Tag Archives: ravitch

The Misplaced Priority of “Save Our Schools”

One of the loudest voices in the current education reform debate–particularly on the Internet and social media– is the group Save Our Schools. Originally founded “to speak out against the attacks on public education and public school teachers,” the group has attracted a substantial following nationwide, including education celebrities such as Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier. They are outspoken in their opposition to many educational reform proposals, including school choice, parent-trigger laws, and school and teacher accountability through testing.

I do not doubt the good intentions of the group and its members. But their stubborn adherence to a single means towards education–“traditional schools”–instead of a quality education in any form shows that the group’s stated desire to improve education for kids in this country is disingenuous. 

As I’ve argued in this space before, the reason that tax dollars fund schools is that our society rightly decided that education is a public responsibility; schools and school systems were established because they were believed to be the best means  to fulfill that responsibility. These “traditional” schools have been and continue to be successful in doing that for many kids.

But “many” kids is not all, as most prominently shown in our cities. It is only logical, then, to modify our means of fulfilling the public responsibility to educate. And that’s where Save Our Schools misses the mark.  Traditional schools exist as a means towards the end of quality of education; they have no inherent societal value, and so are only worth “saving” if they are the most efficient and effective way to educate kids. But if we can educate better by tweaking the model–or even jettisoning it altogether–we have a responsibility to do so. Any group unwilling to do that is not truly committed to fulfilling the public responsibility of education.

It is instructive–and somewhat amusing– that on their website Save Our Schools claims to be committed to goals that are literally opposites:”preserv[ing] and transform[ing] public education.” It reads like a tacit admission of how a priority of saving schools is not actually aligned with improving education in general. The group would be well-served by thinking beyond educational tradition and anachronism and actually consider why we have schools.

Merit Pay is Professional

Today’s NYT features an editorial endorsing merit pay for teachers. Entitled “Carrots and Sticks for School Systems,” the piece references the recent report “Irreplaceables” by TNTP as evidence that schools should do more to retain top teachers and weed out ineffective ones. (My take on the report.) The logic is simple: top teachers are leaving the profession in droves, and so schools should offer higher earning potential to teachers based on effectiveness, not seniority and credentials.

That argument, despite its simple logic, is anathema to supporters of the status quo in education. As Diane Ravitch–engaging in typical demagoguery–puts it, “carrots and sticks are for donkeys, not professionals.” Though I’m sure the line got plenty of laughs and cheers at the AFT convention, that doesn’t make it true. Rewarding and punishing employees based on job performance is absolutely professional, and avoiding such a system only isolates teachers at the expense of our reputation.

What always gets me is how “merit pay” is treated as a novel idea, even though it is just a fancy name for a pillar of free market labor economics: You do your job well, you receive a reward; your performance is unsatisfactory, you receive a consequence. The evidence that it “works” is centuries of economic growth, entrepreneurship, and improving quality of life in this country. Why would teaching be different? If these “carrots and sticks” weren’t effective, we’d see other “professional” industries switching to a strict experience-based pay scale. But, of course, we don’t.

The defensive reaction of teachers to merit pay proposals does further damage to our reputation. Instead of treating merit pay as an attack on teachers that aren’t working hard, we should consider it a simple way to recognize and reward excellence. We teachers know how difficult teaching is; why would we want to deny rewards to those who do it exceptionally well? If we want to be treated like other professionals, we should trade our petty stubbornness for logic and acknowledge that what works in other industries is worth a try for us.

StudentsFirst is Right to De-Emphasize Poverty

Michelle Rhee and her organization, StudentsFirst,created controversy this past week after Rhee articulated her education reform vision in a Meet the Press appearance and related TV ad. One common complaint about her argument, as discussed by Diane Ravitch among others, is that it doesn’t acknowledge the connection between poverty and struggling schools.

I’m not going to comment on why there is a correlation between poverty and low achievement–that is best handled by a sociologist. But I think that StudentsFirst and its allies are right to de-emphasize the role of poverty in the achievement gap, for the simple reason that it is more likely to help kids. The urban education crisis demands viable policies that will help kids, not “silver bullets” and trumpeted ideals.

