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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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We Must Change the Narrative About Public Education: Guest Blog by Diane Ravitch

Betty Ray

Director of Programming and Innovation @Edutopia

Editor's Note: Today's guest blogger is Diane Ravitch, an historian of education, an educational policy analyst, and former United States Assistant Secretary of Education. She is now a research professor at New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

Diane Ravitch

As the protests in Wisconsin dominate national news, and the White House and Congress gear up for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, currently called "No Child Left Behind"), we have a unique opportunity to put to rest some of the inaccurate narratives that have come to dominate debates around education policy, and to lay the foundations for a set of policies that can achieve our broader societal goals for children.

Myth #1: The Achievement Gap is Widening

Central to the current focus on using standardized tests to hold teachers and schools accountable is the belief that low-income children, especially minority children, are losing academic ground, and that weak schools and teachers with low expectations are to blame. In reality, African-American fourth graders have gained so much ground over the past two decades - when their schools were ostensibly failing them miserably - that they now score higher, on average, on reliable (NAEP) math tests than their white peers did as recently as 1992. And the very lowest-scoring students have seen the largest gains. White students have also gained a lot of ground, so the achievement gap hasn't closed, though it has narrowed a bit. (Over the same time, reading scores, which are likely much more tied to factors outside of schools, have not increased nearly as much, especially in the later grades.) These gains actually slowed after the adoption of No Child Left Behind, possibly because the intense demand for testing caused diminished time for studies that engage children most in school, like the arts, history, science, even physical education.

Critics of so-called "bad" schools point to gaps of a year or more between poor and middle-class fifth graders as evidence of that the school is a failure. Yet there is a gap of as much as two years when at-risk students enter kindergarten - bad schools clearly didn't create it, and seldom have the resources to overcome it.

Myth #2: Achievement Will Soar With Younger, More Enthusiastic Teachers

A second, related narrative asserts that teachers who work in the poorest schools are lazy and burned out; achievement will soar if only we can fire more of the older teachers and replace them with young, enthusiastic ones, especially those from Teach for America, who have only five weeks of training. But this demand runs counter to what we know to be true in every other profession: experience is a plus. Indeed, while the evidence is mixed on some aspects of education policy, it is unmistakably clear on this point: experience is one of the best predictors of teacher quality. Moreover, teachers familiar with community circumstances are especially needed in schools in which students have experienced poverty, inadequate housing, lack of sufficient food, and health problems. All these limit students' focus in class and prompt behavior problems.

The incontrovertible evidence about the effects of poverty on family life and student motivation flies in the face of the pervasive narrative that policymakers and the public have been hearing. It makes clear the need to reverse the increasingly narrow focus on testing, accountability, and the use of both to get rid of tenured teachers and to close "failing" schools. And it points to several suggestions for policymakers as they look to ESEA reauthorization:

1) Given the remarkable progress in math that schools serving poor and disadvantaged children have made, we should use data collection as a tool to figure out what has worked well - such as improved curricula and class size - and to help schools and teachers improve, rather than as a weapon to punish schools and fire teachers, which further destabilizes already fragile communities.

2) The current system forbids us to say openly what we all know: Students who live in poverty and isolation face tremendous hurdles to learning, and they bring those problems with them to school every day. If schools are to succeed, and students to reach their full potential, teachers, principals, and parents need to have the necessary resources to help them do so. This means helping all students arrive at the kindergarten door ready to learn through quality early childhood education, parent education, targeting scarce resources of money, small classes, and the best teachers to at-risk students to maintain those early gains, and linking schools to the range of community supports, such as after-school and summer programs and mentoring opportunities that middle-class children already enjoy.

3) The federal mandates in No Child Left Behind that require schools to demonstrate Adequate Yearly Progress in reading and math embody a utopian goal that no state or nation has ever met: 100% proficiency on state tests. This has resulted in accountability measures that narrow the curriculum, especially for poor children, and game the system rather than helping students learn more. Measures that help schools and teachers determine how well they are serving their at-risk students require: enhancements to NAEP that will allow it to provide disaggregated data in more nuanced ways and to assess a much broader range of subjects; additional tools to assess children's health, values, civic engagement, and other curricular and societal goals; and state flexibility in designing accountability systems so that a range of models can be tested to meet district needs.

