Diane Ravitch

Comments and Letters

Page 8

  

April 20, 2010

Dear Dr. Ravitch:

You are my hero! Actually, you have been my hero for about 25 years or so. I briefly met you at a conference in Fresno, and I have devoured your books since then.

In a recent article, you wrote,

“Education is a slow, arduous process that requires the work of willing students, dedicated teachers and supportive families, as well as a coherent curriculum.”

Truer words were never spoken. There is no magic bullet for improvement in student achievement, though many (in both political parties) would tell us otherwise. I have taught for 34 years, and one thing that I have learned is that there are no easy answers.

Real progress comes about in a slow, incremental fashion. It took me quite a few years to figure out what works in the classroom, and although that may seem to reflect poorly on me, I think that it is typical for teachers (at least the honest ones). Simply put, teaching is ... difficult.

As it turns out, I did develop into an effective teacher. I teach both AP U.S. History and AP U.S. Government & Politics. Nearly all of my students pass the AP exam. I’m a consultant for the College Board and ETS and have traveled far and wide in training AP teachers. But if you had observed me in my first few years of teaching, you might not have been very optimistic! In my case, it took time to develop. That is why your quotation really struck home with me.

Keep up the good work, Diane!

Pete Pew


 


April 17, 2010

I work in rural development in Alabama, and last year we did a study of 10 high-poverty, high-performing rural schools around the state, which we called Lessons Learned from Rural Schools. It was one of the most heartwarming projects I’ve tackled in a career now spanning 40+ years.

In a nutshell, too few people seem to genuinely care about rural schools. This is partly because for the last 50 years, rural areas have sent their best and brightest off to college never to return, and consequently the “education foundation” of rural communities has steadily eroded. Now we’re trying to convince folks who have never really valued education that education is important.

And in many cases, communities have no clue what good schools look or feel like because they’ve never been exposed to one. It’s like trying to tell someone what banana pudding tastes like when they have never heard of a banana.

As I read your book, I underlined LOTS of passages and then took the liberty of compiling about eight pages of these, which I sent to probably 100 or so people. Had some interesting responses.

Just Wednesday I sat in a meeting of perhaps 200 folks at a rural school, and someone who runs a very successful IT company asked “How do you mine your data?”

I cringed because I knew that the questioner was thinking, “Don’t I have just the technology to help you do a better job of mining your data.” I immediately thought of some of the comments in your book.

To me, data is like a metal detector. It aims you in a certain direction. However, you damn well better have a shovel with you to do some digging or you will never find your treasure.

Yes, we used data to point us toward those 10 outstanding rural schools. But we also drove 10,000 miles and did more than 300 interviews in trying to figure out what the data did not tell us about those communities and their schools.

Alabama is one of 10 states without charter schools, so our Republican governor began a big push to get charter legislation so we would have a better shot at RTT funds (according to him). Unfortunately, this was far more about politics than education. The governor knew this bill would be opposed by the Alabama Education Association, and in this election year, he was looking more for political points than anything else. The legislation did not get passed, and Alabama did not do well in RTT competition (37 out of 41). But the governor never said that even with charter schools, our application was dead in the water, nor does he ever say this bill was also opposed by the superintendents assocation or the school board association.

And a close friend who worked on the application told me, “I’m not sure we want this money, because if we get it, Washington will have our left testicle in a safe deposit box somewhere in DC.”

Oh, just ordered 10 copies of your book to give to each of the principals of the schools we studied last year.

Larry Lee


 


March 13, 2010

Reading the March 13 Letters “The Ravitch Reformation Won’t Help Public Schools,” I feel spurred to defend Diane Ravitch and her book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System.” It is careful, research-based analysis with brilliant common sense. The final goal of No Child Left Behind—that all children be proficient in reading and math (proficient being defined as at or above grade level) by 2014—is absurd. Not everyone can be above average. As scores rise, the grade level average will rise with them. One hundred per cent proficiency by a certain year, conveniently in the future, reminds me of Mao’s great five year plans. Punitive testing now negatively dominates every school’s decisions.

Anyone involved in education knows the problems are complex. I admire Ms. Ravitch for countering the Journal editorial board’s silver bullets of reducing the influence of teachers unions and promoting private school vouchers.

Finally, it’s about time someone celebrated what’s positive about our public education system. When I went to public school 30 and 40 years ago, not every child got educated. Today, at my current middle school, we have children with mental ages of one and a half, children who live in homeless shelters, children whose parents are incarcerated. We accept every child who walks through our doors and try to move each one forward. The inclusiveness of public education in America is our greatest challenge but also our greatest moral strength.

