Diane Ravitch on the Diane Rehm Show

Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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56 Responses

  1. Scott says:


    What is wrong with a “brain drain”? Why should the smart motivated kids have their education ruined by the dumb unmotivated kids just so liberals can feel good about themselves? I doubt you would hear anything questioning the glorious unions from Rehm. I used to listen to her on a regular basis but just couldn’t take her liberal bias.Report

  2. Rufus says:

    I guess this might sound cruel, but it seems to me that part of stopping the brain drain consists of removing the brainless or finding better ways to control them. I’ve talked to teaching friends here in Ontario who’ve said they had a chance to sit in on American classrooms and were totally horrified at how a handful of lousy students monopolized the class time while the teachers did nothing to control them. I suppose it’s possible that American teachers are just wimps, but it seems more plausible that what’s going on is their hands are somehow tied by wimp administrators. When I was in school, I remember classes suddenly being enjoyable and stimulating once two students in particular were removed from school. A friend of mine who taught in DC said that she had one student who regularly hit the students sitting next to him, and she replied by sending him to the principal’s office- where they sent him right back to the classroom and told her that it wasn’t their problem. At some point, I’d imagine there’s a brainless drain on the level of instruction.Report

  3. Rufus says:

    “At the same time, Ravitch sees schools becoming more like businesses. Instead of educators running schools and coming up with creative ideas, corporate suits are beginning to dictate how we should run our schools. The ‘rainmakers’ behind charters are often paid exorbitant sums, while the teachers are over-worked and burn out quickly.”

    And this is the model that higher ed is following as well. Perhaps the hope being to replicate the stunning success of the American high school and elementary system in universities.Report

  4. Trumwill says:

    School choice has a brain drain effect, drawing the most talented and motivated students out of their communities and placing them in high-performing charters,

    Classes move at the speed of the slower students in the class, which is why we have GT programs. Given the social segregation that occurs with GT programs, should we abolish those to and leave the smart kids to learn at the pace of the slow kids?

    If I had it my way we would work to reverse the brain drain at every level, including higher education.

    Could you elaborate?

    Schools were improving before it was enacted, and have regressed since.

    On what basis does she make this claim? Without testing (the results of which she considers illegitimate), how do we know what’s succeeding and what’s failing? How do we know if the “creative ideas” are working?

    As I said previously, I would feel a lot better about creative ideas and experimental teaching if parents could opt-out in favor of something measurable. Instead, what I’m reading here (and please correct me if I am misreading) is that we can’t manage the process (through standardized curricula), we can’t measure results (through standardized tests), and we can’t decide what the best environment for our kids might be (through school choice).Report

    • Mark Thompson in reply to Trumwill says:

      Here’s the part that gets me – if, as is assumed in this critique (an assumption I largely agree with by the way) that it is not possible to adequately measure performance via testing, then by what standard is it appropriate to say that parents shouldn’t have the ability to determine their own criteria for evaluating their child’s education, and then act on that criteria to send their child to the school that best matches that criteria?Report

    • Max Socol in reply to Trumwill says:

      Well, most of us here can choose. We have the money and connections for private school.

      As for testing…that point jumped out at me as well. How does one measure improvement prior to standardized testing? Perhaps it was elaborated on in the radio show.

      Although I should also say I’m sympathetic to the fact that standardized testing is not necessarily an accurate, or even particularly good, way to measure learning. And heavy-handed testing can badly damage the sense of exploratory learning that is so important to a healthy classroom.Report

      • Trumwill in reply to Max Socol says:

        I am particularly ill-disposed to standardized testing on a personal level. I was never good at them and had to take remedial reading in the 8th grade because of it. The teacher was flabbergasted that I was there. I also have memories of the gearing of class instruction to the standardized tests (“Teaching to the test”) as it is called.

        At the same time, I am at a loss as to an alternative. It’s sort of like how grading students leads to all sorts of problems (they learn just so that they can take the test, they do not experience the “joy” of learning, it discourages tangential inquiry, etc). However, while there are circumstances in which I could support gradeless classrooms and while I fully acknowledge that there can be benefits to it, I would want my kid going into such an environment to be entirely optional.

        Likewise, I’m cool with there being schools that are either exempt from standardized tests or at least exempt from consequences of them, I would want the school to have to earn my trust rather than my just being forced to take their word for it that the students are doing well.Report

    • Madrocketscientist in reply to Trumwill says:

      I would go even further, in fact. If I had it my way we would work to reverse the brain drain at every level, including higher education.

      I concur, elaborate on this point, because there are too many idiots in University as it is, I don’t want more in there.Report

    • Madrocketscientist in reply to Trumwill says:

      I also wonder how you propose to get communities more involved in their schools? I should not be forced to send my kids to a school where only 5%-10% of the parents are involved, and the rest couldn’t care less, just to prevent a “brain-drain”. If I’m willing to spend the time & effort to be involved, I should have the freedom to associate my money and children with a school that has families with similar values.Report

    • Kyle in reply to Trumwill says:

      My guess, Trumwill, is that she’s referring to the drop in state standards to meet testing requirements ala NCLB.

