Diane Ravitch: Simple Solutions for Complex Issues

Long on criticism, short on solutions.  This accusation is not new for Diane Ravitch and her recent book talk (for her newly published Reign of Error) at the University of Washington in Seattle lived up to this assessment.  The bulk of the talk was focused on, as she refers to them, hoaxes of the public education reform movement.  Ravitch listed, sixteen hoaxes spanning government programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, to vouchers, charter schools, and teacher evaluation, leaving little time to discuss solutions.  Overall her focus centered on the narrative that the American public education system is failing.

This is where I am most on board with Ravitch.  The narrative of the education reform movement is: public education is failing, schools are failing, and bad teachers are responsible.  Therefore teacher evaluation is the answer, and in order to be part of the school-improvement discussion you have to accept this premise.  I reject this premise and so does Ravitch.

In her talk Ravitch cited Department of Education data that current test scores are the highest in our history, our high school graduation rate is the highest in history, and our dropout rate is the lowest in history.  These are strong findings.  Instead of adopting the position that our schools are failing and need reform I choose to adopt a growth mindset that our schools, while strong in many ways, can still improve to the point of excellence.  Our work is not done until every student is meeting standard.  Once that is achieved we raise the standards and keep working.

To counter the hoaxes, Ravitch offered up five large, yet simplistic, solutions: prenatal healthcare, medical care for children in poverty, daily arts and physical education, universal early childhood education, and reduced class size.  I have no argument against using these levers to improve education.  These are strong choices and I would love to see them implemented.

I respect Diane Ravitch.  She is one of very few people who began their careers as a supporter of high stakes standardized testing and has, in light of the damning data, recanted her previous position.  Her position is clear to the point of obvious.  These are complex issues and I want a complex, nuanced discussion.  Ravitch is capable of more and her audience deserves it.  It saddens me that the education discussion (if it can be called that) is so caustic that both sides have to resort to extremism in order to get their voice heard.  Neither side listens to the other, and as a result both sides are either yelling past each other or talking within an echo chamber.

I’ve heard the extremes, as have most teachers I expect.  We are bombarded with the extremes of the debate, and educators know that while the system is not failing it has much room to grow.  There are large, and growing, populations of students in poverty who are not being served by our system and that is detrimental to our society.  It is too simplistic, however, to reject online education, Teach for America, and merit pay out of hand.  We need to test ideas, and like Ravitch, revise our positions in light of new information.  Ravitch is not wrong in her analysis, but she oversimplifies.

The unspoken argument underlying all of this is funding.  Any of these solutions require significant increases in how we fund education.  The Gates Foundation has a lot of influence in education because they spend a lot of money on education.  While the entire solution is complex, the first step is easy: If you want to improve education in this country, you need to pay for it.  For too long we’ve been trying to do more with less.

Diane Ravitch began her talk, and begins her book, with a John Dewey quote from 1907 saying: “what the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children.  Any other ideal for our schools is harry and unlovely; acted upon it destroys our democracy.”  It shocks me how relevant this quote remains.  Public education is just that: public.  As a citizenry we have to buy in to the idea that spending our money on other people is to our benefit.  We do better as individuals when we do better as a community.  This is the argument that needs to be made at the highest levels.  Without this core value firmly in place, our education system is unsustainable.

  1. I like your emphasis on the public nature of public education. It seems to me that the root of public education is in our democracy and the need for an educated public to govern itself. Just as each child needs a good education to growth to participate in our democracy, adults need good information from our leaders to make good decisions. Well-educated citizens can self-govern in a transparent democracy.

  2. Interesting to know that dept of education metrics state that the system is not failing: that grad rates are high and dropout rates low. This is good. Is it the aggregate number? How does it look when income is taken into consideration? I wonder if we are succeeding with students in poverty in terms of scores and school completion.

    • It’s a really good question. The primary findings use aggregate numbers. There are multiple statistics in Ravitch’s new book (which I have yet to finish reading and review) that disaggregate based on ethnicity. These ethnically disaggregated statistics show the same trend as the aggregate data across all ethnic groups. Ravitch does not pull in data that disaggregates based on income, but ethnicity and poverty are extremely linked in this country so we can draw some tenuous conclusions there.

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