Don’t Believe Critics, Education Reform Works: Jonathan Alter
America’s education-reform movement - - the most significant social movement of our time -- is just completing another productive school year, with hundreds of districts beefing up accountability and standards.
Amid grim news about budget cuts, the year brought new awareness that relying on seniority alone in determining teacher layoffs is mindless. It’s like saying that if the Chicago Bulls wanted to cut costs, they should start by releasing Derrick Rose, the NBA’s MVP, because he has only been in the league for three years.
Unfortunately, the forces of the status quo are still working overtime. Obstructionists with a talent for caricature are determined to discredit important progress under way in some of the poorest school districts in the country.
The leader of this rear-guard action is Diane Ravitch, a professor at New York University who was an assistant secretary of education in the administration of George H.W. Bush. She’s the education world’s very own Whittaker Chambers, the famous communist turned strident anti-communist of the 1940s. Ravitch moved the other way, from right to left, where she now uses phony empiricism to rationalize almost every tired argument offered by teachers unions.
While healthy skepticism is a virtue, Ravitch seems bent on extinguishing any hope that our teachers and schools can do better. In an op-ed in the New York Times on June 1, she derided the impressive progress made at three public schools as “a triumph of public relations” based on “statistical legerdemain.”
Ravitch tries to take down the Bruce Randolph School, a middle school and high school in inner-city Denver. The high school’s first senior class graduated in May at a rate of 97 percent, about twice the norm of typical inner-city schools.
Her so-called evidence that the school is cooking its books is that Randolph’s ACT scores are far below the state average, as if such comparisons to wealthy districts somehow disqualify Randolph’s impressive year-over-year improvement in most areas. (And since when does Ravitch credit test scores?)
Misuse of Statistics
Ravitch also goes after the performance of Randolph’s middle school without mentioning that the results from sixth- graders -- one-third of the school -- merely reflect how poorly the students were prepared by the schools they previously attended, a significant though hardly atypical example of her misuse of statistics.
“This was a very cynical statement that she doesn’t believe teachers and schools can make a difference in high-poverty areas,” says Colorado State Senator Mike Johnston, a former teacher and principal whose sweeping tenure-reform law is a national model. “We can debate facts at particular schools but you just can’t deny that some places are getting phenomenal results -- results that should be celebrated, not called out as fraudulent.”
Arne Duncan, President Barack Obama’s normally mild- mannered education secretary, has finally had enough. “Diane Ravitch is in denial and she is insulting all of the hardworking teachers, principals and students all across the country who are proving her wrong every day,” he said when I asked about Ravitch this week.
What’s most infuriating to me about Ravitch is the way she assembles straw men. It’s simply false for her to charge that political leaders are trying to prove that “poverty doesn’t matter.” No education reformer has ever challenged the idea that conditions in the home and in the larger society are hugely important. They merely insist that such conditions not be used as an excuse for inaction.
Ravitch and her allies specialize in sliming reformers by creating powerful myths. The most pernicious is that reformers aren’t professional educators and therefore don’t have the standing to criticize the status quo. This isn’t true -- many reformers, including the heads of many charter schools, have education experience -- but what’s wrong with business executives or other interested outsiders devoting time and money to public schools? Would it be better if they ignored them as they did for so long? That went well for this country.
Another caricature is that anyone critical of teachers unions must be bashing teachers. In truth, most reformers aren’t Governor Scott Walker-types bent on ending collective bargaining but liberal parents (and even many teachers) who believe we can’t afford to look the other way while a minority of teachers commit malpractice in the classroom year after year.
Earlier this year, I tangled with Ravitch after she referred to charter schools as “privatized” when she knows perfectly well that charter schools are in fact public schools. It’s a gross distortion to claim that reformers think charter schools -- a tiny fraction of all public schools -- are the only solution for all the ills of the education system. Most reformers just want to replicate effective charter models.
What could possibly be her problem with that?
Measures of Performance
Ravitch has repeatedly fed the myth that reformers want standardized tests to be the only measure of performance. In truth, as Jon Schnur, the original architect of Obama’s Race to the Top initiative puts it, “No serious reformer says accountability should just be based on test scores. We all favor multiple measures.” In Colorado, Johnston is working with the unions to develop sophisticated evaluations that will help consolidate the number of tests students are required to take.
Don’t expect Diane Ravitch to appreciate those efforts. She uses selective data to punch holes in the work of good schools and turn reformers into cartoonish right-wingers. Her view is that we should throw up our hands and admit that nothing will change until we end poverty in our time.
That is defeatist, wrong on the facts and the mother of all cop-outs.
(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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