Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Diane Ravitch, Chester Finn, & Mark Kleiman on school "reform" and charter schools

The big story here is the way that current debates over school reform have been shaken up by the recent arguments of Diane Ravitch, who has long been a major voice on these issues. Ravitch has decided that many policies of which she used to be a strong and influential supporter have turned out, on the basis of experience, to be bad ideas. A New York Times article about this last week opened as follows:
Diane Ravitch, the education historian who built her intellectual reputation battling progressive educators and served in the first Bush administration’s Education Department, is in the final stages of an astonishing, slow-motion about-face on almost every stand she once took on American schooling.

Once outspoken about the power of standardized testing, charter schools and free markets to improve schools, Dr. Ravitch is now caustically critical. She underwent an intellectual crisis, she says, discovering that these strategies, which she now calls faddish trends, were undermining public education. She resigned last year from the boards of two conservative research groups.

“School reform today is like a freight train, and I’m out on the tracks saying, ‘You’re going the wrong way!’ ” Dr. Ravitch said in an interview.

Dr. Ravitch is one of the most influential education scholars of recent decades, and her turnaround has become the buzz of school policy circles. [....]

Among the topics on which Dr. Ravitch has reversed her views is the main federal law on public schools, No Child Left Behind, which is up for a rewrite in coming weeks in Congress. She once supported it, but now says its requirements for testing in math and reading have squeezed vital subjects like history and art out of classrooms. [....]
The rest of the article does a good job of spelling things out, so it's worth reading in full. Some highlights:
In her new book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” she describes the bipartisan consensus that took root in the early 1990s, with her support, and has held sway since.

“The new thinking saw the public school system as obsolete, because it is controlled by the government,” she writes. “I argued that certain managerial and structural changes — that is, choice, charters, merit pay and accountability — would help to reform our schools.”
It might be noted, incidentally, that this agenda combined two elements that should, in principle, have seemed in tension. For public schools, the emphasis was on tightening up top-down administrative control and rationalization, with increasing systemic centralization and the imposition and enforcement of uniform standards and "accountability" by city and state governments and, eventually, by Washington. For non-public schools, and semi-public hybrids like charter schools, the idea was to use government funds (though vouchers and other devices) to open up increased "choice" and "diversity," an approach framed and justified by a rhetoric of market-like competition. Of course, even though there's an obvious tension between these two sets of themes, they might be complementary in practice. But what's striking is that most proponents of this agenda, as well as most outside analysts I have read, didn't even seem to notice that there was any tension or potential inconsistency here.
In January 2001, Dr. Ravitch was at the White House to hear President George W. Bush outline his vision for No Child Left Behind, which Congress approved with bipartisan majorities and which became law in 2002.

“It sounded terrific,” she recalled in the interview.
However, doubts and disillusionments gradually accumulated. Among others:
In 2005, she said, a study she undertook of Pakistan’s weak and inequitable education system, dominated by private and religious institutions, convinced her that protecting the United States’ public schools was important to democracy.

She remembers another date, Nov. 30, 2006, when at a Washington conference she heard a dozen experts conclude that the No Child law was not raising student achievement.

These and other experiences left her increasingly disaffected from the choice and accountability movements. Charter schools, she concluded, were proving to be no better on average than regular schools, but in many cities were bleeding resources from the public system. Testing had become not just a way to measure student learning, but an end in itself.
And so on. These passages, it seems to me, zero in on the key thread of continuity running through her positions over time:
Admirers say she is returning to her roots as an advocate for public education. She rose to prominence in the 1970s with books defending the civic value of public schools from attacks by left-wing detractors, who were calling them capitalist tools to indoctrinate working-class children.

“First she angered the Marxist historians, and later the fans of progressive education and the multiculturalists,” said Jeffrey E. Mirel, a professor of education and history at the University of Michigan. “But she’s always defended public schools and a robust traditional curriculum, because she believes they’ve been a ladder of social mobility.” [....]

She told school superintendents at a convention in Phoenix last month that the United States’ educational policies were ill-conceived, compared with those in nations with the best-performing schools.

“Nations like Finland and Japan seek out the best college graduates for teaching positions, prepare them well, pay them well and treat them with respect,” she said. “They make sure that all their students study the arts, history, literature, geography, civics, foreign languages, the sciences and other subjects. They do this because this is the way to ensure good education. We’re on the wrong track."
Basically, all that sounds pretty good to me. And Ravitch is someone whose views on education have always deserved great respect, whether or not one fully agreed with them. But the issues involved here are complex and difficult as well as very important, so rather than trying to pursue them further now, I'll put that off to another occasion.

=>Meanwhile, we can treat the foregoing as background and introduction to the following (characteristically perceptive) item from Mark Kleiman.

Reading a rejoinder to Diane Ravitch by one of her former comrades-in-arms, Chester Finn, Mark picked up on a very interesting and probably very significant point. See below, and ponder.

--Jeff Weintraub

Mark Kleiman (The Reality-Based Community)
March 4, 2010
Chester Finn on charter schools

Chester Finn isn’t happy with Diane Ravitch’s apostasy from the conservative vision of “school reform,” but he makes a fascinating point about charter schools:
Not all charters are created equal. The quality of the schools fluctuates widely by state. (Our ability even to evaluate charters varies greatly, too, depending on who performs the evaluations, what methods they use, and which schools they examine.) A few jurisdictions — Massachusetts, New York, Illinois — are sparing in their distribution of charter contracts and, for the most part, check carefully to determine whether organizations that get the green light have what it takes to succeed. As a result, these states have relatively few charter schools, but their performance is impressive. Meanwhile, states like Arizona, Ohio, Texas, and California confer charters on nearly everyone who applies; as a consequence, they now have many charter schools but also wide discrepancies in charter quality and performance (tending, however, toward the mediocre). So even as Stanford economist Caroline Hoxby reports solid gains by charter pupils in New York City, Ohio’s school-rating system for academic year 2008-9 showed that just 16% of Buckeye charter pupils were in schools rated “excellent” or “effective,” while 55% of them attended schools on “academic watch” or in “academic emergency.” And Texas is home to some of America’s strongest charters — Houston is ground zero for KIPP and the “YES Prep” network — but also dozens of the weakest.
In other words, in liberal states where the teachers’ unions have clout and charters are greeted warily, the charter schools that do exist are excellent. In conservative states where charters are greeted with open arms, they’re mostly mediocre. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.