Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Ravitch Book Review Pt 6 (Final Chapters- 10 and 11)

Chapter 10 - The Billionaire Boys Club

Chapter Review

Here Ravitch dives into (and tears into) the foundations and corporate financiers that are changing the face of education based on the dollars they are shelling out. She goes into the history of big money philanthropists and the reforms they wanted to see happen. This leads up to the current decade, when a big three of billionaire entrepreneurs got into the education reform game by making targeted monies available to schools. The big three are Eli Broad, the Walton Family (Wal-Mart), and of course Bill Gates. They are what is known as "venture philanthropists" because they operate similar to a venture capitalist- they try to find something that will work and then throw money at it to make it happen.

With targeted investments, the big three have come to have a large impact over American Education Reform, at least according to Ravitch. Ravitch argues that the idea of capitalist driving public school policy is "fundamentally antidemocratic". She artfully argues that there is a lack of accountability on the very folks that are pushing the accountability argument in schools. They can't be voted out of office. If their plans fail, there are no penalties. As she states, "they are bastions of unaccountable power".

The agenda of these foundations is choice, competition, and privatization. She points to the Gates' initiatives to produce smaller high schools as an example of a failed experiment. The idea sounded grand and made sense, but the foundation didn't take into account the benefits of going to a large high school- including, mostly, the much more varied course offerings, more ability to take AP classes, etc. The results of the smaller high school initiative were that attendance was better, but academic results were no different than other high schools.

Ravitch also touches on Race to the Top and how it grew out of these types of reform efforts. It is described as "NCLB 2.0: The Carrot that Feels Like a Stick". She then touches on the more human side of school choice- that parents shouldn't be burdened with shopping for a school. Their neighborhood school should be high quality.

My Reactions

I'm not a big fan of bashing Bill Gates and others that are pushing money into school systems. I'm usually not on the fence on things, but on this one I see both sides. On the one hand, I agree wholeheartedly with Ravitch that Gates in particular is pushing corporate ideas and driving reform more towards privatization and linking teacher pay to test scores- ideas that I think are simply wrong for American public schools. But on the other hand, I respect Bill Gates and anyone else that is willing to do what they can monetarily and philosophically to HELP. The system is broken and at least here is a guy that is putting forth some ideas and efforts to help. I have trouble faulting someone that is actively engaged in trying to help, even if their efforts are misguided.

And the other thing is- Gates wouldn't be able to push these reform ideas if we didn't LET him. If superintendents drooling over cash didn't bend over backwards and compromise their ideas to receive the handouts, they wouldn't be embraced.

I'm not sure what it might take to steer Gates and other corporate minded reformers away from the measure and punish/use data to steer every decision mindset. It feels like NCLB all over again- many educators can see the writing on the wall with these reforms- they will lead to corruption, increased teaching to a test, brainless bubble-fillers focused on the lowest levels of knowledge, and many students that are good at taking tests but bad at the kinds of creative and flexible problem solving this century will require in it's workers. The question remains- what can we do about it? How can we stop it and steer the ship another direction? This is a question I look forward to working on for the next 10 years or so. :)

Chapter 11 - Lessons Learned

Chapter Review

Here's the recap chapter. Lots of soundbites in this chapter that illustrate the main thrust of Ravitch's arguments. Here are some that stand out to me:

"The fundamentals of good education are to be found in the classroom, the home, the community, and the culture, but reformers in our time continue to look for shortcuts and quick answers."

"The most durable way to improve schools is to improve curriculum and instruction and to improve the conditions in which teachers work and children learn."

"Our schools will not improve if elected officials intrude into pedagogical territory and make decisions that properly should be made by professional educators. Congress and state legislators should not tell teachers how to teach, any more than they should tell surgeons how to perform operations."

"Schools that expect nothing more of their students than mastery of basic skills will not produce graduates who are ready for college or the modern workplace."

"Our schools will not improve if we value only what tests measure....Not everything that matters can be quantified."

"Closing a school should be only a last resort and an admission of failure, not by the school or its staff, but by the educational authorities who failed to provide timely assistance."

"Schools are not businesses; they are a public good. The goal of education is not to produce higher scores, but to educate children to become responsible people with well-developed minds and good character."

"Our schools cannot be improved by blind worship of data....If the measures are shoddy, the data will be shoddy. If the data reflect mainly the amount of time invested in test-preparation activities, then the data are worthless. If the data are based on dumbed-down state tests, then the data are meaningless."

"Our schools cannot be improved if we ignore the disadvantages associated with poverty that affect children's ability to learn."

"There is no single answer to educational improvement. There is no silver bullet, no magic feather."

My Reactions

I agree with every statement above. I really do. But I think she has some wide gaps in her thinking that are mostly attributable to the lack of attention she gives to how the Internet, Web 2.0, the explosion of mobile devices, and the changing face of information changes everything.

But I think I'll save those thoughts for my final post/reflections. That one will be next!

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