Thoughts on Diane Ravitch’s Critique of U.S. Education System

Reviewing Ken Bernstein’s piece, “Diane Ravitch is interviewed – by Diane Ravitch”, I think Ravitch has presented a thoughtful and comprehensive critique of our education system, including critiquing assumptions made by those up at the state and federal level who govern and control that system. To continue the discussion that I assume Ken is attempting to provoke, here are my thoughts on some of Diane’s, bringing my take as a parent (of now young adult kids who both left school in their early teens, and not a teacher), a left-libertarian (which I believe puts me outside the mainstream of both progressive and conservative conventional positions on education), and as a supporter of what I like to call “many educational paths” (rather than our current one size fits all system).

Says Diane…

If you are a teacher, you have watched as state legislature passed bills to cut your salary, cut your pension, cut your health benefits, take away your collective bargaining rights, and base your evaluation on students test scores. You have seen governors call you greedy. You have watched as the richest man in America suggested ways to cut your annual paycheck. You wonder if your profession will survive.

An important piece of history that Ravitch did not call out is that school teaching has been a female dominated profession, as I called out in my piece “Teachers Taking Control: A Historical Context”

If you look at US history, “teachers” (adults who teach children) were generally women with significantly lower status than say “professors” (adults who teach young and other adults) who were generally men and have enjoyed a much higher status. These female teachers have been mythologized as “school marms” (sort of substitute mothers) that looked after and instructed the kids beyond what parents were able to do. In the patriarchal pecking order of God, ”the man”, other men, women and finally children, anyone having to do with the care and development of the people at the bottom of that order is given a relatively low status, which manifests in terms of lower salary, less authority, and more top-down control.

There is a historical gender bias that women are “below” men, and therefor in a hierarchically organized male-dominated society should be controlled by men. This has tended to keep practitioners of any female-dominated job (like teaching children) from being considered true “professionals” (like the traditionally male-dominated college professors, doctors and lawyers). If anything, it is the traditionally male-dominated job of school administration that has been considered a profession, if not on par with those doctors and lawyers.

Historically, there were few other job opportunities for highly educated people who happened to be female, and my take is that the U.S. public school system leveraged this captive labor pool to get highly skilled teachers that they did not have to pay at the level of those male-dominated professions of doctors and lawyers. As the feminist movement opened more opportunities for women (including opening the professions of doctor and lawyer to them in large numbers), more and more our education system had to recruit both men and women to be teachers, and more and more the system only got what it paid for in terms of teacher quality. And since it generally did not pay a “professional” salary to teachers, realistically the quality has been impacted.

I believe all this history is an important context to the current assault on teachers that Diane is calling out. I say teachers need to seize the high ground, declare themselves as a true “profession” and take over and run their schools, one way or another. At a minimum participate in the governance of their schools like doctors participate in the policy making and other governance of their hospitals.

Ken says…

Already in this first question and answer, you see the range of Ravitch’s knowledge. The sad thing is how few of those writing about education come close to this.  Thus reporters and talking heads act as if the idea that our schools are in trouble is somehow one that is new.

In fact, we could go back somewhat earlier than the list above to the 1890’s the Committee of Ten proposed a national approach to education.  That is really when the issue of immigrant kids began becoming a problem in our urban schools.  

I think that problematic top-down agenda along with issues with immigrant kids have been defining characteristics of the OSFA (one size fits all) school system since Horace Mann helped birth it in Massachusetts in the 1830s. Normalizing and controlling the children of all those Catholic immigrants was a key nativist agenda of Mann’s time.

Ken reports that Diane feels that the various analyses of the state of American education as declining starting in the 1950s and including “Nation at Risk” in the 1980s were patently not true. Says Ken…

And remember, many who are lamenting the state of our schools are making them worse by taking actions that are causing a resegregation of American public education.

