Noted Scholar Diane Ravitch Calls for ‘Reality-Based’ Education Reform


Parents Across America, a new nationwide organization of parents opposing education “deform,” held its inaugural event in New York City on February 7, 2011 with Diane Ravitch as the keynote speaker. Here, Diane covers the entire range of education “deforms” and makes a mockery of it all:     

 “Corporate reformers close schools and open schools, they move children around like checkers on a checker board . . . and they confuse testing with education.  To them, your child is a data point.”


“This testing and accountability obsession is not producing better education.  This mindless pursuit of test scores . . . has cheapened education.” 


“This corporate reform movement seeks to turn public funding over to private corporations, and seeks to replace professional educators with eager amateurs.”


“And added to these circumstances come the Obama administration’s ‘Race to the Top,’ which supplies billions of federal dollars to persuade states to adopt unproven and even failed reforms.”       


No other country in the world is as radically overhauling education as is America.  Please spread the word by forwarding this video to anyone interested in reality-based—not corporate based—education reform.         



Thankfully, There Will Be No Oscar for ‘Superman’

by Christopher Paslay


The 83rd Academy Awards are a week away and “Waiting for Superman,” the highly publicized documentary about the state of education in America, is not up for an award.  Despite backing from President Obama and a $2 million grant provided by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to promote the film worldwide, Superman failed to receive an Oscar nomination.


Last November, noted education historian Diane Ravitch wrote a scathing review of the film in The New York Review of Books, an article which some believe carried enough weight to spoil Superman’s chances of winning director Davis Guggenheim his second Oscar. 


Ravitch made quick work of the film in her article, bringing to light, among other things, that Guggenheim gave a dishonest accounting of charter schools:


“. . . The propagandistic nature of Waiting for “Superman” is revealed by Guggenheim’s complete indifference to the wide variation among charter schools. There are excellent charter schools, just as there are excellent public schools. Why did he not also inquire into the charter chains that are mired in unsavory real estate deals, or take his camera to the charters where most students are getting lower scores than those in the neighborhood public schools? Why did he not report on the charter principals who have been indicted for embezzlement, or the charters that blur the line between church and state? Why did he not look into the charter schools whose leaders are paid $300,000–$400,000 a year to oversee small numbers of schools and students?”


Ravitch also pointed out that Guggenheim failed to address the non-school factors that affect student achievement:


“. . . Guggenheim seems to believe that teachers alone can overcome the effects of student poverty, even though there are countless studies that demonstrate the link between income and test scores. He shows us footage of the pilot Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier, to the amazement of people who said it couldn’t be done. Since Yeager broke the sound barrier, we should be prepared to believe that able teachers are all it takes to overcome the disadvantages of poverty, homelessness, joblessness, poor nutrition, absent parents, etc.


The movie asserts a central thesis in today’s school reform discussion: the idea that teachers are the most important factor determining student achievement. But this proposition is false. Hanushek has released studies showing that teacher quality accounts for about 7.5–10 percent of student test score gains. Several other high-quality analyses echo this finding, and while estimates vary a bit, there is a relative consensus: teachers statistically account for around 10–20 percent of achievement outcomes. Teachers are the most important factor within schools.


But the same body of research shows that nonschool factors matter even more than teachers. According to University of Washington economist Dan Goldhaber, about 60 percent of achievement is explained by nonschool factors, such as family income. So while teachers are the most important factor within schools, their effects pale in comparison with those of students’ backgrounds, families, and other factors beyond the control of schools and teachers. Teachers can have a profound effect on students, but it would be foolish to believe that teachers alone can undo the damage caused by poverty and its associated burdens.”


Finally, Ravitch explained that Guggenheim blatantly misrepresented data in his film:


“ . . . Perhaps the greatest distortion in this film is its misrepresentation of data about student academic performance. The film claims that 70 percent of eighth-grade students cannot read at grade level. This is flatly wrong. Guggenheim here relies on numbers drawn from the federally sponsored National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). I served as a member of the governing board for the national tests for seven years, and I know how misleading Guggenheim’s figures are. NAEP doesn’t measure performance in terms of grade-level achievement. The highest level of performance, “advanced,” is equivalent to an A+, representing the highest possible academic performance. The next level, “proficient,” is equivalent to an A or a very strong B. The next level is “basic,” which probably translates into a C grade. The film assumes that any student below proficient is “below grade level.” But it would be far more fitting to worry about students who are “below basic,” who are 25 percent of the national sample, not 70 percent.


Guggenheim didn’t bother to take a close look at the heroes of his documentary. Geoffrey Canada is justly celebrated for the creation of the Harlem Children’s Zone, which not only runs two charter schools but surrounds children and their families with a broad array of social and medical services. Canada has a board of wealthy philanthropists and a very successful fund-raising apparatus. With assets of more than $200 million, his organization has no shortage of funds. Canada himself is currently paid $400,000 annually. For Guggenheim to praise Canada while also claiming that public schools don’t need any more money is bizarre. Canada’s charter schools get better results than nearby public schools serving impoverished students. If all inner-city schools had the same resources as his, they might get the same good results.


But contrary to the myth that Guggenheim propounds about “amazing results,” even Geoffrey Canada’s schools have many students who are not proficient. On the 2010 state tests, 60 percent of the fourth-grade students in one of his charter schools were not proficient in reading, nor were 50 percent in the other. It should be noted—and Guggenheim didn’t note it—that Canada kicked out his entire first class of middle school students when they didn’t get good enough test scores to satisfy his board of trustees. This sad event was documented by Paul Tough in his laudatory account of Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone, Whatever It Takes (2009). Contrary to Guggenheim’s mythology, even the best-funded charters, with the finest services, can’t completely negate the effects of poverty.”


Those familiar with the true workings of public education, such as Ravitch, can easily see past the myths purported in “Waiting for Superman.”


For Guggenheim to cherry-pick information to such a degree is simply bad movie making.  Kudos to the Academy for keeping such a short-sighted project off the red carpet.


Does the Philadelphia School District Value Public Input?

by Lisa Haver


“Sentence first—verdict afterwards.”

            —Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll


A meeting at Germantown High School on Thursday, February 3, was billed in a Daily News ad as an opportunity for parents and the community to have their say on some important issues. The ad listed times and locations but was not clear on objectives. Not until the meeting started did I understand that the main topic was how to deal with declining enrollment and the increasing number of empty desks in some schools and overcrowding in others. ( I thought it was going to be about Germantown’s transition to Promise Academy; that is the subject of a subsequent meeting.)


A presentation which included a number of charts and graphs, distributed to the audience, was given by a consultant with DeLonghi/Ritter. This company has been hired to analyze data and advise the Philadelphia School District on how to solve the empty desks problem. The information showed how the student population has declined citywide due to a number of reasons including declining birthrate and growth of charter schools. I asked what percentage of the empty desks were attributable to the second reason: the answer was 60 percent. I then asked why the district made sure that this number would surely continue to grow given their practice of approving more charters and restructuring existing schools into charters. It’s not an act of God to be cleaned up after–it is their own policy. When I asked, the representative did try to explain; but he advises the district, he does not make the decisions. As soon as I got my answer, it was time to go into our “breakout groups”.


Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunnery made some brief comments, telling us that the contributions of the public, especially parents, were very important. The meeting was highly structured with two district facilitators at each table holding six parents. Each group was told to look at a list of “educational priorities” and vote for the five we thought were the most important. One parent at my table asked why the choices included literacy, math, science, and social studies since they are state-mandated subjects. The facilitator replied that these choices had been selected by parents in the first round of meetings. What first round? Nobody at my table had known about them.


After the votes were tallied, I asked how they would affect district policy in the future. I was told that the results would be published on the website. I tried to say that that was not an answer to my question, but I had a strong feeling that these votes weren’t really going to change many of the decisions already made by the district.


There have been ten meetings convened for this same issue; I attended a second at Saul High School. Instead of having us vote, this time the facilitator wrote down issues and questions given by the participants . About sixty people attended the Germantown meeting, about eighty at Saul. Given that these two meetings were for the residents of the entire Northwest area—Roxborough-Manayunk, Mount Airy, Germantown, Chestnut Hill, West Oak Lane—that is a very low turnout. Perhaps more notice than an ad in the paper and an item on the district’s website would have increased attendance. In answer to a question, a facilitator told us that no flyers had been sent home with students.


For all its talk of “parent partnering,” does the district really try its best to hear from them or others in the community? Since the state takeover ten years ago, the School Reform Commission has held all of its regular meetings in the early afternoon. Since teachers, students, most working parents and taxpayers cannot be there, who is watching and participating when the real decisions are being made and voted on?


If the parents of one neighborhood vote to stop a school from shutting down, does that mean the school stays open? Not if you ask the parents of the former Ada Lewis Middle School. They fought a futile battle with the district, using their own money to pay for consultants and engineers to show that the building did not really need the costly repairs the district claimed it did. Parents were quoted in the local press, including the Public School Notebook, expressing their feelings that the closure had been decided before the first Lewis parent took the microphone at the School Reform Commission. So when the district and its representatives tell parents that they “need” their input, what does that really mean?