      My main issue (and others’) with this critique is how much of it is really amounts to a critique of the worst parts of NCLB but is labeled/billed as a general failure of “choice.”

      Anyway, in that sense she’s right, we’ve seen states lower their requirements to meet AYP/NCLB set testing goals which is regressive, and some of the reforms made to meet AYP, have probably had an overall detrimental effect on education at some schools

      Where I think her statement is incomplete is that NCLB testing (especially circa 2002-2006) gave us a much better understanding of the nation’s achievement gap, so prior to 2001, the testing success of east asians and white students masked some pretty horrible levels of educational (lack of) achievement among blacks and Hispanics.

      Another bit of context, Ravitch is a fan of the electives, things like social science, art, history, etc… So I would guess – haven’t read her book yet – she’s also referring to the general narrowing of the subject matter taught as regressive, though I think it’s important to note that change is a result of our general inability to ensure basic literacy and numeracy for any number of populations.Report

  5. Max Socol says:

    My fiancee is a school teacher here in DC, and we’ve been talking about this a lot lately. She has a unique perspective, given that:
    *She is part of a teaching fellowship program similar to TfA (though not TfA);
    *She previously worked on the programmatic side of her fellowship
    *She began her frist year of teaching at a very bad public school
    *But was then laid off in that big layoff wave back in October, and is now teaching at a charter school

    She is pretty firmly anti-voucher, somewhat despite her personal experience. Having heard her stories I’m not as convinced, although the fact that she holds that position definitely gives me pause.

    Like Scott, I also have a difficult time understanding the fear of “brain drain”. DC is probably an outlier on this point, but it seems clear to me that when intelligent, motivated students are forced to share a classroom with emotionally/intellectually damaged peers, the net result is not an averaging of those two types, but simply chaos. Purely from the perspective of student achievement, I see very little to be gained from this model. At best, a very good teacher might be able to push some kids on the margin more firmly into the “motivated” category, but at the cost of ultimately ruining the experience for all of the kids who could be described that way.

    I do think that the country has a duty to provide quality elementary education to all of its citizens free of charge, but I struggle to see how forcing overqualified students to work well below their capabilities helps us achieve this goal — except that this is the way we have been doing it for a long time, and it is on the micro level cheaper to maintain that system than to attempt to start over.

    Ultimately, charters in DC work less because they are radical research laboratories (although many of them are tinkering with some interesting ideas) than because they tend to draw families who have made the decision to be invested in their children’s education. This isn’t a problem, but a way of fixing a problem — namely, our past inability to single out students whose circumstances are lucky enough to give them the tools to succeed; and the resources to fuel that success. If at the fundamental level a vouchers program could turbocharge that process, I think it may be worth it, despite the drawbacks.

    (And frankly, at least for DC, putting some of the public schools “out of business” would be more of a blessing than a curse. The union here is terrible, and has forced a number of schools to remain open long past their sell-by date. Its leaders seem to miss the connection between this bad idea and the inevitable budget shortfalls that have come on its heels.)

    Rufus: I’ve been enjoying your writing on the classics, but in this case I think you may be out of your league. (Pun?) Administrators are not, by and large, “wimps”, nor are teachers. But in DC, Baltimore, and other cities with failing public infrastructure, school officials’ only real recourse is expulsion, which is counterproductive when truancy rates are already through the roof. Following that reasoning will simply bring you back to the arguments above. Is it better to have a smaller group of successful students, or a larger group of unsuccessful ones? That’s not a question that can be answered flippantly, and teachers and administrators in the system as it stands today (where it tends toward the latter case) have little choice other than to manage the disruption as best they can.Report

  6. Freddie says:

    Scott and Rufus are making similar arguments, it seems to me, and while I wouldn’t endorse similar sentiments, they are principled positions. But they are exactly the opposite of the usual attacks on public schools and public educators, who are constantly berated for failing to provide for the weakest students. That’s not a critique of their position, of course, but it is of a piece with how this conversation usually happens; there is very little consistency in what are taken as the essential problems, the essential goals, and the facts on the ground, aside from a consistent push from certain quarters to reach the conclusion that we should abolish the unions, fire the teachers and dismantle public education. When all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. This is exacerbated by, and exacerbates, the fact that conservative and libertarian critiques of American public educational failures are very often criticisms coming entirely from outside of the community which they are describing. This is because American urban politics are largely inter-liberal politics, where there are Republicans and Democrats, but little traditionally conservative or libertarian people and so little traditionally conservative or libertarian opinions.