Plus all these campaigns for more testing and reworked curricula have led to our education system spending billions on testing regimens and new textbooks that could have been spent instead on increasing teacher compensation (including those evil retirement benefits that teachers somehow hoodwinked out of their state governments). Diane says…

NCLB has been a bonanza for the testing companies and for consultants who will sell you advice on how to raise test scores, but it has been a tragedy for education, educators and students.

Plus boring our kids to death with all the test prep and stressing them out with all the test taking. The reality is that none of this is about helping kids learn, its about helping adult school staff (plus state and federal legislators) keep their jobs.

Along that same line on teacher evaluation and performance pay based on testing, Diane says…

Testing experts warn that the methods used to calculate teacher quality by test scores are inaccurate and unstable. Many factors influence test scores, not just the teacher. Students are not randomly assigned. The same teacher may be at the top of the ratings one year, and the bottom the next year, depending on the composition of his or her class. There is a large body of research that warns against using value-added assessment to rate teachers… And of course, if teachers are judged by test scores, they will be compelled to teach to the test, narrow the curriculum, and sadly some will cheat.  

That last statement is such a “Duh!” moment. None of the U.S. high level educrats are willing to admit that the emperor has no clothes! Our kids and our teachers that spend much of their lives sweating this out in our schools suffer the consequences.

Ken says…

We have a higher degree of childhood poverty than any industrialized nation except for Mexico.  Our failure is to meet all the needs of our poor children – health, nutrition, access to books and computers.

This makes running our schools and being a teacher in those schools that much more problematic, particularly because so many of us have a fantasy that schools can successfully be the “State Mom” and compensate somehow for at-risk families and communities. Perhaps this is another inappropriate legacy from a traditionally female-dominated profession.

Finally, where I would respectfully disagree with Diane is in her critique of charter schools as essentially useless in moving the needle in transforming the U.S. education system. Per Ken’s notes she says…

The original idea was promising. They would focus on neediest kids, show innovative ways to help them. But most charters now are aggressively seeking to replace public schools, take their space, brag they are better. Have become a favorite of Wall Street hedge fund managers, bankers, real estate speculators.

Despite all the real exploitation of the state charter laws by some for-profit corporations with questionably ethical money making motives, I still see charters as pretty much the only game in town for individual communities to play a real role in transforming their local schools and getting teachers, parents and (gulp) even students involved in running their schools. The alternative seems to be to limit your activism to lobbying the state and federal legislators and educational bureaucrats to loosen their reins of control and really decentralize and democratize school governance, including the crucial issues of what kids learn, when, where and how. I don’t see any of those changes happening an time soon with the current fetish with national standards.

Ken’s notes on Diane’s call to all of us to take action…

What must we do now:
a. Tell your Congressman
b. Write blogs
c. Write letters to the editor
d. Get 10 friends to do the same, and ask them to get 10 friends to do the same

My take on “a” is to tell my Congresspeople to get rid of “No Child Left Behind”, “Race to the Top”, and the whole federal Department of Education while they are at it, unless it can somehow be, as my teacher friend Lynn Stoddard suggests, facilitative and advisory rather than directive. Says Lynn in a recent email to all his “Educating for Human Greatness” circle…

For this reason I am renewing my plea to Congress and the President to change the role of the U. S. Department of Education from a dictator of school policy to a research, advisory and resource organization. We need many more than the 480 signatures we now have on our petition. You can help by signing, if you have not already done so, and sending it to others, asking them to do the same. It will be especially helpful for you to ask your Governor, your State Superintendent of Education and legislators to sign it also.

As to “b”, well I’m of course all about adding my voice to that social discussion, and as to “c”, I occasionally have gotten a letter published, but not yet any op-ed pieces I have submitted. Hopefully “d”, getting ten friends to do the same, will be accomplished by getting this piece posted on my own blog.

Diane Ravitch concludes…

Bottom line: the corporate reformers have almost all the money and political power, but they are few and we are many. Let’s make this democracy work for the many, not the few. Let’s save public education, save our children, save our country.

Amen to that and pass the “ammunition”… which in this case is the willingness to fight for a voice and a vote for teachers, parents and even students in real school decision making.

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