Sep 30 2011

Panel with Ravitch and Rhee Part I

On August 18th 2011, in the quiet town of Edgartown in Martha’s Vineyard, in a small church, there was a panel discussion on the achievement gap.  What made this even particularly notable was the fact that the two faces of the education reform debate, Diane Ravitch and Michelle Rhee, were co-panelists.  While most people concerned about the direction this country is going with regard to ed reform would love to see a one on one debate between them, maybe in the style that just happened between Diane Ravitch and Geoffrey Canada on a ‘Meet The Press’ for NBC’s ‘Education Nation 2011,’ this was the first time these two appeared at the same event, and likely to be the last.

The discussion lasted two and a half hours and was posted on the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute’s website, I don’t think most people have the patience to watch the entire event. Even I, who was considering going to see the event live, am just now getting around to watching it.

So, what I thought I’d do, just as I did for the discussion between Diane Ravitch and Wendy Kopp at the Aspen Ideas Festival, was to break the video shorter segments and post them here in a multi part analysis. My hope is that this will create more awareness of what happened on that historic day. I will summarize the highlights so people who don’t want to watch the segments can still get a sense of what was discussed.

Here is the list of participants from the website:

Moderated by Charlayne Hunter-Gault
Essence, Africa Bureau Chief, and author of New News Out of Africa: Uncovering the African Renaissance

Lawrence D. Bobo
W. E. B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences, Harvard University

James P. Comer
Maurice Falk Professor of Child Psychiatry, Yale University School of Medicine’s Child Study Center

Angel L. Harris
Associate Professor of Sociology and of African American Studies, Princeton University

Diane Ravitch
Research Professor of Education, New York University

Michelle A. Rhee
Founder and CEO, StudentsFirst

Introduction to event and speakers

0:00 to 8:23 Henry Louis ‘Skip’ Gates Jr. Director of Institute makes introductory remarks and describes the crisis of the achievement gap. Introduces moderator, Hunter-Gault.

8:23 to 11:40 Hunter-Gault describes crisis of unequal education. We are going to look at the ‘whys’ and the possibility of restoring the dream. Introduces Joshua Bennett, a poet.

11:41 to 17:21 The poem called ‘Derek’ is quite powerful. A great talent, this poet gets the event started with passion. Too often the issue of inequity is addressed on such a matter-of-fact way, this is a great reminder how important it is that we figure out what strategies have the best chance of working. It does NOT mean, as often happens with reformers, that we use the importance of the issue to panic and to start experimenting with strategies that are more likely to exacerbate the problem. The issue deserves better than that. The arrogance that the reformers display that they, and they alone, KNOW how to fix the problem demeans the problem itself and shows how little they actually care about it. Deep down they must know that they don’t know what they’re talking about, yet they still feel they know more than the experts.

17:22 to 19:52 The panelists are introduced.

Round I — Analyze the problem of the achievement gap. Why does it exist and why is it so difficult to fix. Potential solutions will be addressed in later rounds.

19:53 to 25:38 Angel Harris is asked to speak about the black-white achievement gap. 3 reasons: 1) People learn in different ways, but educators don’t take that into account. 2) Explanation of outliers. Outliers always happen in a distribution, so when we see a charter school that is working we assume that we can scale them up. 3) Slow process to close the gap. It will close in 60 years and 100 years in math based on the general trend. We can’t force it to happen that much faster. “We don’t understand the problem so we end up shooting B-B guns at a freight train.” This five and a half minutes is amazing. What an opening answer!

25:39 to 30:08 Diane Ravitch puts the issue in historic perspective. Achievement gap narrowed in the 70s and 80s, but has stalled after that. Ravitch brings up the issue of poverty and says: “I know these days you’re not supposed to say that, but it’s true.”

She mentions that our low poverty schools are doing well in international comparisons. Schools with under 10% poverty are outscoring all nations. Schools with 25% poverty are scoring equal to the high performing nations. This is a little known point which is a nice contrast to the common warning politicians make about how the country is falling behind.

She discusses some sociological factors, like how more blacks entering middle class set up more segregation for people left behind and also about the effects of the incarceration rate of black males.

She quotes the statistics at the time that35% of black children are in poverty, while 20% of all children. As of the latest results, those numbers are now up to 39% and 22%.

She concludes with the powerful statement: “We have a series of social and political issues that we’re unwilling to face.”

30:09 to 37:56 James Comer says that he was product of poverty, but overcame it because of what he got at home from his family. He is a psychologist and emphasizes the developmental experience kids need to get at home to be ready to learn in school.

Schools have a flawed model of how children learn, he believes. From the time of slavery until the 1950s, he explains that blacks have advanced through some adaptive mechanisms, but those mechanisms aren’t as effective today. To compound the problem, dysfunctional families had many more children than other functional families.

Traditional school model of input / output is wrong and not suited. “Teachers and administrators know very little about child development.”

He finishes with a good summary: “These factors, both the historical, economic, political, and what’s happened to families as a result, is the cause of our current problem.”

He is optimistic, though, that schools can make a big difference and says that he has seen dramatic results in hundreds of schools, over his work in the past 43 years, by using strategies based on this analysis of the problem.

37:56 to 49:23 Michelle Rhee will talk about the problem from her perspective. Too often people are looking for the answer and the silver bullet, she says. There are no easy answers to the question of why we are in this situation or how to fix it.

She first acknowledges that poverty does play a role, but then focuses on some of the organizational problems she found when she took over D.C. schools. Books weren’t delivered to schools, schools lacked the proper outlets for new computers, teachers weren’t getting paid or getting benefits they were paying for.

She says she had to close 23 schools that were not being filled and discussed how politicians didn’t want her to close schools in their wards, though they supported closing some schools. I’m surprised to hear this since most ‘reform minded’ politicians brag about how many schools they’ve closed as evidence that they are doing something proactive.

Then Rhee begins with her main argument, the achievement gap exists because of a lack of accountability for teachers.

“The complete and utter lack of accountability that existed in the system.” In 2007 8% of 8th graders were on grade level in mathematics. At the same time, the performance evaluations of the adults judged 95% as successful.

“How can you have a system where all of the adults are running around thinking ‘I’m doing great work,’ but what we were producing for children was 8% success?”

I’ve heard Rhee quote these statistics before. They do sound pretty compelling, but are they accurate, and what can be implied from them. In D.C., the math test scores for secondary were 38% in 2006. They went to 32% in 2007 then 41% in 2008 then 36% in 2009 and back up to 43% in 2010. So what is this famous 8% stat? She is referring to the 2007 NAEP scores which you can see here. To put that 8% into proper context, NAEP has 4 levels, Below basic, basic, proficient, and advanced. What they call ‘proficient’ is actually a higher standard that what states call proficient.

It is defined on the Nation’s Report Card as

Proficient. One of the three NAEP achievement levels, representing solid academic performance for each grade assessed. Students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject-matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real-world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to the subject matter.

So ‘proficient’ is really more like advanced. D.C. in 2007 had 34% basic and 8% ‘proficient.’ The 34% is in the same general range of their state DC test scores. 8% in this category is still low compared to other states, only Cleveland was lower in that category that year.

She contrasts this with the statistic that 95% of the teachers were rated satisfactory. The question is, then, what would be more compatible numbers? Does this mean that only 8% of the teachers are doing a good job? On the 2009 NAEPs, the big cities seem to have an average of somewhere around 20% ‘proficient’ in 8th grade math. What percent of ‘satisfactory’ teachers, would she think, this would be most compatible with? Also, teachers do not evaluate themselves. If bad teachers got satisfactory observations, that’s an administration issue.

So after Rhee cleans things up, how did those two numbers change? Well in the 2009 NAEP, they were then up to 11% ‘proficient.’ I don’t have the teacher evaluation stats, but I believe that they are still 95% satisfactory since Rhee has said that if we can get rid of bottom 5% of teachers, achievement will improve. They try to fire about 200 teachers a year, which is consistent with the idea that about 95% are satisfactory.

So before there was 8% ‘proficient’ with 95% satisfactory teachers, after there is 11% ‘proficient’ with 95% satisfactory teachers. Another irony is that her teacher evaluation system, called IMPACT is not based on absolute scores, but gains. By doing this she acknowledges that teachers shouldn’t be blamed for getting students that are far behind. So under that philosophy, it is not impossible to have low grades with satisfactory teachers.

The moderator asks Rhee to address the question of how much of the problem stems from poverty. She says, and I was glad to hear this, that in D.C. they expanded free lunch to include free breakfast and free supper. They also made sure each school had a nurse and social workers or guidance counselors. Usually Rhee has the hard-line ‘poverty is not an excuse’ line, so I was pleased to hear this admission of the importance of addressing the symptoms of poverty.

But before she goes so far to make this an excuse, she reminds us that the staff had to be oriented to a belief that despite all the challenges, it was possible to overcome them. “and you are not allowed to come to work every day unless you have that belief in you,” she concludes.

Click here for part II

One Response

  1. The single metric in education that has with withstood the test of time is the correlation between economic condition of the family and achievement. Few research her have really attempted to explore it in depth, but in my 30years of education, I think of it as an index of distraction. When one considers the distractions that poverty (which is growing) creates in a child’s circumstances, there mat be little that the educational system (as an institution) can do that has much of an impact…..things like hunger, housing, cleanliness, security, and warmth are far more immediate. A career educator, I can count lots of kids for whom I was as inspiration and made a difference. I can, howeve , attest to several thousands who actually came to school because it was warm (or cool), dry, and they gave you food.

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