My response to Diane Ravitch, author of Reign of Error

Thanks to education expert  Diane Ravitch, author of Reign of Error, for responding to my commentary titled “How Diane Ravitch Should Help Low-Income Students in 2014."Below are excerpts of her post in italics with my response below each section.

Ray Salazar, a teacher in Chicago, wrote a blog post asking me to respond to four questions. I will try to do that here. I am not sure I will accurately characterize his questions, so be sure to read his post before you read my responses.

I actually just wanted you to think about two questions: What are the implications of your arguments?  What’s missing?  I’m wondering why you did not respond to these two questions but, instead, responded to statements where I agree with you partly and disagree with you partly.

Before I start, let me say that he obviously hasn’t read my book Reign of Error. Consequently, he relies on a five-minute interview on the Jon Stewart show and a 30-minute interview on NPR’s Morning Edition to characterize my views. Surely, he knows that sound bites–which is what you hear on radio and television–are not a full representation of one’s life work or message. I am very disappointed that he did not read my book, because if he had, he would have been able to answer the questions he posed to me, and he might have asked different questions, or at least been better informed about my views and the evidence for them.

No, I haven’t read your book and probably won’t.  But your statements over and over no matter where you speak are consistent.  I don't think that you would have views in interviews that are detached from what you say in the book.

First, he objects to my statement that poverty is the most important predictor of poor academic performance, even though it is empirically accurate.

Actually, I say that I agree that poverty affects students’ lives.  If we follow your logic here, we run the risk of deficit-based views.  I had some teachers who looked down on us because we were brown and low-income.  This type of thinking creates opportunities for teachers and administrators to predict low performance.  We know students live up or down to the expectations that are set by adults in the building.

He claims I am making excuses for poor teaching and that I am saying that we can’t fix schools until we eliminate poverty. But in my book, I make clear that we must both reduce poverty and improve schools, not choose one over the other.

But this is not the mantra that is being repeated by many of your followers.  Many of them say, “We can’t fix schools until we fix poverty.”  If you believe the above, perhaps write a post clarifying this.  In your interview in your own tightly organized responses, you emphasize fixing poverty.  This leads people to argue that poverty must be eradicated before schools can be improved.

He doesn’t seem to recognize that my book was not written as a teachers’ guide, but as a guide to national and state policy. Policymakers do control class size; do control resources; do make decisions that either lift children and families out of poverty, or shrug and say “let the schools do it.”  There is no nation in the world where school reform has ended poverty, nor will school reform end it here.

I’m glad to hear you say this.  You’re pushing for changes at the district and national level but good teachers can’t wait for these changes to happen before they make positive changes.  I agree.  Let’s put the pressure on the district and national leaders.  But please clarify to teachers that they should not , cannot wait for these changes to happen.  This message has not come out explicitly.

Salazar does not seem to understand that I am trying to open the minds of Congressmen, Senators, Cabinet officials, Governors, and State Legislatures, that I want them to take action to improve the lives of children and families; I want them to understand that they should not be cutting the jobs of librarians and nurses and increasing class sizes, and they should not be tying teachers’ compensation to test scores. I agree with Salazar that teachers make a huge difference in the lives of children, but I want him to acknowledge that the deck is stacked against poor children. It is stacked by circumstances, and it is stacked by our schools’ obsessive reliance on standardized tests. Standardized tests are normed on a bell curve. Bell curves do not produce equality of educational opportunity. They favor the advantaged over the disadvantaged. We as a society have an obligation to do something about it.

I understand it well.  I’ve always taught in schools with large low-income populations.  I’ve also worked with colleagues who do look down on low-income students and their deficit-based views are reinforced when you don’t make it clear that they have a responsibility to provide a good education while national and district leaders have a responsibility to improve our educational funding and structure.  I did work at a school that reallocated funds to have a full-time nurse--and absolute essential in any school. I acknowledge that all the staff above should not be cut.

And we do over test.  I say that explicitly in my post about how I teach to the test and actually work against the high-stakes environment.

However, I'm confused when you then suggest our schools are good enough every time you say American schools are a success.  Good teachers have a responsibility to put pressure on school, district, and national leaders AND to control what they can while providing a high-quality education to students.  Our schools need to improve and they can now through improved instruction while the fight for better funding continues.  Schools leaders must ensure their leadership supports these efforts.  I've worked at schools where schools leaders do and where they don't.  This is the only way, I agree, that we can destroy that fact that the deck is stacked against low-income students.

He would understand all this far better if he read my book instead of listening to a TV show and a radio program.

If you don’t want people to quote or listen to you on TV or radio, then I don't understand why you agree to the interviews.  NPR and the Daily Show are progressive by white standards with mostly progressive audience members.  If you do these interview engage skeptics, you'll need to get on the conservative airwaves more.  Also, let's recognize that not everyone is going to read your book.

His second point accuses me of opposing standards because I do not support the Common Core standards. That is ridiculous. I support standards, but I don’t support the federal imposition of standards that were written mostly by non-educators, that were adopted because of a federal inducement of billions of dollars, that have never been tested anywhere, and that–as the tests aligned to them are rolled out–cause the scores of students with the highest needs to collapse.