If we are serious about school reform, we would change our efforts from the current punitive approach to a strategy of building a strong education profession and attending to the conditions of children's lives. Instead of closing schools that are often the most stable institution in the neighborhood, we would be improving them. Instead of firing experienced teachers, we would be making sure that they have the tools to do their job. Instead of ignoring poverty and its negative consequences, we would be designing programs to help families and children. Instead of creating programs to insert inexperienced teachers, principals, and superintendents into our schools, we would take steps to recruit, support, and respect those who work in our nation's schools.

Diane Ravitch is Research Professor of Education at New York University and a historian of education. In addition, she is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. She has written numerous articles and books -- her most recent, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (New York: Basic Books, 2010).

Betty Ray

Director of Programming and Innovation @Edutopia
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Frank Krasicki's picture

Ravitch is as much responsible for the way things are as anyone. For over thirty years she's served in positions of authority often double-talking.

Her *truth* is disingenuous. The so-called achievement gap is pure fiction, a statistical artefact of an education industry run amok. It is the coinage of a social-engineered subliminal class-ism. By warehousing the poor in urban encampments, the rest of America doesn't have to deal or interact with them. The real-estate pyramid schemes that have wrecked our economy were the engine that kept this phenomenon rolling profitably.

Educators have known for forty years that children of poverty environments cannot be lifted from that original state of ignorance and desperation by schooling alone. We can talk about this. The fact that Ravitch insists that we can't speaks to the real myth.

Myth #1: Educators are the solution to America's education crisis

They are not. They and their unions have long ago sold out the welfare of children for the negotiated comforts of cozy and disingenuous work rules that eliminate any possibility that schools can be managed for the best interests of everyone involved.

Numerous studies indicate that the insane escalation of spending on education shows flat if not negligible classroom returns. *That* is the real achievement gap and everyone paying the bill knows it.

Politicians who pander to the idea that schools should become homogeneous in achievement ignore the fact that in order for schools to get better we need achievement gaps. If there are no superior schools continuously pushing the educational envelope how can we get better? Since when is being academically "equal" a good thing?

We should be advancing education gaps in every subject and pedagogy, dropping the ineffective and adopting the proven winners. WAIT! That's against union work rules.

Myth #2; The false dichotomy of young vs old teachers. Here Ravitch is simply acting as a special interest lobbyist for preserving a seniority system that is cancerous to educational reform.

She isn't trying to elevate the debate, she's trying to derail intelligent discussion. Ravitch and her followers will insist class size is an important factor in children's education because *magically* teachers will spend more time individualizing classroom learning.

Anecdotally, teachers ALL insist this happens. Study after study disputes this assertion. Studies indicate that *the opportunity for individual attention* increases. Yet only teachers who already practice the art actually practice the art - a rare breed. Furthermore, studies indicate that some teachers are better with small classes and some are awful. Likewise with large classroom sizes.

What does seniority have to do with this? What? Why can't schools be managed to take advantage of teachers strengths and weaknesses? Why?

WAIT! Union rules.

Yes, Diane let's be honest. By all means. But you have a lot of catching up to do .

Megan Balinge's picture

I am appalled that you, as a board member, are so misinformed about so many of the issues concerning education today. "The so-called achievement gap is pure fiction, a statistical artefact of an education industry run amok." [sic] So, you're saying that the education "industry" is making up statistics to make it seem as if poor and minority students are not achieving their educational potential? Or, are you saying that minority and disadvantaged students have no educational potential? Oh, that's right, you are: "Politicians who pander to the idea that schools should become homogeneous in achievement ignore the fact that in order for schools to get better we need achievement gaps." So, it's okay if we have achievement gaps as long as its the poor and minority students who aren't achieving. But wait, I thought you said that the achievement gap is a myth?

Then you go on to say that teachers aren't concerned with the welfare of their students: "They and their unions have long ago sold out the welfare of children for the negotiated comforts of cozy and disingenuous work rules that eliminate any possibility that schools can be managed for the best interests of everyone involved." So, when teachers negotiate working conditions, it hurts children? You'll have to substantiate that, because it doesn't make sense to me. Your use of exaggeration and inflammatory language points to the fact that you don't have anything to back up your claims.

