Education Opinion

Taking Back School Reform: A Conversation Between Diane Ravitch and Mike Rose

May 12, 2010 20 min read
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Last month, education scholars Diane Ravitch and Mike Rose held a conversation at the University of California-Los Angeles about issues raised in Ravitch’s much-discussed new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. Afterward, they continued their conversation by e-mail, focusing on key topics that emerged in their discussion at UCLA.

Rose recently sent us an edited transcript of their e-mail exchange for publication. In an e-mail, Rose suggested that he and Ravitch were eager to present their dialogue to teachers. The transcript follows.

From: Mike Rose To: Diane Ravitch Subject: Public Education Under Attack

You and I are both concerned about the predominance of school-bashing rhetoric in the national discussion of public schools. This dismissive language runs across the ideological spectrum; we find it in the pages of the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard or at a convening of left-leaning high-tech entrepreneurs interested in education. This way of talking about public schools, as we both argue, provides the ideological foundation to dismiss public education, to seek free-market solutions or structural or technological miracle cures. So well-to-do parents don’t send their kids to public schools. Wealthy donors direct their money elsewhere. And young people have second thoughts about a teaching career.

Of course there are problems in public schools. There’s wide variation in the teaching force. How could there not be with so many people, over 3 million? As with lawyers or journalists or plumbers, you’re going to find a range of competence. Same with schools. So political pressure to address incompetence and improve the status quo is a positive thing and essential in a democratic society. But that kind of targeted attempt at reform is not what concerns me and you. We’re talking about a reigning discourse of despair about teaching and the schools. It’s troubling—and dangerous. I’m thinking about an opening line from an article in The Weekly Standard: “We can all agree that public schools are a joke.” This is our new common sense, but it doesn’t even leave us with a problem to solve.

From: Diane Ravitch To: Mike Rose Subject: RE: Public Education Under Attack

One of the interesting aspects of the current situation is, in my view, that public education itself is under attack as never before. There have always been critics of the public schools, but the critics wanted to make public schools better. Now, many critics think that the answer to public education is to get rid of it, to replace it with something that is wholly different and not subject to any democratic participation or control. We see this with the demand for vouchers, which couches its claims as a fervent plea to help students escape from failing schools. The voucher supporters don’t think that any such schools can be fixed or improved; the only hope, they believe, is to help children get out. The arguments for charters are closely related, because the clamor for charters comes from a deep-seated wish to create escape routes from public education. One reason I am so discouraged by the present state of debate is that so little is said about improving public schools and so much about how to close schools, how to punish teachers. Before we can begin to have a serious discussion about public education, we must re-establish the belief that there are strong, powerful reasons to have public schools and that they are one of the foundational institutions in a democratic society.

From: Diane Ravitch To: Mike Rose Subject: Defining “Effective” Teachers

Mike, I want us to talk a bit more about teachers in the current “reform” environment. Reformers begin their discussion of teachers with a universally acclaimed proposition: Teachers are important, and every child should have a great teacher. No one disagrees. They then go on to define a great teacher as an “effective” teacher, and an “effective” teacher is one whose students get higher test scores every year. So, with a slight verbal or written tic, they turn the quest for great teachers into the quest for those whose students get higher test scores. Without exception, these “reformers” agree with economists who say that credentials do not predict who will be an effective teacher. Since there is no way to know who will be an effective teacher, the best thing to do is to “deselect” teachers every year whose students did not get gains. If we fire 5-10% of teachers every year, over time the nation will have an excellent corps of teachers.

New York University Professor Diane Ravitch has written a new book in which she renounces her long-time support for improving public schools through choice, competition, and accountability.

Since credentials do not predict who will consistently produce higher scores, there is no reason to pay attention to certification, master’s degrees, even National Board certification. So, anyone should be able to enter teaching, without any of the usual professional training. I find myself wondering why schools should even require future teachers to be college graduates, since there is no research demonstrating the necessity of an undergraduate degree in the test-score production function. Perhaps high school seniors (or juniors?) could master the trick as well as someone with lots of credentials.

The trouble with this whole line of analysis is that it was framed by economists who look only at data and take the data at face value. Probably they do not know that students get intensive test prep for state tests, and that testing experts say that gains purchased in this manner are of dubious value. The economists do not look at the validity of the state tests, nor at clever ways that states manipulate the scoring of the tests. They do not ask whether test scores are in themselves the right measure of a “great” or “effective” teacher. They assume that teachers and students are in a hermetically sealed environment, in which only the teacher is responsible for what the students know and can do. No wonder that teachers today are profoundly demoralized by the direction of the “reform” effort.

