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Good Intentions, Ignorant Elites, and Scoundrels

By Diane Ravitch — November 25, 2008 2 min read

Dear Deborah,

We live in a dangerous and dark time for schools. In many districts, the gears of power are controlled by non-educators who don’t have a clue. They madly embrace testing and data and data-driven instruction because they have not a single idea about how kids learn and how teachers teach and what conditions are necessary to promote teaching and learning. This new breed also populates some of our nation’s leading think tanks. Most of them have never taught; have never been in a classroom since they were students; know nothing of the history of education and nothing about research, but they know how to fix the nation’s schools.

Watch what they do. If they are superintendents, they boast of their numbers. They close schools with impunity. They open new schools. They open them by the score. They will tell you that they are going to change “the quality” of teachers by recruiting Ivy League graduates and Teach for America folk. They are going to push out all those experienced fogies, so that their newbies have no one to learn from, no one to show them the ropes, no one to help with knotty day-to-day problems. No problem, because the new generation of superintendents has a gullible media, willing to swallow whatever numbers are pumped out, whatever success stories are generated by the public relations team.

If they are in think tanks, they know what teachers should be doing, although with few exceptions, they have never actually been teachers. They know how to recruit great teachers, though they have never recruited any themselves. They know how to measure teacher quality, and they know exactly what rewards and trinkets will get teachers to work harder and produce higher test scores. Amazing that so much genius about how to run a terrific education system has been sequestered in child-free, student-free offices in the District of Columbia.

And while I am on the subject of misguided policies, check out the piece I wrote for Forbes.com last week about the admission by the Gates Foundation that its $2 billion investment in small schools didn’t work. When was the last time that you heard any foundation or big-city superintendent admit that it/he/she was wrong? So I give Gates credit for candor, but I wonder if anyone will tally up the cost of their “gift,” the thousands of small schools that turned out to be incapable of giving kids a good education. The thousands of additional principals and additional buildings and additional administrative staff. When you started your small school, you brought to it a singular passion. In New York City and many other districts, small schools have been churned out en masse, without a supply of top-notch principals and teachers to staff them. They were the product of the business-minded bureaucracy, who created the schools, then went looking for someone to work in them. Not your idea at all!

We live in a time of good intentions, ignorant elites, and scoundrels. Who can tell which is which?

Diane

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