Friday, June 3, 2011

In defense of Diane Ravitch (not that she needs it!)

UPDATE and Correction: Alter is no longer working for Newsweek; also check out Salon's withering critique of his column, pointing out the conflict of interest involved in his attack on Diane, a prominent Bloomberg critic, while working for Bloomberg's personal media company.
Today, Jonathan Alter of Newsweek let loose an attack on Diane Ravitch for her recent oped in the NY Times, in which she pointed out how the claims made many of the charter advocates of   "miracle schools " are often based on inflated or distorted data.  
Last night, Diane won the Daniel Patrick Moynihan prize, given annually by the American Academy of Political and Social Science to outstanding civic leaders and social scientists who  "champion the use of evidence and informed judgment in the policy process. "  She richly deserves this award for standing up to the corporate reformers and venture philanthropists who consistently distort data to suit their own ideological biases. 
Below  is my response to the Alter column; I also reprint comments sent him directly or submitted online by NYC parent Jennifer Freeman, celebrated education reformer Debbie Meier, education advocate Robert Skeels, and Nancy Flanagan, a former teacher who writes a column in EdWeek.
If you'd like to send your own comment, you can email Jonathan at and/or submit them online.
Jonathan:   What you call "beefing up accountability and standards" is what others call high-stakes testing.  In case you were not aware, the National Academy of Sciences has just come out with a new report, showing how damaging and unfair to both kids and teachers these sort of high stakes accountability schemes are.  Perhaps you should read this report rather than attacking Diane Ravitch.  Last night, she won the Moynihan award from the American Academy of Political and Social Science, which recognizes outstanding civic leaders who champion the use of evidence and informed judgment in the policy process.

Your column is the opposite; using rhetoric and invective instead of evidence and careful reasoning to attack one of the leaders in the efforts to preserve our public schools from the corporate reformers who want to impose a free-market, competitive business model.  Many of them are being funded by Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the Walton family, who argue that resources and large classes don't matter for poor kids, while sending their own children to private schools where the tuition is $30,000 per year and class sizes are 20 or less.

The move towards privatization (and yes, charters are schools that are privately run, with public money) is leading to even more inequitable conditions, as charters enroll far fewer of our most at risk students (ELL, homeless, free lunch and special education), students who instead are increasingly concentrated in our public schools.   Charter schools also have very high attrition rates, for both students and teachers. The silliest comment above is from Duncan, who claims that Diane is "insulting all of the hardworking teachers, principals and students all across the country" whereas it is she who has been defending them against Duncan, who has called for mass firings of teachers and wants to impose unfair evaluation and merit pay schemes, policies that don't work and will further undermine the teaching profession.

Moreover, Diane  supports real education reforms that work:  like equitable funding, experienced teachers, smaller classes, and a well-rounded curriculum.  I guess your attack,  as well as Duncan's, is a sign of how threatened the corporate reformers are whenever someone who opposes their policies has a chance to air their views in the mainstream media, because they fear that an open debate will lead to more people understanding their systematic distortion of  data.

Let the debate begin and let all sides have a chance to air their views in the mainstream media, and not be frightened off by this sort of  underhanded attack.  I'm sure Diane won't be.  - Leonie Haimson
Hi Jonathan-
I think it's so weird the way you attacked Diane Ravitch today. You sounded like Glenn Beck attacking climate scientists, all hyperbole. Ravitch is a serious person, and her view has nothing to do with "we should throw up our hands and admit that nothing will change". How do you get from her view that we should put more resources into holistic programs to fight poverty in conjunction with improving education to "we should throw up our hands and admit that nothing will change"?  I have had a ringside seat with 2 kids in NYC public schools for the past 10 years (we live just a couple of blocks from your and Emily's old apartment) and my experience at ground zero of the reform movement more closely reflects Diane Ravitch than Joel Klein or Arne Duncan. I hope in the future as a thoughtful columnist you will try to be more nuanced than Glenn Beck when you disagree with someone's perspective. One last thought--as an employee of Bloomberg you should be careful to remain objective about education. This piece did not sound very objective.  Regards, Jennifer [Freeman]
I didn't get beyond the first paragraph.  Diane is a Whittaker Chambers?  Are you out of your mind?  I couldn't get past that absurd slander--wherever did that come from???  It was impossible to take your other criticisms seriously once you went down that path.

