Diane Ravitch

Comments and Letters

Page 16


October 27, 2010


Our Superintendent is very pleased to have won a $7 million Milken Grant but there is something about the whole deal that bothers me, but I’m having trouble putting my finger on it. Below is an e-mail I sent to our union negotiating team; we are to vote on the grant (meanwhile, the grant administrators and some of the teaching personnel have already been hired):


I refer you to the Simpsons monorail episode; here's a link you can access from home. And here’s the plot synopsis (based on Meredith Willson’s Music Man):

“After Mr. Burns is caught storing his excess nuclear waste inside Springfield Park’s trees, he is ordered to pay the town $3 million. The town is originally set to agree to fix Main Street, but the charismatic Lyle Lanley interrupts and convinces the town to use the money to buy one of his monorails. The town embraces the suggestion and Homer is hired as the conductor, but the only person remaining not so pleased about the whole situation is Marge. She discovers suspicious evidence and visits a town that had previously purchased one of Lanley’s monorails. She discovers that Lanley is indeed a con man...”

Whether or not the Millkens are con men — Oh, wait! They are! — is beside the point. We’re going to embrace a $7 million program for a monorail when Main Street remains unrepaired. Examples:

I am writing this at 2 a.m. because I am sick and have to write sub plans.

One of the reasons I’m sick is that the heater in my classroom has been blowing cold air since Friday and hasn't been fixed despite repeated requests. I’ve had to take my classes to the Forum to keep them warm. And I have to drive back to school before I can write the sub plans to see whether the heater’s been fixed so I know where the sub should take my kids.

I have had to scrap any lesson plan involving technology because only ten of the thirty computers in the AGHS 100 side computer lab are functioning. My classroom computer is barely functioning — circa 2001 — and I’ve lost an aging video projector when the bulb blew out.

Class sizes are larger, I have fewer resources, less time for each student, consistently put in 11—12 hour weekdays, haven’t had a COLA in three years, am still $12,000 behind my peers in neighboring districts, just got an unpleasant surprise with Blue Cross’s $500 deductible for prescription drugs (I like to call it the “Pearl Harbor Option”), and there is no commitment from Board or District that working conditions and wages will ever be addressed when the economy eventually recovers — something like a Mission Statement for teachers and staff.

(Maintenance is overwhelmed, I know, so things don’t get fixed as quickly. Custodial is overwhelmed, so my whiteboards aren’t getting cleaned. We are overwhelmed, and we are to bring up test scores. This is the educational equivalent of Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22.)

So, we buy the monorail — or TIF/TAP — and while a segment of the District, including a batch of mentor teacher/carpetbaggers, flourishes, we are expected to pleasantly endure? We’re the old nag that pulls the plow every day, while in the next, and greener, pasture there’s a thoroughbred who gets a bucket of oats every day prepared by Wolfgang Puck?

You might even say this program puts the cart before the horse.

This is lunacy.



October 26, 2010

Dear Ms. Ravitch,

I am a middle school teacher in Chicago Public Schools. I actually transitioned into teaching through the Chicago Teaching Fellows program. Even while in that program I knew I disagreed with much of their philosophy, but I knew it was a tool to become a teacher.

I recently read your book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, and I can’t tell you how wonderful it felt to finally hear someone articulate all the problems I see on a daily basis, both with urban school systems and with the media and administrative portrayal of public schools, teachers, and unions. I was constantly saying, “Yes!,” aloud as I read it.

My question is: what can we do about this? With Oprah and Waiting for Superman and all the media seeming to support the current trends, I feel helpless and constantly under attack as a public school teacher. Are there any think tanks being formed to counteract the current situation? Are there any organizations supporting research into alternatives or at lease revealing truthfully what much of the current research says about this extreme data driven model?

Your book was a perfect articulation of the problems with the current direction in American schools; do you have plans to (or have you already) describe a comprehensive viable alternative?

I would appreciate any information you have whenever you have a chance to respond.

All the Best,



October 26, 2010

Dear Diane,

I meant to e-mail you after I read your book, The Death and Life of the American School System, as I thought it was the most intelligent analysis of the current crisis affecting public schools and the shrinking of the curriculum to focus on meeting math and reading scores. I just finished reading your article Waiting for Superman in the NYRB and was very moved, once again, by your argument. I retired as a New Jersey social studies teacher and supervisor six years ago and moved to Florida where I continue to read and study history and follow the debate over public education. We also have a home in Georgia, near my son and his family, and I am always surprised at how little support for public education there is in both Florida and Georgia, compared to New Jersey.

I enjoyed your article and how you were able to counter many of the myths and misconceptions about public education. Very often public schools in blighted urban areas not only have to accept students with a host of social pathologies and limited familial support for educational achievement and success, but they often pay their teachers less than those in nearly suburban schools and are often located in high crime and/or drug infested neighborhoods that induce many young teachers to avoid them. If I am a good teacher, why would I choose to work in Camden, Newark, or Paterson when I could work in Ridgewood, Old Tappan, or Englewood Cliffs? You clearly point this out and your comparison with Finland and East Asian countries was excellent. Also, I thought your emphasis on the role of administrators and supervisors and their role in hiring teachers and getting rid of those inadequate to the task before they secure tenure was excellent, as I think this is a major problem with our public schools. Too many administrators and supervisors are not well-educated and secure their positions by merely accumulating the necessary certification and political support.

Unfortunately, the ideological battle going on between conservatives and their opponents has a huge effect on the present crisis. To criticize public schools as “government schools” is a very effective rhetorical device for leading people to associate public education with a Marxist taint — a huge government bureaucracy backed by a regressive teacher union monopoly has destroyed our schools and imperiled our future. It is stunning how the present economic downturn has affected public education and hard to believe how charter schools in place of public schools would improve the situation. If as a teacher I am to be evaluated on the basis of the test scores of my students, I want to teach the Honors, Advanced Placement, and International Baccalaureate students, not the learning disabled, English as a second language, or academically-challenged kids. Also, as you argue so well, if I choose to run a for-profit charter school, I want to attract the best students, not all students as public schools must accept. I enjoyed your book and article very much and thank you for presenting the case for public education and a broad-based curriculum so well.

Best Wishes,

John Pyne


October 24, 2010

Dear Dr. Ravitch,

Thank you so much for your excellent article!

I, like so many others are tired of hearing that “itís the teacher.” Bill Bennett, who should know better, was on a Sunday morning talk show in the recent past and proudly announced to the interviewer “the data are in, itís the quality of the teacher that matters.”

Every credible study I’ve seen suggests that teacher quality, student teacher ratio and parental involvement (which is closely tied to poverty) are the three factors which most influence the education of the child.

Thank you for citing the studies and for your “rest of the story” approach to this topic.

One final note, there is so much “accuracy without honesty” in politics, media, business, academia and medicine today that it’s easy to understand why so many people are misinformed.

We are constantly reminded that thereís a “minority gap” in education and I wonder if anyone considers that children of Chinese ethnicity are a minority. There certainly is a gap between their average test scores and those of European-American children. Thereís also a gap between the test scores of children of Indian immigrants and their European-American counterparts. Japanese-Americans: the same. Korean-Americans: the same.

The most visible common denominator, at least where I live and work, is the degree of parental involvement.

All the Best,

Tom Salamone


October 23, 2010

Dear Dr. Ravitch,

I am a veteran teacher at a highly successful public high school. Before teaching, I worked both public and private sector jobs for ten years. I can honestly say that I never worked as hard or as intensely in the ten years prior to teaching as I have during my ten-year teaching career. While it is meaningful and rewarding work, it is also the most demanding job I have ever had, so you can imagine how disheartening it is to hear of a film like Waiting for Superman, especially coming from a filmmaker for whom I had some regard.

Given the attention this film has received, I was relieved to read your article on the film in the New York Review of Books. (Not that I am a regular reader — I don’t have time as a teacher — but a friend drew it to my attention.) I wish the real inconvenient truth about education would gain as much attention as this misleading film has. I thank you, however, for the part you have played in trying to make that happen. I appreciate the work you did in culling together what the research actually shows about what is truly ailing our public education system. All of it confirmed my own suspicions as a classroom teacher, but, again, teaching doesn’t leave you much time to read the studies yourself.

In my view, teachers are asked to do too much, with too few resources, too little time, too little meaningful training, too little information, and far too many students. I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to know that you can’t do as good a job as you would like to as a teacher (at least not without sacrificing any semblance of a personal life) because of factors that are beyond your control. Then to be told how you ought to be teaching by the corporate world, which is hardly filled with good role models, when their goals are far different from the goals of education, is unspeakably aggravating. I would love for some of those politicians, pundits, and corporate gurus to spend one week in my shoes. I’m pretty sure they’d either be totally ineffectual or begging for mercy by the end of it.

Anyway, thanks again. Sorry for the venting. I’m probably preaching to the choir anyway, but I was so happy to read something from someone who actually knows something about the difficulties we face.

Caty DeWalt


October 21, 2010

Dear Ms. Ravitch,

I just wanted to thank you for your deep, thought-provoking review of Waiting for Superman. As a passionate, public school educator, I had vague misgivings about the documentary, but I lacked the knowledge to express exactly why charter schools are not necessarily better than public schools. Your article taught me a lot about what could be done to improve public education, you are also absolutely right about those that grant tenure (perhaps inadvertently) to bad teachers, and I was pleasantly surprised to read the last sentence.

Thank you very much. Your article is a gem.

Peter Rossman


October 15, 2010

Dear Ms. Ravitch,

I have just read your new book. Thank you for taking a stand for public education.

We have been beaten to a pulp and never given credit where credit is due. For once, I feel understood as a public school teacher. The NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND law has demoralized our teachers and schools for too long. I sent Bill O’Reilly an e-mail asking him to invite you on his show. I sent him also a link to get your book and read it. I have energized the teachers at my school, too, with your book.

Thank you again for getting the truth out. Hopefully, our country will once again unite to uphold our children’s rights to a free public education. God bless you.


Nancy J. Robey


October 11, 2010

Dear Ms. Ravitch,

I ran across the “Bridging Differences” blog and felt compelled to write you to say thanks.

I am currently reading The Death and Life of the Great American School System, and it is very refreshing to read a book about our education system that expresses the problems we are creating with theories that sound good but simply aren’t working. I am a second year teacher in Texas; I teach 7th grade ELA. I graduated from college in May of 2009 with that hopefulness that most new teachers have. I was excited about the profession and I was excited about my students.

It didn’t take long before the system began to stifle that hopefulness that I had. My excitement has been replaced by the anxiety that comes with preparing students for two TAKS tests and knowing that my success will be judged by the scores that my students produce. My students seem to be good at one thing — taking multiple choice tests. Critical thinking and creativity seem to have been tossed to the wayside. I agree wholeheartedly with the views you offer in your book and am encouraged that someone of your stature in the world of education is voicing these concerns.

I am in my early twenties and would love to see an overhaul in education in my lifetime, but I know it will take a paradigm shift that won’t be quick or easy. I am dumbfounded by the fact that so little regard seems to be given to those of us who are in the classrooms, living and breathing these policies handed down to us. I’ve yet to meet a teacher who applauded high stakes testing, yet it is still pushed and governs what we do in our classrooms. Sometimes it seems easier to simply walk away from the profession than work within a system that I find it hard to agree with, but I know that I can’t walk away from my students who deserve the best I can give them under the circumstances.

For now I’ll keep hoping for change to come. Your book gives me hope that we can find a better way. Thank you for speaking out!

Jonda Robinson


October 10, 2010

Dear Professor Ravitch,

Congratulations on The Death and Life of the Great American School System. The book is a great contribution to understanding the shortcomings of reform efforts to change education in America. You have said it well and have given voice to public school teachers, administrators, and academicians who have been silenced in the current mess in the education system. We are indebted.

I will be using your book as the assigned textbook for a spring course, “Trends and Issues in K12 Science Education,” to highlight the difficulties that we are experiencing in our attempts to implement the National Science Education Standards as well as what we have always known about good curriculum and instruction.

I will be at your presentation on October 14, at Rice University.

Thank you for an excellent contribution to understanding school reform in the U.S.


Eugene Chiappetta


October 6, 2010

Dear Ms. Ravitch,

Thank you so much for participating in the Forum earlier tonight in Seattle. It was wonderful to hear you speak.

I have had the privilege of teaching in both failing and thriving Seattle Public Schools. I taught for 8 years at M.L. King Elementary (since closed). King had high free-and-reduced lunch numbers, high poverty, few intact families, myriad families in crisis, and surprise — low test scores. I am now in my sixth year teaching at Schmitz Park Elementary: very few students on free and reduced lunch, highly educated families, few families in crisis, high sociio-economics, the vast majority of families intact, and high test scores. Which teacher am I? The one from the school with low test scores or the one from the affluent school with high scores? Am I a one of those “bad” teachers or one of the good? I am both. I am a better teacher now, with greater experience, and frankly, less stress. I learn more each year and am constantly honing my craft, even though I am an “old” teacher (56).

