Part 1 ended with Wendy Kopp misquoting an already exaggerated claim by a charter network as her proof that “it” is happening all over. Ravitch was surely skeptical of this claim, but without time to research it and refute it, she had to let it go. That was certainly a problem with debates before the digital age. There would be all kinds of things that you would wish you had said, in retrospect. But now, I hope that post-debate analyses like mine can help these debates continue and filter out all the misinformation and exaggerations that often are a part of them.
The moderator asks Ravitch “Is there a crisis?” and “Have we learned anything from the charter movement?” To the “is there a crisis?” question, Ravitch responds that the crisis is one of poverty. Some ‘reformers’ like to jump on this answer, saying that she is suggesting there is nothing we can do to help close the achievement gap until poverty is eliminated. They frame her argument as a cop out. But here she gets a chance to explain it a little more. Babies in poverty are often born prematurely and 1/3 of premature babies grow up with learning disabilities, for example. There are many good articles, including this one, that go more into detail about HOW poverty is the real issue, and why we can’t just ignore it and say “poverty is not an excuse.”
Then she turns to the charter question. The big issue with charters, not everyone knows, is that their success is sometimes inflated in various ways. At issue is whether or not charters serve the same populations as the public schools they compete against, co-locate with, or replace. The schools claim to be open-enrollment with selection by lottery, so to the casual observer it seems pretty fair. But some schools have a complicated process to enter the lottery which excludes families that aren’t capable of navigating the system. There are also schools that cheat, as reported recently in The New York Times, by removing applicants from the lottery. The other way some charters inflate their scores is through attrition. By expelling, counseling out, or otherwise eliminating the lowest performing kids, their scores go up that way. Until recently, this wasn’t reported widely, but recently we are seeing a lot about this. I believe it will be bigger than the Atlanta cheating scandal when enough evidence finally surfaces.
Ravitch says something a bit unusual in her answer. She says “I’d love to see a high performing network like KIPP take over an entire district.” The moderator gasps, asking if she really has that much confidence in KIPP. Rather than say that she is really just offering a dare (which is what she was doing, because I asked her to clarify for me), she answers that this would be good way to find out if they really have the ability to serve all kids. Again, she says, “If that school district was willing I’d love to see them try it.” As much as I revere Ravitch, I think that she was a bit too subtle on this answer. Many in the audience may have believed that she felt it was possible for KIPP to take over a city like Detroit and turn it around. It is documented that KIPP once tried to take over a single school in Denver and failed miserably with it.
Wendy didn’t pick up on the sarcasm, which was why she began her response with “Maybe we are making progress.” Then Wendy gives an empty monologue, void of any substance. “We know how to do it,” “We know how to replicate it.” Scaling up, though, she admits is a problem. She says that there is ‘depressing’ news, which is that “in aggregate we have not moved the needle” much, and also ‘interesting’ news that “some systems have moved the needle.” Is it me, or is does the expression ‘move the needle’ make it very clear how little the success is that she’s bragging about.
The successful schools are “on a mission.” “They set out to change kids trajectories.” They do this by having a strong team, they recruit and develop talent over time (is 2 years ‘over time’?), they build ‘a culture of acheivement’, they do ‘whatever it takes.’ Then she mentions a few specifics like having a longer school day, offering health services, and mental health services.
To scale the problem, leaders need to be ‘empowered’ and given the ‘flexibility’ they need. This ‘flexibility,’ I think is the power to fire teachers more easily, though she doesn’t explicitly say that here.
The moderator asks Ravitch how can we get accountability without standardized testing? Ravitch is strongest in this seven minute answer which I won’t even summarize here since everyone must click on the video and watch it for themselves. Even Wendy starts to applaud in the middle of it, and when Ravitch finishes, she gets a round of applause from the crowd.
Then when it is Wendy’s turn, she defends testing with the most lame justification I have ever heard: “Giving our teachers, you know, good assessments is like giving them like something from Heaven. You know, it’s like awesome.” She says we should not go back to the days when we didn’t know how they were doing, as if that is what Ravitch is advocating for. We need better tests, though. This gets Wendy her own round of applause, for some reason.
Wendy does not touch Ravitch’s big point that when we attach bonuses and firings to test scores, it leads to gaming the system in different ways. I would have liked to hear where Wendy stands on whether or not teacher evaluations should be based, in part, on standardized test scores.
To be continued …