First Person

Ravitch Reveals All

I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of Diane Ravitch’s new book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System.” It is, frankly, a revelation, and anyone interested in education, particularly New York City education, needs to read it right now.

For anyone who’s wondered where on earth Joel Klein dreamed up his “reforms,” look no further. A substantial source of inspiration appears to be a three-stage process — a New York City experiment that gave a false impression of success, a San Diego experiment that eluded success altogether, and a stubborn determination to replicate both in overdrive.

As both Bloomberg and Klein were business experts using business models, they used a “corporate model of tightly centralized, hierarchal, top-down control, with all decisions made at Tweed and strict supervision of every classroom to make sure the orders flowing from headquarters were precisely implemented,” Ravitch writes. It appears they didn’t squander their valuable time on troublesome input from teachers, parents, or any contradictory voices whatsoever. In fact, Ravitch points out that though the mayor had promised increased parental involvement, it was actually reduced. Parent coordinators were hired, but in fact, they actually “worked for the principal, not for parents.”

Ravitch calls New York City the “testing ground for market-based reforms.” She states Mayor Bloomberg wanted “full control of the schools, with no meddlesome board to second guess him.” The San Diego experiment of utterly disregarding teacher and parent input resulted in a community-selected Board of Education that eventually rejected the program altogether — but Mayor Bloomberg made sure his new board would be patently incapable of disagreeing about anything whatsoever. And indeed, Mayor Bloomberg has fired members of his board rather than allowing them to vote their consciences. Ravitch touts the NYC Public School Parents blog. But Mayor Bloomberg not only disregards their opinions, but sees fit to dictate which topics on which they’re permitted to have opinions at all.

Tweed’s philosophy may well be this — if NYC parents knew anything worth knowing, they’d be as rich as Mayor Bloomberg and his pals. Ravitch points out that the way things are going, the education of our children will be entirely dictated by billionaires — Eli Broad, Bill Gates, and the Wal-Mart heirs, the Walton family, to name the most prominent. She says the Walton family clearly wishes to “create, sustain, and promote alternatives to public education.” They encourage privatization and invest heavily in non-union charter schools. Ravitch concludes the Walton family is committed to “an unfettered market, which by its nature has no loyalties and disregards Main Street, traditional values, long-established communities, and neighborhood schools.” To those of us in New York, that has a very familiar ring.

Ravitch, with meticulous research, demonstrates how virtually every achievement of the so-called “reformers” entails selecting high-performing kids and extracting high-performance from them. This is hardly remarkable, and worse, hardly covered by the ever-incurious American press. Are charter schools miraculous? Are small schools a magic bullet? Are public schools as abysmal as they’re routinely made out to be in the New York Post?

Well, if you look at the coming films glorifying Geoffrey Canada, Michelle Rhee, and the founders of KIPP, you will certainly get the impression, as did Roger Ebert, that teacher unions are largely responsible for all the world’s ills. Ebert says he knows little about math, a mindset which might explain why he bothered to question nothing whatsoever in this so-called documentary (“Tenured teachers have a job for life”). It’s my fond but dim hope that Ravitch’s publisher sends Ebert a copy of her book, and that he actually takes the time to read it.

Ravitch states, “Once Tweed embraced charter schools, they received priority treatment. The Chancellor placed many charter schools into regular public school buildings, taking classrooms and facilities away from the host schools and igniting bitter fights with the regular schools’ parent associations.” Given the disparate treatment of neighborhood and charter schools, it’s hardly surprising some of them do well. The only surprise is how many do not. Ravitch provides chapter and verse.

I’ve no doubt, for example, that Geoffrey Canada’s kids do well, but I’ve also no doubt, with his annual budget, the city’s willingness to create space for his kids while ignoring ours, his activist approach to early childhood, and his ability to dismiss entire grades if they don’t meet expectations, many public schools could produce similar, if not better results. Of course, Chancellor Klein does not provide troubled schools with additional resources. He just closes them, and if the data on which he bases his statistics are utterly false, well, that’s just too bad. After all, why bother to re-examine anything? Under mayoral control, he and Mayor Bloomberg are always right.

Teachers of literature will be touched by the story of Mrs. Ratliff, who inspired Ravitch to love literature, to write with precision and clarity, and to respect the rules of written English. Doubtless today Mrs. Ratliff would be in the rubber room for insubordination. She’d be patently unable to wade through the rubrics of jargon and standards-based nonsense with which we train our children to pencil in circles nowadays.

Ravitch demonstrates how obsessed we’ve become with test prep, often to the exclusion of all else. This hits home with me, at least. I often teach ESL kids how to pass the English Regents, as most of my colleagues are too smart to volunteer for such a thankless task. I drill the kids to death, largely neglecting the grammar and usage they so sorely need, preferring to make sure they minimally answer questions so they can pass. After all, if they don’t pass, they don’t graduate.

