Monthly Archives: June 2011

Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago

I'll be off the blog this week, since I'm in Chicago researching women teachers and feminist labor politics at the turn of the century. In the meantime, my friend Michelle Goldberg has written a delightfully devastating review of Life of the Party, a new memoir by former GOP flack Lisa Baron. You should also check out this Russell Baker essay on Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt's unconventional marriage and political partnership. 

In other non-news, I am contemplating one of the great pop music mysteries of the hair band era: How did these guys manage to write this song, which came on in a Walgreen's today, reminding me of its cheesiness, but also its awesomeness and correctness. Enjoy…


The Difference Between Testing and Test-Based Accountability

Matt Yglesias writes that there is no contradiction between a rich curriculum and standardized testing. This is true. But there very well might be a contradiction between a rich curriculum and accountability tied to student standardized test scores. There is overwhelming evidence that when school funding and teacher/principal evaluation and pay are tied to scores on such exams, incidences of teaching-to-the-test, curriculum-narrowing, and even outright cheating and fraud go up. 

Consider the example Matt and I have discussed, on the benefits of reading and reciting poetry. After NCLB was instituted and third through eighth graders across the country were required to be tested annually in reading and math, ace education reporter Linda Perlstein wrote Tested, about a Maryland third-grade classroom struggling to achieve proficiency. Here’s how poetry was taught to those students:

The third-grade teacher I followed for my book Tested had a good sense of what was going to be on the Maryland School Assessment. The exam, and the benchmark tests designed in its image, didn’t change a whole lot from year to year—there were certain constructs that showed up again and again, and certain questions too. One question she’d come to expect was, “How do you know such-and-such is a poem?” The standard tested was identifying the elements of a poem. We all know that the best way to ingrain an enduring understanding of poetry is to have students not just read poems but to engage with them—especially, to write them. These kids didn’t do that. More than 30 times the teacher had the kids copy some form of this paragraph from the overhead projector: I know this is a poem because it has rhyme, stanzas and rhythm. It has rhyme because sea and free rhyme. It has stanzas because the paragraphs don’t indent. It has rhythm because…

This is bad instruction informed by test-based accountability. Opposing such accoutnability policies doesn’t necessarily mean that one in anti-test; rather, it’s important to note that the preferable use of tests is to diagnose the strengths and weaknesses of individual students, so as to better target instruction toward them. When testing policies are set up to punish adults, educators are incentivized to raise test scores at any cost, not to use tests to help better instruct children. 

If you want to learn more about the history, uses, and limitations of testing, please pick up Measuring Up: What Educational Testing Really Tells Us, by Daniel Koretz. 

In Response to @MattYglesias: How Would Ravitch Run a School District?

In response to my Ravitch profile, Matt Yglesias has written a characteristically pointed post asking, "What does Diane Ravitch think we should do to improve education in the United States," and answering, "I have no idea."

I obviously cannot speak for Ravitch, but I can point to a few things she's written and said on this question, and offer some of my own thoughts.

This past Monday, Ravitch tweeted the following: "I wish KIPP would take over a complete urban district so people would stop suspecting them of skimming, attrition." This gives a hint as to what Ravitch would do if she were an urban superintendent. She respects KIPP's focus on providing disadvantaged students with a traditional academic curriculum and a structured day, but she is curious to know if the high achievement that follows is transferable to all poor children, not just the ones whose parents are motivated enough to enroll them in a lottery. 

I think that as a superintendent, Ravitch would hire principals who really care about what students learn in a history lesson, which books they read in English class, and whether they learn to play a musical instrument. She'd be less concerned with student test scores than with portfolios of their writing. She would would want children to memorize poetry (Auden is Ravitch's particular favorite), learn to make oral presentations, and internalize the rules of grammar and syntax. 

On June 18, she tweeted, "I know many think grammar unimportant, but I think it made me a better writer and has stayed with me always." She also wrote, "I was lucky to go to public school in an age without standardized, multiple choice tests. We were graded by written work and oral reports."

Ravitch would also make it more difficult for charter operators without a clear record of success to open a school, and she would probably entirely ban for-profit entitites from operating public charter schools, which they are allowed to do in some cities and states. Speaking in front of KIPP and TFA officials last year at Rice University, she said:

"What I want to say to KIPP, because I really really admire what you are doing. You have an excellect reputation, you get great results. Thousands of new charters will be created in the wake of your success. But your results are not typical. Warn President Obama and Secretary Duncan…. that the wonderful results you get are unusual; they are not typical of the charter sector. You must disassociate yourself from the educational robber barons, dilettantes and incompetents who are following in your wake making false promises and delivering a low-quality education to poor and minority children."

In his post, Matt also suggests there is a contradiction between Ravitch's critique of teacher "accountability" rhetoric and her support for making college free for prospective teachers. I disagree. Ravitch has never argued that the teaching profession can't be improved; rather, she points to the limits of the current bipartisan policy agenda, which relies heavily on reforming the way in which teachers are evaluated, but has much less to say about how to improve teaching practice, in a detailed way, among the current teacher corps. 

Ravitch's theory of change goes something like this: If we make teaching much more attractive, by making college free for prospective teachers and giving teachers much more autonomy in the classroom, we will be able to attract more talented candidates to the job. But simultaneously, we know the current teacher corps can't be overhauled overnight, so we need to focus on helping teachers get better at their jobs.

(By the way, these are basically the ideas of Linda Darling-Hammond.)

For an idea of how to do all this without overrelying on standardized tests or engaging in all-out war with teachers' unions, look to Ontario. The province created a peer-mentorship program for every beginning teacher and gave all teachers more time to work outside of the classroom with their peers, whether writing lesson plans or attending a conference. Simulatenously, Ontario elevated highly-skilled teachers to a number of different leadership roles, including creating several panels of teachers that assist in education policy-making. The idea is not only to take advantage of good teachers' expertise, but to encourage good people to stay in the classroom by recognizing their skills and leadership.  

For more ideas on how an education progressive would run a school district, consider a man who's actually done it: Jerry Weast of Montgomery County, Maryland.

Notes on my New Profile of Diane Ravitch

WCP cover The cover story of this week's Washington City Paper is my longish profile of Diane Ravitch, the leading education historian and former George H.W. Bush appointee who, in recent years, has switched sides from standards-and-accountability reform to progressivism. 

Ravitch has led a very full and interesting life. She grew up in Texas, where she was a teen drag racer, and got her start in journalism at The New Leader, a democratic socialist magazine. Tragically, she lost a son to leukemia in the 1960s, which contributed to her lack of sympathy toward the counterculture, which she believed had too much contempt for valuable cultural institutions. A friend of Al Shanker's, in the late 1980s Ravitch visited the newly-liberated countries of Eastern Europe to speak to nascent teachers' unions. 

Ravitch gets a lot of attention for changing her mind on issues like testing and charter schools, but on some other questions, she has been quite consistent. She's always been a defender of teacher professionalism and a critic of the idea that teachers alone are to blame for failing schools. She's always been wary of the outsized role of foundations in education policy–whether she was writing about the Ford Foundation's support for identity-politics curricula in the 1960s, or the Gates Foundation's support for teacher merit pay today. She deplores public policy faddishness. 

This didn't make it into the article, but I think a large part of Ravitch's influence in the education debate is due to the fact that she is a very pithy and persuasive writer. Her entire canon is worth having on hand, particularly her two sweeping histories, The Great School Wars, about public education in New York City, and Left Back, about American education reform efforts over time. Her Twitter feed is as addictive to read as Ravitch seems to find writing it. She told me that she spends so much time tweeting because she enjoys the medium's back-and-forth quality, and the way it allows her to engage directly and immediately with both her critics and supporters. She's a good tweeter because she's a good writer: She produces short, clear, declarative sentences. 

Lastly, Ravitch is funny. When she speaks publicly, she often leaves audiences chuckling as she drops smart one-liners and analogies that are packed with complex ideas, but simple to understand. For example, when speaking in Washington last month about her opposition to closing low-performing schools, she said, "They’re not shoe stores that you can close and move to a different mall. We don’t close the firehouse if there are more fires in the neighborhood. We don’t close the police station if there is more crime in the neighborhood." 

In part to make the story accessible to the local D.C. readership, the piece frames Ravitch as a foil to Michelle Rhee, who is, of course, the most prominent school reformer in the national media. I do want to note that Ravitch's role in the education policy debate dates back to the early 1970s. When The Great Schools Wars was published, Rhee was in elementary school. What the two women share is an overwhelming passion for improving education, and a willingness to fight hard against those who disagree with their take on how to do that. 

People are always fascinated by political intellectuals who publicly change their minds. In Ravitch's case, after spending several hours speaking with her one-on-one about her beliefs, and immersing myself in her writing, I believe she is motivated very much by a desire to defend the idea of public schools as a shared societal institution. She rightly points out, I think, that many free market school reformers do not share her bedrock commitment to the idea that every neighborhood deserves a high-quality, government-run, publicly-accountable school. 

I could write 10,000 words about Ravitch, because she's been involved in so many interesting policy debates over the years, and has been such a prolific writer. I'll stop here for now, but I do hope you read the City Paper piece.

Reflections on the Explosion in Pediatric Bipolar Disorder, On Being a Migraine Sufferer, and on the Stigma Against Drugs

Last week I did a few days of editing at Newsweek, where I had the opportunity to work on this fascinating piece by Dr. Stuart Kaplan, who writes that the explosion in bipolar disorder diagnoses for American children and adolescents is a severe medical overreach with potentially deadly consequences. Pediatric bipolar disorder, Kaplan argues, does not exist, and is likely just a combination of ADHD and ODD (Oppositional Defiance Disorder, or anger). 

A similar argument is made in a series of articles in the New York Review of Books by Marcia Angell, the Harvard Medical School professor and former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine. Angell believes the pediatric bipolar diagnosis has become commomplace in large part due to the advocacy of pharmaceutical companies, which have lined the pockets of leading psychiatrists. The doctors, Angell suggests, are only too happy to bolster psychiatry's status by embracing drug therapy instead of talk therapy, which, after all, any old social worker or psychologist can provide. 

Indeed, it is startling to learn that some psychiatrists now believe that between 1 and 4 percent of all kids suffer from bipolarity, also known as manic-depression–especially because, prior to 1995, the number of children diagnosed with bipolar disorder was close to zero. It is terrifying to read about the drug cocktails doctors routinely prescribe to such children, which include powerful anti-psychotic medications developed for adults, such as lithium, Rispardel, and Abilify, as well as anti-seizure and high-blood pressure drugs, such as Depakote and clonidine, that also have mood-stabilizing effects.

Many of the medicines have serious side effects, including obesity and diabetes. And many children diagnosed with pediatric bipolar disorder never try tamer drugs, such as Ritalin, because proponents of the diagnosis believe such stimulant medications could exacerbate these children's manic episodes. 

As persuasive as these pieces of journalism are, however, I think it's important to put them into dialogue with the often-desperate stories of the families whose kids are given such diagnoses. The must-read article is Jennifer Egan's 2008 Times Magazine cover story on pediatric bipolar disorder. Egan met a boy who routinely beat and terrorized his younger sister; a girl who exhibited sexual interest in strange men as a mere toddler, and who beat her brother until welts formed; and a boy who told his mother he would commit suicide if she didn't buy him a lottery ticket–and then ran into oncoming traffic. One mother, who eventually sent her bipolar son to a residential school in order to protect her younger daughter, told Egan, heartbreakingly:

“I used to cry five times a day, and now maybe I only cry once or twice. … So it’s better, you know? It’s better now that I don’t pick him up at school, and he doesn’t rage at me in front of all the other parents. He can rage when he bursts in the door, so no one sees how awful it is. It’s like a dirty little secret. It’s like having a husband who beats you, only it’s a kid. It’s your own."

It's no wonder the mother felt shame. As common as it has become to drop into a weekly therapy session, especially during times of personal crisis, there remains a powerful bias in American culture against mental illness and against aggressive drug-therapy for painful conditions seen as primarily emotional, hormonal or social in origin. As a lifelong migraine sufferer, I've been on the receiving end of many well-intentioned pieces of advice from friends, who wonder if sleeping more, drinking more water, or trying therapeutic massage might cure my several-times-per-week migraines. (I've even been told to "relax.") 

Since (obviously) I don't want to be in pain, I've experimented with a number of treatments over the years, from seizure medications and anti-depressants to biofeedback and restricting my alcohol intake. But I can report with utter confidence that the only thing that has ever consistently worked for me, at least thus far, is the strong stuff: the sumatriptan drugs, such as Treximet, that are specially formulated to treat acute migraine pain, but can cause significant side effects, including rebound headaches that sometimes spiral me into days or even weeks of near-constant pain. 

I'm not satisfied with that risk, so in a few weeks, I'm going to try one of the newest FDA-approved migraine treatments: Botox injections. Despite stereotypes to the contrary, my migraines don't make me feel special; I don't use them as an excuse to get out of social engagements or leave work early. I hate them. Migraines limit my productivity and happiness, and I'd do pretty much anything reasonably safe to beat them back. 

The skepticism about faddish diagnoses like pediatric bipolarity is more than warranted. Medical history is littered with bunk "diseases," like hysteria, and diagnoses that are hotly controversial, such as Morgellons. But skepticism should be accompanied, I think, by a real sense of compassion for the parents and children who are suffering and seeking a name and treatment for their affliction. One of my favorite journalists, Judith Warner, set out in 2005 to write a book about the over-medication of American children. By 2010, when Warner's We've Got Issues was published, she had completely changed her mind about the topic. After hearing stories like the ones in Egan's article, and talking to countless parents and psychiatrists, Warner became convinced that thousands of families' lives are greatly improved each year by the prescription of mood-stabilizing drugs for children.

Their stories need to be told, just as we need to hear about Rebecca Riley, who died at the age of four after her father gave her an overdose of clonidine, a adult blood-pressure medication that had been prescribed to treat bipolarity. 

Is College Worth It?

My contribution to the debate is a new feature story in The Nation, which reports on several innovative, high school-level vocational education programs, and asks why the Obama administration's reform agenda has directed so little money toward linking young people to the world of work.

I also explore the newest thinking on how to bridge the gap between the vocational track and the academic track:

…some progressive education reformers have attempted to move beyond the old emotional debates about tracking and expectations, and are sounding the call for a more intellectual version of “career and technical education,” or CTE, one that infuses traditional vocational training with the academic rigor and ethic of college prep. “You can teach any given subject at multiple levels,” says Samuel Lucas, a University of California, Berkeley, sociologist and author of Tracking Inequality: Stratification and Mobility in American High Schools. “You can teach people how to fix a car where you talk about turning the screw. At that level of knowledge, they could get a job. But you could also teach them, well, what are the principles by which this combustion engine is working?”

That’s the type of education teenagers are getting at Aviation High School, a public school in Long Island City, Queens, that Arne Duncan praised in an April 19 speech. When I visited the school in February, Noel Adames, a high school junior, taught me not only how to weld but how welding works.

I hope you read the whole piece. Or, if you'd rather listen, check out this podcast on the story featuring my amazing editor at The Nation, Betsy Reed, and me. I really enjoyed recording this. Radio is my  favorite medium!

Should Progressives Boycott the Huffington Post?

There are currently two labor issues at play vis a vis the Huffington Post. First, there's an attempt to organize the 160-person newsroom staff under the Newspaper Guild. Should HuffPo's paid reporters and editors choose this route, I'd be supportive. Online breaking news is a high-stress business with long hours, and many of HuffPo's competitors, from The Daily Beast/Newsweek to just about every major newspaper, are already unionized. 

But then there's the frivolous Jonathan Tasini lawsuit seeking royalties for bloggers who agreed to write for HuffPo without pay, as well as the call, from the Newspaper Guild and the National Writers Union, for websites and writers to cease sharing their content with the site until the company agrees to pay its currently-unpaid bloggers. Over at Lawyers, Guns & Money, Erik Loomis attempts to make the case for this boycott:

Unlike unionized workplaces like the New York Times, Huffington Post exploits laborers desperate to get in print by offering them a byline without compensation while Ariana Huffington makes millions. The unions want the writers to get paid and to have greater editorial control over their content.

I completely support this boycott. I refuse to read anything at HuffPo or to link there. Ultimately, HuffPo is surviving on the adjunct model. Like higher education with its hordes of PhDs with no job prospects, there is a huge supply of writers who want to make a living in journalism. HuffPo offers the promise of gaining valuable experience and readership so that someday, maybe, you can make it big.

I will admit that I've never been entirely comfortable with the HuffPo revenue model. Earlier in its history–most notably during the 2008 presidential election, with its Off the Bus project–HuffPo did seem to use the concept of "citizen journalism" to justify relying on unpaid amateurs who dreamt, naively, of making it big as journalists. Then there's the now-ubiquitous practice, pioneered by HuffPo, of re-posting so much of another news organization's story that readers are unlikely to click-through to the original reporting, thus denying traffic and ad dollars to the publication that actually paid to produce the content. (Here's an example in which the victim is Time magazine.)

But Loomis' argument strains credulity; it just isn't true that Arianna Huffington has made millions primarily off the labor of toiling opinion bloggers. As Nate Silver has demonstrated, the typical HuffPo politics blog post attracts just about 550 pageviews, which is equal to $3.44 in advertising revenue. The vast majority of the site's soaring traffic–which now exceeds traffic to–is due to strategic news aggregation, savvy search-engine optimization, and, increasingly, its own breaking news, reported by a team of very fairly-compensated reporters and editors.

What's more, with its merger with AOL and recent poaching of talent from The New York Times, Newsweek, and many other mainstream publications, it's clear that HuffPo is planning to build more and more of its business on original reporting. In this context, it makes sense that the site is reconsidering its relationship with some contributors, including the labor journalist/activist Mike Elk, who was "fired" from his unpaid position after he attended a Mortgage Brokers' Association conference in D.C. and lent his HuffPo press credential to a union leader, resulting in 200 workers crashing the event in protest.

The upside of HuffPo's meainstream-ificiation is more paid jobs for journalists like Amanda Terkel, Sam Stein, and Ryan Grim, all of whom approach their work with a progressive worldview, but draw clear distinctions between the role of a reporter and that of an activist. (The difference is in how one interjects oneself into a story. Are you on the scene to report and analyze the news, or to participate in it?) It's exciting that so many bright, young journalists are finding a professional home at HuffPo at a time when more and more traditional news organizations are scaling back. 

What's more, HuffPo's model is nothing like the academic adjunct market to which Loomis compares it. Ph.Ds have invested countless years, money, and labor in the possibility of a tenure-track job. Meanwhile, there's no evidence at all that the majority of unpaid HuffPo bloggers are unhappy with the arrangement, or that they hope to make a living writing online. In fact, many of the bloggers who have complained loudest about HuffPo's model are those who earn their living in fields other than journalism. Loomis, for example, is a historian, and Tasini is a political organizer and consultant. Take it from me: Many of us who work in the media world are cheering HuffPo's success and growth, as well as its evolution into more of a play-by-the-rules news outlet.

For more: Yglesias also disagrees with Loomis

Loomis responds: "large corporations have the obligation to pay workers for labor."

On the NAACP/Teachers’ Union Lawsuit in NYC: There are Parents and Kids on Both Sides of the Debate

There's been a lot of discussion in the media about the NAACP/United Federation of Teachers lawsuit against the New York City Department of Education, seeking to block it from closing 22 low-performing schools and co-locating charter schools within another 20 public school buildings. 

"It's the NAACP vs. School Kids" declared the Daily News headline on an op-ed this morning by schools Chacellor Dennis Walcott. In the Washington Post, Kevin Chavous demanded that the NAACP "put the education of children first and…stop supporting the status quo." GOOD magazine's Cord Jefferson wrote that the lawsuit leaves the NAACP "with egg on its face." And at Time, Andy Rotherham noted that the suit "sparked a remarkable counter-protest by families in Harlem and the NAACP was roundly criticized for its bizarre stance, which apparently owes more to politics than kids." 

While it's true that New York NAACP President Hazel Dukes has engaged in some bizarre and offensive rhetoric in defense of the suit–and that the NAACP and  the teachers' union have longstanding political and financial ties–it is disingenuous to claim that there are no real families who support these organizations' attempt to roll-back school-closings and make charter school co-locations more equitable. 

In April, 100 public school kids, the vast majority of them African American and Latino, protested the opaque school closing process in front of City Hall. In January, 800 parents, students, and teachers showed up at a Brooklyn meeting to protest Mayor Bloomberg's policies, among them the concentration of special needs and ESL students at the very same neighborhood schools that are so often slated for closing or co-location due to low test scores. Walcott has faced protesting parents at many of his public events.

These people are just as real as the charter school parents who have also protested in support of their childrens' schools.

As this excellent Michael Winerip piece about my own Brooklyn neighborhood makes clear, all too often co-location proposals end up pitting parent against parent, and the teachers' union against politically well-connected charter school operators and advocates. 

I believe these situations need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. If a neighborhood school has declining enrollment and empty classrooms, it might make sense for a high-achieving charter school to share its space. But if a neighborhood school is improving rapidly and successfully attracting a diverse student body, it is foolish to halt its progress by demanding it give up space to a competitor. The overall goal should be an excellent education for as many children as possible, including the vast majority who never enter a charter school lottery, as well as those who do enter but don't win one of the small number of seats available at the best charters.

As for this particular lawsuit, the good news, as GothamSchools reports, is that a settlement could be possible. In response to the suit, the Department of Education is revising its co-location plans to more equitably divide access to shared cafeterias, libraries, and gyms. Ideally, of course, these sorts of negotiations between policy-makers and stakeholders would take place way earlier in the process. But it's difficult to have a sane convesation if both sides claim that only they represent the best interests of children.