Sunday, June 12, 2011

What We Are Really Talking About

Someone brought Diane Ravitch’s recent New York Times opinion to my attention.  The gist of it is that the idea of miracle schools are overblown and that the primary way to solve the educational woes of low performing schools and districts is to target the families.  I agree that the idea of a miracle school that suddenly turns everything around for its students is probably overblown.  Although there are some reasons that these stories become such a large part of the conversation and Diane Ravitch is one of those reasons.  I also agree that families are incredibly important factor in student outcomes.  In a sense, that reality is the reason for the whole education reform movement.

When I went to work for DC Public Schools it wasn’t because I didn’t think student outcomes were defined by student background to a large degree.  It was because I did think that.  And I thought it wasn’t right.  To me that is not, and never will be, a reason to not try whatever it takes to give everyone a chance at a successful life.  Our society is based on the idea that anyone can do anything they put their minds to, that each person has the freedom to pursue happiness, to enjoy equal protections under the law.  Is this rational? Is it really true?  Probably not and definitely not.  But we attempt to create a reality that closely aligns with our values.  Maybe the vision we Americans have of equality, meritocracy, open dialogue and social mobility is a little utopian but pursuing that utopia has led to tremendous historical success.  Just because something isn’t possible or doesn’t seem possible doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be attempted.  The mere act of attempting can lead to tremendous change and improvement.

Let there be no mistake that the goal of education reform is revolutionary.  I don’t say education reform to refer to those who are part of the education reform movement.  I say education reform to refer to all those people, mostly teachers, who work every day to give our students the best education and best chance in life possible.  If we accomplish the goal of a strong education for all students regardless of background, zip code, skin color, parents’ education, family income and every other indicator that correlates too strongly with education outcomes, then the world starts to look like a very different place.  Racial inequality starts to disappear.  Neighborhoods that have been left to struggle without answers start to build a foundation of hope based on the human capital of its newly graduate citizens.  The cycle of poverty as we know it begins to break down.  That is what we are really talking about and I can’t think of many endeavors more noble.

If changing the world to make it a better place and pursuing a reality that realizes our more utopian values is too abstract for you that is okay.  You see, the arguments put forth by Diane Ravitch and many others claiming to be protecting public education and teachers are suicidal.  I understand the frustrations among teachers when they are being held accountable, and often told they are failing, for things they cannot control.  Governments, districts, administrations undoubtedly need to do a better job of providing the necessary supports for teachers to be successful and for students to be ready to learn.  That includes the basics like making sure school breakfast and lunch is accessible and edible.  All of us need to do a better job.

However, staking out positions that imply, or outright say, that teachers are largely unimportant in the education outcomes of students is a terrible position to take if you are trying to protect teachers, public education and the system as we currently understand it. 

When Diane Ravitch argues families families families she is basically saying teachers are powerless to overcome the backgrounds of their students.  I realize this is likely a case of public negotiation pushing someone to a position that is too extreme and lacking in nuance.  Nonetheless, the argument is there and it is an argument that actually does threaten public education.  Private companies selling helpful products to under performing districts like Wireless Generation does is not going to take down public education.  Charter schools slicing off a chunk of traditional public school students is not going to take down public education.  School vouchers are definitely not going to take down public education.  Arguing that public education is not capable of overcoming demographics will.  Because ultimately if our schools make no difference they become an unconscionably enormous bad investment.  Because if teachers don’t make a difference then why do we have them at all?  Because if better schools that actually make better opportunities for students that wouldn’t otherwise have those opportunities can’t exist then why try?  In that case maybe slashing school budgets to fund tax cuts for the rich makes a little more sense, or to fund more public transportation, or to fund more defense spending, or to fund more social services, or to fund more police.  Why not lay off more teachers?  Why not just abolish public schools and let each locality, each household figure it out for themselves?  Why is Diane Ravitch making her enemies’ argument for them? 

The end point of pointing the finger at poverty or demographics or social services or crime or health or all of the other hundred things that are stacked against our most at-risk children is giving up on education as a solution.  The end point is reinvesting all that education money elsewhere, away from schools, away from teachers, away from the current, broken, failed system.  But I think Diane Ravitch is wrong.  I think teachers, schools, districts can make a difference.  I think we can do better.  I think we can create a world where a child is not doomed just by the happenstance of being born to the wrong family in the wrong part of town.  

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