this book's title cross my Twitter Feed via @garystager and @jonbecker, I think. saw the title, researched the premise, and knew I wanted to read it. For those that don't know what it's about, I'll give you a little background.

Diane Ravitch has been involved with education reform since 1969, through articles, books, critiques, etc. In 1991 she began working as assistant secretary of Education. She was a strong advocate for curriculum and instruction based decisions and was very involved with the creation of national curriculum standards in the 90's. After her time in the department, she began to hang around the bad crowd....the thinkers that sprang directly from the corporate world and tried to apply these principles to the American Education system. She got involved with the groupthink that promoted accountability and testing as the way to correct schools. She was an advocate for this approach for years, but has now changed her mind and changed her thinking. Basically, this book is interesting to me because here is someone that was entrenched in a position but has the smarts and sense to see the truth as it lays in front of her now- the testing movement has backfired, hasn't produced the results they thought it would, and she is rebelling against the very thing she once strongly promoted.

So that's why I'm reading. I really value people that are open to their mistakes, admit them, then try to figure out: a) why they made the mistake, and b) how to go about correcting it and finding better solutions. From this point forward, I'll quote sections of the book that stood out to me as well as my honest gut reactions as to how this makes me think and feel.

Chapter One- What I Learned about School Reform

Right off the bat, I must admit that I was disgusted. On page 2, when Ms. Ravitch is outlining her changing of position:

"It is the mark of a sentient human being to learn from experience, to pay close attention to how theories work out when put into practice." (p. 2)

Ok, that's all well and good, but shouldn't we shoot a little higher here? It's great that she is realizing the folly of her ways, but wouldn't it be nice if, for once, the policy makers in America had some foresight instead of (rare) hindsight? The mark of a sentient human being is to learn from experience, but isn't the mark of an intelligent human being to think through the implications of a policy before shoving it down people's throats? I mean, why are we always dealing with the consequences instead of having foresight to do it right in the first place? I think the answer to this lies in the policymakers having complete disconnects with classroom/school realities.

She goes on to explain how all of her professional life she criticized those that looked for magic feathers or silver bullets to "fix" education. Prior to getting mixed up with the wrong crowd, she advocated real change rooted in curriculum and standards. But then she says:

"In the decade following my stint in the federal government, I argued that certain managerial and structural changes- that is, choice, charters, merit pay, and accountability- would help to reform our schools. With such changes, teachers and schools would be judged by their performance; this was a basic principle in the business world. Schools that failed to perform would be closed, just as a corporation would close a branch office that continually produced poor returns. Having been immersed in a world of true believers, I was influenced by their ideas. I became persuaded that the business-minded thinkers were onto something important. Their proposed reforms were meant to align public education with the practices of modern, flexible, high-performance organizations and to enable American education to make the transition from the industrial age to the postindustrial age." (p. 8)

This is sad. Here is a highly intelligent leader, a school reformer with influence on policy, who basically jumped on a bandwagon. Groupthink is so dangerous and it scares me to see it laid out so obviously in the area of federal education policy.

So the answer to education reform is now coming from the corporate world and market forces. Lovely. This next part actually made me growl when I read it. Good thing the waves were so loud that I didn't scare any small children...

"Market reforms have a certain appeal to some of those who are accustomed to 'seeing like a state'...In education, this belief in market forces lets us ordinary mortals off the hook, especially those who have not figured out how to improve low-performing schools or to break through the lassitude of unmotivated teens. Instead of dealing with rancorous problems like how to teach reading or how to improve testing, one can redesign the management and structure of the school system and concentrate on incentives and sanctions. One need not know anything about children or education. The lure of the market is the idea that freedom from government regulation is a solution all by itself....The new corporate reformers betray their weak comprehension of education by drawing false analogies between education and business. They think they can fix education by applying the principles of business, organization, management, law, and marketing and by developing a good data-collection system that provides the information necessary to incentivize the workforce- principals, teachers, and students- with appropriate rewards and sanctions."

Wow. This outlines how NCLB came to be played out. How infuriating. Here we are as educators dealing with so much day to day nonsense of labels, standardized testing, and rote learning for dumbed down tests, and why??? To provide data so they federal government can better qualify what they believe are passing or failing schools. We're dealing with all of this testing because corporate-minded reformers needed strong data points to be able to label schools as failing? That is nuts to me. I wonder how many corporations spend as much money as education does in testing- the extra positions, the materials, and of course the gigantic amounts of TIME it takes to perform these tests? The great irony to me is that if a corporation were to spend as much time and effort on gathering data points as schools do, they would fold up in a heartbeat...yet here we are, plugging along to provide this data. Yikes.