As a teacher of color, there have been many times that I have not and still will not be at the table to make decisions.  I would like to build by sense of entitlement but Ik now that my view will not always be listened to.  You, Diane, did disregard my post arguing that too many white voices lead the ed policy conversation this summer.  You said to me in a tweet, “I’m white.  So what?”  I’ll try to dig up the tweet.

I’d like you or any educator to look at the Common Core Literacy Standards or the ACT College English or Reading Readiness Standards and highlight one thing that students should NOT be taught to do.

Instead of fighting against these standards, let’s move the fight forward to ensuring better implementation.  We always seem to be behind in the conversations.  This allows the people you criticize to do the leading.

Of course, I want to see students in Chicago and every other urban district reach high levels of performance, but that won’t happen until politicians stop cutting the school budget, stop laying off teachers, ensure that every school has the resources it needs for the students it enrolls, stop using test scores for high-stakes for students, teachers and schools, and make sure that all children have food security, access to medical care, and the basic necessities of life. Salazar seems to suggest that poverty doesn’t matter all that much, as long as teachers are creating a “college-going” culture. In effect, he is shifting blame to teachers for failing to create such a culture; but no school can create such a culture without the tools and resources and staff to do it.

The underlined statement above is not accurate.  I clearly say,"Poverty destroys.”

I’m not shifting blame either, Diane.  I’m pushing for people to do what they can.  Let’s all stop the blame game.  When you're in Chicago, please stop by my high school so you can hear our story of improvement.  You'll see a huge group of highly committed educators who are working hard to provide a 21st century education in an old Catholic high school building that had no heat in January for one day.  You'll see how we control what we can, need more resources to do better, and know that our students deserve more.

Third, Salazar criticizes my concern that school choice is intended to create a marketplace of charters, leading to a dual school system. He wants more school choice. I don’t think school choice answers the fundamental challenge to school leaders: how can they create good public schools in every neighborhood? That is their duty and their obligation. Salazar says that good neighborhood schools don’t exist now, and I agree.

This is not accurate either.  There are some good ones in more affluent parts of Chicago (Northwest Side) and a few in other parts of the city and many not so good ones.  I’m asking you not use language that traps families who DO want choice.  Let’s let families decide what school is best for their family.  If you acknowledge that good neighborhood schools don't exist, I don't understand why you are intent on preventing students from going somewhere else.

I don’t understand why school choice should only be an option when one goes to college.

But choice won’t bring the change we need. It will create a competition for a few good placements, but it won’t create more good schools.

In Chicago, we have four top school cited in my post.  Those are schools of choice and they choose their students selectively.  No one seems concerned that that three of those four schools drained significant resources from the district for major—beautiful—new buildings.  And I don’t hear concerns from the loud voices in our city or at the national level about the decreasing or low number of low-income students at those schools.  This is a conversation that needs to happen.

Choice does not improve neighborhood schools. It abandons them. We will never have good neighborhood schools if we create a system where all kids are on school buses in search of a better school. In some cities, it is the schools that do the choosing, not the students or their families. Many of those “schools of choice” don’t want the kids who will pull down their all-important scores.

This is a generalization.  I’ve seen lots of students pushed out of regular public schools, too.  My first job was at an alternative high school with many good, young people who fell through or where pushed through the cracks.  Let’s recognize this can happen anywhere.

Again, no one seems concerned about selective enrollment schools.  Perhaps because they provide a politically correct way to “diversify” our schools while keeping white affluent families in our city.  We know politicians care about that.

So, what should happen right now? The mayors of big cities who want to be education leaders should make sure that every school has the resources it needs: the teachers, librarians, social workers, nurses, after-school programs, summer programs, small classes, arts classes, physical education, foreign languages, etc. In a choice system, it is left to students to find a school that will accept them and hope it is better than the one in their neighborhood. I say that students, parents, educators, and communities must demand that the politicians invest in improving every school.

Yes, I agree.  But not everyone should be forced to go away from their neighborhood school.  If they want to attend their neighborhood school, they should.  If they don't, they should have more options such as a lottery at other public schools where they can apply.  Student slots at those schools can be determined by the number of students who do not attend their neighborhood school.

As Pasi Sahlberg, the great Finnish expert, has said about his nation’s schools, “we aimed for equity, and we got excellence.”

But Finland has about a 5% child poverty rate while ours is 23%.  Their culture is not grounded in competition like ours and their cultural similarities cannot be compared to our diversity.  Fixing inequality in the grand ol' U.S.ofA. will take many lifetimes.

In his fourth point, Salazar repeats his belief that there is both a poverty crisis and an educational crisis. I agree. If he read my book, he would know that. The poverty crisis created the educational crisis. If we ignore the poverty crisis, we will never solve the educational crisis.

That’s why I say we must pay attention to both.  You seem resolute about getting our country to solve poverty because in your view, “American public education is a huge success. Test scores have never been higher than they are today for white children, black children, Hispanic children and Asian children.”  As responsible educators, we know this should not be good enough.

Finally, I value being able to exchange ideas with you.  While I do not agree with you completely and while you do not agree with everything I write, I hope it's clear that we have more in common ideologically than people think.  An educator who initially found dissonance between me and her ended our conversation the other on Twitter with this: "Multiple angles on issues make different realities.  People have the same concerns but from different angles, not different sides."

I hope you agree, Diane, that we are on the same side.  We have just speak from different realities.

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