    All of this is made vastly more troubling by the generally accepted but almost entirely unsupported assumption that American public education fails all over and on all levels. See, for example, Rufus’s comment above saying, “the stunning success of the American high school and elementary system.” This of course is intended ironically, and the implication is that American high school and elementary education, as systems, are failures. But Rufus couldn’t and can’t point to any kind of meaningful data to support that claim. He doesn’t have to, in our discussion of these issues, because he can rely on the “everyone knows” attitude that so muddies the discussion. But an actual constructive conversation, one that extends beyond the desire to bash unions and public schools, has to involve empirical support for such claims. The fact of the matter is that this is a conversation about the outliers at the bottom of the performance spectrum. As well it should; there are consistent and major problems in American public education in many places, particularly among certain high-minority, low-income urban school districts, and the (numerically greater) largely white, rural low-income areas that have had a consistent difficulty with implementing educational reforms. Those problems have to be addressed, and I don’t excuse them, but the way that the existence of low performing areas in many places is elided with the assertion of a broad or even universal failure on the part of American public school systems is neither fair nor productive. The truth of the matter is that there are thousands of public school districts in this country that perform very well, producing competent, successful students by the busload. And, yes, producing some unsuccessful ones. That, I suspect, has everything to do with the sort of conditions that Scott and Rufus suggest should compel us to get real about how many students are really ever going to be capable of excelling.

    The truth of the matter is that the problems in American public education are enormously complicated and confound simplistic answers with the presence of a vast number of variables. Sloganeering and moralizing about “zero tolerance” and “getting tough” are not going to solve these problems. From my perspective, it is the people who are the quickest to assault public education and public educators who are the worst offenders when it comes to proposing simplistic, reductive solutions, and the ones most in need of a serious realty check. But then, I’m biased.Report

    • Max Socol in reply to Freddie says:

      Broadly agree with this (hence my grounding the above in DC), but this:

      “This is exacerbated by, and exacerbates, the fact that conservative and libertarian critiques of American public educational failures are very often criticisms coming entirely from outside of the community which they are describing.”

      is not right. Never mind the notion that on an issue as complex as public education one could draw ideological lines (except when dealing with demagogues, but we’re talking about a community discussion, here, not politicians scoring points) — since when were proposed solutions to a public problem required to come stamped and sealed by one political movement over another? This seems like a recipe for bad policy.Report

    • Trumwill in reply to Freddie says:

      I fall into the category of people that was well-served by public education and where it fell short was my own danged fault. Interestingly, I had no idea how good my high school was until I got to college and discovered how much better prepared I was than the people sitting to the right and left of me. That has left me (fairly or unfairly) with the impression that if my school was good then our national system is failing. Of course, it could just as easily mean that I should have gone to a better college or that my collegiate advantage was the product of my smarts and my environment rather than my high school.

      One positive thing I will say about my school is that they had a mechanism through which to get rid of the bad students. My middle school didn’t. The difference in the two environments was palpable.Report

      • Rufus in reply to Trumwill says:

        Yeah, I guess it’s unfair to bash the schools. But, for the record, I wasn’t making any claims about teachers’ unions- I’d like to see a lot more of them in higher ed. Also, my cynicism about public high schools is based on teaching the incoming freshmen at my university for four years and finding only about ten percent of them were able to read at what I’d even call a high school level, and only about five percent could write a one-page paper in what I’d call freshmen-level English. Even in a “gen ed” history course, it gets tiresome having to teach basic reading skills every semester to students who claim to have never been taught them in high school. Maybe it was just that county.

        I have no idea what’s gone wrong, although again I’ve anecdotal evidence about behavior problem students bringing down the environment of the classroom and teachers having very little recourse to do anything about it. What I’d agree with is Kain’s ideas about giving more administrative power to the teachers at all levels, since they’re the ones who actually know what teaching is like. As for the stuff about the people who are quickest to attack public education, it doesn’t apply to me, frankly.Report

        • Kyle in reply to Rufus says:

          Still, Rufus and Freddie, I think it’s worth talking about what equals success versus failure. Which is why I think it’s a bit unfair to so blithely criticize Rufus’ use of the word failure without ascertaining what is actually meant by it.

          As for my own, I don’t think it’s unattainable or particularly out there to suggest that our public school system should be able to ensure that every pupil is literate before they leave the system. Functionally literate with basic math skills. That’s a third-world bar and yet, we simply don’t meet it.

          I don’t see how anyone – particularly anyone who’s argued that this nation should be able to provide universal health care – can look at a system that can’t provide universal literacy and call it not a failure.

          Does that mean we’re unable to recognize effort, successes, the work and sacrifice of teachers, classified, and administrative personnel across the nation? No. We should do so more often, but when we accept less than universal literacy as success, we’re not supporting public schools, we’re giving up on them.Report

  7. Jaybird says:

    In my old New York high schools, there were three tracks: General, Regents, and Honors.