I was heartened to hear your comments on poverty. It seems to me that poverty is “the elephant in the room.” It is not a quick or easy fix, and has no voice. But its impact cannot be ignored.

Last night I met with one of my eighth grade son’s teachers. She spoke of the huge improvement in the school’s science test scores, but indicated it was bittersweet. In the last few years, she said they have become master’s at “teaching to the test” and lamented the lack of time for teaching things not tested and how shallow that feels.

Also, last month I attended an educator’s reception for Senator Patty Murray and showed her your book, telling her that it is a must-read. Several other teachers after me concurred!

A final comment/question: I have spoken with lots of private school parents who love the fact their children do not have to take high stakes tests until the SAT’s. Has anyone factored in to state test scores the fact that those private school students are taken out of picture for K-12 test scores?

Thank you again,

Marilyn Mears


October 5, 2010

Do you have any advice or suggestions for those of us who are veteran teachers near retirement on how to “cope” our last couple of years with the implementation of Race to the Top restrictions? I am in my 26th year of teaching & teach in a state that “won” these funds. Part of the caveat for winning these monies is that all teachers will be evaluated every year (not a problem) with a percentage of our evaluations coming from test scores. For those of us who don’t test (Kg, 1st grade, art, music, etc.) that test percentage for us will come from our school’s value-added scores. As a first grade teacher I simply cannot understand how my school’s scores will indicate how proficient a teacher I am!

I have done a complete turn-around from supporting public education to telling anyone who will listen (although our school system has specifically told us to be careful what we say) that I would not have a child in public schools today. The reason for this has nothing to do with the ability of the teachers I know and work with in the system but rather what I see as a lack of curriculum. That is not an education. When the only skills taught are those on a test, to my mind it seems a child is not receiving a well-rounded education.

Back to my original question: Any tips on coping with this dilemma as I finish the years before I can retire? I can tell myself I won’t let it bother me but in reality the stress of deciding to do what I’m told versus teaching the way I know is better does get to me.

Thank you for takng the time to read this. Thank you also for your book and article regarding NCLB. If only “the powers that be” nationally, state level and system level would come to their senses!

Thank you for replying. I appreciate what you’re doing to help public education.



October 5, 2010

Awesome article regarding testing!

I am a private pilot.

In order to get a private pilot's license (PPL), I was required to pass a 100-question written exam taken from an FAA database of 1000 questions. I studied for the exam and passed.

Now, after having been a private pilot for about ten years, I can honestly say that the written test was a waste of time. It had nothing to do with the “real world” of aviation.



October 4, 2010

Dear Ms. Ravitch:

Many thanks for your reasoned responses to the current misdirected diatribes against public schools and teachers. Irrelevant and ineffective panaceas are offered by persons who, to put it kindly, know less about how students learn than the average student herself.

I am now, and have been, a teacher for many years. I have noted with chagrin that the most recent well-advertised and ballyhooed pronouncements have emerged from people not remotely connected with classroom experience. Those others, like Arne Duncan and Michelle Rhee, to cite the most self-promoted, have a laughable few years in the classroom itself. Whatever a year or two with Teach for America or a similar setting may offer, this does not provide any person with expertise about the art of teaching.

Take the current emotional climate about bullying. This persecuting behavior starts very early, as I have witnessed during my numerous years in the classroom. There is no need to agonize about why this happens. In schools where there is zero tolerance for bullying, and strong consequences for the bully, the message is clear. The bully is the one who should experience pain or discomfort. Pretty simple, and can be accomplished in classrooms and common areas of schools.

Why not study the personal styles, and there are many, of effective teachers. It’s not that hard to do, and, again, it’s simple. Help other teachers to work with their strengths. If supervisors spent even 10% of their time in various classrooms (recommended), there would be no question as to their knowledge of their teachers’ strengths and weaknesses.

Finally, there is nothing magical about good, or even good-enough teaching. When we show up, see our pupils as real people, and try to provide a safe place and a reason to learn, there is no doubt that a connection can happen for at least some of our students. Do the self-designated experts keep in mind always that this is the only time around for most American children? Happily, many teachers remember this, and some even become the one positive, significant adult figure in someone’s life. Really, that’s all anyone needs to feel worthwhile.

Thanks for all you do.


Margaret M. Nolan

All letters have been reprinted with the permission of the writers.


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