Monday, November 7, 2011


Dr. Diane Ravitch, in the just published "revised and expanded" edition of the perceptive, courageous and best-selling The Death and Life of the Great American School System:  How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education, and with great precision, relates how several major metropolitan school systems have been undermined by so-called reform efforts based heavily on use of standardized tests as the magic bullet.

Parenthetically, an article in today’s Washington Post raises questions about the full validity of the recently released 2011 NAEP testing that has been considered the gold standard in assessing US PreK-12 educational progress every two years.  Its author, Dr. James Harvey, is a highly principled former professor, researcher and educational advocate who was part of the team that prepared “A Nation at Risk,” and presented it to former President Reagan.  He held his silence until Mr. Reagan’s death, and only then revealed his dismay and disappointment when Mr. Reagan’s primary reaction was disappointment that the report didn’t call for dissolution of the US Department of Education and restoration of school prayer.

The Ravitch targets.

Dr. Ravitch’s historical assessments are meticulous, and retain objectivity that leaves it to the reader to sort many values and issues footing the history.
Her critique of this century’s reform efforts carefully details multiple stories: The misinterpretation of the early reform results from NYC’s District 2; San Diego’s odyssey from a good school system, through a top down reform movement that diminished the public school performance that had been achieved, to a post-book recovery of PreK-12 excellence now threatened by the recession and funding shortfalls; the subsequent New York City reform attempts and denouement; the Bush/Perry “Texas miracle” that was primarily an artifact; and Atlanta’s claims of PreK-12 excellence now wracked by the reality that it was achieved by wholesale cheating.  She, mercifully, runs out of pages before tackling intimately what occurred and is still methodically eroding D.C.’s schools. 

The book’s critiques of the present reform effort and its demagoguery are needed straight talk, but the causes of the creeping obsolescence and petulance of some of US public education have been decades in the making. The narratives lose impact in any retelling; the book needs to be absorbed.

Finally this is not a review of her book, even if the writer had that perspicacity. In my opinion her work reflects the best of American academic tradition, accompanied by the courage to challenge an establishment doing potential PreK-12 strategic harm with tentacles extending all the way to the White House.  There are few if any quibbles with what Dr. Ravitch has asserted; the few generically are that the work skirted some issues as critical to actually changing PreK-12 as those detailed.  What follows are brief opinions about those items.

Local is beautiful?

The attribute that circumscribes her narratives is that the systems examined are all metropolitan systems.  Arguably, it is those systems in the US most likely to exhibit the greatest needs because of poverty, racial discrimination, extreme school experiences, and the stress exerted on those subpopulations and cultures by a city environment.  A qualifier is that only 29 percent of public PreK-12 enrollment is categorized as being “city.”  An additional 34 percent of public enrollment is suburban, some amalgam of both urban system attributes and systems associated with more affluent residential populations.  Ravitch’s critiques may speak to school issues of 40 to 50 percent of our schools, but not a clear majority.  Her work also covers schools that receive oversight from some body other than an elected school board, or from boards that attract real contests and the requirement that candidates defend their beliefs and competence to be elected.

At the other pole, almost 37 percent of public school enrollment is in towns and rural, accounting for 18MM public school students.  These systems will virtually all be governed by local school boards, where many of those boards are manipulated by their systems, and the candidates for those boards can range from legitimately qualified by prior education to functional illiteracy.  The real world stories about marginal educational practices among this class of system are legion, belying the “Norman Rockwell” imagery of America’s small towns. Bigotry, ignorance and self-centricity can achieve levels rivaling or exceeding the stories Ravitch’s book relates.  Usually the place’s school system, to the detriment of its students, is in the thick of exercises in local power and prosecution of rooted beliefs that may be faulty.

It would be welcome to be able to with pride say – it can’t happen here.  The issue is it already has, to the detriment of likely more than one educationally-cheated generation of area youth.  An area system’s history includes a series of ethically and educationally challenged superintendents, marginal teaching and curricular resources, through a board that fails in integrity, critical thought, and genuine education values – failing to properly vet administrative hires, misrepresentation of system financial data to secure levies, secrecy, unresponsiveness to parents and voters, and manipulation of board elections via cronyism are just examples.