"We should be advancing education gaps in every subject and pedagogy, dropping the ineffective and adopting the proven winners. WAIT! That's against union work rules." Again, you're going to have to point out the union rules that are against adopting new initiatives, because I know that in many districts, teachers are experiencing initiative burnout. So many new initiatives are being thrown at them, tried out for a year or less, and then abandoned for the newest thing.

"Ravitch and her followers will insist class size is an important factor in children's education because *magically* teachers will spend more time individualizing classroom learning." Obviously, you've never been a teacher (and really, the idea that more students = less individual attention seems like common sense to me). Numerous studies point to the importance of class size; it's not just Ravitch pulling this idea out of thin air.

"Furthermore, studies indicate that some teachers are better with small classes and some are awful. Likewise with large classroom sizes." Please post a link to these studies. I'd like to learn about the teachers who do better with more students and worse with fewer students.

Frank Krasicki's picture

The education industry does what is best for the industry. The perpetual lie that small class sizes are significant is one example that is pervasive, wholly speculative, and self-serving.

It is a big lie and in study after study impossible to validate. Even the origin of this meme, the STAR study has come under increased scrutiny because its rather tenuous observation that class size improved learning in pre-fourth graders who were at risk learners may be invalid.

This is called the scientific method. It's what we're supposed to teach. Why do teachers unions perpetuate the lie if not because it benefits teachers with lighter workloads? Why?

As for the phantom achievement gap it exists only in the realm of high-stakes testing regimes -the program no educator worth their salt believes is worthwhile. Once we stop playing the testing game we can talk about what schools do well and what needs improvement. And children can learn to their abilities rather than politically idealized nonsense.

And yes achievement gaps (whatever they are) should exist fabulously and richly. There should be gaps within schools, within communities, across states and across the country. Who cares? Who are you or I to say what any child *MUST BE* at any given point in time? And what is a failing school? Is every program bad? Every teacher a donkey? Every test a death sentence?

I call bullshit.

"I know that in many districts, teachers are experiencing initiative burnout."

Baloney. This excuse is the reason we are where we are. There are no worthwhile initiatives going on if the brightest young teacher can't be retained to save the job of an incompetent one.

Let's end NCLB and RTTT NOW. That's what's burning teachers out. Teaching can be fun, exciting, and exhilarating. About thirty years ago, teaching sold out to a rogue conservative agenda that has poisoned everything since. We need to change that course whether you're burned out or not. To say, let's accept this rotten system as is is not the answer.

The same seniority scenes that existed in "To Sir With Love" repeat in "The Freedom Writers" movie. Young teacher - good ideas slapped down by union protected , insulated, cynical, and worthless elder teachers using the school as retirement's waiting room. Go ahead tell me this is not the way it is.

Diane is not pulling the class studies out of thin air...

She just has never read the fine print and doesn't care to. If you're interested go to a University and search JStor deeply. It will change your mind if you're actually interested in accuracy.

(see: http://region19.blogspot.com/2008/04/classeoom-size-and-education-gaps.html)

Megan Balinge's picture

Mr. Krasicki,

There are plenty of studies that validate the fact that smaller class size makes a difference. The one study that has recently come out was based on the situation in Florida in 2002 where schools were forced into reduction without any increase in funding. There had to be cuts made somewhere else, be it technology, professional development, etc. The study showed no difference between the schools that were forced and the schools that weren't. Here's the kicker: it was the lowest performing schools that were forced. So...they de-funded some parts of those schools while at the same time decreasing the class size and it turned out okay (not improving, but not getting any worse despite the cuts to other parts of the school budgets).

Small-class effects are typically positive across student characteristics and are greater for students traditionally seen to be at risk (e.g., Biddle & Berliner, 2002; Blatchford, 2003b; Ehrenberg, Brewer, Gamoran, & Willms, 2001; Finn & Achilles, 1990; Finn et al., 2003; Grissmer, 1999; Nye, Hedges, & Konstantopoulos, 2004; Pate-Bain, Achilles, McKenna, & Zaharias, 1992; Smith, Molnar, & Zahorik, 2003).

You can also look up Betts (1995), Hanushek (1996), Goldhaber & Brewer (1998), Graue et. al. (2010).

