I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Friday, July 1, 2011

David Brooks Gets Reformy

David Brooks alludes to Nirvana in the title of his latest column, "Smells Like School Spirit." Well, the reformy pap he spews is certainly "stupid and contagious"...

I won't even comment on the ad hominem nonsense against Diane Ravitch; it's the same song corporate reformers have been singing about the woman for some time now and it's getting very, very old. Ravitch has become an avatar for the movement that is pushing back at the corporate reformers, so attacking her is essentially the same as attacking everyone who isn't on board the Gates-Rhee-Broad train.

I don't know if she "pick[ed] and chose what studies to cite" when Brooks heard her speak in Aspen; I do know that the corporate reformers have been promoting a lot of junk research - I mean, a LOT of junk research -  that doesn't hold up to serious scrutiny. I don't know if she was "quick to accuse people who disagree with her of being frauds and greed-heads'; I do know the corporate reform movement is chock full o' of people who are documented frauds and greed-heads.

I also know that, contrary to Brooks's claims, Diane Ravitch has never said that there aren't bad schools, that we don't need reform in our school systems, or that there isn't a place for tests. I don't know any serious person who would say otherwise - including the unions.

See, David Brooks would like for a more civilized debate about these matters, but he doesn't have to worry - like those of us who actually teach the kids - about some tough-talking governor coming into his state and ramming a teacher evaluation system down his throat that will pretty much destroy the viability of his profession. So you'll forgive me, Mr. Brooks, if I don't share your indignation at Diane Ravitch's tone: the stakes are quite a bit higher for me than for you.

I will give Brooks credit, however - he's come up with a novel way to sell the same old reformy elixir:
As the education blogger Whitney Tilson has pointed out, the schools that best represent the reform movement, like the KIPP academies or the Harlem Success schools, put tremendous emphasis on testing. But these schools are also the places where students are most likely to participate in chess and dance. They are the places where they are most likely to read Shakespeare and argue about philosophy and physics.
In these places, tests are not the end. They are a lever to begin the process of change. They are one way of measuring change. But they are only one piece of the larger mission. The mission may involve E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curricula, or character education, or performance arts specialties. But the mission transcends the test. These schools know what kind of graduate they want to produce. The schools that are most accountability-centric are also the most alive.
So, when you push the tests more, you push them less? That's a new line...

First of all, these are NOT the schools where kids are most likely to take dance and play chess and read Shakespeare. The schools where kids do that stuff regularly are in the wealthy 'burbs. Try to convince me otherwise.

Next: where is the meaningful evidence that charter students are spending their days pouring over the nuances of Hegelian dialect or quantum physics? In a few anecdotal blog posts?

It's really easy to offer a chess club after school at a charter; it's quite another to have a curriculum that is rich and deep enough to give kids a comprehensive education. It's really easy to have an African dance troupe come in for an hour-long presentation, then have the students march back to their classrooms to do some Success For All-type drills for the rest of the day. I've seen and and I've lived it, so you'll forgive me if I'm a little more skeptical than Brooks at taking Whitney Tilson at his word.

In any case, Kipp and Harlem Success place emphasis on their test scores because they use those scores as public relations tools. What the corporate reformers want is something completely different: using test scores to evaluate teachers and principals, and then base pay, seniority, and tenure on those evaluations - no matter how impractical or illogical that may be.

We know this plan won't work; we know the tests are far too prone to error to be accurate measures of teacher effectiveness. But even if they weren't, is Brooks so naive as to believe teachers and administrators won't put tests scores ahead of everything else if their very jobs are on the line?

If the editors of the NY Times came to Brooks one day and told him that his pay was now going to be based on how many adverbs he used, I'm guessing his column would suddenly be filled with lots of words ending in "-ly." That's human nature, and it's predictable. The problem is, that would be a terrible way to judge his writing, just like standardized tests are a terrible way to judge a teacher's abilities.
Contrary to Ravitch’s assertions, these places are not just skimming the best students. At the Urban Prep Academy of Chicago, which Ravitch holds up as an example of a bogus success story, over 15 percent of the students are special ed. Ninety-six percent of the school’s first incoming class were reading below grade level.
Yes, and only 17% passed the state tests. This was exactly Ravitch's point: these charters are being held up as a miracle cure for the gap between poor and/or minority children and the rest of the country. But they aren't. And, by the way - charter schools are absolutely skimming.

When Brooks or Jonathan Alter or all the other cheerleaders of the corporate reform movement go on and on about this charter school's success or that charter school's college acceptance rate, they are making an illogical leap: because a few charters succeed, their results are necessarily replicable. But there's no evidence that this is true; and if we can't regularly duplicate their successes, then what's the point?

While we're on the subject: why are we changing the entire public education system if the problem - as exemplified by Brook's examples - is in urban schools? Why do we need charters in the 'burbs? Why do the millions of teachers working in schools that get great results have to now move into merit pay systems based on test scores? Why do the schools systems that graduate loads of kids with AP credits have to force their teachers to give up tenure?

Why are we messing with the schools that are getting the job done?

This, of course, is the game Brooks and Alter and others like them play. When you call them on it, they protest, "Oh, no, I'm just talking about the failing schools with the poor kids" But look through his article again - does Brooks say that? Hell, no, even thoough his sole focus is on poor urban ares:
And contrary to Ravitch’s assertions, these schools, hundreds of them, have taken their students and put them on trajectories much different than the ones you would predict just by looking at the socio-demographic backgrounds. Caroline Hoxby has rigorously shown good charter results in New York and Chicago. New Orleans is dominated by charters and choice. Since 2007, the New Orleans schools have doubled the percentage of students scoring at basic competence levels or above. Schools in New Orleans are improving faster than schools in any other district in the state.
Yeah, chasing away all the poor black people from a city will do that.

What we have here from Brooks is yet another perfect example of those who claim to want "real change" doing nothing more than advocating for the status quo. If it only solving the problems with schools in poor urban centers was as easy as Geoffrey Canada has convinced these pundits it is. If only it took a few more Supermen to switch it all around...

It won't. We need to aggressively address the income inequity and racism that continues to plague this nation. But that will upset some very powerful people - people who've done very well with things they way they currently are, thank you very much.

Contrary to what pundits would have us believe, corporate reform is all about protecting the status quo, not changing it. Diane Ravitch understands this; that's why people like David Brooks are going after her.

Relentlessly. Just keep watching.

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