From: Mike Rose To: Diane Ravitch Subject: RE: Defining “Effective” Teachers

What makes me crazy is that the statistical analyses involved miss so much; in fact, I’d argue that most of the time the statistical procedures are not thoughtfully applied to teaching and learning. No wonder, then, that most current characterizations of teaching miss the richness and complexity of the work; the teacher, as you say, gets defined as a knowledge-delivery mechanism preparing students for high-stakes tests. This reductive definition has so many negative consequences, for example the belief that by holding teachers’ “feet to the fire” of test scores, we will supposedly get more effort from teachers. Of course, the proponents of this point of view never articulate the social-psychological mechanisms by which the use of test scores will effect effort, motivation, and pedagogical skill. They can’t because the implicit models of learning and motivation in their analyses are as bankrupt as those in their understanding of teaching itself.

Here’s what I would rather see. What if we could channel the financial and human resources spent on the machinery of high-stakes testing into a robust, widely distributed program of professional development? I don’t mean the quick-hit, half-day events that so often pass for professional development, but serious, extended engagement of the kind that the National Science Foundation and the National Writing Project might offer. These programs enable teachers to work with subject matter experts; read, write, and think together; learn new material, hear from others who have successfully integrated it into their classrooms, and try it out themselves.

Enriched, widely available professional development would substitute a human capital model for school reform rather than the current test-based technocratic one. And because such professional development would positively affect what teachers teach and how they teach it, there would be a more direct effect on student achievement.

From: Mike Rose To: Diane Ravitch Subject: Workable Education Policy

All this leads me to a related topic that has been on my mind. It has to do with the way public policy—in this case, education policy—is framed and developed.

Policymakers of necessity take the big view, look for the large-scale organizational or economic levers to pull to initiate broad change. Unfortunately, that often means ignoring local conditions, the on-the-ground reality of classrooms and schools. This way of thinking is perfectly captured by a professor of management’s advice to a class of aspiring principals. He told them that the more they know about the particulars of instruction, the less effective they’ll be, for that nitty-gritty knowledge will blur their perception of the problem and the application of universal principles of management—as fitting for a hospital or a manufacturing plant as a school.

But good policy does try to incorporate knowledge of local conditions. You’ve been in the middle of policy development, so I’d love to hear your thoughts about how to create robust and workable education policy.

From: Diane Ravitch To: Mike Rose Subject: RE: Workable Education Policy

As you note, policymakers prefer to operate from a site about 30,000 feet above the institution that they are trying to mold. This does not create good policy. It ends up producing one-size-fits-all solutions that don’t fit anyone and that solve nothing. No Child Left Behind is a perfect example of that kind of policy. It was cooked up in the meeting rooms of Washington, D.C., honed by various interest groups and political figures, all believing that they were enacting noble legislation, but ending up creating a law that was almost universally despised by the people who had to make it work, the teachers. Teachers and policymakers live in two different worlds. The teachers are busy teaching, and the policymakers are busy talking to one another. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every policymaker were required to spend at least a week as an assistant teacher in a school? It’s not likely to happen, but I can dream, can’t I?

I recommend James Scott’s wonderful book Seeing Like a State, which treats these issues very insightfully. Scott describes monumental disasters caused by policymakers who had zero understanding of the consequences of their decisions on those who had to implement them. The basic question is: How do we instill humility in our policymakers? How do we get them to understand that policies that are not embraced by practitioners are doomed to fail?

From: Mike Rose To: Diane Ravitch Subject: Bad Press for Education

One more related topic I’d like us to consider has to do with the way the public gets its information about education. There are lots of sources these days, but an important source is still journalism: print, broadcast, or online. So I’ve been thinking about the ways the press inadvertently contributes to the kind of narrow discussion of education that concerns us.

Education is not a prestigious beat, and journalists often rotate in and out of it, not getting the chance to build rich expertise. Also, especially in the current market, there’s not a lot of resources for journalists to spend time in schools, talk extensively to teachers, follow the many reform efforts as they play out on the ground. So too often we get reporting from a distance.

I’m also bothered by the degree to which seasoned opinion page writers rely on press-release information and standard storylines about schools and school reform. Very smart people like David Brooks or Nicholas Kristof probe beneath the surface when it comes to, let’s say, foreign policy, but surprisingly don’t do their homework when it comes to education. So they proclaim that the schools stink, that teachers need an iron fist, that people who support high-stakes testing are reformers while someone like Linda Darling-Hammond (or you or I, for that matter) are apologists for the status quo. Whew! We’re living in an echo chamber. I’ve been finding it exceedingly hard to get a different perspective into the world of the Chattering Classes.

