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.

17 thoughts on “In Response to @MattYglesias: How Would Ravitch Run a School District?

  1. JB

    Important to note that most of these ideas are actually anti-progressive in the education sense and most are to the education right. A focus on classic subjects, detailed curriculum concerned with what you learn more than how– this is considered to be “conservative”, and in fact, is completely abhorred in most education schools.

    Nothing wrong with that, but it’s easy for people who talk more in the politics world to not realize that in education, progressive has a very different and specific meaning.

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  2. Dana

    JB this is a good point, one that I realized after I titled and published the post. I was using progressive more as shorthand for “someone who, politically, disagrees with school choice ideology.” Was not referred to pedagogical progressivism.

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  3. Cedar Riener

    It is curious to me that Yglesias would have no idea what sort of education reform Ravitch would support. She has left, ahem, quite a paper trail, and there are some consistent themes. Accusing critics of NCLB AND RTTT of some sort of educational nihilism, or merely being anti- ignores the rich history that many of them have in education. Yglesias seems to me to be willfully ignorant of a good deal of education policy history (ravitch), cognitive science research (WIllingham, Hirsch, Dweck, Duckworth), and the realities of urban public school systems in his citations of the latest report to come out of KIPP or DFER.

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  4. Mike

    My impression after reading this was that it doesn’t sound like a plan at all. If DR’s response would be anything like you suggest then MY is right: she has nothing constructive to offer.

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  5. Cedar Riener

    Also, MY’s post is just sloppy.
    His link for his claim that the federal government already has a loan forgiveness program goes to a private loan program that has nothing to do with loan forgiveness for teachers. As commenter sdbearyblonde points out, he probably googled “Stafford Loan forgiveness for teachers”, and copied one of the top links.
    His point on TFA misses the fact that schools also pay more for TFA (not just in psychic energy), by paying TFA a “finders fee.” School systems also must pay to find another teacher when TFA’ers rotate out.
    If Yglesias wants to know what Ravitch would do, maybe he should read some of her columns at Bridging Differences, or some of her books, instead of the presumably large number of profiles that he has read. She is fairly specific on a number of points in those columns and books. Your suggestions are only but a few of the main ones.

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  6. Tony

    “If we make teaching much more attractive…[by] giving teachers much more autonomy in the classroom, we will be able to attract more talented candidates to the job.”

    While it is certainly a worthwhile goal to make teaching more attractive, it is intellectually dishonest to ignore the central role of teacher unions in restricting teacher autonomy in the classroom. By conflating critiques of teacher unions with attacks on teachers, as she repeatedly does, Ravitch commits this error of reasoning. Collective bargaining agreements treat teachers as interchangeable parts rather than dynamic professionals. They specify working hours and professional development (and by extension, opportunities for collaboration) down to the minute, and in practice preclude any meaningful performance management (whether through principal observation or student test results). By limiting the prerogative of principals to hire, fire, train, and meaningfully evaluate teachers, most CBAs create a strong disincentive for educators to seek the principalship. Without strong educators in the principalship, it becomes more challenging for districts to grant the autonomy you argue Ravitch is calling for. Moreover, most CBAs sharply curtail opportunities for the kind of professional growth that would allow teachers to develop the management skills necessary to provide the kind of strong instructional leadership necessary for autonomous classrooms to function effectively. These issues are inextricably linked to the teacher unions and the contracts they negotiate.

    This is not to argue that non-unionized charter schools are the only or the best way to fix these issues. The long term collaboration between union and district in Montgomery county is an appealing approach, though it is not easily transferable to other political contexts, particulalry urban ones. The pro-charter policy camp is centrally concerned with making teaching attractive, and the policy agenda of charter supporters offers a number of tools to do this. They simply argue that these tools are best employed at the management level, rather than the policy level. It is possible to disagree with this approach, but it is dishonest to so deeply misrepresent it.

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  7. Matt

    “By limiting the prerogative of principals to hire, fire, train, and meaningfully evaluate teachers, most CBAs create a strong disincentive for educators to seek the principalship.”

    I really don’t get this point. Why is it any more of a disincentive for educators than non-educators? Yes CBAs do curtail some principal power (I would argue thats a good thing), but thats not a reason why educators would find it to be particularly unappealing.

    “Collective bargaining agreements treat teachers as interchangeable parts rather than dynamic professionals.”