Sincerely,

Sara Stevenson
(
letter to the WSJ, published March 18, 2010)


 


May 22, 2010

Dear Diane:

I just finished a first draft of my review and your interview with me concerning some of the issues you raised in your book and wish to thank you again both for your critique and responses to my questions. I am sure you have been heartened by many favorable comments concerning both your writing and your personal commitment (as well as savaged by your detractors) but I would like you to know that since teaching has been my life for over forty-five years, and that of my parents before me, stretching well over sixty years, I wish there were more people like you in the education field with the wisdom, personal integrity and—I believe—courage to present your ideas unblinkingly in an area that has become too cluttered with ideology, political machinations and intellectual dishonesty.

Although I certainly understand if you have no time to pursue our correspondence further, I can say that in this area, I feel I have finally found an intellectual soul-mate who has the highest standards for excellence in education and is as unafraid of criticizing, as I try to, the intellectual straight-jacket of “political correctness” as you are of the crassness of “marketplace” ideology in place of learning.

Appreciatively yours,

Joel Shatzky


 


February 26, 2010

I had ordered your book from Amazon last month, and last week it arrived several weeks early. I read it into the wee hours on a couple of nights.

I am hoping it becomes a best seller. It is prophetic and a great read. For people who haven’t been watching closely, it will tear the scales off their eyes.

For those of us who have been watching carefully, it is sort of like Pepto-Bismol... calms the stomach.

Jan Resseger
Minister for Public Education & Witness
United Church of Christ Justice & Witness Ministries


 


April 2, 2010

Dear Ms. Ravitch,

I’d like to thank you for writing your most recent book The Death and Life of the Great American School System. I just finished reading it and it was a refreshing take on what is happening in public education and how we have come to where we are. Reading it reawakened my passion for education, and I can’t thank you enough for that.

I’d also like to share a bit of my story and ask for some advice—I’ll try to be as brief as possible. In 2009 I graduated and joined Teach for America. I was assigned to the Mid-Atlantic region as a middle school science teacher. I was and am outraged by the inequalities our education system perpetuates and so happy to become a corps member and try to do something about it. I’ve come to view the summer institute that began my “trial by fire” as close to a brainwashing experience. In two months, we were taught the “formula” for becoming a great teacher and told that keeping track of data was an essential part of being successful. I completely bought into this idea.

When I finally received my teaching assignment, three days before the school year began, it was as a K-8 science “prep” teacher. I saw nearly every class in the school once a week and was expected to teach them “science.” The grade teachers were supposed to be covering the subject as well, and I was to do the experiments, but I quickly realized that no science was being taught to any students (other than the 7th and 8th graders) except what was taught in my class. My school was so focused on testing that very little time was given to anything but English and math. We even had two completely scripted programs for the subjects that required every teacher in the building to read out of a book for two periods a day. I was at a loss about how to approach a years worth of science curriculum in one class a week. I came up with several versions of long-term plans for how to teach students as much science as I could, but was barely able to keep up myself. I majored in philosophy as an undergraduate and had only taken one ‘rocks for jocks’ class since high school.

My experience was hellish. I was sworn out on a daily basis and usually totally unable to get through a lesson. Many students told me I was not a real teacher, just a “prep” teacher. Most read far below grade level and had incredibly weak groundings in science. And the worst part was my inability teach the students who really were ready to learn. I was also unable to keep track of data for over 500 students and didn’t understand how to apply TFA’s approach to my classroom.

In December, after continually meeting with failure, I decided that I was not helping anyone by continuing in my current position. It was a difficult decision, but as you pointed out, “If teachers are treated with condescension by administrations, expected to work in badly maintained buildings, assigned to large classes of poorly prepared students, confronted by unruly students, and compelled to meet unrealistic goals, they are not likely to gain a sense of personal and professional satisfaction.” I have also come to view TFA as a stopgap measure that allows those in power to act as though something is being done while real problems go unaddressed. TFA will not close the achievement gap, and pretending that it will only hinders progress.

Reading your book has reminded me that I am still committed to improving education, even though my first experience was not a positive one. I am unsure of how to get involved again and hoping you could offer a few words of advice. I like the idea of working on a big picture level, though I do think I need to understand what happens in the classroom before I assume to understand how to influence policy for the better.

Thank you for reading this too-long email, and I hope to hear from you soon.

Sincerely,

Kari Dalane


 


March 11, 2010

Hello, Dr. Ravitch,

I am a teacher of the ‘gifted’ students for four schools in my rural, Florida County. I drive 40 miles on Tuesday and Thursday to service students at two of the schools. My home base is an elementary school in my local community as well as the local high school for one Monday monthly. I am in my first year of the ‘DROP’ option of our state. Because my teaching career has spanned the last forty years, including ten of those that I chose to be a ‘stay at home mother,’ I had decided that I would like to retire after this year. After all, I have developed hobbies and interests throughout the years. Most importantly, I have a two-year-old grandbaby, and I’m expecting that my daughter and her husband will have more and my son and his wife will soon have children. That excites me. However, something happened to me this year. I rediscovered ‘teaching’ for the pure joy of teaching! I have just completed a second Teaching Module that will certify me to teach gifted students again next year.

I listened to you on the Diane Rehm Show driving back to my home base this morning in a heavy downpour of rain. I think that I have heard you speak but could not recall. I listened with eagerness because you touched my heartstrings. I respect you with your years of research and expertise in the field of education. You are a real friend to teachers. My husband, who came out of retirement to become an assistant principal, has always believed that the teacher is the key in the classroom. He thinks that the teacher is the connection between those who make directives on the local, state, and national level and between the homes of the children who attend public school.

I know how difficult it is to teach to a test. I see my colleagues frazzled and disappointed because they think that teachers are not respected, as they once ‘seemed’ to be. I believe that one of your listeners stated that has happened since 1957 with the launching of the Russian Sputnik. I was only a child in 1957, but I had an excellent education. I also felt that our nation had a period of treating teachers as professionals.

I am glad that I can use creativity in my teaching. However, I know that there are many controversies about teaching gifted students in the public schools. I think that the public school should be the place to educate all children, including those with brilliant minds.

Your interview inspired me, and I appreciate you and your contribution to education. At times, I think that I may want to become a crusader and advocate for teachers to teach in their classroom. Then, I think about the recent news events about schools closing down and states firing teachers. Then, I take the road most travelled—that of complacency based on my anxiety about my future. I have decided to tell everyone I know (and it’s a large, rural county) about your new book. I plan to purchase one, too. I wish continued success for you.

Best regards,

Christine C. Faircloth
ELP Teacher


 


March 2, 2010

I have taught high school social science for 18 years in Modesto, CA. What we are increasingly noticing is that students have no buy in to the testing craze. And in keeping our courses lock step, everyone on the same page in the textbook each day, we have removed the joy in both teaching and learning. In history, a subject that benefits greatly from current events and the teachable moment, it is no longer possible to provide students with a basis of understanding of the subject taught in a format that is meaningful to them. In English classes students are not encouraged to read what they enjoy and so dread reading...this surely won’t improve our test scores.

Statistically it is impossible for all of our students to be above average, yet that is the bar which has been set.

Janeen Zambo


 


March 18, 2010

Dear Dr. Ravitch,

I recently finished your new book and thought it was outstanding. I must confess I’m a little embarrassed that I had never heard about you before, because I should have. I read Education Week online and read an interview with you about The Death and Life and I immediately went out and bought it. I practically highlighted the entire book.

I’m working on my doctorate in education, and now I don’t even know why. I entered the profession ten years ago and I’ve slowly come to regret it. When my profession is criticized, I take it very personally, but I also see what is happening with education because of those criticisms and that in itself is much worse. Education has become a downward spiral that I don’t want to be involved in anymore. I should have gone to law school. I know...just what the planet needs is one more lawyer.

It’s a strange thing about this profession, that teachers know a lot of things but yet there’s a lot they don’t know. I can only speak from my experience teaching in Las Vegas, but many teachers and administrators will spit out phrases that begin with “studies show that” without really having read the actual studies. They’re just repeating what they heard their instructor say in the class they happen to be taking at the time, or what the district heads say to our administrators who then repeat it to us. No one who has ever spit out that phrase has produced the actual study or studies or even shown where we can find them or what the names are or who the authors are. I can’t quite describe well enough why there is the lack of awareness by people in this profession regarding things that affect education. I should have known who you are. At least one of my instructors while taking my master’s classes and doctoral classes should have mentioned you at least once. It’s like that Chinese proverb: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. I feel like I’ve been given a fish everyday, not taught to fish. I’ve done research, I currently do research for my doctorate, but there’s still a lot I don’t know. And what’s scarier is that I know more than most of what my colleagues know, because most of them don’t do research. They just ingest what is thrown out at them, like phrases that begin with “studies show that” and just accept it. Am I making any sense?

