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 covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.