    Kids in Honors were challenged, kids in Regents were taught, and kids in General were managed.

    I suppose I could frame this as there was a brain drain from General to Regents/Honors but… no. The point was to make these classes very separate.

    I’d wonder if the problems in the states with the most “brain drain” from this district to that one have, at least, three tracks.Report

  8. Jaybird says:

    Fans of Montessori! I stumbled across this delightful little essay.

    I reckon you all will like it too:


    • Freddie in reply to Jaybird says:

      That’s a little odd, Jay– Montessori is famous for removing play from education, for the absolute silence, tightly ordered educational rituals, resistance to children “misusing” their materials, etc.Report

      • Maribou in reply to Freddie says:

        Freddie, Jay was relating that essay to what I’ve told him about the time I spent in a Montessori preschool. Which was neither silent, rigid, nor anti-play (actually when we moved and I had to go to a “real” kindergarten, I dropped out in horror at how non-independent and boring it was and made my parents find me a new one). I have clear memories of “playing” with the Montessori stuff and of learning from older kids. Loved the place, felt happy and safe and curious there. Anyway, I’ve since had occasion to talk to plenty of other “Montessori kids” who in some cases stayed in a Montessori school up as far as 6th grade…. and while plenty of them have talked about kids teaching kids, your comment is the first time I’ve heard accusations like that. If anything the negative response I’ve sometimes heard from parents when I suggested they check out Montessori schools for their kids was more along the lines “of course you’d think that, you were raised by hippies, I want something more disciplined that will get them used to the regular school system more.”

        Your comment makes me wonder if it’s like the two synods of Lutherans or something… it’s so completely different from my experience and those of others I’ve talked to.

        (Sorry if this is a little more incoherent than usual – I had my wisdom teeth out today. But I was so baffled by your comment that I felt the need to respond despite my wooziness.)Report

        • Freddie in reply to Maribou says:

          Maribou, I never attended a Montesorri school, so I can only tell you what I know from the academic literature– and, as integrating Montessori concepts into high school and college composition classes is an area of interest for me in my academic career, what I have read is fairly significant. Within the academic literature in educational and pedagogy journals, a common critique of Montessori education is about the rigidity of what children are allowed to do within the classroom and the resistance to educational “play.” Whether that’s an accurate assessment of Montessori education on the ground, I’m afraid I’m not qualified to say. Part of the difficulty is that “Montessori education”, as an umbrella term, is famously malleable.

          You might look at Angeline Lillard’s Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius, a very favorable book (to the point of hagiography) that takes the resistance to unstructured activity within Montessori classrooms as a given. Another text that discusses these issues is a journal article from last year, “Young Children’s Imaginative Play: Is it Valued in Montessori Classrooms?” by Cathleen Soundy, from Early Childhood Education Journal.Report

          • Freddie in reply to Freddie says:

            I just checked a few of the books and articles I have on hand. I remain committed to the proposition that I could be wrong… but really, this is a constant theme in the literature. Certainly when it comes to the Sensorial Materials and the other material teaching objects that comprise an integral part of early education, Maria Montessori was adamant about the importance of using them in the proscribed way. The physical layout of the classroom and the structure of timed activities, too, seem to be non-negotiable within the Montessori system. Descriptions of the unsettling quiet of a Montessori classroom are in healthy supply, as well.

            The actual text of The Montessori Method is a little more difficult to decode, because Maria Montessori repeatedly stresses the importance of self-direction by students. But this seems to be self-direction within a very prescribed set of correct behaviors and not anything that we would normally describe as play, outside of designated recess or free play time.

            This discussion is important, I think, because it addresses the elephant in the room when it comes to the suggestion to “be more like Montessori schools”: there really is no such thing as a unified field of Montessori education. There isn’t any regulatory apparatus to define what is and what isn’t a Montessori school, and many nominally Montessori schools seem to diverge significantly from the text of Maria Montessori’s book.Report

            • Jaybird in reply to Freddie says:

              Dude. I wish you the best with your “I know what you say you experienced but this is totally what I’ve read about it” tactic.

              I just want to say that I’ve never had it work against her.Report

              • Freddie in reply to Jaybird says:

                See, that, Jay, is just being unfair. Really, dude. It’s beneath you. I am a committed academic. I promise you, that I do my homework, and I do it well, and at this moment, you are the obsessive jerk I have long portrayed you as. Engage a little self-criticism, and maybe read a book or two. It’s true, Jay: you don’t contain the worlds accumulated knowledge within you. I’m sorry if I trust the words of people who have made the study of Montessori education their life’s work over the anecdotal evidence of a single commenter. But at this moment, you are just being ignorant.