It’s no secret that the U.S. has disturbingly high poverty levels, particularly among children. And it would be ridiculous to argue that this does not have an impact on education. A massive nationwide wealth redistribution, or at least redistribution of school funding, would likely fix a lot of the problems in our schools.

But here’s the thing: that’s not going to happen anytime soon. The continuing outrage over Obama’s healthcare reform bill–which is relatively moderate, of course– is perfect evidence that our country is not ready for radical progressivism. As I’ve written previously, we cannot depend on people to vote against their direct interests. To put it bluntly, in the current political climate “fixing” poverty is a pipe dream.

Now, do advocates of those radical reforms have good intentions? Of course. But good intentions do nothing for kids currently forced to attend ineffective, unsafe schools. Talk of systemic social problems as the cause of low achievement serves as little more than a convenient justification for inaction; it masks and ignores the urgency of the problem. Instead of maligning wealth distribution to little effect, let’s figure out what we can do tomorrow to help kids that are being failed by the system. Every day we do nothing is a moral failure. Imagine that you or your child had to go to a terrible school. Would you be willing to wait for a radical economic reorganization? I bet not.

Rhee understands this. It’s not that poverty is irrelevant, just that it is not useful or practical to emphasize it in discussions of education reform. She rightly supports school choice, tenure reform and other policies because they are realistic to implement, and so can  actually help kids. All education reformers ought to use that same logic. If we’re serious about improving the welfare of our nation’s children, we should pocket our ideals and acknowledge that we need feasible policies, not progressive grandstanding. 

Diane Ravitch Doesn’t Understand Philly

Today in EdWeek, education scholar and commentator Diane Ravitch joined the fray of alarmist outsiders lamenting the impending “death” of public education in Philadelphia. Her concern stems from the recently released “blueprint” for school reorganization in Philadelphia  which includes closing 64 schools—they will presumably either be reopened as charters or consolidated–and dividing the district into “achievement networks” led by teams of educators or nonprofit organizations. Though her EdWeek piece (and comment on it on her blog) carry a dramatic, passionate tone, she proves little more than her proficiency at the use of logical fallacy.

Ravitch considers this reorganization to amount to an “abandon[ment]” and “death” of public education in Philadelphia. Money quotes:

The death of public education in any city or district is a tragedy. Education is a public responsibility. If some choose to pay to go to non-public schools, they have the right to do so. But for the vast majority of our kids, public education is their right and our responsibility. Any who whittle away that sense of public responsibility are doing damage to our society and our kids and our future.

As we abandon public schools, we abandon any sense of public responsibility for a basic public service. That’s worse than a mistake. It’s a tragedy. What will be privatized next? Police protection? Fire protection? Clean air? Potable water?

In other words, she argues that education ought to be a public responsibility, and shirking that responsibility would be damaging to society. That is a statement with which no one in involved in the Philadelphia reorganization disagrees. How could they? This is a  classic “straw man” argument, which misrepresents an opponent’s position. (Her claim that privatization of education could result in privatization of other areas in the second passage I quoted is also a perfect use of the “slippery slope” fallacy. Actually, I am somewhat thankful–it is a great example to use when I teach critical reading of nonfiction in my classes.)

In truth, Ravitch is ignoring a basic reality: the reorganization in Philadelphia does not remove the public responsibility for education. Whether she likes it or not,  charter schools are still public schools. They are funded by tax dollars, and students do not have to pay to go there. Sure, some charter organizations receive additional funding from private donations. But is more money in the system a bad thing? All students in the city will still attend school regardless of their financial situation. The means of implementing the public responsibility for education is changing; the responsibility itself is not.

Now, Ravitch is spot-on in her argument that inadequate funding in the district is largely to blame for the dire situation in Philly. But given her prominent position in the education reform world, she needs to double-check her facts and logic before resorting to alarmism. Otherwise we might as well  just hand her a bell and a sign: