How Education Expert Diane Ravitch Should Help Low-Income Students in 2014

As my students develop their argumentative writing, I push them to ask themselves “What are the implications of my argument?”  In other words, if our high-school community accepts their idea, what will the argument encourage the audience to believe, communicate, or do?  As we move into another year of education reform and anti-education reform with little ground in between, I want to push education expert Diane Ravitch to reconsider the implications of her arguments this past year.

I also hope that those who support, quote, and exalt her, accept we cannot blindly trust Ravitch’s logic in 2014.  Nor can we passively accept the extremes on the other side of the education debate, but that’s for another post.

So why focus on Diane Ravitch? Why not start with the Michelle Rhees, the Walton Foundations, the education entrepreneurs? The truth is: my ideas align more with Diane Ravitch that with those she criticizes.

But as one my Chicago Southwest side students said to me one day, “It’s the same, but it’s different.” Therefore, if Diane Ravitch truly wants her policy work to make a difference in the lives of American students, she needs to consider the implications of her arguments, which perpetuate practices that have long kept low-income students from succeeding.

These are the four agreements I found between Diane Ravitch and me.

  1. We both agree poverty negatively affects students BUT . . .
  2. We both agree American education has improved BUT . . .
  3. We both agree the education reform movement has problems BUT . . .
  4. We’re both against the status quo BUT . . .

#1: We both agree poverty negatively affects students BUT . . .

Throughout her book tour for Reign of Error, and in her appearance on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show this October, Diane Ravitch stated, “The single biggest source of low academic achievement is poverty.”  She went on to say that students who live in poverty are distracted by the economic, social, and emotional problems in their lives.  Then she criticized the “education reformers,” who, in her arguments, are supporters of charter schools and teacher accountability, because, according to Ravitch, they say, “Don’t pay attention to that [the problems of poverty].”

I agree with Diane Ravitch.  Students with economic, social, and emotional problems need their realities recognized.  They need to be in schools where the previous night’s shooting on their block is not blown off with expressions such as, “You have to move on” by insensitive adults.  Ravitch added in this interview that “if we really cared about improving education, we would have smaller class sizes, particularly for kids who are poor.  We would make sure that every day, schools would have a nurse or health clinic that kids could go to when they’re sick.  We would make sure that every school had the arts, every school had physical education.”  All of this, I recognize, would improve students’ lives and academic outcomes.

However, Ravitch is talking like an external policy wonk and not like a good teacher in a low-income community.  Ravitich’s examples create a dangerous mantra that many of her supporters repeat almost as self-affirming statements: We cannot fix schools until we fix poverty.  The solutions I hear Ravitch presenting over and over deal with educational aspects that a good teacher cannot control.  We don’t control class size.  We don’t control our student’s healthcare.  We don’t usually determine who takes art classes.

So Ravitch’s reasoning allows people to get away with views such as, “Poor students can’t learn because their minds are somewhere else.”  While we may not be able to provide the social-emotional support to help our students completely overcome the trauma they might face, we can create—every day—classrooms where students feel safe, where they can—through good relationships with us and with their peers—move forward at a comfortable pace.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about a brave young woman who is surviving the tragic deaths of two siblings on separate occasions.  Her brother, she lost in a shooting.  Her sister, a college graduate, was murdered.  What’s a teacher to do to help a student through this?   I could have coddled this young woman.  I could have said, “Let me know when you’re ready to write again.”  I could have told her how sorry I was and how worried I was about her.  Instead, I thought back on the impact that gun violence had on my own family.   So I welcomed her back to class quietly and didn’t say a word about the tragedy in her life.  Instead, I let her share her experience in writing when she was ready.

In my article, Dr. Enrique González, a clinical psychologist with works with trauma patients, explains that “teachers can help students through the grief stages.”  He suggests “providing age-appropriate activities so students can work through their denial or anger.  Writing or art are good options.  The most important thing,” Dr. González stresses, “is to let them share it with you.” When Ravitich keeps emphasizing how poverty is the ultimate cause of low-academic achievement, she prompts many educators to create a context where a student cannot escape the tragedy, thus worsening the student’s emotional state.

When my own family was facing incredible financial circumstances, I didn’t want teachers telling me how bad they felt for me.  I wanted to learn.  One Christmas, a bag got delivered to our door.  Someone just left it.  It contained Christmas gifts from our church: my sister got a blouse, I got a jacket.  “Wow,” I remember thinking, “people think we’re poor.”  It’s true what people say: you don’t realize you’re poor until someone tells you.

Talking about poverty won’t eradicate poverty.  As responsible educators, we cannot wait for poverty to be fixed.  Instead, we do what we can to create safe, comfortable classrooms and schools where students can—even if it’s only for one 50-minute period—feel valued and be academically prepared for a better life.  As one of my students wrote in a post for Grant Wiggins’s blog, “If a student is interested in school because of the way a teacher operates the class, much of their energy will revolve around school which will lead them to success…. It is essential that schools are safe and interesting environments for students.”  Good teachers will work toward this without waiting for the eradication of poverty.  Diane Ravitch needs to emphasize these possibilities in 2014.

#2: We both agree American education has improved BUT . . .

In September on NPR’s Morning Edition, Diane Ravitch stated, “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. High school graduation rates have never been higher than they are today—for all of those groups. Our schools are not failing; they’re very successful.”

If we follow the implications of her logic, we would be convinced that reform of any kind is not needed.  American schools, we would believe, are great places to be.  Teachers should, therefore, be allowed to avoid Common Core and other standards.

But here’s the data Ravitch must incorporate into her interviews.  In Chicago, the nation’s third largest school district, 85% of the students are low-income (based on free or reduced lunch).  However, while only 9% of the student population is white, white students make up 30-42% of the student population at the city’s four top high schools (Northside, Payton, Young, Jones).  These top Illinois schools select students based mostly on test scores, along with other academic, income, and residential criteria

At one of these top Chicago selective-enrollment high schools, once upon time before the South Loop neighborhood was gentrified and trendy, 85% of the students were low-income.


Low-income student enrollment decreased consistently at top high school in Chicago Public Schools

Low-income student enrollment decreased consistently at top high school in Chicago Public Schools


Slowly but surely, as the recruitment efforts focused on “diversifying” the school, more affluent students, more white students, and less black and brown students enrolled.  Today, the low-income student population at that school is 45%, almost half of what it was thirteen years ago.  In a few years, the school—with a brand-new glass façade building—will host 1700 students.  I don’t anticipate the low-income student population to increase by much.

Low-income students can only gain access to these types of schools if elementary school teachers prepare students to succeed on the standardized tests that determine who gets in and who doesn’t.

In a post March post, I explained how I incorporate the ACT English College Readiness Standards into my writing instruction—without sacrificing critical thinking or cool, real-world activities.  In another post highlighted on an EdWeek blog, I explain why we must accept the Common Core writing standards.  In fact, my students’ narrative, expository, and argumentative writing is regularly published on their blog: Whatchoo Got to Say?  

These are the writing experiences that align to standards—most of them with Common Core—and engage students so they grow academically and heal emotionally.  Because of this combination of standards-based and real-world-connected teaching, my 2013 students’ average English ACT score was 20—half a point below the national average—and a full 4 points higher than our school’s average.

Every time I hear Diane Ravitch talk against Common Core, her argument implies teachers should ignore standards, negate them.  So students see the big test, an unfamiliar sight that is explicitly or subtextually de-emphasized by many of Ravitch’s followers, and students do poorly.  These followers of Ravitch blame their students’ poor test performance on their being poor, instead of improving their poor teaching.  Ravitch and all of her followers must remember that contributing to low scores by ignoring the skills on standardized tests perpetuates the classist, racist, sexist views many activists claim to be fighting against.

Poverty destroys.  I know.  My family faced it head on.  But good teachers don’t wait for public policy to be solved before they enact instructional practices that get students out of poverty and into good colleges with secure financial aid.

The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research emphasized the difference good teaching in a college-going culture makes: “Across all our analyses, the single most consistent predictor of whether students took steps toward college enrollment was whether their teachers reported that their high school had a strong college climate, that is, they and their col­leagues pushed students to go to college, worked to ensure that students would be prepared, and were involved in supporting students in completing their college applica­tions.”

Poverty does not need to be eradicated for this to happen.

#3: We both agree the education reform movement has problems BUT . . .

Earlier this month, Diane Ravitch criticized Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel for not pushing Chicago’s largest charter-school operator, UNO, to make their financial records public.  Amid a federal investigation questioning the organization’s financial decisions, CEO Juan Rangel resigned.  UNO is one bad example of the education reform movement that isn’t reform.  It’s dirty politics.

Chicagoans, especially those of us in the Latino community, knew of UNO’s suspicious ties to the previous mayor and the current one.  Still, we know this organization remains well connected to Chicago politics.  Sadly, now more than 7500 students in 16 schools worry about their schools’ futures.

Then, there’s the Academy for Urban School Leadership, a nonprofit organization that manages 25 of Chicago Schools with unimpressive results.  After a semester in one of their schools, I wrote about their deficit-based views using Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion strategies, which create passive students through militaristic teaching approaches—approaches that would never be accepted in white affluent districts.

UNO and AUSL represent the monopolizing education entrepreneurships that Ravitch criticizes.  I agree with her there.

But low-income families need school choice.  Last year, I wrote an editorial for CNN’s Schools of Thought blog that challenged education leaders to remove school boundaries.  Our children should not be forced to attend a school based on their zip code.  Affluent families have forever benefitted from being able to choose.  Low-income families deserve this right, too.

Ravitch regularly says every family should have a good neighborhood school to send their kids to.  But we don’t.  I didn’t.  The only reason I attended a safer high school with a less-than-mediocre academic program was I had good reading scores.  Without that, I would have attended a severely troubled, gang-infested high school in Chicago’s 26th Street neighborhood with a horrible academic program.

Today, with public transportation usually accessible, with parents working near schools outside of their neighborhood, with other caretakers available to provide after-school care near higher-performing schools, families should be able to apply and be admitted by lottery to any city school they chose.

With 106 high schools in Chicago, surely, Diane Ravitch cannot expect residents to accept only the one assigned to them because of a zip code.    Ravitch chose to go away to reputable schools, Wellesley College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.  Surely, school choice should not be only expected when one chooses a college.

#4: We’re both against the status quo BUT . . .

On the Daily Show in October, Diane Ravitch mentioned how she is against the status quo.  I support her on that point, as well.  I, too, work against the status quo. And, therefore, here it is:

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, “a record seven-in-ten (69%) Hispanic high school graduates in the class of 2012 enrolled in college that fall, two percentage points higher than the rate (67%) among their white counterparts, based on new data from the U.S. Census Bureau.”

While this is promising, we have a status quo to change.  In that same report, the Pew Hispanic Center goes on to say that “despite the narrowing of some of these long-standing educational attainment gaps, Hispanics continue to lag whites in a number of key higher education measures. Young Hispanic college students are less likely than their white counterparts to enroll in a four-year college (56% versus 72%), they are less likely to attend a selective college, less likely to be enrolled in college full time, and less likely to complete a bachelor’s degree.”

While statistics like these continue to lead many ed policy people, mostly white, to argue that there is a poverty crisis, not an educational one, they need to recognize that there’s both.  Because if they don’t acknowledge the complexity of these issues and avoid polar extremes, neither view will produce long-lasting improvements.

Finally, another essential question I push my students to ask is “What’s missing?”  And if Diane Ravitch reflects on her work this past year, she’ll realize that in all of the academic articles, among all her data points, among the multitude of blog posts, the most important element that remains unapparent is the voices of the low-income families and the views of the students her ideas directly affect.

In 2014, I hope Diane Ravitch reconsiders the implications of her arguments and addresses them fervently and prolifically as she has produced perspectives in 2013–because those implications are directly affecting the lives of low-income students in too many cities, in too many schools, in too many unsound ways.

You can also read Diane Ravitch’s response to this post as well as my reply to her.

If you’d like to continue the education conversation in 2014, please “Like” The White Rhino Blog’s Facebook page and follow me @whiterhinoray.

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