From: Diane Ravitch To: Mike Rose Subject: RE: Bad Press for Education

I too am frustrated that the public does not get a full and balanced view about education issues, but, you know, Mike, I don’t blame this on the reporters. The really good reporters, in my experience, try to look behind the press releases and the conventional wisdom. But they have no bearing on the editorial boards, which reflect the views of the publisher, or on the pundits, who are wired into the world of power and money. The press barons, the mighty foundations, and most think tanks today share a common narrative. They want privatization, the more the better; they have contempt for ordinary teachers, whom they hold responsible for low test scores; and they applaud any superintendent who promises to fire principals, fire teachers, and privatize more public schools. I don’t know who will frame the counter-narrative, and I don’t know who will lead the opposition to these destructive trends. But without a counter-narrative and leadership, our education system will be transformed in ways that neither of us will like.

From: Mike Rose To: Diane Ravitch Subject: Disregarding the Effects of Poverty

I know you have been concerned with the way the issue of poverty has emerged in school reform debates. Some say that poverty is the root cause of poor academic performance while others contend that, in spite of income level, poor kids can achieve as well as anyone else if the school is committed to their achievement.

I think a good place to start is with NCLB. That law was driven by a masterful rhetoric that casted dissent from its agenda as “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” There can be “no excuses” for the low performance of poor, immigrant, and racial and ethnic minority kids, as measured by the tests NCLB supported. Currently, some other school reform advocates, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, have taken up this point of view: Poverty doesn’t matter.

I appreciate this “no excuses” stance. Our schools have an unacceptable record with poor children, and the way we perceive their ability and potential, what we expect of them intellectually, is a key element in their achievement. But it is one element, a necessary but not sufficient condition. What is troubling on a public policy level is the way the rhetoric of “no excuses” shifts attention from economic and social conditions that often do affect academic achievement.

From: Diane Ravitch To: Mike Rose Subject: RE: Disregarding the Effects of Poverty

Like you, Mike, I was initially encouraged by the “no excuses” rhetoric. I shared the hope that high expectations would transform the lives of children whose potential was so often overlooked. What I did not anticipate was the evolution of the “no excuses” rhetoric into a claim that poverty doesn’t matter and has no bearing on academic achievement. Thus, any reference to poverty is treated as just an excuse by bad teachers for their own failures. So, according to our current “reform” leaders, the students who are homeless and hungry should get the same test scores as those who are privileged, who are surrounded by books and every comfort. If there is one consistent finding in social science, it is the tight correlation between family income and test scores. Yet today’s “reformers” consider this correlation to be the fault of bad teachers. “Reformers” apparently believe that our society can ignore poverty, homelessness, and joblessness, because schools alone can close the achievement gap and make everyone equal. This is poppycock and unusually mean-spirited as well.

From: Mike Rose To: Diane Ravitch Subject: RE: Disregarding the Effects of Poverty

What NCLB had exactly right is the assertion that children’s cognitive potential is influenced by much more than their income level. But I think it is either naïve or duplicitous to dismiss the devastating effects of poverty on a child’s life in school. Yes, there are a number of cases of poor children who achieve mightily. But their stories are never simple, and, as any teacher who follows her students’ lives will tell you, their achievement can be derailed by one bad break. Furthermore, in many cases, the schools or individual teachers intervene with various kinds of aid and assistance: financial, food, and health care.

It seems hard for us as a culture to perceive simultaneously the physical and psychological devastation wrought by poverty and the cognitive potential that continues to burn within. At the extremes, we either lighten the effects of economic disruption with self-help platitudes, or we see only blight and generalize it to include intellectual capacity. What we need is a binocular vision when regarding poor kids in school, a vision that enables one to be mindful of the barriers to achievement and still nurture the possible.

From: Mike Rose To: Diane Ravitch Subject: Either/Or Thinking in Education

Diane, let me shift topics, for this mention of either/or polarities reminds me of something: When a friend of mine found out that you and I were going to be having this exchange, this person observed that you and I fall on different sides of the equity/excellence debate. My first thought was, “Hey, I stand for excellence, too!” And though you and I would probably disagree on what the content of, let’s say, a literature curriculum should be, I’ve never read you as anti-egalitarian.

This led me to think about a bigger issue, and I’d like to hear your thoughts about it. American education is bedeviled by a kind of either/or thinking about curriculum and pedagogy: There has been an equity versus excellence debate for decades now. And the poverty versus achievement tangle we just discussed. And consider the firestorms around whole language versus phonics or math facts and skills versus math concepts. And then there’s the granddaddy of all divides: the dichotomizing of academic versus vocational pursuits.

These binaries get hotly polemical, which creates a lot of heat, but not very much light—especially for the teacher who typically needs to find a balance between dual positions.

From: Diane Ravitch To: Mike Rose Subject: RE: Either/Or Thinking in Education

Like you, I have been involved in debating many of these polarities over the past decades. I am certainly not anti-egalitarian. I have long loved the John Dewey quotation that “what the best and wisest parent wants for his child is what we should want for all the children of the community.” We should not tolerate an educational system in which some families get a great curriculum, excellent teachers, small classes, and wonderful facilities, while other families get meager dollops of all those things. The debate over teacher effectiveness, for example, has completely sidelined this discussion. Instead of talking about resources, we are locked into a fruitless conversation about “effectiveness.” But this is what I find fascinating, Mike. Old adversaries have been contacting me to say that they agree with my critique of accountability and choice. They and I are in the same camp now. What is at stake is the future of public education and the role of schools as a democratizing institution. The old polarities disappear when people realize that public education faces a common threat to its survival.