                Take some time and think before you immediately post another comment. Seriously. Count to 100 and really invest in your self critical process, for once in your life.Report

              • Maribou in reply to Freddie says:

                “That’s a little odd, Jay– Montessori is famous for removing play from education, for the absolute silence, tightly ordered educational rituals, resistance to children “misusing” their materials, etc.”

                That is hardly an academic comment. Jay posted a link to an essay about kids teaching kids (something that Montessori *is* classically known for, as far as I can tell), and you responded with something that is both biased, and a slam. Then you elaborated at great length but all your direct citations are much more ambiguous than your original claim. (Yes, I went and read the articles you cited, though had to settle for summaries of the books. I work in an academic library.) So how are you trusting these authors by spinning their work like that, and using it to build a stereotype-that-is-what-this-is-REALLY-about in your head, instead of reading it in the wider context the authors were engaging, as well as treating people’s experiences (not merely my own) with respect?

                I do think Jay’s comment was not particularly conducive to further conversation – but I’m not sure that yours were either…Report

              • E.D. Kain in reply to Maribou says:

                I attended Montessori for one year and loved it. It was very open and free. I think that it really must depend on where you go. Also – maybe it’s changed over the years? Maybe it has responded to all those academic critiques? I’ve heard similar critiques, but just didn’t experience that when I went. Then again, I’ve been to so many different kinds of schools…maybe it was just luck of the draw.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Freddie says:

                Dude, I was saying “duck and cover”.

                In any case, if you seriously think that I’m going to give a half-read and quarter-understood paper more credibility than my own wife’s life experience (at least in public), “committed” is what you oughta be.Report

      • MadRocketScientist in reply to Freddie says:

        I’ve known dozens of people who attended, and even graduated from, Montessori schools, and they all tell me about a very open and free environment. I’ve never heard of a Montessori school that rigid.Report

  9. Pat McClung says:

    Of course professor Ravitch is right, after 40 years of studying the history of education, and having assessed (in the past embracing many of them) all the positions and arguments for “reform” presented in this forum and having seen them all fail. The key concept present among these words is: Only the teachers know what teaching is like. Only the teachers know what works. Only the teachers know what is needed. So give more autonomy, more public respect, more administrative power (and more money, too) to those who know, the teachers, and discourage the proposals of those who, quite literally, haven’t the slightest idea what they’re talking about. Successfully teaching a classroom full of adolescents is just about the most complex problem the human mind and spirit has the occasion to encounter.
    It’s a lot harder and more demanding than being an “Executive Vice President”, engineer, doctor or a lawyer or a politician. Those who don’t believe this ought just to try it for a while. You’ll get your head handed to you in a hurry. So let us empower the teachers, and stop all this ignorant damaging effort to reform education from the outside. The “reformers” do not know whereof they speak, and so must stop trying to measure and reform something that they cannot possibly understand.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Pat McClung says:

      Is it theoretically possible for former members of the classroom full of adolescents to have insight or is such a question so out there that only someone who obviously belonged in the special ed classes might ask it in the first place?Report

      • Pat McClung in reply to Jaybird says:

        It’s theoretically possible for the former members of the classroom to fly an passenger jet, but a little dangerous and impractical if they haven’t learned how to do it, and done it for a while. If they aren’t pilots, at least they usually are able to observe that they don’t know how to fly. But many special ed class members might learn how to fly a jet, cause that’s pretty easy compared to teaching adolescents, which is lots harder than teaching quantum mechanics to graduate students. Requires at least 5 years to get good at it at all.Report

        • Kyle in reply to Pat McClung says:

          I like how you compare teaching, Pat, to all sorts of different professions but really, how can we take that seriously when the very thing you’re saying ‘that teaching is inherently complex and difficult in [secret] ways that only teachers know,’ applies equally well to every single other profession you’ve listed and then some.

          Also, I happen to think there are other people who work in schools besides teachers who ought to be listened to and, of course, parents.Report

          • Pat McClung in reply to Kyle says:

            Hey Kyle,
            Really, there is nothing secret about what teachers do. It is a very very complex thing to understand how to help children learn. But there’s an enormous amount parents and other non-professionals can do to help. Make sure your kids get a good nights sleep. Make sure they don’t come to school hungry. Make the classrooms warm and comfortable. Make the school a place they don’t feel imprisoned, and where they can go to the bathroom without getting mugged or raped. That would help a lot.Report

        • Jaybird in reply to Pat McClung says:

          Let’s talk about professional wrestling.

          Periodically, the smart marks out there complain about a particular wrestler. Kevin Nash, for example. They call him a boring guy who just dogs it in the ring. His main skill is being really tall and looking really mean. When it comes to workrate, he’s awful and he can’t take a g-darn bump to save his life. If he has a three-star match, it’s because he’s in the ring with Ric Flair. In 1987.

