Mike Kueber's Blog

January 27, 2014

Sunday Book Review #121 – Reign of Error by Diane Ravitch

Filed under: Education — Mike Kueber @ 4:37 am

A few years ago, I needed a primer on American education policy, so I read Diane Ravitch’s “The Death and Life of the Great American School System.”  In my summary of the book, I described her five conclusions as follows:

  1. Improper federal role in education.  The federal government isn’t responsible for education in America, so it shouldn’t borrow money to give to the states as bribery for education policies dictated by the federal government.  Ravitch noted that conservative Bush-43 expanded the role of the federal government in education, and liberal Obama completed the federal takeover, but these were mere incidental comments, and it was clear that she wasn’t interested in constitutional correctness.
  2. Proper federal role in education.  The federal government has a role in helping the states develop sound education policies.  For example, the federal government has facilitated the states in developing uniform standards.  Math and reading standards developed by 48 states (sans Texas and Alaska) were announced earlier this year.  Also, national testing enables states to compare the effectiveness of different practices.  But there should be no coercion or bribery, as currently included in Race to the Top (R2T) and Obama’s update of No Child Left Behind (NCLB).
  3. Charter schools (and choice).  Ravitch usually bases her conclusions on objective research/studies, but her opposition to charter schools seems subjective, almost political.  She concedes that charter schools are effective for their students, but she worries about the deterioration of the public schools that are left behind.  (I think a good analogy is an aging neighborhood that people eventually abandon.  Gov’t. would prefer that residents stay in place and maintain their neighborhood, but gov’t. allows residents to vote with their feet and leave for better neighborhoods.)  As a political matter, I think Americans will insist on choice and competition, albeit with winners and losers.  It’s unfortunate that there will be losers, but America has to be about equality of opportunity, not equality of results.  Charter schools clearly improve opportunity for everybody.
  4. Testing (and accountability).  Ravitch concludes that making high-stakes decisions (such as firing principals and closing schools) based on test results will cause teachers and districts to “teach the test.”  I agree with that conclusion.  As Bob Davis used to say at USAA, weak managers will tend to manage to the metrics on which they are evaluated.  That is why we need to carefully design tests and then carefully use the results.  Small numbers (such as one teacher for one year) should have limited usability, whereas large numbers (a large school over several years) should be difficult to explain away if they are consistently bad.  Also, testing should not be limited to math and reading because other subjects are essential to a balance education – e.g., science and history.
  5. No Child Left Behind.  NCLB is a work in progress.  Although Obama campaigned against NCLB, I think he acted correctly when he recommended mending it, not ending it.  There are problems with testing and charter schools, but education in America would be hurt with their elimination.

More than a year later, I reviewed another book – “Class Warfare” by Steven Brill – that took Ravitch to task for her conclusions.   According to Brill, the American school system was failing because of teacher unions that followed their self-interest and resisted reform.  Successful reform would require:

  • Testing.  Measure teacher effectiveness, primarily through testing of students.  Ineffective teachers need to improve or be terminated.  Effective teachers need to be paid more and copied.  And the granting tenure needs to be tied to effectiveness.
  • Charter schools.  Parent choice with more charter schools is invaluable in improving schools.

With “Reign of Error,” Ravitch makes new arguments to defend the positions she took in her earlier book.  As she points out in her introduction, her purpose it to answer four questions:

  1. Is American education in crisis?
  2. Is American education failing and declining?
  3. What is the evidence for the reforms now being promoted by both political parties?
  4. What should we do to improve our schools?

In a nutshell, Ravitch argues that the only crisis in American education is that it is under assault by misguided reformers who want to implement reforms that won’t work.  (Sounds like FDR’s warning that all we have to fear is fear itself.)  She believes that the reformers are misleading the public into thinking that American schools are failing, and there are several fact-based chapters discussing test scores, achievement gaps, international test scores, high school graduation rates, college graduation rates, the connection between poverty and test scores, why merit pay fails, the pros and cons of seniority, the problem with Teach for America, the mystery of Michelle Rhea, the contradictions of charters, the failure of vouchers, curriculum, class size, and strengthening the profession.

Instead of the currently proposed reforms (testing, getting rid of ineffective educators, vouchers, charters), Ravitch suggests:

  1. Provide good prenatal care for every pregnant woman.
  2. Make high-quality early childhood education available to all children.
  3. Every school should have a full, balanced, and rich curriculum.
  4. Reduce class sizes to improve student achievement and behavior.
  5. Ban for-profit charters and charter chains.
  6. Provide the medical and social services that poor kids need to keep up.
  7. Eliminate high-stakes standardized testing.
  8. Insist that teachers and their management be professional educators.
  9. Public schools should be controlled by school boards, not mayors.
  10. Reduce racial segregation and poverty.
  11. Recognize the public education is a public responsibility, not a consumer good.

Ravitch has not written a book that fairly presents both sides of the argument, but I am persuaded by her that the American schools are not as bad as is often presented in the media.  The most problematic schools are found where there is a concentration of poverty and dependency, and although the kids at those schools will benefit from testing, accountability, and options for charters and vouchers, the ultimate solution needs to alleviate the poverty.

July 1, 2011

Testing in American schools

More than a year ago, I posted an entry in my blog about the issue of testing in American schools.  Most of the entry focused on information that
I had gleaned from a book by Diane Ravitch, one of the leading American experts on educational policy (although she seems to lurch from one extreme to the other).