As I read Ravitch’s descriptions of the test-prep factories we’ve allowed our schools to become, I realize that I’ve become yet another facet of the problem. She describes a phenomenon I’d been part of, with no notion it was so widespread. Kids learn from me how to pass one single test. They don’t learn how to write, and they don’t learn to love reading either (in that class, at least). Like many teachers, I haven’t got time for such frivolities when my kids need to pass that test. And since they really do need to pass that test, I’d do it again. In her conclusion, Ravitch makes numerous worthy suggestions about how we can address this issue.

Ravitch bemoans the preposterous demands of NCLB, which has asked that we make every child proficient by 2014. She points out how states can simply lower the bar year by year, and give the appearance of progress. That’s the essence of “reform,” as far as I can tell.

My only quibble would be Ravitch’s description of Green Dot as a union school. While Green Dot teachers are ostensibly unionized, they enjoy neither tenure nor seniority rights. Without tenure, like many of my colleagues, I’d have been fired years ago for reasons having nothing to do with my ability to teach (or lack thereof). Green Dot has a “just cause” clause to protect its teachers, but with neither tenure nor seniority rights, it appears to me that Green Dot teachers can be fired “just cause” their bosses feel like it.

Most of my views on education come from experience. I haven’t got any gift for analyzing data or reading endless reports. I’m always impressed by people like Ravitch, who can plow through papers and reports I’d read only if forced, and not only make sense of them, but also take the time to explain them to people like me, with extensive documentation for those who wish to double-check. She must be a great teacher, and from me, that’s high praise indeed.

Working teachers have come to many conclusions similar to Ravitch’s, drawn from just instinct and experience. It’s gratifying to see how many of our conclusions match those of Ravitch, and how strongly they’re borne out by hard data. And here they are, for all the world to see, in one convenient place.

I’ve only scratched the surface here. If you’re motivated enough to bother reading GothamSchools, you really owe it to yourself to read this book.

First Person

I’m an Oklahoma educator who had become complacent about funding cuts. Our students will be different.

Teacher Laurel Payne, student Aurora Thomas and teacher Elisha Gallegos work on an art project at the state capitol on April 9, 2018 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images)

I’ve spent the last 40 years watching the state I love divest in its future. The cuts to education budgets just kept coming. Oklahoma City Public Schools, where I spent the last 10 years working with teachers, had to cut over $30 million in the 2016-17 academic year alone.

Over time, students, teachers, and parents, at times including myself, became complacent. We all did what we could. For me, that meant working with the students and teachers in the most disenfranchised areas of my city.

In the past 18 months, that has also meant working at Generation Citizen, a nonprofit promoting civics education across Oklahoma. We help students deploy “action civics.” Over the course of a semester, students debate what they would change if they were in charge of their school, city, or state, and select one issue to address as a class, which may involve lobbying elected officials or building a coalition.

Their progress has been incredible. But when teachers across the state decided to walk out of their schools and head to the State Capitol to demand additional funding for education, action civics came to life in a huge way. And in addition to galvanizing our teachers, I watched this moment in Oklahoma transform young people.

My takeaway? Over the long term, this walkout will hopefully lead to more funding for our schools. But it will definitely lead to a more engaged youth population in Oklahoma.

These past two weeks have sparked a fire that will not let up anytime soon. With actual schools closed, the Oklahoma State Capitol became a laboratory rich with civic experimentation. Students from Edmond Memorial High School wanted elected officials to personally witness what students and teachers continue to accomplish, and when the walkout started, the students started a “Classroom at the Capitol.” Over 40 students held AP English Literature on the Capitol lawn. Their message: the state might not invest in their classrooms, but classes would go on.

In the first few days of the walkout, the legislature refused to take action. Many wondered if their voices were being heard. That’s when Gabrielle Davis, a senior at Edmond Memorial, worked to rally students to the Capitol for a massive demonstration.

“I want the legislators to put faces to the decisions they’re making,” Gabrielle said.

By Wednesday, the “Classroom at the Capitol” had grown to over 2,000 students. The students were taking effective action: speaking knowledgeably on the funding crisis, with a passion and idealism that only young people can possess.

As students’ numbers grew, so did their confidence. By Wednesday afternoon, I watched as the state Capitol buzzed with students not only protesting, but getting into the nitty-gritty of political change by learning the names and faces of their elected officials.

By Thursday and Friday, students and teachers were no longer operating independently. The collaboration which makes classroom learning most effective was happening in the halls of the Capitol. When students identified the representative holding up a revenue bill, they walked through the line to find students from his home district to lead the charge.

Last Monday, with the walkout still ongoing, the students I saw were armed with talking points and legislative office numbers. After another student rally, they ran off to the offices of their elected officials.

Two students, Bella and Sophie, accompanied by Bella’s mom, made their way to the fourth floor. The girls stood outside the door, took a deep breath, and knocked. State Senator Stephanie Bice was in a meeting. They stepped out to decide their next move and decided to write personal notes to their state senators. With letters written, edited, and delivered, Bella and Sophie were beaming.

“That feels so good,” Sophie said.