          When Kevin Nash (to pick a wrestler at random) reads something like this, he inevitably says something like the following:

          There are tons of fat marks sitting in their momma’s basement who have never had to wrestle a match in their life. If someone gave them a chop across the chest, they’d have an athsma attack and die. They don’t know what it’s like to be on the road 275 days a year, they don’t know what it’s like to wrestle injured, they don’t know what it’s like to have a match. For them to judge me is a laugh. They can’t judge me. Anyway, I make millions of dollars a year and have relations with many, many women… all of whom are hot.

          To which I have to say:

          No. I can still judge the quality of a wrestling match. I can still tell who is and who is not a decent wrestler. You, sir, suck.

          And this is *MY* basement.Report

    • Scott in reply to Pat McClung says:


      Okay we’ll just leave our childrens’ education to the “expert” teachers and the teacher unions b/c they know better than us peons always have the best interest of the kids at heart as opposed to simply protecting themselves.Report

    • franP in reply to Pat McClung says:

      Yours is one of the more cogent comments I’ve read on this topic today. You just don’t know until you’ve walked in their shoes.Report

  10. trumwill says:

    Kyle, you are of course right that our schools sometimes fail to instill even basic education on youngsters, but at some point how do you blame schools for what the kids and parents aren’t doing. You can blame them for passing kids that can’t read through, but pass or fail the result is the same, no? It’s hard to imagine anything that gives more authority to the parents that didn’t know about or failed to rectify their children’s inability to read as being remarkably effective. That’s not *at all* to say that vouchers are a bad idea, but as much as I disagree with Freddie on education on the whole, I think he may be on to something when he points to cultural factors that are extremely difficult for schools to overcome. I mean, reading is sadly not universal among young people, but I don’t *think* there are schools that are failing to teach anybody to read. Are there? I was more under the impression that they were merely letting kids get away with not learning. A problem still, but not one that I am sure we can lay at their doorstep.

    Regarding Ravitch, she seemed (from EDK’s description) to be speaking from more authority than “They’re not studying what I think they should be.” I’m actually more interested in how she determined improvement before NCLB. Probably the same criteria you cite for what NCLB has done to screw things up. I’m unconvinced.Report

    • Kyle in reply to trumwill says:

      I think this comes back to the point of schooling, right?

      You’re right about the cultural factors – probably more socioeconomic, but still – affecting learning. What I wonder about your approach of asking what we can and cannot ask schools to be responsible for, which is good, if we limit ourselves to expecting schools to teach kids who aren’t poor, kids who are motivated to learn, and kids who don’t have horrible family lives or personal circumstances. Why make education compulsory in the first place? Why not simply make it free to attend, if you like?

      Maybe we should, but as long as the law of the land -indeed most states’ constitutions – is that public education shall be free, compulsory, and adequate. I think we ought to question whether 7 million illiterate Americans, 27 million unable to read well enough to fill out of a job application, and 30 million unable to read a simple sentence, qualifies as a successful system of free, compulsory, and adequate education.

      What frustrates me is that how do we expect people to escape poverty through jobs programs and training, if they can’t read the applications? How do we expect people to take advantage of universal health care, if people are insecure about their illiteracy and don’t go to the doctor’s office, or can’t properly fill out health forms. A study from the Archives of Internal Medicine showed that patients who had difficulty reading prescriptions were 50 percent more likely to die from disease than literate patients.

      There’s a whole body of progressive-liberal thought that aims to use schools as a way to attack persistent poverty and while I’m not convinced that schools ought to be used for this social end or that social end, I have been convinced of the persistent effects of educational inequality in sustaining persistent poverty and undermining broader anti-poverty measures.Report

      • Trumwill in reply to Kyle says:

        I guess there are (at least) two ways of looking at it. Prescription drugs actually provide a useful portal into this. When it comes to drugs, there are two general questions: Does the drug work when used as directed and will people use it as directed?

        Likewise, when I think of improving our school system, I am thinking more of the first question. How well does our system work? My own relatively/comparatively positive experiences aside, there are reasons to believe that it doesn’t work very well. But those reasons go back to what Rufus mentioned about the degree of literacy among his (literate) college students. Then again, that’s one source and anecdotal. It’s hard to know how well we’re doing and if you’re improving or falling back without metrics. But we (seem to) agree on that, so I’ll move on.

        The illiterate fall into the second category of the drug metaphor. The drug (school) works, at least to the point of basic literacy, but we can’t get people to take it. This is where culture is important. We should be careful not to fall into the “we can’t fix anything until we fix everything” dodge, but tackling the illiterate outliers seems to me to be a different series of questions and (hopefully) answers.

        How do we get them to care enough to simply learn to read? Gosh, that’s really a tough one. Though I support school choice on the whole, I’m not sure how much help it would be. I think that these kids will need to be actively guided into some sort of less ambitious program that says “Okay, we’re not going to worry about the things we would like every kid to know, but by god we’re at least going to be able to get you to learn what we know every American needs to know.”