Today, one of my favorite columnists, David Brooks from the NY Times, columnized that Ravitch has become a strident union ideologue whose
firm opposition to testing is misguided.  Brooks suggests that testing isn’t the problem, but rather the problem is that weak schools over-emphasize testing.  His solution isn’t to eliminate testing, but rather to reform or kill weak schools.

Brooks’ column reflects his thoughtful steadiness while Ravitch continues to sound like an advocate, not an intellectual.

December 13, 2010

Charter schools in the Rio Grande Valley – IDEA and the PSJA

One of the first postings to my blog concerned American education policy.  The posting was based primarily on a book by educator Diane Ravitch.  Ravitch recognizes the promise of charter schools, but is more concerned that they will hurt those left behind in public schools.  Last week, the Texas Tribune published an article on a successful charter-school network in deep South Texas – IDEA – that was expanding its scope by developing a training program for area teachers and principals.  (Don’t ask me what IDEA stands for; I’m sure it’s cute.)

IDEA was founded in 1998 by two veterans of Teach for America (TFA), the program that places graduates from primarily elite colleges without a typical teacher’s education in low-income areas for a two-year commitment – kind of like a domestic Peace Corp.  There are currently 192 TFA teachers working in the Rio Grande Valley. 

IDEA started small in Donna, TX and by all measures has been a success.  With the help of large grants from the federal government and private foundations, it will meet its goal of 11 campuses, 22 schools, and 8,000 students by 2012, and the Texas Education Agency has rate each IDEA school as “exemplary.”  Further proof of success – there are 14,000 kids on a waiting list to enroll in an IDEA school in the Valley.  That sounds like the movie documentary, “Waiting for Superman,” which I haven’t seen yet, but it is on my list of things to do.      

The Texas Tribune article, which was also published by the New York Times, was not a broad review of the IDEA charter schools, but rather focused on the collaboration of charter schools and traditional public schools (technically charter schools are public schools).  This cooperation strikes many as odd because these two types of schools are supposed to be mortal enemies engaged in a battle to the death. 

The Obama administration, which is a big supporter of charter schools, borrowed hundreds of millions of dollars and made that money available through Investing in Innovation (I-3) grants, with some of that money designated to promote charter-district collaborations. 

IDEA, in coordination with the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District and Teach for America – sought a grant to create the Rio Grande Center for Teaching and Leading Excellence (RGC).  Against all odds – only 49 applicants from a national pool of more than 1,700 – the PSJA-IDEA-Teach for America partnership was the sole winner from the state of Texas. 

According to the Texas Tribune article, the RGC is intended to train teachers and principals. 

  • First-year teachers and those recruited from elsewhere will attend the center for a few weeks of training over the summer. They will also go to multiple sessions throughout the year and can call on the center for extra help. In all, about 1,200 educators will pass through the center over the next four years.

That purpose is a bit inconsistent with the initial press release from the local congressman, Ruben Hinojosa, who announced (as politicians are wont to do) the grant earlier year.  According to Hinojosa, training is only a small part of what the RGC and more of its focus will be recruiting:

  • IDEA and PSJA will work together with Teach For America to create a program that will recruit, select, onboard, evaluate, reward, support, train and retain teachers and school leaders for both IDEA and PSJA schools.  Dr. Noel Tichy, who designed and helped launch the New York City Leader ship Academy, will be the evaluator of the program.The goals of the program are to increase the number of new and experienced teachers and other instructional leaders and at the same time reach more students through high-quality education.

    “Our goal is to bring highly effective teachers in every classroom and exceptional principals in every building,” said Tom Torkelson, President, CEO and Founder [actually, co-founder] of IDEA Public Schools. “We want to help our teachers identify their goals while offering them full support to become successful in the classroom and in their careers”.

    The estimated number of students who will be served in a four year period is 50,365. The grant is for the period of October 1, 2010 through September 30, 2014.

(Leave it to a politician to substitute the number of students served by this program instead of the number of teachers and principals – $8 million for 50,365 students is more effective than $8 million for 1,200 teachers and principals.) 

This focus on recruiting is consistent with the education strategy espoused by many educators.  The Texas Tribune article described this strategy by quoting Ed Fuller from the Center for Teacher Quality, “South Texas really has to rely on their own homegrown talent,” said Ed Fuller, a senior research associate for the Center for Teaching Quality. “You get into this vicious cycle.”  According to Fuller, many South Texas students who decide to enter teacher training programs have low SAT scores. When they graduate from the teacher training and earn their certification, many of them also tend to score low on certification tests. Research has demonstrated that those who had low scores are often less effective teachers.

The bottom line is that IDEA schools are succeeding like any other successful American business engaged in free enterprise.  Many years ago I made up a name – enlightened capitalism – for an economic system that minimizes some of the ugly features of dog-eat-dog, greed-is-good capitalism, and perhaps that is what we have with Rio Grande Centers for Teaching and Leading Excellent.  (I wonder if the name was a pun for Rush Limbaugh’s Excellence in Broadcasting.) 

I believe the IDEA people sincerely want the PSJA system to succeed, even if that success cuts into the IDEA waiting list.  If this collaboration of IDEA, PSJA, and TFA is successful, it might ameliorate author Diane Ravitch’s concern that public schools will become a ghetto for losers.  Possibly this competition of ideas will accomplished what charter-school proponents have always hoped for – i.e., competition will raise everyone’s level of performance.  But America has to be willing to allow institutions to fail.  Creative destruction is an essential side effect of innovation and progress. 

Good luck, PSJA.