Of course, her allies (like me) have spent, you seem to forget,  their adult lives working daily, year after year, to reinvent the way we "do" schooling for the sake of our faltering democracy.   Odd as it seems to call folks like me defenders of the status quo to call someone like Ravitch akin to a "reformed" Communist  and a "reformed" traitor is...I can't find a word for it.  It's also utterly puzzling as a metaphor.  I'm not clear in this usage of history whether you see Chambers or Hiss as the hero or villain?  The only similarity is that Chambers changed his mind.  Is that the sin?

We all make mistakes--but you owe Ravitch and many others an apology. -- Deborah Meier
Mr. Alter:  Yours is perhaps the most mendacious essay I've ever seen. The outright dismissal of Dr. Ravitch's use of the very same statistics that privatizers use to tout their lucrative education schemes is humorous. The fact that she can derive the correct conclusion from them is what scares those bent on profiting from education.
"[C]harter schools are in fact public schools?" Is it their unelected boards that make them public? Is it their negligible accountability to the community what makes them public? Is their nearly complete financial opaqueness (like a Form 990 really tells us anything) that makes them public? Is it their ability to avoid teaching children with special needs or disciplinary issues what makes them public? Oh, yes, Mr. Alter et al will remind us that since they take public funds, that that must make them public. How quaintly Randian. 
Blackwater/Xe takes public funds, are we to understand that they are a public institution as well?
Indeed the most absurd part of your unmerited attack on Dr. Ravitch is the quote from Arne Duncan, who is a pariah amongst not only teachers, but  most community activists. Duncan's disdain for public school teachers is legendary, his talk of "insulting all of the hardworking teachers" rings both duplicitous and insincere. His very occupying of his post is the ultimate insult to anyone that supports public education. ---  Robert D. Skeels
Speaking of straw men, Jonathan Alter, you have just provided a textbook case in media manipulation:

#1) Begin with a sports analogy, Arne's go-to technique when the data isn't really on his side.

#2) Choose a person, rather than policies or solutions, as your target, because it doesn't require as much intellectual horsepower in analysis. For good measure, compare her to a Communist, "in denial."

#3) Trot out resonant cliches--"favor the status quo," "phenomenal results," "hardworking teachers," "sophisticated evaluations," "take inner-city school"--and, my personal favorite, "working with unions." As if.

#4) Use lots of little deceptive captions, like "Classroom Malpractice" and "Misuse of Statistics" so that your average column skimmer will come away with an impression, rather than a more complex analysis of what's really going on in this your-research vs. my-research policy skirmish.

#5) Frost it all with incendiary language: "slimed," "pernicious," "malpractice."

Educators across the board respect Diane Ravitch's scholarship and conclusions. She made your buddy Arne look bad by uncovering the real data on his miracle schools. Assassinating her character makes you look bad in turn. For shame. -- Nancy Flanagan


NYC Educator said...

Didn't they just sell Newsweek for a dollar? Clearly they overpaid.

Anonymous said...

Clearly Mr. alter has been duped by the Right, just like Mr. Duncan. Once you have seen an effective local public school in action you can see how it is the great meeting ground, safety net, and bedrock of lifelong learning for all, no lottery ticket, voucher or resume required. I have the utmost respect for Diane Ravitch, her book and her recent writings because her worst predictions, sadly, have all come true in DC where we now have 56 charter schools on 96 campuses because Congress can't stop opening charter schools "for us".
Sign me,
Gail Sonnemann
DC Public School parent 15 years

formenu said...

Wikipedia states that Antler is a proponent of torture watch out kids!

Anonymous said...

I was quite frustrated by Alter's article on Diane Ravitch. Mrs. Ravitch has been an ardent supporter of all the good that teachers do.

I posted about it on my blog where I took some of Mr. Alter's points apart.

Bill Gunlocke, a city reader said...

EVERYTHING is inflated. The city schools fail. They don't teach the kids to read. That's their main mission and they fail sinfully.

Every other issue is just politics.