Editors note: A recent Schools of Thought reader made this comment: "Equal air time for Ravitch – all this can and should be debated fairly – the blog space is welcome but insufficient." Diane Ravitch is scheduled to appear on CNN Newsroom Weekend with Randi Kaye this Saturday, August 18.
By John Martin, CNN
(CNN) – Education historian and professor Diane Ravitch took issue with a recent CNN appearance by former D.C. Schools chancellor Michele Rhee. Rhee and Ravitch both believe that quality teaching can make a difference in the classroom. But the two have fundamental differences in their beliefs about the quality of America's education system and its teachers.
Rhee told CNN, "The problem is that people don't understand where we stand right now in international rankings on academics. We are behind countries like Hungary and Luxembourg." On Schools of Thought, Ravitch responded, "[Rhee] is obviously unaware that our nation has never had high scores on those tests. When the first international test was given in 1964, our students ranked 11th out of 12 nations. Yet our nation went on to become the most powerful economy in the world."
Rhee's organization, StudentsFirst, says on its website that "an effective teacher produces three times more learning than an ineffective teacher," but Rhee's critics, including Ravitch, say the group ignores the influence of poverty in America. Ravitch says that, "Family poverty is the most reliable predictor of low test scores," and that America has a much higher poverty rate than other countries.
Ravitch's response to Rhee was well-received by teachers, among others.
David L: Finally someone with the guts and knowledge to say what is really going on. As a 30+ year veteran in the public schools I agree with Diane Ravitch. You cannot compare our public school performance given great variety of demographics with other countries. However, we should not dig a hole in the ground and discount what other countries are doing in education. We should try out some of their successes.
Dan H: Ravitch is correct in her criticism of Rhee, but too polite. Rhee simply does not know what she's talking about and has a huge political agenda. She was in the classroom for only two years before she fled to administration and that isn't enough time to learn or know much about teaching and education. A dirty little secret in the education business is that often teachers go into administration because they weren't particularly effective in the classroom.
Alice in PA: It seems as if people misunderstand Ravitch's comments about poverty. What the research shows is that there is a culture of poverty that tends to keep families in a generational cycle of poverty. This research is more than just a correlation. There is causation, also. If the parents are working several minimum wage jobs just to get by, then that is the world that their kids see. Is school portrayed as just something you have to do or is school something that is constantly being held as an opportunity to do something better? Ravitch has never said she has all the answers. What she says is that the answers touted by the corporate reformers have been shown to be overwhelmingly ineffective and that we need to address the core issues and poverty is probably the largest one of those.
makingaschoolsmile: Read Ravitch's books, she has plenty. Here is her best solution – equalize the playing field and fund schools equally. How about dealing with the issues within poverty that serve as the real barriers to education – this is her best solution that our government refuses to address. Go work in a school and you will immediately see how correct she is and this has nothing to do with the status quo.
Not everyone agrees with Ravitch's assessment:
Penny Wu: I see nothing in her article other than generalities. Ms Ravitch is against merit pay. She is against the war on teachers. She is against the attack on teachers unions. She is against poverty. And she is against the Race to The Top. Wonderful. Perhaps she will come out against broccoli as well.
Paul Scotchmer: Diane Ravitch is right on one count: "Parents must be involved in helping their kids succeed." But that only happens in privately-run schools. The answer to America's education malaise, quite clearly, is vouchers. The need is especially acute in the inner cities, where private and charter schools-freed from the public education bureaucracy-have shown that it's possible to educate students from impoverished homes and communities, bringing an end to the cycle of poverty. I'm so sorry to see a brilliant and informed scholar like Diane Ravitch succumb to the status quo. What a shame!
Lucas Mette: I'm a teacher in a low income school, and in my opinion this article is wrong on all counts. Teachers can and do make a profound difference, and they can overcome the intimidating obstacles created by poverty. Some of my 8th grade students attend school regularly but cannot read, even on a first grade level. This is a scandal. Merit pay need not be done in a way that makes teachers compete within their school. Offering a bonus for a job well done is not a "war on teachers."
manzoa: Let's see if I have this right. Diane Ravitch is a professor who has never worked in the public schools as an administrator or teacher. She does research and opines about public eduction. Michelle Rhee was the chancellor of the DC schools and has had a distinguished career in the trenches. Now which of these two should be believe? Put another way...would you want a surgeon to perform a liver transplant on you if all the surgeon had ever done was read about liver transplants? Or would you prefer a surgeon who had actual experience transplanting livers?
