Posts Tagged ‘Diane Ravitch’

More Thoughts on The Death and Life of the Great American School System

May 13, 2010

More Thoughts on The Death and Life of the Great American School System

The power of grief to derange the mind has in fact been exhaustively noted.

Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking (34)

The most toxic flaw in NCLB was its legislative command that all students in every school must be proficient in reading and mathematics by 2014. By that magical date, every single student must achieve proficiency, including students with special needs, students whose native language is not English, students who are homeless and lacking in any societal advantage, and student with every societal advantage but are not interested in their schoolwork

Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System (102)

After 9-11, too many of us were just too damn scared to even entertain the notion that our nation was being run by a couple of incompetent poltroons. We are still paying for this in treasure and in lives. Oddly, the same people who would call Barack Obama a socialist for mandating PRIVATE insurance had little problem with a complete federal takeover of the educational system, which has historically been a state and local issue. (The federal government is barely a seven percent stakeholder in education)

Under ordinary circumstances, Republicans would have opposed the bill’s broad expansion of federal power over local schools, and Democrats would have opposed its heavy emphasis on testing. But after September 1, 2001, Congress wanted to demonstrate unity, and education legislation sailed through (94).

NCLB passed in the Senate 87-10 and 381-41 in the House despite the fact that “No one truly expects that all students will be proficient by the year 2014, although NCLBs most fervent supporters often claimed it was feasible” (103).

Today many critics of what they consider invasive federal involvement in the healthcare industry would sue the federal government in the name of the basically moribund (since the Civil War) Ninth and Tenth Amendments. But when George W. Bush was president, instead of standing up to a draconian law which demands the surreal goal of universal success, Republicans as well as Democrats overwhelmingly preferred to toe the line and “[m]ost states devised ways to pretend to meet the impossible goal”(16).

Ravitch does a masterful job of laying out how school administrators across the country were forced to engage in deceptive practices or risk losing their jobs in her chapter entitled, The Trouble with Accountability. She draws on the work of Daniel Koretz and Richard Rothstein and other sober-minded thinkers who are wise enough to eschew a harebrained law which delivered us unto a macabre world where students now “master test-taking methods, but not the subject itself” (159).

Sadly, the Magical Thinking which infects our nation continues to thrive in education. President Obama supports policies which have been proven ineffective and he has appointed a Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, whose record as superintendent of Chicago schools was dismal if not downright fraudulent:

In 2009, the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago released a study demonstrating that the city’s claims of dramatic test score gains were exaggerated….The Study concluded, however, that “these huge increases reflect changes in the tests and testing procedures—not real student improvement” (158).

Some Thoughts on The Death and Life of the Great American School System

May 4, 2010

Diane Ravitch

Bill Gates

Some Thoughts on The Death and Life of the Great American School System

Our society is just beginning to recover from a long spell of Magical Thinking. Instead of confronting our problems and dealing with them, Americans spent the better part of a decade hoping that great men on horses would ride into to town bearing sanctified sidearms which fire magic bullets—instead we got George W. Bush in a flightsuit. But after 9/11, most of us we’re too scared to acknowledge or even see The Emperor’s Clothes. We just pretended that there were new, bold serious solutions that would preternaturally eliminate serious issues. Decisive Federal Action would fix public education just as it would defeat Islamo-facism and unfetter the Titans of Finance. Those were some heady times.

Today, our institutions are just beginning to recover from the febrile dreams which have infected (and continue to threaten the very existence of) our body politic. Sadly, no one is yet bowing in obeisance to the heroes who were banished from the Punditocracy for the crime of premature wisdom (i.e., Phil Donahue, Ashleigh Banfield and Robert Sheer). Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of the people who advocated these asinine and self-destructive policies over the last decade are still running this country and they’re not about to begin pointing fingers at one another.

That’s why Diane Ravitch should be praised for speaking up about her recent recovery from Hedda Payness Disease:

I too was captivated by these ideas. They promised to end bureaucracy, to ensure that poor children were not neglected, to empower poor parents, to enable poor children to escape failing schools, and to close the achievement gap between rich and poor, black and white. Testing would shine a spotlight on low-performing schools and choice would create opportunities for poor kids to leave for better schools. All of this seemed to make sense, but there was little empirical evidence, just promise and hope(3-4).

I remember seeing a documentary years ago about how hospital administrators in the Soviet Union (who obviously knew nothing about how hospitals actually work) used to do surprise inspections in hospitals in which they would randomly swab the walls looking for evidence of bacteria. Consequently, the medical staff wasted a good deal of time scrubbing the walls with bleach. Funny thing about big bureaucracies, they tend to replicate such madness:

Measure, then punish or reward. No education experience needed to administer such a program. Anyone who loved data could do it. The strategy produced fear and obedience among educators; it often generated higher test scores. But it had nothing to do with education (16).

In our age of Magical Thinking, even really smart guys (because we all know that the billionaires are the best among us) like to dream of a simple world with simple solutions. For example, Bill Gates was blissfully “unaware of the disadvantages” of promoting smaller highs schools as a one-size-fits-all panacea for American education:

It was never obvious why the Gates Foundation decided that schools size was the one critical reform most needed to improve American education. Both state and national tests showed that large numbers of students were starting high schools without having mastered basic skills…the root cause of poor achievement lie not in the high schools, but in the earlier grades (205).

After pissing away a couple of billion bucks, the Foundation wised up, but it wasn’t about to admit any mistakes:

In late 2008 the Gates Foundation announced that it was changing course. The $2 billion investment in new small high schools had not been especially successful (although it was careful not to come right out and say it was unsuccessful) (211).


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