From: Mike Rose To: Diane Ravitch Subject: A Liberal Arts Curriculum?

You close your book with a call for a return to a strong liberal arts curriculum, rich in written canonical literature, history, and the arts.

In your new book—and more so in other things you’ve written—you’ve criticized the many other approaches to curriculum that have emerged in the 20th Century: from life-adjustment to process-oriented curriculum. I share some of your concerns about these approaches: the faddism in education and the lack of intellectual substance. (My favorite current bit of cant is “brain-based learning”—as if there is any other kind!)

But one reason that so many alternative approaches to curriculum and instruction have emerged is that significant numbers of students were failing or being poorly educated with the traditional curriculum. As you know, there never was a Golden Age of uniform high achievement, so I understand educators wanting to try new things.

So my question to you Diane—one I think a lot about myself—is how do we respond to the significant numbers of students who, based on historical precedent, will not do well with the kind of curriculum you advocate?

From: Diane Ravitch To: Mike Rose Subject: RE: A Liberal Arts Curriculum?

Mike, here is where we might diverge. I think that children from every background will respond to a curriculum that respects their minds and feeds them with rich experiences. Just a few days ago, I was in Dallas and met with teachers who had completed a course in reading the classics at the Dallas Institute for the Humanities and Culture. I listened to teachers described what it meant to them to study The Iliad, The Odyssey, Shakespeare, and other great works. Two of the teachers in the group were working with Hispanic students in ESL classes. They described their exchanges with the students when they assigned Julius Caesar and other canonical works. At first the students groaned, but then they got into it. They understood the theme of betrayal. They had experienced it in their own lives. They began to argue about the motives of Brutus and other characters. They began to see that these works were not just for rich kids, but for them too. What I heard from the teachers was, first, their great enthusiasm; second, their appreciation for being treated with respect; third, the excitement they felt when they were able to bring their intellectual joy to their students.

From: Mike Rose To: Diane Ravitch Subject: RE: A Liberal Arts Curriculum?

Well, this is interesting. I do think we would diverge as we got down to the final content of a literature curriculum. I would like to see more of a mix of genres and authors, with the Western classics included. But I’m completely on board with the situation you describe and have experienced it myself over the years. This might be cheating, but, given our limited space, if interested readers want to explore our respective positions, they can look at the final chapter (“Lessons Learned”) in your The Death and Life of the Great American School System and my discussion of teaching James Joyce’s short story “Araby” in the “Standards, Teaching, Learning” chapter of Why School?

From: Mike Rose To: Diane Ravitch Subject: A Beer Summit With the President

OK Diane, this is a good place to end with a big-picture question I was asked during a recent interview: If I were invited to the White House for a Beer Summit on education, what would I say to President Obama? Let’s start with you.

From: Diane Ravitch To: Mike Rose Subject: RE: A Beer Summit With the President

First, I would ask him to fully fund special education. That would relieve the fiscal burden that so many states and districts are now bearing and that is causing so many hundreds of thousands of teachers to be laid off. Then, I would try to explain briefly that his policies are too closely tied to the punitive approach of NCLB and urge him to take a positive approach, so as to help teachers and schools get better. Since he is a wonderful orator, I would suggest that he change the rhetoric about education; instead of speaking about punishing, firing, failing, and closing, speak instead about improving, supporting, developing, encouraging, and inspiring.

Last, I would urge him to create an advisory group—not connected to the Department of Education—whose charge would be to develop a long-term plan for the improvement of American education. What he is now doing is too closely tied to the “measure and punish” philosophy of NCLB, as well as the privatization agenda of the entrepreneurs. What he is doing will harm public education, not improve it. Perhaps with a long-term plan, he could lift our sights, and his own as well, to a more generous, positive understanding of what is needed by our schools, our students, and our educators.

And you, Mike, what would you ask him?

From: Mike Rose To: Diane Ravitch Subject: RE: A Beer Summit With the President

I’d ask the president about his own education. What does he remember about elementary school or middle school, particularly those teachers who made a difference? And what books mattered? Was there someone in high school who helped him see things in a new light? When did he begin to sense that school could enable him to use his mind in the world? What issues in law school most caught his fancy? Can he think of ways to bring those issues into the elementary school classroom? He’s a very thoughtful guy, so I’d suspect I’d get some interesting answers. Then I’d ask him how the spirit of these answers could better inform his education policy, because it seems so far removed from the heartbeat of good teaching and learning.


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