Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Ravitch Gets to the Root of the Matter

obriena's picture

Diane Ravitch has been quite busy of late. Among her recent activities: She has a piece appearing in Newsweek this month, and she herself appeared on The Daily Show. In February she gave a keynote at the American Association of School Administrators' annual convention and attended a meeting of Parents Across America. Last Friday, I had the good fortune of hearing her speak at the 2011 Celebration of Teaching and Learning (and the great fortune of getting a seat – it was standing room only). Over the past year, she estimates that she has talked to nearly 100,000 educators, parents and others across the nation.

Much of her message is the same regardless of her audience. She has a good grasp on the research, of course – and she often makes the point that ideology is trumping evidence in the policies du jour. Little to no evidence supports the merit pay, standardized testing, charter schooling, voucher and changes (as typically proposed) to teacher evaluation policies currently pushed by many politicians.

In addition to her knowledge of education research, what I appreciate about Ravitch is that she always hits on a point that should be (but isn't) at the heart of high-level discussions of education policy: The root cause of poor academic performance is poverty.

But instead of conversations about how we as a nation can best address the poverty within our borders, we just put the burden for eradicating the impact of poverty on our schools. And then we act surprised when they do not succeed, and our conversations focus on what they - teachers, principals, colleges of teacher education, guidance counselors, just the whole school structure - must be doing wrong.

When we scapegoat teachers and schools the way that some have, rather than discuss the underlying issues of poverty that many of our children deal with daily, we avoid having a real conversation on how we can improve schools - and life - in this nation. Consider this:

Today, more than 20 percent of our children are living in poverty and the number is going up. ... In Finland, the world’s highest scoring nation, less than three percent of the children live in poverty. Poverty matters.

So why, when we talk about ways to fix schools, do we focus so completely on teacher evaluations and standardized testing (both of which, as Ravitch points out, we do completely differently than higher-performing nations)? Why don't we focus on making sure that our students enter school ready to learn? That they come to school healthy and fed? Even poor children in the majority of the nations that outperform us on international assessments have access to healthcare and a stable, sufficient source of food.

Poverty is certainly not an excuse to avoid providing a great education to all children. And in education discussions we often hear, “We need to talk about the things that we can control.” Which is true. So for the individual teacher and school, the conversation should be about overcoming the challenges that poverty brings with a student.

But at the federal, state and even district level, politicians do control policies that affect children outside the school. Politicians should acknowledge that fact and adjustment their rhetoric accordingly. So should the media. And we, as voters and consumers, should hold them accountable for doing so.

She makes some good points

She makes some good points here and there, but she is often misleading or inaccurate.

Some examples:

1. She says Arizona spends less than $6,000 per pupil. Actually Arizona (according to the Census) spends more than 25% more than she claims ($7,608). That was in 2007-08.

2. She describes a Mathematica study of charter schools as follows:
“Mathematica Policy Research conducted a study comparing charter middle schools with lotteries to regular public middle schools and found that there was no difference either in terms of academics or behavior.”

No AVERAGE difference, yes, but Mathematica added this very important distinction:

“charter schools serving more low income or low achieving students had statistically significant positive effects on math test scores, while charter schools serving more advantaged students—those with higher income and prior achievement—had significant negative effects on math test scores.”

In other words, charter schools were doing very different things for different students — raising up low income and poor-scoring students while actually harming richer and higher-scoring students’ test scores. If someone is interested in helping disadvantaged students, Ravitch’s summary of the study is worthless.

3. She says that there is a “research consensus” that vouchers don’t help students. There are a few findings that vouchers didn’t make a difference, but there are more findings showing a benefit. Most recently, a study of DC found that voucher students had a 12 to 21 percentage point increase in high school graduation rates. That’s a huge difference, and Ravitch's claim of a "consensus" against vouchers is simply false.

Hi Stuart, Thanks for the

Hi Stuart,

Thanks for the thoughts.

I don’t know too much about funding in AZ but an extremely quick Google search gave me the initial impression that your number - $7,608 – is right (though AZ did rank 49th in the nation in per pupil spending that year)

What Ravitch said about this in the AASA piece (not sure if that is exactly the context you were referring to): “One of the charter schools that [Davis Guggenheim] features in the film [Waiting for Superman] is a boarding school. While he says that resources don’t matter, this particular boarding school costs the public $35,000 per year per student, while in the state of Arizona, they are spending less than $6,000 a year per student. But Davis Guggenheim says resources don’t matter.”

So while you are right that she is a little bit off in the numbers (unless she is using per pupil from a different year?), I think that her broader point that we often hear that resources don’t matter and yet promote strategies that require an awful lot of resources is still valid.

Regarding the Mathematica study (available at http://www.mathematica-mpr.com/newsroom/releases/2010/Charterschool_6_10... for those interested), you are right about the caveat added by the researchers. But of course, we never know what the ultimate cause of the discrepancy is. For example, do the active, involved parents of students in disadvantaged communities seek out charter schools, leaving the students without a strong home support system (who are less likely to succeed) in the traditional public schools? Then on the other hand, in more advantaged communities are charter schools seen mainly as an alternative when students are not performing well, disproportionately concentrating low-achievers in them? I don’t know…just a thought. And there is also the ultimate question of, what impact do charters have on the students that do not go to them, which are the vast majority of students? But ultimately, you are right – at least on occasion, Ravitch glosses over the meat of the debate.

I have to run, but I will try to remember to address vouchers in a later reply…

Great points as usual. Of

Great points as usual. Of course we have to hit the problem of poverty head on. And it is very clear that teachers have been the scapegoat for all the social problems in the country.

However, we can't wait to fix poverty in order to help kids. We need to make systemic changes in the system so the kids living in poverty are not punished even more. The current system and philosophy of education is largely responsible for maintaining the subclass. How is this done? With a strong focus on the artificial test, teachers have been forced to abandon their professions and "teach to the test". This not only creates a wealth of book learned kids without a lick of common sense but ranks kids, schools and teachers.

When students are ranked, the highest group is college bound and the lowest group is pushed out of school into a subclass for the rest of their lives. Think about it. How far can you go without a high school diploma? And this is all done with artificial testing. If there were true assessments, including the demonstration of learning, it would be amazing how many of those now called failures would be smarter than the "book learned" geniuses.

However, it is very difficult to abandon a bad system without having a new one to replace it. That is why we wrote the book "Saving Students From A Shattered System" Follow the link on our website. I challenge you to tell us where we are wrong.

Cap Lee

Over at School Finance 101,

Over at School Finance 101, there's a great analysis (from 3/25) that not just that "poverty" matters, but what we mean by "poverty" can often matter more.