I will say that I give credit to Ms. Ravitch for seeing the error of her ways. As she watched NCLB be implemented she has started to realize the negative impact it has had (of course, people I talked to the year it took effect had already figured this out...but I digress). She writes, 'Testing, I realized with dismay, had become a central preoccupation in the schools and was not just a measure but an end itself." That's great she noticed this....finally. But again- some foresight would have been nice.

Chapter Two- Hijacked! How the Standards Movement Turned into the Testing Movement

She starts this chapter off with this:

"NCLB changed the nature of public schooling across the nation by making standardized test scores the primary measure of school quality. The rise or fall of test scores in reading and mathematics became the critical variable in judging students, teachers, principals, and schools. Missing from NCLB was any reference to what students should learn; this was left to each state to determine." (p. 15)

She goes on:

"I saw my hopes for better education turn into a measurement strategy that had no underlying educational vision at all...Accountability makes no sense when it undermines the larger goals of education...What once was an effort to improve the quality of education turned into an accounting strategy: Measure, then punish or reward. No education experience was needed to administer such a program. Anyone who loved data could do it. The strategy produced fear and obedience among educators; it often generated higher test scores. But it had nothing to do with education." (p. 16)

This is striking to me. It's hard to believe that this actually happened. We actually let this happen. We allowed (and are allowing) folks to set sweeping education policy that have no idea what they're talking about. Are you scared yet? I had no idea this book would be so frightening...

She then goes on to tell an interesting back story that I was not aware of. Did you know that Lynn V. Cheney (wife of Dick) played a large role in the mess we're in today? Apparently this is the case! When Ms. Ravitch headed the task force to produce national standards in history, the arts, economics, geography, foreign languages, science, civics, etc., the first one they put together were standards for history. The first (unreleased) draft included a broad array of topics that promoted a more balanced view of U.S. history that included the warts as well as the stars. It encouraged students to learn about McCarthyism, the Ku Klux Klan's role in the civil rights movement, Harriet Tubman, etc. In other words, folks other than just the rich white dudes were included. Well, Cheney wrote a scathing critique in the Wall Street Journal that opened up a can of worms. She felt that the history standards were a warped vision of American history that painted us as oppressors (which we kinda were). The debate got picked up in a large way and all of a sudden this draft of history standards (not even final and completely voluntary) became a political hot potato.

The standards movement died because once this issue because so hot and public, politicians backed off. They didn't want to get dirty. The Clinton administration backed off and basically said "we didn't write it- the former admin did". Ravitch writes:

"In January 1995, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution condemning the standards by a vote of 99-1. After the vitriolic front-page battle over the history standards, the subject of standards, curriculum, and content became radioactive to political leaders." (p. 18)

So our leaders (predictably) chose the politically smart thing to do- avoid the subject at all costs. Instead of working to improve the standards, they were scrapped and the issue of content and curriculum was punted away. They passed a law that said every state should write it's own standards, pick it's own tests, and be accountable for achievement. Classic politics! But in this case, it led to horrendous education "reform"- instead of tackling the real issues of learning and curriculum and raising standards, it begat NCLB- which bypassed these issues entirely and went straight for "here's what you gotta do, we don't care how you do it- just get it done." Not good....not good at all.

One question I had while reading this was- why in the world would they start with the most potentially contentious- history? Why not start with math, or foreign languages, or really any of the other areas? That was an obvious failing, in hindsight.

Another outcome of this is all these dull, overly broad standards we have to deal with in education. Stuff like "students will demonstrate an understanding of how ideas, events, and conditions bring about change." States wrote these non specific broad standards for the same reason the federal government punted the issue to begin with- to be inoffensive. We have to deal with these extremely broad, poorly written standards because of politics, plain and simple. They didn't have the cajones to do the right thing, educationally speaking.

For the rest of the chapter she speaks about 1983's A Nation At Risk report, which sparked it's own maelstrom at the time. This report recommended that schools should strengthen the curriculum for all students; setting clear and reasonable high school graduation requirements; establishing clear and appropriate college entrance requirements; improving the quality of textbooks and tests; expecting students to spend more time on schoolwork; establishing higher requirements for new recruits into the teaching profession; and increasing teacher compensation.

Her basic argument is that we need to move away from the NCLB model and go back to the ANAR model above. I agree with some but not all of this. I agree that we need to get back to improving curriculum and learning. I agree that major changes need to be made in teacher prep. I agree that teachers should be paid more. I don't agree with requiring students to spend more time in a broken school. I'd say let's fix the school before we even begin to think about requiring more time for students.

All right, so this is incredibly long I'm sure and I'm tired so I'm heading to bed. This takes us through the first two chapters and we'll see how far I get on the beach tomorrow!!!!


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