The debate shifted toward an essential question: Are America's schools better or worse than they have been in the past?
magbill: Ravitch spends most of the article pleading for us to ignore what every long-time teacher know, including family members of mine – that schools are markedly worse than 30 years ago. Then she disparages efforts to improve, while offering NO SOLUTIONS HERSELF – except to praise tenure (!) and 'culture'. In short, she is invested in the status quo. Ravitch is the problem, not the solution.
djheru: Yes, 30 years ago was just about when the approaches that Rhee advocates for were being first put into practice.
Tom S: Having raised 3 kids, all of whom went to the same public school I did (separated by 30+ years), I can attest to the following – my children are much smarter than I am, they worked much harder than I did (and received better grades) and the bar has been raised much higher. Pure and simple – my school is an order of magnitude better today than it was 30 years ago....Ms. Ravitch – please continue your advocacy.
jreddog1: Many adults, and many complaining adults live in this fantasy world of what they were like in school 30 years ago. Kids aren't more stupid. THEY ARE KIDS. Lazy, excuse making kids who seem to show no focus or care about the world around them JUST LIKE ALL KIDS, even the ones 30 years ago. Adults live in this magical fantasy land where they imagine this school where everyone sits upright, and raises their hands to answer questions in a timely manner and no one bullies – they imagine that it was like that when they were in school. IT WASN'T. I taught the same kids 30 years ago and you know what? A high percentage of them turned out just fine, just like the kids of today will. You were not smarter and better than these kids 30 years ago – you were the same type of kid living a typical teenaged life.
When it comes to America's schools, there are a lot of stakeholders – teachers, parents, administrators, unions, politicians, and the students themselves. Our readers find room to blame several of these groups:
Al: Teachers are not effective and there have been many studies conducted as to why. Government policy, teacher/student ratio, and parents deserve much of the blame... but teachers are still part of the problem. There are far too many teachers who simply do a poor job.
William Demuth: I am APPALLED by the lack of BASIC knowledge in today’s young people, but I do not blame them. I blame primarily the parents, and secondarily the system itself. We indulge ourselves, and thus our children. We flee from real intellectual stimulus, and instead permit pop culture and modern media to distract us. We sacrifice analytic thought and rationalism for the pale comparators of mysticism and athleticism, and then we look for scapegoats to blame. We have created a very limited intelligentsia that carries the majority of the burden of real thought for the rest of our culture and this tendency is being exacerbated by the stresses of the economy.
jorge washinsen: Check the attendance numbers at PTA meetings and compare them against the number of students and you will begin to understand the real problem.
New Gawker: Most of the blame is with the teachers union. Making it impossible to fire bad teachers, corruption, wasting money on "administrative" costs that should go to books and school upkeep. Switch to chartered schools like New Orleans and you'll see a major upswing in education.
Sharon: Bad management that is asleep at the wheel leads to lazy teachers not being pushed and written up. The union contract requires that teachers who rate poorly on in classroom evaluations receive support in addressing the issues in question. The problem is many bad school managers don't visit classrooms regularly and do not document the issues. Bad teachers do not have lesson plans, don't check homework regularly and follow up with parents. This is real easy to see if the managers are doing their jobs.
Or maybe no one is to blame?
jdoe: It's interesting that people who blame the U.S. public school system point to test scores in Asia or Europe. Yet they neglect to mention that in Asia or Europe there are very strong public school systems. Public education in itself is not the problem.
Finally A Voice of Reason: Stop blaming teachers, stop blaming parents, stop blaming kids – stop blaming period – and start improving the daily circumstances of kids living in poverty.
And finally, a teacher's response:
Gina: I know for a fact, that I have reached students who have no one in this life. The teacher is also a major influence...if he or she is a good one. We can't just throw up our hands and say, "OK, these kids have no parental involvement. Life sucks. Oh well." Many, many of them can be reached by a good teacher who is allowed to teach. Just let me teach.