A week of direct civic action had turned protesters into savvy advocates.

Until this walkout, most of the participating students had never met their elected officials. But that’s quickly changing. Students have worked collaboratively to demystify the legislative process, understand the policy goals articulated by organizing groups, and advocate for revenue measures that would support a more equitable education system.

Jayke, a student from Choctaw, reflected on this reality. “These last few days at the Capitol I have learned more about life and how to stand up for what I believe.”

That’s no small thing. Over those 14 days, I listened to students use their voices to express their experiences. Many also spoke on behalf of students who were not there. They spoke for the 60 percent of Oklahoma public school students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. They rallied for the students at each of their schools who do not have enough food to eat.

Through this conflict, our students are learning the importance, and the mechanics, of political participation. Our young people are becoming powerful in a way that will outlast this funding crisis. It’s everything a civics educator could hope for.

Amy Curran is the Oklahoma site director for Generation Citizen, an education nonprofit.

First Person

Let’s solve the right problems for Detroit’s students with disabilities — not recycle old ones

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

As Superintendent Nikolai Vitti approaches his first anniversary of leading the struggling Detroit Public Schools Community District, I commend him for his energy and vision. In particular, I applaud his focus on developing a robust curriculum and hiring great teachers, the foundations of any great school district.

However, his recently announced plans to create new specialized programs for students with disabilities are disconcerting to me, given decades of research demonstrating the benefits of inclusion.

Specifically, Vitti has discussed the possibility of creating specialized programs for students with autism, dyslexia, and hearing impairments. The motivation is twofold: to meet students’ needs and to offer distinct programs that will attract parents who have fled Detroit in search of higher quality schools.

I’ve spent 25 years both studying and actively trying to improve schools for students with disabilities, and I can understand why Vitti’s proposal may have appeal. (I’m now the head of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.) But while the specialized programs might fill a critical need immediately, I have seen the downside of creating such segregated programming.

Once the programs are created, parents will seek them out for appearing to be the better than weak programs in inclusive settings. This will reinforce the belief that segregation is the only way to serve students with learning differences well.

This is a problematic mindset that we must continually try to shift. One need only to examine decades of special education case law, or the outcomes of districts designed solely for students with disabilities — such as District 75 in New York City or the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support — to see that such segregated settings can become one-way paths to limited access to a robust curriculum, peers without disabilities, or high standards, even when those districts are created with the best of intentions.

While a small proportion of students with the most significant support needs — typically 2-3 percent of students identified for special education — can benefit from more segregated and restrictive settings, the vast majority of students with disabilities can thrive in inclusive settings.

Vitti is clearly committed to ensuring that students with disabilities have access to essential supports and services, especially students with dyslexia. He has spoken passionately about his own experiences growing up with undiagnosed dyslexia as well as watching two of his four children struggle with dyslexia. And Vitti and his wife started a school for students with dyslexia in Jacksonville, Florida.

However, I would urge him to reconsider his approach in favor of exploring strategies to integrate robust supports and services into existing schools. By integrating, rather than separating, Vitti can ensure that all students have access to the general education curriculum and to teachers with demonstrated subject knowledge.

Furthermore, integrated programs ensure that students with disabilities have access to their typically developing peers and, conversely, that these peers have access to special education teachers’ expertise.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing such inclusive programs in action around the country. For example, at San Diego’s Thrive Public Schools, there is no discernible distinction between students receiving special education services and students who are not. When I visited earlier this year, I saw how special education teachers work alongside general education teachers and share responsibilities for all students, not just those with disabilities.

At Mott Haven Academy in New York, teachers and school leaders preemptively deter behavioral issues and incorporate opportunities for intentional reflection. Students learn in a restorative environment that is safe, stable, structured, and understanding — particularly benefiting students with disabilities.

I’ve also seen programs designed to serve students with learning disabilities benefit many students. Why would we restrict these instructional practices to schools specifically designed only for students with dyslexia, for example?

I’m convinced that separating students based on their learning needs stands to do harm to both groups and reinforce pernicious stereotypes that students with disabilities need to be separated from their peers — a practice that does not prepare any students well to exist in a society that ideally embraces, rather than shuns, differences.

If Vitti cannot create the least restrictive settings for these students with autism, dyslexia, and hearing impairments in the desired timeline, I encourage him to consider an explicitly short-term solution — say, one to three years — with a specific phase-out deadline. This will enable students to receive critical supports and services while Vitti strives to ensure that students with disabilities are able to access high-quality programs in more inclusive settings.

In the long term, Vitti should strive to weave educating the full range of students with learning differences into the DNA of Detroit’s schools.

It is refreshing to hear an urban superintendent explicitly prioritizing the educational needs of students with disabilities. Vitti’s concerns should energize efforts to address the limited capacity, resources, and training for the benefit of all students. That would be truly innovative, and Detroit has the potential to emerge as a leader — an effort for which Vitti could be very proud.

Lauren Morando Rhim is the executive director and co-founder of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.