Commentary | Education

Ravitch’s Reign vs. Rhee’s Radical: Fact vs. Fiction

This piece originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

As Andrew Delbanco all but says in the New York Times Review of Books, the biggest difference between education scholar Diane Ravitch’s new book, Reign of Error, and former DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s book, Radical, is that the first is based on extensive facts, the second heavily on fiction. Rhee uses her book to promote herself and her agenda, which she fervently insists will close achievement gaps with no basis in either scholarly or historical fact. Ravitch, in contrast, offers a comprehensive, evidence-based critique of the education reforms advanced in Radical and proposals that scholars note will substantially improve education.

Ravitch’s analysis of Rhee-style reforms’ failure to improve student achievement, and her caveat that they can cause real harm, are played out in two recent reports from my organization, the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education (BBA).

Each chapter in Reign of Error begins with a contrast between (reform) claim and (research) reality and sets out the evidence demonstrating the fallacy of popular current education fads. As epitomized by the report cards that Rhee’s StudentsFirst organization uses to “grade” state education policies, the so-called reforms share a reliance on student test scores to assess quality and privatization as a fix for the “failures” those scores discover. They represent a philosophical shift from education as a critical tool to advance democracy to a consumer-oriented system of individual choice, achievement, and even profit. And, Ravitch notes, they have never before worked and cannot now, because all ignore and dismiss the reality that student, family, and community poverty pose powerful obstacles to learning and teaching.

There is certainly no evidence that they have worked in the places in which they have been most visibly implemented and touted. BBA’s study of student outcomes in three urban districts that employed the reforms — including DCPS under Rhee’s leadership — finds smaller gains and larger achievement gaps in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in these cities than in other large, high-poverty, heavily minority districts. Moreover, in all three cities, this reality contrasts sharply with leaders’ claims of large gains and narrowing gaps, based on state assessments. Ravitch’s concerns that the students reforms are intended to help could be harmed are confirmed, too; while closing “failing” schools did not improve student achievement, closures exacerbated instability and even put some students in physical danger.

A September BBA report on Race to the Top documents the mismatch between policy and evidence that Ravitch discusses. Its exploration of Race to the Top implementation across 11 first- and second-round winner states and the District of Columbia finds a few bright spots but mostly a growing sense of distrust and frustration among school and district leaders. In particular, states found it much more difficult, and costly, than anticipated to develop the test-based evaluation systems for teachers and principals that the initiative demands. In the rush to put untested systems in place, many teachers found themselves assessed on the basis of students, and subjects, unrelated to their work. Florida teachers sued the state for alleged violation of their due process rights. Principals in Tennessee and New York reported being burdened by excessive and ineffective paperwork that prevented them from conversations with and support for teachers who need it most. Parents fed up with weeks of standardized tests and funds going to testing companies instead of classrooms have organized to repeal the policies.

Both studies come to the same conclusion as Ravitch: Rhee and her allies’ rejection of the critical need to address student poverty in tandem with school improvement doom such agendas. Districts like Union City, New Jersey; Cincinnati, Ohio; Montgomery County, Maryland; and Syracuse, New York, which have long-term visions for gradual, comprehensive improvement are avoiding the major pitfalls described above. Union City’s equity funding and quality pre-kindergarten have enabled it to put English Language Learners on a more equal playing field with the state’s wealthier students. Cincinnati’s community schools model provides all students with health, nutrition, afterschool, and other supports that let teachers focus on teaching and students on learning. In Montgomery County, extra support for low-income and minority students and their teachers, rather than test-based evaluations or charters, are helping to narrow achievement gaps. And Syracuse’s pre-kindergarten-to-college supports for both students and families, paired with smart data collection and use, are turning around schools and the city’s economy.

Likewise, Massachusetts stood out among Race to the Top states studied. It is seeing little pushback and more success, as it advances comprehensive efforts to ensure that all students, not only its most advantaged, enjoy rich, comprehensive curriculum aligned with high standards by pairing those standards with wraparound supports that enable disadvantaged students to viably reach for them.

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