I was looking at your schedule of events and I really wished Las Vegas was one of your stops. Are there any plans for a Las Vegas event this year? I wanted to speak with my union president to see how we could get you to come here and who we would need to talk to. I tell everyone I see about your book and I also plan to bring it up at our next union meeting.

Thank you for writing this book, I can’t shut up about it to people!

Sincerely,

Julie Hagerman


 


April 19, 2010

Dear Professor Ravitch:

I heard your recent NPR interview (Diane Rehm, I believe), and I wanted to share a few thoughts with you. First, a bit about me so you understand the context of my observations. I am by training a social psychologist, with a subspecialty and one-time consulting practice in testing and measurement. When the Flint campus sought its first accreditation independent of the main (Ann Arbor) campus, the provost established an ad-hoc committee to develop assessment procedures. I spent nine years on the committee, my last couple as its chair. The procedures we developed became something of a model for the North Central Association of Schools and Colleges. It has worked extremely well precisely because it conformed to some very fundamental principles of validation, which No Child Left Behind blatantly (if not intentionally) ignored.

The first principle is that no assessment can be used at the same time for both counseling and for administrative decisions (retention, increment, tenure, promotion). As you emphasized (and as every organizational psychologist with an ounce of brains wailed when No Child was first described), all this does is promote cheating and teaching to the exam (much as does the staatsexamen in Germany). This principle is so basic that it’s often covered in the very first chapter of introductory texts on workplace performance evaluation.

Accordingly, in the very first meeting of the committee, we established an absolute firewall. Department chairs, deans, and executive committees would never be permitted to see individual raw data; they would see only departmental pooled data. This action did not immediately eliminate faculty resistance, but it went further in that regard than even you might imagine. The same should apply to K–12 teachers’ unions.

Like you, I don’t think the problem is testing—any more than the problem with a badly built house is with the hammers and saws. The problem in both cases is how potentially useful tools should be used. Many of the current difficulties would be reduced or eliminated if it were clear that


(1) K–12 education is a developmental process, so assessment in schools is a developmental measure, not a terminal measure. The concern should be with change, not simply “scores.”

(2) Assessment should be a counseling resource, not a source of extrinsic motivation, i.e., rewards and punishments for teachers, administrators, and school districts.

(3) Student evaluations are worse than useless; they are egregiously misleading. A 10-year study by the American Psychological Association indicated that student evaluations are correlated with only two factors:

i. Students’ expected course grades compared with their expected grades in other courses.

ii workload (negative correlation).


For untenured faculty, course evaluations—if used for administrative decisions—therefore have the effect of motivating both grade inflation and the dumbing down of course content.


(4) Instruments and procedures must be national in scope and standardized in their administration and reportage (cf. your interview comments concerning the superior validity of the national examination vs. state examinations).

(5) Data should be clustered rather than pooled. That is, performance of mainstream students, students whose first language is not English, and developmentally disabled students should be examined separately. It is clearly inappropriate to compare overall scores for students in, say, Birmingham, Michigan, where an overwhelming majority are native speakers of English, with students in Taos, New Mexico, where English as a first language falls behind both Spanish and Tiwa.

(6) Teachers should never have access in advance to test questions or even precise content. They should be given global guidelines—general areas in which student competence is expected.

(7) Ideally, the procedures should make no attempt to be exhaustive. They should represent a random sampling of content, and the sample should change annually so that past tests cannot be used to prep students but can and should be used to familiarize students with the form of the questions, the level of detail expected, and so on.


I hope these observations are consistent with your own views, and where they are not, I hope you will give them some thought.

Very truly yours,

Harry Frank, PhD
Professor Emeritus of Psychology
The University of Michigan-Flint


 


March 2010

Thank you for your work in saving our public schools. I heard you on NPR and am buying a book today—through a site that will donate money to my kids’ public school.

Amy


 


March 2010

Thank you! Thank you for continuing to question and explore, for changing your mind in public, for speaking on behalf of what education should be—and once was, and can be again. Blessings on your work, and again, thank you!

I was educated partly in the States and partly in Europe, and there was no comparison in the breadth and depth of the instruction even in the late ’60s–early ’70s. When I hit college, the classes were hopelessly behind what I had learned in England and France in 6th through 8th grade. If I had not been the daughter of a teacher, and passionate about reading anything and everything outside of school, I would not be an educated person today. Many of my friends have children in school, and from their stories I deduce that the American public school system has been redesigned to discourage the curious mind in student and teacher alike. I no longer meet children who read for pleasure.

Whatever this singer and teacher (master classes) can do to help spread the word, I will do.

Laurel Massť

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

 

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