Another series of meetings, begun last week, has been scheduled to discuss the decision made by Superintend Arlene Ackerman to restructure eighteen more schools in Renaissance Schools or Promise Academies. Again, the purpose of these meetings is baffling: hasn’t the decision already been made?


Lisa Haver is a retired Philadelphia public school teacher.  She taught middle school for 16 years at Harding, Central East, and Roosevelt. 


The Zero Tolerance Debate Continued

by Christopher Paslay


On January 31st, Ron Whitehorne, a former city schoolteacher and current Philadelphia Public School Notebook blogger, wrote a response to my recent Inquirer commentary “Less than ‘zero tolerance’.”  


Whitehorne pointed out the fact that my op-ed piece, which argued that the Philadelphia School District’s discipline polices are quite tolerant and permissive, didn’t adequately address data presented in Youth United for Change’s report, “Zero Tolerance in Philadelphia.” 


“Significantly, Paslay does not deal with the data the report assembles that paint a picture of a school system that, more than in the past, and more than any other district in the state, relies on police and beefed up school security, out of school suspension, and placements in disciplinary schools to maintain order.”


With that said, I’d like to deal with this issue now.  Why does the Philadelphia School District rely on beefed up school security, out of school suspensions, and placements in disciplinary schools to maintain order?  Because city schools, more than the rest of the state, deal with the most serious and extreme discipline issues. 


In the 2007-08 school year, there were nearly 15,000 criminal incidents reported in Philadelphia public schools.  According to data published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, 1,728 students assaulted teachers, 479 weapons were discovered inside elementary and middle school hallways and classrooms, and 357 weapons were found in high schools.  Interestingly, these offenses weren’t part of the typical “low-level” youth behaviors highlighted in YUC’s neatly packaged “report.”          


Sadly, such behavior is quite common.  In June of 2009 the Inquirer obtained a folder of reports detailing discipline incidents that occurred in Philadelphia city schools from June 1-5.  In an editorial headlined “Can’t learn in bad schools,” the Inquirer wrote: “The incidents range from students bringing knives and guns to school, masturbating in class, going to school drunk, pulling down other students’ pants, making death threats, punching a teacher in the face, stealing thousands of dollars worth of equipment, throwing an eraser at a teacher’s head, and stuffing feces in bathroom sinks.”


The Inquirer editorial also mentioned an incident where a teacher asked a student to stop eating food in class.  When the student refused, the teacher tried to take the food and was then smacked in the face by the student.  In another part of the city during that same week, the editorial noted, an elementary student grabbed a fire extinguisher from a hallway and began spraying a teacher in the face.


Is this just “typical behavior “of children and youth?


Tragically, such data is actually underreported in the district; from 2005 to 2008, not a single student was expelled from the district.  In fact, the district was violating state laws by not expelling the scores of students who were caught bringing a gun to school. 


As I wrote in my Inquirer piece, district officials must decide how they want to view the city’s schools: as institutions of learning or shelters for chronic rule-breakers.  Of course, Ron Whitehorne insists this choice need not exist:   


“Paslay’s article presents us with a false choice – shelters for troubled children or schools for the hardworking and well behaved. . . . We do not have two distinct populations: one “troubled”, the other, hard working and well behaved. Instead, there is an enormously diverse population of learners, almost all of whom, given the right circumstances, supports, and constraints, can be productive and successful. The democratic function of public education is to make sure that opportunity is there for all.”


Unfortunately, outside of the home and community, outside of the influence of caring parents and neighborhood role models, the right “circumstances, supports, and constraints” Whitehorne speaks of are limited; it’s both unfair and irresponsible to expect overwhelmed and understaffed city schools to be mothers, fathers, counselors, behavior therapists, instructors, and the provider of a dozen other social services.   


The Philadelphia School District is fulfilling its democratic function and giving all students an equal opportunity to learn.  The problem is that too many students and their parents are throwing this opportunity away.  Resources are limited.  Schools and teachers can only spend so much time dealing with the incorrigible and unruly.  Behavior remediations are I place, but sooner or later the rights of the hard-working majority must come first; these students are the real victims in the system. 


There is one foolproof solution to the district’s zero tolerance policy that Ron Whitehorne and Youth United for Change have failed to consider, of course: simply following school rules. 


This might be an area YUC might want to explore more deeply.