Tuesday, December 15, 2009




from the Edweek Bridging Differences exchange http://bit.ly/Jj8JX   between Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier

Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch have found themselves at odds on policy over the years, but they share a passion for improving schools. Bridging Differences offers their insights on what matters most in education. 

  Diane Ravitch/bio below>>

December 15, 2009 | 10:14 AM

Dear Deborah,

I understand why you were taken aback by that article in the "Style" section of The New York Times last week that described how charter schools have become a must-have among hedge-fund managers, billionaires, and other members of the social elite in New York City. The article bothered me, too. In fact, the more I think about it, the more it worries me. Having written the history of the New York City public schools, I was reminded of the origins of free schooling in certain northeastern cities in the early 19th Century, when wealthy men decided that it was their civic duty to help civilize the children of the poor. In their view and in their day, they were doing good deeds, but their schools were stigmatized as charity schools for children of paupers and were avoided by children of the middle class. Outside of big cities, public education emerged as a community response to a community's need to school its children, not as a charitable venture.

Today, with the proliferation of charter schools, we may be seeing a resurgence of the historic pattern as public schools are privatized and taken over by very rich men (and women) who see themselves as saviors of the children of the poor. Naturally, you find this a repellent portrait because it undermines the democratic foundations of public education. It means that our society will increasingly rely on the good will of wealthy patrons to educate children of color. It means that education is seen as a private charity rather than as a public responsibility. Let's hope that the new owners who have taken over these schools are able to sustain their interest. After all, having 500 children in your care is not the same as having a stable of polo ponies or a vineyard in Napa Valley. If the children don't produce results that make the sponsors proud, they may pick a different hobby.

Though the rise of the hedge-fund managers as charter school operators may distress us, it thrills others because it dovetails so perfectly with the Obama administration's Race to the Top. I don't know about you, but I am getting sick of the rhetoric of the Race to the Top, as it implies the very opposite of "equal educational opportunity." But "equal educational opportunity" is so...yesterday, so now we shall all "race to the top," to see who can get there first. Who can privatize the most schools? Who can close the most public schools? Which district can replace the most public schools with charter schools? Who can compel their teachers to focus intently on those pesky math and reading test scores? Who can boot out the most teachers whose students didn't get higher scores than last year? Who seriously believes that this combination of policies will produce better education?

We try not to be New York City-centric, but so much is happening in this city that it is hard not to see it as a bellwether. After all, NYC not only was a faithful representation of No Child Left Behind, but it is now outfitting itself to be a faithful representation of the Race to the Top. This is not a hard transition because NLCB and the Race to the Top are really the same, except that President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan's "Race" has nearly $5 billion as a lure to persuade states to climb aboard the express train to privatization.

In the past few days, Chancellor Joel Klein has announced that he is closing nearly two dozen public schools. Some of these schools are the anchor in their communities; some have long histories as gateways for immigrant children. In recent years, the Department of Education decided that it does not like large high schools, so it has been closing them down and sending their lowest-performing students to other large high schools, which then have lower scores and more disciplinary incidents. Some of the large high schools were beyond saving, but most could have been improved by a thoughtful plan of action, including smaller classes, better supervision, and the kinds of resources that hedge-fund managers pour into "their" charter schools. Unfortunately the data-driven MBAs at central headquarters know nothing about instruction and curriculum or about any strategies that might improve a school. They have no school-improvement strategy. What they know best is how to shut down schools, and in this they will find funding and encouragement from the Obama administration.

As soon as the central administration decides to close a school, it is a fait accompli. New York City has a rubber-stamp "board" of 13, with a majority appointed by the mayor, serving at his pleasure; it approves every executive decision, with only a single dissenting vote (the heroic Patrick Sullivan, a public school parent). Public hearings are pro forma; no decision is ever reversed. Parents and teachers may protest 'til the cows come home, and they can't change a thing. Their school will be closed, the low-performing students will be dispersed, and either new small schools or charter schools will take over their building. Some of the schools that will close are, funnily enough, small schools that were opened by Bloomberg and Klein only a few years ago.

Does anyone believe that this sorry game of musical chairs will improve education? Does anyone in Washington or at central headquarters grasp the pointlessness of the disruption needlessly inflicted on students, families, teachers, principals, and communities in the name of "reform"? Do these people have no shame?


Diane Ravitch's Open letter to the U.S. Department of Education re: the Race to the Top Regulations

Dear DOE,

I wish to register a strong objection to these regulations.

As a former federal official (I was Assistant Secretary of Education in 1991-92), I object to the coercive nature, in which the federal government is dictating education policy to the states. But of great importance, the policies you are dictating are not based on evidence.

You want states to tie teacher evaluations to test scores, but you present no evidence that doing so improves achievement; instead you rely on economists who project that it might do so. To achieve this goal, you tell states that they must roll back laws they have passed. This oversteps the bounds of federal authority in education.

Similarly your pressure to open charter schools goes beyond any evidence that charter schools are superior to regular public schools. The recent Stanford study by Margaret Raymond found that only 17% of charter schools were better than nearby public schools. Why then should schools eliminate their caps on charters?

I think the DOE should respect the requirements of federalism and look to states to offer their best ideas rather than mandating policies that the current administration likes, even though there is no evidence to support them.

Humility is sometimes the best policy, especially when you are not on firm ground with your remedies.


Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch is a historian of education. She is Research Professor of Education at New York University. She is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

From 1991 to 1993, she was Assistant Secretary of Education and Counselor to Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander in the administration of President George H.W. Bush. She was responsible for the Office of Educational Research and Improvement in the U.S. Department of Education. As Assistant Secretary, she led the federal effort to promote the creation of state and national academic standards.

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