        But it’s hard to convince people that the periodic table isn’t for everybody.Report

        • Kyle in reply to Trumwill says:

          This makes sense.

          “We should be careful not to fall into the “we can’t fix anything until we fix everything” dodge, but tackling the illiterate outliers seems to me to be a different series of questions and (hopefully) answers.”

          The thing for me – and afaik this is why a surprising number of leaders of the black community have signed on to reform efforts – is that prior to NCLB there was a lot of evidence that schools, districts, and states weren’t even making an effort to tackle the problem. So I think you’re right in the larger sense but I think what drives the minority element of the reform push is the view that so many didn’t make an effort prior to 2001 and since then, they’ve been fighting to not have to make an effort.

          You touch on something that I’ve always found to be a critical flaw of the conservative approach to public education which is high-stakes, promote rigorous standards, and brandishes a club of accountability at teachers.

          What about students?

          The best teachers in the world aren’t going to coax miracles out of students that don’t want to be there and don’t want to learn. I think – in looking at reform – you’ve got to consider how to build in incentives for student-directed learning.Report

    • Kyle in reply to trumwill says:

      As for Ravitch, knowing her work that was a guess but I could totally be wrong. However, NAEP results clearly don’t match what she’s saying. So I’m baffled as to what she could be referring to.Report

      • Pat McClung in reply to Kyle says:

        Read professor Ravitch’s book. No more than 5-10 people in the world
        who understand this problem as well as she does, and know what to do
        about it. She knows that a program imposed by non-teachers, to “measure” “evaluate” and “improve” education doesn’t work. She knows. She tried it, very hard. She knows.Report

        • Kyle in reply to Pat McClung says:

          Well I intend to read her latest book but ultimately I’m unimpressed and unconvinced by the statement, “She knows that a program imposed by non-teachers, to “measure” “evaluate” and “improve” education doesn’t work.”

          Education isn’t about teachers, it’s about students. While it’s true that teachers are educational professionals, there’s a difference between giving their concerns and views the weight they deserve and demanding complete deference.

          In other words, we’re not sitting around talking about how teachers should teach day-to-day in the classroom, but it’s perfectly appropriate for the public to discuss the goals, structures, and success of public education. Accountability means nothing if not that.Report

          • Pat McClung in reply to Kyle says:


            I agree with you completely about that. So, I believe does professor Ravitch. Her book, as I understand it, deals with the failure to achieve improvement in public education by attempts to
            prescribe what teachers should teach day-to-day in schools, like evaluating their performance on how their students score on standardized tests, etc. Doesn’t work. She knows.Report

  11. trumwill says:


    Jay beat me to the punch a bit, but my opinions are based as much on my experiences as a student than anything else. When I was going through, I had good teachers and I had bad teachers. I had thoughtful and enthusiastic teachers and I had burned out and ineffective ones. Ask me to place trust in the former teachers and I would in a heartbeat. But without metrics of some sort or at least the ability to send my kids elsewhere if I find they are in a school with too many of the latter teachers, I simply can’t take teachers’ collective word that they’re all (or almost all) doing the best they can at a really tough job (even though I don’t doubt the difficulty of the job for those that are genuinely invested in it). I’m an IT guy and anybody would be foolish not to judge my performance simply because they couldn’t do my job better than I can.Report

    • Pat McClung in reply to trumwill says:

      I’m an IT guy too, and thus at least potentially qualified to judge your performance in your IT work.Report

      • Trumwill in reply to Pat McClung says:

        The thing is, Pat, even if you weren’t, you would still be qualified to judge. You’d be more likely to get it wrong, but if you’re a customer or a client or a supervisor and I say “My job is hard, you couldn’t do it, so you have no business having an opinion of what kind of job I am doing,” that simply wouldn’t fly. Or at least it would crash land once concerns arose that I was not doing my job well.

        It’s one thing to say “Listen, there are aspects of my job you don’t know and so while I appreciate your concern the specific criteria you are wanting to use to evaluate performance is flawed,” but another to say “My job is hard and any attempt to evaluate how well I’m doing it would just get in my way.” The former is the beginning of a conversation. The latter is simply telling you to shut up.Report

        • Pat McClung in reply to Trumwill says:

          You’re right to say that even if I were not knowledgeable I could still judge. But I would be more likely to get it wrong, since I wouldn’t understand it very well. I could see that something is wrong (undeniable in public education, for example), but it would be almost impossible for me to see what to do about it. (e.g., in IT, use Agile instead of Structured development methodology, or Aspect Oriented, in lieu of Object Oriented, models.) And the things I might think would work, like measure how many bananas the programmers eat, probably would do more harm than good, because then the programmers would just eat more bananas, instead of trying Agile methodology. That is what professor Ravitch’s book is about.
          The failure of attempts to improve public education performance by measurement of outcomes
          through standard tests, financial incentives for “eating more bananas”, etc.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to trumwill says:

      Sorry, my man. Maribou is home today recovering from wisdom tooth extraction. I’m a little punchy.Report

  12. Charlieford says:

    Um, dude, it is NOT “jived,” at least not if you’re trying to say two things (such as your and her thoughts on education) matched-up, or aligned.

