Diane Ravitch at Stanford

I went to see Diane Ravitch give a talk and then discuss education policy with Linda Darling Hammond and Eric Hanushek at the Memorial Auditorium. For the record, I think Ravitch is generally right about what’s wrong, but completely wrong about how to make things right. Hanushek is wrong about both.

Olive, I think you should know this: you’re a horrible actress. Cheech, Bullets Over Broadway

Lord, Ravitch is a horrible speaker. Has no one ever told her? [Not, I hasten to add, the way Cheech told Olive, although by the end of her speech I felt some sympathy for the method.] I googled every combination I could think of, but could find no mention of Ravitch’s flat affect, monotonous delivery, and unstructured, wandering content. Yes, yes, she’s a writer, not a speaker. But if she were forced to face critical audiences more often, I’d like to think she’d up her talking game. “Here’s a hoax… And then another hoax….but then the greatest hoax of all is is….Another hoax….And then there’s the hoax….but the biggest hoax….” I am not, in fact, sure what the biggest hoax was. Many different candidates emerged throughout her speech, in no particular order and no emphasis in her voice to signal a winner.

She could strengthen her message and convince more non-worshippers if she focused her message. Everyone and her mother is complaining about teacher evaluations, but few people have really zeroed in on the farce of the “public” charter, and here Ravitch is at her best. Charters are allowed to select and limit their population, something few public schools are allowed to do. (For my money, magnets are as non-public as charters are).

Recently, education reformers have gone on the offensive, attacking private public schools, attacking the “attendance restrictions” of geography, arguing that many public schools are just as “restrictive” as charters—just in a different way. But this is nonsense. Many formerly wealthy districts have been transformed because the residential population has changed. Certainly, districts that are cushioned on all sides have a degree of protection, but that comes down to luck, not law. So a formerly wealthy, predominantly white school like Willow Glen High School in San Jose is now a Title I school with a majority Hispanic, non-English speaking population, while Leland and Lincoln,both also in San Jose, are cushioned on all sides by other schools and so have far fewer low income students on the fringes of their districts. But if property values change, then those schools, too, will be forced to take all comers because that’s what public schools do. And, if the population changes too much and the richer residents don’t like it, then the solution should not be “create a charter with public funds to keep out certain elements” but “pay money for private school”.

Ravitch is at her best attacking the quasi-private nature of charters. She’s also making a good point in blaming leadership, not teachers, for “failed schools”—and by this she means not schools with low test scores, but schools that aren’t safe by measures of violence or abuse. She is a tad cavalier about dismissing test scores, but her point that scores are largely irrelevant in assessing school quality given the community is one that deserves more discussion. Finally, I thought she made a telling point in observing that she is not simply arguing for the status quo, since after ten years, reform clearly owns much of that status quo.

She’s at her worst when offering solutions, which is nothing more than a liberal’s wish list. Really, Diane? You were in the Bush administration. You were the darling of the reform movement for over a decade. And suddenly, the only answers you can come up with are smaller classes, preschool, and free health care? Smaller classes don’t work, although dramatic reductions may offer some small improvement for low income students. Preschool, likewise, has revealed few to no improvements in academic outcomes, although resource-intensive interventions that cost a fortune barely managed to move the needle once, some fifty years ago. Access to health care likewise has not been shown to improve outcomes much. We can debate the impact around the margins and cost-benefit ratios, but Ravitch’s current answers are just as problematic as the answers she offered a decade ago.

I first saw Linda Darling-Hammond speak the day after Obama won in 2008. I’m no more a fan of her ideas now than I was then, but she is much more effective when she’s playing from the middle, with Ravitch on the outside. And until now, I never realized that she has a great speaking voice, which was a pleasant change from Ravitch.

However, both LDH and Ravitch troubled me by their eager adoption of the “teacher quality” meme. They both push “teacher professionalism”, an idea I find flatly offensive. We aren’t “professionals” now? Be specific please. How, exactly, are teachers unprofessional? LDH asserted that teachers can’t get paid more if they aren’t “more professional”, but that it’s hard to get them “more professional” if they aren’t paid more.

The only translation of “more professional” that makes sense in this construct is “higher standards”, read “smarter”. She would, I suspect, deny this. LDH has said many times that she wants teachers to train for two-three years. Please, god, no. Ravitch, too, called for a more “professionalism”. It’s hard to tell, really, how much if any her views have changed since this testimony, when she said that ed schools like Stanford’s “committed themselves to an unending campaign for reform, without bothering to establish canons of knowledge about subject matter and about effective practice to guide future teachers” and that leading education professionals “feel no such need to know the latest education research”. She did recently repeat her adulation for the Finland model, so I assume she is also in favor of increased years of education (Please, god, no) and an extremely selective population.

This “elite speak” from progressives like LDH suggests that they want teachers more “like them”, a more well-bred, well-spoken crew than the current bundle of apparent ragtags they’re stuck with. LDH and Ravitch want a “more professional” teacher workforce in part because it will give them better ammunition to fight against Teach for America and other alternatives. How can anyone argue in favor of just planting new college graduates in front of the classroom if the existing teaching force is “professional”—unlike the existing teaching force which, by implication, is not?

I find this constant harping on “teacher professionalism” to be very troubling. Who, exactly, would LDH and Ravitch leave out to cull the field?

At one point Ric Hanushek asked Ravitch how teachers could be professionals and still be part of a union—implying clearly that “union” and “professional” couldn’t exist in the same sphere. Ravitch responded that unions protected teachers by giving them due process, but that she didn’t support seniority rights.

This was a hugely telling moment. Neither LDH nor Ravitch made the obvious rejoinder: professionals and unions happily co-exist in many occupations. Pilots, musicians, nurses, film technicians of every imaginable specialty are all unionized professions.

I am not particularly pro-union, and believe that teachers would have sufficient due process protection without them, as all government workers do. What I object to is the implication by both Ravitch and LDH that our current teaching force needs “improving” in some nonspecific way that seems to involve paying lots more money to ed schools to get “trained” in one particular way.

Linda Darling Hammond also implied more than once that our math scores are lower on international measures because of unspecified “problems” with way we teach math. I would have loved for her to be more specific. I suspect, however, that her colleague, Jo Boaler, a major player in the “math wars”, on the reform side, has some ideas. To which I say, again, please god, no.

Eric Hanushek wasn’t given much time, and what I found fascinating was his ability to keep Ravitch focused on issues she claimed weren’t that important. Ravitch said repeatedly that international comparisons weren’t meaningful, yet a substantial portion of the debate time was spent on what TIMMS and PISA told us. Point to Hanushek, since he had limited speaking time, and was nonetheless able to focus the conversation on the big issue of his new book.

I was pleased to see the moderator, Peter Schrag, bring up Texas’s NAEP inclusion issues when Hanushek played up Texas. Hanushek flatly denied it, saying that Texas had addressed those issues. Not since 2011, anyway. It was clear Schrag wanted to go further but without facts and figures ready, the format made it impossible to do without wasting time. No matter. Knowing to bring it up was a big plus. However, he hadn’t done his homework on Ravitch’s claims and so didn’t do much to challenge her.

The final speaker, Channa Mae Cook, gave a nice five minute talk and should have been given more time.

I’m glad I went. Every so often the simple act of sitting and listening, without stopping the tape to google a fact, change the channel or live-tweet a quote or reaction, can give me different insights than I’d get from reading an article or watching a taped show while doing five other things.

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