Education Opinion

An Antidote to Ravitch Whiplash

By Brad C. Phillips — March 16, 2010 4 min read
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We live in a polarizing world. Fascination and even obsession with extremes abounds. Extremes entertain, distract, provoke. But extremes aren’t where most people live and think. And when our leading education thinkers occupy the poles or take an ideological U-turn—like Diane Ravitch’s recent 180—we’re left with whiplash.

Ravitch, a much-published education historian and former top official at the U.S. Department of Education, now firmly rejects her previously ardent support for standards, testing, and business principles applied to education. (“Ravitch Lays Out Change of Heart on Earlier Ideas,” March 10, 2010.)

How could what was all right five years ago be all wrong today? Ravitch was mostly right then, and is mostly right now. The problem isn’t business principles, standards, and testing—it’s how they are applied.

Whether we like it or not, education is a business. Schools, colleges, and universities take in revenue and perform a service. Because the results of that service dictate our economic competitiveness and the standard of living for the nation’s citizens, it is reasonable to judge schools on how well they perform.


But unlike a big-box retailer, education is a human-service organization. The bottom line or return on investment is not the number of students served or gains in funding, it is what students know and are able to do upon completing a course of study.

The job of human-service organizations like schools is to create and grow student knowledge and skills. Yeheskel Hasenfeld, one of the leading authorities on human-service organizations, says this on the subject: “By designating children as students, the school certifies that they are the raw material for the teachers to work on so that they become educated.” Hasenfeld calls the transformative work of education “moral work.” Every action taken on behalf of students is a moral choice and adds to their value as fellow human beings who live and work together.

Does that mean business principles don’t apply to the complex, moral work of teaching? The experience of educators in my state, California, proves that applying appropriate business principles and practices can help inform and guide teachers (the experts) to unleash the academic potential of students—the nation’s most precious and valued raw material.

Using the same software tools that tell a business where profits are down or how long it will take to pay off a loan at a certain interest rate, California school leaders are identifying which courses of study are helping students earn a degree, and gaining more understanding about whether tutoring programs and other interventions are helping students master math and chemistry. They are learning from student outcomes and acting on results that empower educators to improve. These are the equivalent of corporate earnings and productivity reports.

This “business-intelligence software,” traditionally used for sales and finance, is being tailored to help educators gauge student successes and failures from kindergarten through college, and to know what changes in practice need to be made for them to succeed.

For example, in one examination of the patterns of data included in 355 million school transcripts, educators learned that California students who stopped taking English courses after the 10th grade required the same level of remediation in community college as those who continued to take advanced English courses through 12th grade.

Educators were shocked, but the blame game was not on the table. Rather, a culture of questioning was created: Why was this occurring? After much probing, they then asked: What are our standards, what are our assignments, what are the expectations in high school compared to community college? While we all call it English, they reasoned, the expectations are clearly different.

The problem isn't business principles, standards and testing—it's how they are applied."

Further analysis showed that high school English courses emphasized literature, while community college courses covered writing and grammar, and four-year colleges emphasized analysis and argumentation. To better prepare students for success in college, educators aligned coursework with the caliber of work required in college. These breakthroughs occur across all subjects and grade levels.

After San Diego teachers discovered that students who struggled in math were more likely to struggle in chemistry, the district offered a free summer course, Summer Jump-Start Chemistry, to help them bridge the gap between math and science. Students who took the course at Southwest High School outperformed chemistry students districtwide by 15 percent. As any good business manager does with a strong-performing asset, the district has expanded the project. Other districts across the state are considering it.

These lessons, using actionable data to make good decisions, are hardly the marks of corporate degradation of the quality of teaching or well-rounded student learning. Teachers are working across grade levels and subjects to check the balance sheets of learning, to monitor students’ progress, and to find out what students know and are able to do after completing coursework. These are business principles applied in service of good teaching and inspired learning. These are business principles that trust and empower teachers to know their students better and serve them well, not to punish or blame.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and others recognize that teachers are central to providing the best education for students. Why shouldn’t they get the best tools available to business and other sectors to support good teaching? Our charge should be to help teachers work collaboratively, using business tools and data, to guide and fuel the magic of teaching. Without it, we’re just guessing. And that’s not right.

So Diane Ravitch’s ability to see problems from two sides is in fact a refreshing departure. We all need to move off the poles and toward the middle. That’s where the data and the ability of educators to take action to improve reside.

A version of this article appeared in the March 17, 2010 edition of Education Week as An Antidote to Ravitch Whiplash


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