    The word for that is “jibe.” It’s a sailing term.

    “Jive” is a line of talk, usually deceptive to some degree, though possibly entertaining to listen to.

    “Don’t give me your jive” doesn’t men “Don’t align your argument with mine,” it means “Stop BS-ing me.”Report

  13. Joseph Bascone says:

    I listened to most of Diane Rehm’s conversation with Diane Ravitch yesterday (3-11-10). How refreshing to hear, at last, some honest and sensible insights into the state of education in the US. I taught English at the junior high, senior high, and community college levels for thirty-five years before retiring ten years ago. I have a MA in English from Ohio State and completed coursework toward a doctorate in English education at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (yes, there is such a school). Looking back over all those years of university schooling toward becoming a teacher, I’m agast at how poorly prepared I was to enter the classroom–any classroom–as a teacher. And this is the first point I wish to make about education in the US–the miserable preparation which we teachers receive. And how easy it is to become a teacher and how easy it is to remain a teacher. I should never have been hired in the first place, and I should never have been rehired for at least the first twenty or so years which I spent at the head of the classroom. Which brings me to the second of the many points which I wish to make in this rather stream-of-consciousness reaction to the wonderful points which Diane Ravitch made. I really wasn’t hired to be a teacher. I was hired for baby-sitting, for crowd (mob?) control, as a passer from one grade to the next until release at graduation. You may call me a cynic or a refreshing truth-teller–take your pick. And, what’s sadder, I ( and the rest of us teachers) was exactly what most of the parents (such as they were), and what most of the administrators, and what most of the politicians expected and were satisfied with. Looking back over those thirty-five years at the head of a classroom, I find that the hardest part of those years was taking myself and taking my job seriously.

    Now for Diane Ravitch’s criticism of NCLB and its obsession with standardized testing, the industry which it has spawned, and its effect on education and on the students. Several years ago, I coined the phrase, “If it’s testable, it’s trivial.” I liked the rhyme—the t… and the …l. I also liked the snappy, bouncy little rhythm it has. It’s one of those intriguing little half-truths which can and should be the beginning and basis of a serious and profitable discussion, particularly in a teacher in-service session. (More of that on a later blog.) I also coined another phrase about what NCLB has done to our educational system and, more to the point, what it’s done to our students. The three R’s used to be “Reading, Writing, Rithmatic.” NCLB has twisted those into “Receive, Retain, Regurgitate.”

    Thank you for reading these ramblings. I’m looking forward to your followup comments.

    Joe Bascone
    Lorain, OhioReport

  14. trumwill says:

    I just read the Around the Sphere link. Interesting stuff. What I find a bit perplexing is that some people prefer to stay in their lower-scoring schools out of a sense of communit and this is considered a weakness of the school choice model. I don’t find the former part of that surprising (I would only transfer my kid to a charter or private school as a last resort), but I think it’s great if some people take EDK’s view and put community first. I just don’t thiink that other kids should be trapped there to keep them company. Parents that don’t want their kids to be there are less likely the parents that are going to rally behind the school to improve it. They’ve already decided where “community” rates on their list of priorities.Report

  15. Stuart Buck says:

    One of the main problems with Ravitch, and with most education discussions period, is that people make confident pronouncements that contradict the scholarly literature.

    E.g.: # School choice has a brain drain effect, drawing the most talented and motivated students out of their communities and placing them in high-performing charters, leaving public schools loaded up with the lower-performing students (and creating a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy in the meantime).

    Wrong. The Booker et al. RAND study [http://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/2009/RAND_MG869.pdf] of charter schools in several different locations nationwide found the exact opposite: In most places, charter school students come in with the same or lower level of preparation:

    Findings (from Chapter Two) on the characteristics of students transferring to charter schools and the effects of those transfers on the mix of students in schools are largely consistent across the seven sites examined. In most locations, neither cream-skimming nor self-segregation need be feared. In all seven sites, students transferring to charter schools tended to choose schools with demographic characteristics not dramatically different from those of the TPSs they left. Similarly, differences in state charter policies did not lead to substantial differences in the kinds of students transferring to charter schools: They were relatively low-achieving students across the board. Relative
    to local averages, prior achievement levels of charter entrants were particularly low in Ohio and Texas. In the case of Texas, this could be attributable (at least in part) to the success of the provision in the state’s original charter law encouraging the establishment of charter schools for disadvantaged students.

    So on this much-ballyhooed point, Ravitch is wrong.Report