On June 29th 2011, two of the most important people in the current ed reform debate squared off for a ‘discussion’ at the Aspen Ideas Festival. As they are opposed on many of the vital issues, this had the makings of a heavyweight title fight.
At the core of the conflict, I’ll try to summarize each of their views:
Kopp: There is a huge achievement gap in this country. This is the country’s biggest crisis. There are now many schools run by TFA alumni that are proving that this crisis is solvable and the current reform movement is helping solve that crisis faster.
Ravitch: There is a huge achievement gap in this country. The cause of this achievement gap is the effects of poverty. This does not mean we should give up trying to provide the best possible education to kids in poverty, but to fire teachers and close down schools based on poor test scores is unfair to teachers, who can only do so much to counter the problems caused by poverty. The current reform movement is making things worse.
The entire 70 minute discussion is posted here, but since a lot of people don’t have the patience to watch the whole thing, I broke it up into ’rounds’ with my commentary at the end of each round. This post will cover rounds 1 and 2, the first 16 minutes of the discussion.
Wendy quickly makes the point that she feels that education is our country’s most fundamental problem. This, I think, is Wendy’s way of getting one of the most common (though erroneous) critiques of Ravitch — that she doesn’t think that there is an education crisis in this country. They call her a defender of the status quo.
As a 73 year old woman, Diane Ravitch has lived through the education crises of many decades, and as a historian, she has studied all the education crises for the past hundred years. Ravitch gets accused of saying there is not an education crisis, mainly because she opposes severe punishments on low-performing / high-poverty schools. She often says, and has plenty of research to back this up, that the difference between our country and the other high performing nations is that 20% of our students live in poverty. Without an incredible amount of added resources, teachers and schools can’t overcome all the effects of poverty so we have to, in some sense, expect low standardized test scores in low-income communities.
So if there is a crisis in education, Ravitch does not think it is the low test scores. But she does seem to think there is a crisis in the direction that the country is moving with standardized testing driving us to narrow the curriculum and the attacks on the teaching profession. If we’re not in crisis now, we will be in ten years if the country continues in this direction.
Wendy explains that they invest a lot in the training and development of the corps members as teachers, though I believe they would need to invest a lot more to make that training effective. As I wrote about in a recent post, in the 2011 institutes it seems that teachers only get 20 hours of student teaching 15 students, with some teaching as few as 1.
Wendy also makes the common claim about TFA that after the two-year commitment “most of them stay in education.” As I’ve written about, this claim is based on a self-selecting alumni survey that had a pretty low response rate. Also “in education” is very broadly defined.
When it is Ravitch’s turn, her most compelling point is to contrast what we’re doing in this country with regard to teacher recruitment and training to what is done in Finland where teachers are highly respected and remain teachers for long careers.
The moderator asks if teachers are to blame for the education crisis.
Wendy says that it is not the teachers. The problem is that most schools are not designed to meet the needs of the kids in poverty. But TFA leaders have created schools that are designed to meet those needs and they will help kids get out of poverty.
Moderator asks Ravitch about her recent New York Times OpEd (in which I am mentioned by name!) which revealed that all of the so-called ‘miracle schools’ that politicians showcase to prove that they have figured out how to fix the schools, have major flaws when we look beneath the surface. When she says “I know these guys who do the investigations” she was making a ‘shout out’ to me and Noel Hammat. The point of the OpEd is that we need to have honest accounts of what is and is not working before we start claiming we have figured out how to improve education on a large scale.
An important quote: “If you expect schools alone to solve the problem of poverty, it’s not happening. It’s not going to happen and it hasn’t happened in other countries.” This is in direct opposition to what Wendy had just said.
Wendy responds that she has learned that “we do not have to wait [to end poverty] to provide kids with the kind of education that is truly transformation for them.” She claims there are “dozens of communties with growing numbers of whole schools” that are doing this. Notice the lack of specific numbers here. Then, and here is where she says something ridiculous. After saying “We can give any number of examples to prove that,” she commits to one of her own ‘miracle schools’ to showcase and prove her point. The one she uses is the Houston-based YES academy. Wendy makes the claim that when they open their 5th campus in 2014, they will “produce as many high school graduates as the rest of HISD.” A pretty amazing and convincing stat. Unfortunately it is a lie. YES academy is a school that has been featured on Oprah and elsewhere because of it’s amazing record that 100% of their graduates get accepted into college. I researched their numbers and found that this year they graduated a total of 175 students in their four campuses. At their North Central campus, they had only 43 graduates in 2010. Six years earlier, there were 100 sixth graders at that school, which indicates a huge attrition. Some of the schools don’t have a senior class yet, but I’ve estimated based on the state website which you are welcome to check yourself, they should graduate around 250 seniors in 2014. HISD has 200,000 students with 9,503 graduates in 2010.
Well, fortunately the founder of YES prep, Chris Barbic, is someone I have known for 19 years. I don’t know if he will still consider me a friend after this, but I wrote to him to ask what Wendy might have meant. He explained that she should have said that they would have the same number of low-income students who graduate COLLEGE as the entire HISD. The estimation is based on the assumption that they will fix their attrition problem so they will have 450 seniors and that ALL 450 of those seniors will eventually graduate college (which is a pretty big assumption) and also on an assumption that only 500 of those 9,500 graduates from the rest of HISD are low-income students who will ultimately graduate college (which is an even more outrageous assumption).
To be continued …