Superficially attractive, this is a system that has for a decade shunned transparency, eschewed or faked real technological progress, and via teaching to the tests to claim excellence based on simplistic test scores, created and perpetuated a myth now an addiction.  The fear of transparency has produced behavior that allegedly violates the state’s open door and records acts, and created malfeasance from incompetent curricula through administrative behavior that can only be described as sociopathic avoidance of review.  Couple this system’s retreat from reality with a state’s equivalent incompetence in its education oversight; you have bred public education mediocrity that will never be assuaged by the standardized testing mantra Ravitch also shreds as the fix for those urban systems. 

Clearly, among over 40,000 town and rural schools, there are systems subscribing to ethical standards and competently educating, and school boards with equally competent and ethical elected members.  But like the example poster child of a challenged system, sprinkled among that number is some unknown number of schools with combinations of the flaws cited; local cultures frozen in time, where there is no effective oversight of inept or arrogant administration, and where a system’s bricks and mortar, hype and propaganda, and sports performance, frequently dominate and trump learning. 

Local is not beautiful in many of America’s alleged storybook small communities, where reform can be effectively blocked because of incompetent local control, or no control at all.  While the systems Dr. Ravitch primarily cites as America's reform challenges are the ones highly visible to the media, an equivalent block of PreK-12 schools out of the spotlight is also a roadblock to stepping up US education performance.  Reflecting on Ravitch’s calls on reform of urban systems, it may take a different reform model, plus incentives and discipline to impact middle America’s “pride in ignorance” school belts.

The business of business.

In the middle of last century a conservative academic economist named Frank Knight published a classic paper titled, “The Business of Business is Business, Not Doing Good;” born 50 years too soon?  A bit of a rant about the difference between market values and public administration, the otherwise lucid paper at the time was a reflection of the initial reaction to an invasion of liberal values.  What the paper failed to anticipate was the separation of goals and means, and creative thinking that would overtake organization and management theory in the subsequent decades.  We may still quarrel about the goals of business organizations, but the genre spawned a revolution of both academic and high level practitioner thinking about organizations and the deployment of human resources, systems theory, along with methods of planning, control, and performance measurement, all applicable to any organization and well beyond the narrower practice of business in markets you recognize.

The Death and Life…, correctly, hammers the simplistic corporate reasoning and lobbying that foot much of the current orgy of standardized testing being forced on public education, along with its promotion by the “billionaire boys’ clubs.”  In the process the negatives of alleged management approaches applied to public PreK-12 operations crash into the present, century old organization of our schools, creating noise but little wisdom.  There have been ridiculous superficial applications of functional reorganization of public schools – Dr. Ravitch properly ridicules some – but the real opportunity is recognition of the advances in social psychology wedded to organization theories that have revolutionized the performance of many US and world companies.  The thinking and models, based on process analysis rather than what’s trendy or titles on boxes, are fully applicable to public education.  Until that is recognized and some of that knowledge customized to restructure school organization, unthinking tradition will continue to restrain PreK-12 change.

Curricula versus knowledge.

Dr. Ravitch makes telling points in showing how in a rush to allegedly improve learning, present reform modes have bypassed virtually in total the very sources of the learning, curricular reform.  The rare exceptions have been the National Academies – science, engineering, medicine, and research council – that have called for rethinking curricula to move from teaching (and testing) fragments of knowledge to focus on core understanding of major disciplines and science-driven processes.  The concept is still incipient for the social sciences but applies there as well.

The question is whether we are looking at the real heart of learning. At issue are what constitutes knowledge and contemporary and defensible understanding of learning, i.e., modeling learning from the first year of life on as multivariate process -- temporally, by personality variables, by socioeconomic variables, by cultures, to prescribe the most effective mix of processes to achieve learning and its subsequent retrieval and application. Epistemology (or the science of knowing), in particular the whole concept of conceiving (many, small and early) controlled experiments and the proper interpretation of their results, should foot everything we do in PreK-12.  This is precisely the opposite of the simplistic testing and methods currently being deployed.  Notably, we have failed systemically to pursue alternative testing models that would obsolete present standardized tests, a major US education research blunder.