    This is a dramatic overstatement. CBAs create standards around wages, professional development, and work conditions, but they do not prevent creativity by teachers. They do not get into curricula specifics. They give teachers a lot of latitude for how they run their class, which is what Ravitch is talking about. You may think that its important to principals more freedom to manage, but thats a separate point from the one Ravitch is making and to bring it up as a rebuttal to an argument about autonomy for teachers in the classroom is simply a strawman.

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  8. Stuart Buck

    Ravitch’s KIPP point is facetious. She must know full well that no superintendent or teachers’ union would agree to hand the keys over to KIPP to run an entire district. What she says is merely an insinuation that KIPP’s success is bogus (until and unless KIPP does something that she knows is impossible).

    And it’s sillier than that: why should KIPP’s success in any way depend on whether it can force its methods on an entire district? KIPP is like a tough marathon program: not to everyone’s tastes, but does wonders for those who stick with it. The criterion of success for a marathon training program is whether the people who choose it get better results than they would have otherwise, not whether the marathon program can be forced upon people who don’t even want to be runners at all. And it would be inane to claim that a 120-mile-a-week marathon training program is no different or better than a 40-mile-a-week program merely because the 120-mile-a-week program is chosen by people who are really motivated to run.

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  9. Matt

    “My impression after reading this was that it doesn’t sound like a plan at all. If DR’s response would be anything like you suggest then MY is right: she has nothing constructive to offer.”

    Christ, its just some off the cuff musings by someone whose familiar with Ravitch’s work. Its not a policy white paper and its not even written by Ravitch herself. The woman has published 20 books and hundreds of articles. Its really, really, not that difficult to get some insight into what a more detailed plan of hers would look like.

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  10. Matt

    “And it’s sillier than that: why should KIPP’s success in any way depend on whether it can force its methods on an entire district? KIPP is like a tough marathon program: not to everyone’s tastes, but does wonders for those who stick with it. The criterion of success for a marathon training program is whether the people who choose it get better results than they would have otherwise, not whether the marathon program can be forced upon people who don’t even want to be runners at all. And it would be inane to claim that a 120-mile-a-week marathon training program is no different or better than a 40-mile-a-week program merely because the 120-mile-a-week program is chosen by people who are really motivated to run. ”

    Thats fine, except that many people present it as evidence that their approach ought to be replicated systemically. Its one thing to say that KIPP is successful for a specific sub-group of people (although I think that their success has been vastly overstated) and an entirely different thing to suggest that we need to encourage more widespread adoption of the KIPP model and/or that we need to direct more resources to schools of KIPP’s ilk.

    Keep in mind the goal of public education is (to deploy your metaphor) not to train a small group of elite marathon runners, but to train a society of capable runners. So in fact it is perfectly valid to criticize KIPP’s ability to reach a broader student base because thats the essence of public education.

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  11. Stuart Buck

    Well, you can criticize KIPP for setting a standard of hard work that other people find tiring, or you can criticize other people for not being willing to do the work that it takes to bring a disadvantaged kid up to grade level.

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  12. Stuart Buck

    “Keep in mind the goal of public education is (to deploy your metaphor) not to train a small group of elite marathon runners, but to train a society of capable runners.”

    Not to strain the analogy too far, but some kids are starting out with such disadvantages that becoming minimally competent at school (i.e., being a capable runner) is going to take so much work to catch up that it’s equivalent to the workload of being an elite marathoner.

    So back to KIPP: If the “KIPP model” were imposed on an entire district, and the results weren’t that great, it wouldn’t be because working hard (a la KIPP) is inherently a bad idea, it would be because too many people don’t want to do the extra work that they unfortunately need to catch up academically.

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  13. Stuart Buck

    That’s one way of looking at it (and Ravitch herself certainly makes that point all the time).

    But the causation runs both ways at times. Imagine a coach who says in disgust that he’s a perfectly good coach but the team just won’t devote themselves to practice. One could respond that he might be a good coach in some sense, but he would be a better coach if he could motivate the team to practice harder.

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  14. André Kenji De Sousa

    1-) The last thing that education needs is people that THINKS that they know solutions to every problem that faces education.

    Point to Ravitch here.

    2-) Ravitch has praised KIPP several times.

    3-) Ravitch has a good point when she says that KIPP should run a district because the problem of any school with stellar results is whether the model can be replicated in large scale.

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  15. emie

    1-) The last thing that education needs is people that THINKS that they know solutions to every problem that faces education.

    Point to Ravitch here. link to vip-escortlar.net

    2-) Ravitch has praised KIPP several times.

    3-) Ravitch has a good point when she says that KIPP should run a district because the problem of any school with stellar results is whether the model can be replicated in large scale.

    Reply

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