Now, class size reduction is not a panacea. Of course, teacher practice makes a huge difference. When you use this false dichotomy of "brightest young teacher" and "union protected, insulated, cynical and worthless elder teachers," I think back to how unprepared when I first began teaching. I am a much better teacher now than I was five years ago.

Are there bad teachers? Yes. Do we all want to get rid of them? Yes. So, let's have adminstrators do their jobs, and also reform tenure. Make it easier and cheaper to go through due process.

Megan Balinge's picture

"Let's end NCLB and RTTT NOW." I am with you on that one, but I learned in teaching that you must change what you can and deal with the rest. Finland doesn't do high-stakes testing at all. They also have less than 3% poverty rate for children, whereas in the U.S. it's over 20%. What our high stakes testing shows us is that poor students do not do as well as more advantaged students. They start out two grade levels below their peers and rarely catch up. Small class sizes at the elementary level are key to helping at risk students make up for the deficiencies of their environments.

Frank Krasicki's picture

Megan,

Our high-stakes testing has shown us none of that. We have known about the poverty connection for forty years - forty. High stakes testing is intended to destroy the public schools and the teachers unions fiddled for over twenty years and let it happen. In many cases they helped promote and create it.

My research leads me to believe that all children learn better in smaller classes at the elementary school level. The legislation that's needed is that grades k-2 cannot be larger than 10 students, 3-4 no larger than 15. After that it progressively becomes irrelevant with exceptions.

Phys ed classes can be larger. Art and other highly personally intensive programs also need sweet spots for size based on size.

But all of this is predicated on training teachers who have a gift for teaching smaller classes. If they can't they need to move to higher grades and stay there hopefully in classes appropriate to their talents.

And teachers should be paid well but they should not ever be guaranteed to be employed forever just because they were there longer.

We also need to stop comparing schools to one another as if they were widgets. They aren't. They need to be unique, they need to be vital and changing, and they need to be cost-effective. But they are not silver bullets for a dysfunctional society.

There's hope for you yet ;-) We just have to get rid of more of the brain-washing.

L. Jane's picture

I agree that Diane said it well, we need to change the narrative. I also agree with Brown who suggests that the monies that corporate America takes from our classrooms in the form of testing materials is significant. We need to decide if this is the best use of our diminishing funds for education. I am suggesting that the classroom is where we should be spending our time, talent and money with less going to the big business of testing.

Barbra's picture

Did you really just cite two movies as evidence to prove your point? You're joking right? To Sir With Love is a fictional piece, and if Erin Gruwell was so committed to teaching, why did she leave after the Freedom Writers all graduated? What a joke. Do you even know any teachers? Have you ever spent a day observing on the other side of the desk?

The same seniority scenes that existed in "To Sir With Love" repeat in "The Freedom Writers" movie. Young teacher - good ideas slapped down by union protected , insulated, cynical, and worthless elder teachers using the school as retirement's waiting room. Go ahead tell me this is not the way it is.

LB's picture

I am so sad as an educator. Kids are now drilled to pass a test....how much fun is that (and I am talking elementary to start).

Then, if you happen to be a poor rural district, where poverty and learning disablities go hand-in-hand, you had better get your students to perform or you lose some of the little money you have. My state is poised to institute a 2% tax cap on top of the $1.9 million state aid education cut it just dealt my district. Our reality is that a 2% school tax levy will produce a whopping $120,000 of additional income per year. So, you can discuss all the studies you want, and debate about class sizes, recommend scrapping programs, but my school may not even survive the economic beating coming its way so not much else matters.

Here is my question: Why are people poor?

Here is m quote: Money will not cure a lack of motivation.

Lee Barrios's picture

Mr. Krasicki -

You're beginning to present a better case for some of the real "reforms" that teachers would like to see.

Regarding class size - there are a myriad of reasons why class size matters but I use this one to get the conversation beyond tacit denial:

130 secondary level students X one essay@(any writing assignment)X 10 minutes@ to critique = 1,300 minutes (21+ hours). Those critiques aren't scheduled within the school day in spite of all the union concessions teachers have won over the years. How many writing assignments per week would you expect a writing teacher to critique with meaningful feedback (and the almighty required letter grade)?

You seem to have a good perception of some of the problems with public education, but you need a healthy dose of expertise and experience for your arguments to stick (or you need Bill Gates' millions so you can pay for your opinion).

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