The role of technology.

Driven by the need for controversy, or an individual byline, there are increasingly media offerings by sources a dollar short and a day late in understanding the evolution of digital technology, to the effect that developments such as online learning, or the various hardware being adopted by education is unproductive or not functioning in PreK-12.  The reality is many of these commentators are confusing things and function.  The dictum of architect and legend Ludwig Mies van der Rohe resonates, “form follows function.” 

This is too complex for only a fractional SQUINTS, a full section promised later, but two top line points:  One, if you follow the literature of science, engineering, and contemporary economics, a proposition is that the best hope the US has of strategic economic recovery is the major pool of expansible technologies building just below the threshold of applicability, a product of decades of prudent US investment in good science (if it is not crippled by the ignorance of the right wing of an already mentally and ethically challenged Congress).  Two, digital technology applied to PreK-12 is not rooted simply in hardware and gadgets, it never has been, but in reformulation of logic and methodology that can expand education systems and learning. Those technologies have to be fitted or dovetailed with how knowledge is constituted, and human resources' roles, both teaching modes and student learning needs and styles.  This is both curricular reform and integrally the methodology for transforming information into knowledge and making it retrievable and applicable to critical thinking, problem solving and invention.  

The digital game has changed the larger learning game, and irreversibly, whether it is presently a comfortable playing field or not for many educators; Dr. Ravitch missed this target.  The issue is the cross-discipline work to marry the capabilities of those evolving technologies, including incipient AI (artificial intelligence), with human factors.  When the Turing test starts eliciting "hello, who is this?" responses, there is a need to open up thinking.

Minor gripes about major issues.

Opinion, but in this writer’s view Dr. Ravitch let off the hook two dysfunctional factors in the present school change debates:  The first is Mr. Obama, who has demonstrated repetitive bouts of hypocrisy, publicly acknowledging inadequacy of present simplistic standardized testing on any Monday, then blasting out with even more aggressive advocacy of that testing on a subsequent Tuesday; perhaps politics-as-usual, or a rare intellectual failing, but the mode has been destructive of reason and a positive, rather than punitive approach to public PreK-12 change.

The second rates far more coverage at a later date, but of all factors impacting why in this decade change is needed, as well as whether even change achieved will be sustainable, what should be in everyone’s sights are the near intellectual bankruptcy and bunker mentality of the bulk of American schools of education.  For practicality, dismissing “Teach for America” and similar peripheral experiments because of their scale, the majority of future teachers in public PreK-12 will come from those same schools of education.  Unless they are changed as the first line of attack for reform of both US higher education and PreK-12, America will have both elementary/secondary and higher education at some future point in intensive care.


In her concluding chapter Dr. Ravitch notes:  “Education is a reflection of our society.”  Full of truth, and a pretty scary thought, given the levels of literacy, critical thinking, strategic thinking, and the world view manifested by too many of our citizens.  Repetitive surveys have demonstrated our adult population’s inability to pass simple tests on citizenship, to read for effect or read at all, and belief in magic; add breaking away from “Dancing with the Stars” long enough to notice that America is in both strategic economic straits and precipitating potential class warfare.  Education, but not simply the present model, is one prescription for restoring America’s eminence, and it likely has greater potential than destroying its governments.

Dr. Ravitch’s book and views may be for many, who see thinking as an option, antithetical or isolated examples.  Reality is that the narrations supplied are US reality, one that the full American electorate needs to experience to reapply some common sense to its PreK-12 public schools before we push them into some intellectual coma.

For the non-Luddites, The Death and Life… can be acquired online in seconds via either Apple’s online bookstore, or via Amazon and Kindle.  The book is categorically worth the price of admission.  

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