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Diane Ravitch Answers Critics, Including Jonathan Alter and Arne Duncan…

June 8, 2011

Diane Ravitch wrote an excellent piece in Education Week which answers critics, including Jonathan Alter and his recent disingenuous article.

I recommend everyone take the link above and read Diane’s piece in its entirety.  I will post extensive excerpts here and comment on them. One of the points that struck me was the fact that Diane is trying to help students and teachers at the same time.  In doing so, she is getting on the wrong side of the well-heeled “reformers.”  Make no mistake about it, Mrs. Ravitch has some very wealthy people who are lining up in opposition to the truths and data that she is writing about.

Another issue that struck me is that what Mrs. Ravitch is going through is very similar to what whistle blowers go through when they uncover an inconvenient truth.  What Mrs. Ravitch is saying to anyone who will listen is that all the crowing about how education reform is “working” is predicated upon half-truths, and that anyone who goes beyond the headlines and scratches the surface underneath will find plenty of information that will make them very skeptical of the reformer “eduspeak.”

Jon Stewart had Bill Moyers on his show last week and one of the points that Stewart made to Moyers was how the press nowadays doesn’t so much report anymore.  What they do is really a form of regurgitation.  They scan Twitter for headlines and then advance the information that they find.  This type of “reporting” is a Joseph Goebbels fantasy, where lies and half-truths can be spread quickly and with ease.

Diane starts by explaining why she wrote the New York Times article that was then attacked by Jonathan Alter.

My goal in the article was to make five points: 1.) our political leaders are selling a false narrative (dramatic school reform can happen quickly and allow us to ignore oppressive social conditions); 2.) the media should be skeptical when presented with such claims; 3.) our society must act to reduce poverty; 4.) schools can and should be improved; and 5.) parents are children’s most important educators and what they do matters a lot.

Please read and digest point #1: Our political leaders are selling a false narrative (dramatic school reform can happen quickly and allow us to ignore oppressive social conditions).  I addressed point #2 above, but unfortunately, our media is NOT skeptical enough on stories that really matter.

Two days later, Jonathan Alter of Bloomberg View accused me of trying to derail school reform. Alter’s article quoted Secretary of Education Arne Duncan saying that I had “insulted” teachers and students by questioning the gains at Bruce Randolph school in Denver, Urban Prep Academy in Chicago, Miami Central High School, and P.S. 33 in the Bronx.

I write now not to rehash the events, but to present the evidence. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg first launched the myth of the New York City “miracle” at P.S. 33 in the Bronx in 2005. He went there, in one of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods, to celebrate a 49-point gain in its reading scores in only one year. Andrew Wolf of the New York Sun and Sol Stern of the Manhattan Institute noticed the next year that the scores fell by 40 points and called for an investigation. When the city investigated three years later, they could find nothing amiss; all the paperwork had been destroyed. Case closed. Now the reading scores at P.S. 33 are nearly the same as they were in 2004, before the evanescent miracle of 2005. 

These facts are all checkable, especially to members of the press who are supposed to be trained in how to sniff out stories and look for the truth behind the words that our politicians are trying to sell to us, in this case, Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

I asked Noel if he could check out the Bruce Randolph school in Denver, which President Obama had lauded in his State of the Union address. He went to the Colorado website, where he discovered that Bruce Randolph has an amazing graduation rate, but is still one of the lowest-performing schools in the state. On the state tests of reading and writing, it scores in the first percentile, meaning that 99 percent of schools in the state get better results. The ACT score for its graduating seniors is 14.4, which indicates a lack of college readiness, as compared with a state average of 20.

None of these schools made adequate yearly progress, and under our punitive federal No Child Left Behind system might have been slated for closure, not for celebration. This system, I think we can agree, makes no sense. 

On one level, this is a story about politicians taking credit for improvements to justify their policies. But there is a larger, and I think more ominous story, and that is the effort to claim that we can safely ignore growing income inequality and poverty and concentrate instead only on specific school reform policies. The underlying narrative is that our current regime of high-stakes testing is working; that teachers are to blame if scores are low; that if we fire principals and teachers, open more privately managed schools, and have more testing, scores and graduation rates will rise, more students will go to college, and our society will prosper. This narrative fits nicely with the political goals of the Tea Party governors who are slashing the budget for public education and encouraging vouchers and charters and testing as their school reform agendas.

Truer words cannot have been written.  People, wealthy people, who have a stake in public education dollars are attempting to create a narrative that high-stakes testing is working and that teachers are to blame if it doesn’t.  These claims are demonstrably false.  When will the media wake up to this fact?  Teachers, if you are reading this, make sure you talk to everyone you know about how a certain wealthy contingency in our society is attempting to malign your profession.


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