Sunday, March 14, 2010

One simple solution for our schools? A captivating promise, but a false one.

By Diane Ravitch, LA Times

March 14, 2010

There have been two features that regularly mark the history of U.S. public schools. Over the last century, our education system has been regularly captivated by a Big Idea -- a savant or an organization that promised a simple solution to the problems of our schools. The second is that there are no simple solutions, no miracle cures to those problems.

Education is a slow, arduous process that requires the work of willing students, dedicated teachers and supportive families, as well as a coherent curriculum.

As an education historian, I have often warned against the seductive lure of grand ideas to reform education. Our national infatuation with education fads and reforms distracts us from the steady work that must be done.

Our era is no different. We now face a wave of education reforms based on the belief that school choice, test-driven accountability and the resulting competition will dramatically improve student achievement.

Once again, I find myself sounding the alarm that the latest vision of education reform is deeply flawed. But this time my warning carries a personal rebuke. For much of the last two decades, I was among those who jumped aboard the choice and accountability bandwagon. Choice and accountability, I believed, would offer a chance for poor children to escape failing schools. Testing and accountability, I thought, would cast sunshine on low-performing schools and lead to improvement. It all seemed to make sense, even if there was little empirical evidence, just promise and hope.

Today there is empirical evidence, and it shows clearly that choice, competition and accountability as education reform levers are not working.
But with confidence bordering on recklessness, the Obama administration is plunging ahead, pushing an aggressive program of school reform -- codified in its signature Race to the Top program -- that relies on the power of incentives and competition. This approach may well make schools worse, not better.

Those who do not follow education closely may be tempted to think that, at long last, we're finally turning the corner. What could be wrong with promoting charter schools to compete with public schools? Why shouldn't we demand accountability from educators and use test scores to reward our best teachers and identify those who should find another job?

Like the grand plans of previous eras, they sound sensible but will leave education no better off. Charter schools are no panacea. The nation now has about 5,000 of them, and they vary in quality. Some are excellent, some terrible; most are in between. Most studies have found that charters, on average, are no better than public schools.

On the federal tests, known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, from 2003 to 2009, charters have never outperformed public schools. Nor have black and Latino students in charter schools performed better than their counterparts in public schools.

This is surprising, because charter schools have many advantages over public schools. Most charters choose their students by lottery. Those who sign up to win seats tend to be the most motivated students and families in the poorest communities. Charters are also free to "counsel out" students who are unable or unwilling to meet expectations. A study of KIPP charters in the San Francisco area found that 60% of those students who started the fifth grade were gone before the end of eighth grade. Most of those who left were low performers.


So we're left with the knowledge that a dramatic expansion in the number of privately managed schools is not likely to raise student achievement. Meanwhile, public schools will become schools of last resort for the unmotivated, the hardest to teach and those who didn't win a seat in a charter school. If our goal is to destroy public education in America, this is precisely the right path.

Nor is there evidence that student achievement will improve if teachers are evaluated by their students' test scores. Some economists say that when students have four or five "great" teachers in a row, the achievement gap between racial groups disappears. The difficulty with this theory is that we do not have adequate measures of teacher excellence.


The Obama education reform plan is an aggressive version of the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind, under which many schools have narrowed their curriculum to the tested subjects of reading and math. This poor substitute for a well-rounded education, which includes subjects such as the arts, history, geography, civics, science and foreign language, hits low-income children the hardest, since they are the most likely to attend the kind of "failing school" that drills kids relentlessly on the basics. Emphasis on test scores already compels teachers to focus on test preparation. Holding teachers personally and exclusively accountable for test scores -- a key feature of Race to the Top -- will make this situation even worse. Test scores will determine salary, tenure, bonuses and sanctions, as teachers and schools compete with each other, survival-of-the-fittest style.

Frustrated by a chronic lack of progress, business leaders and politicians expect that a stern dose of this sort of competition and incentives will improve education, but they are wrong. No other nation is taking such harsh lessons from the corporate sector and applying them to their schools. No nation with successful schools ignores everything but basic skills and testing. Schools work best when teachers collaborate to help their students and strive together for common goals, not when they compete for higher scores and bonuses.

Having embraced the Republican agenda of choice, competition and accountability, the Obama administration is promoting the privatization of large segments of American education and undermining the profession of teaching. This toxic combination is the latest Big Idea in education reform. Like so many of its predecessors, it is not likely to improve education.

Diane Ravitch, a historian of education, is the author of "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education."

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A Simple Question for Charley Reed

Dear Charley:

Let us suppose you were a sprinter from a poor country preparing for the Summer Olympics. You have recently been having trouble getting enough to eat, making it much harder for you could keep up your strength and maintain a training regimen. Your coach has just spent money for an outside consultant from the tiny budget you and the team have to draw upon for food and other critical items.

The outside consultant, whose name is Sir Michael Barber, comes in and says: "Good news! I'm going to help you run faster than ever."

You say: "Great. What do I have to do?"

He says: "We're going to further restrict your dietary intake below what you've been eating, reduce the number of days that you can train AND we're going to take you away from the track you've been using and put you in a paved parking lot to train. Don't mind the cars coming and going; they'll just make you more agile. Don't you think these are great ideas? I call it Deliverology."

So, Charley, my question to you is this: Would you wonder if your coach had gone insane? Would you follow his advice and that of the outside consultant? Would you get yourself another coach?

Sunday, March 7, 2010

March 4th, 2010: “The World is On Fire!”: The Fight To Defend Higher Education

By Dennis Loo

(See also Marion Brady's article "Falling into the Ditch.")

To this house where nearly all of the light has been cut off because the windows are boarded up, choking off the air, comes now a large crew of carpenters to rip down these cursed boards. The vermin and mold that have been filling the suffocating air with their toxic fumes can then be exposed to the sunlight and the house cleansed by powerful gusts, the winds of genuine change.

The March 4th demonstrations to defend public education involved hundreds of thousands of students, faculty, staff, workers, and community members in thirty plus U.S. cities. The call for these protests originated in California in November 2009, and was taken up not only by many other states, but also in a number of countries.

These actions in the streets and on the campuses mark a vital and overdue development. They are the harbingers, if the organizing efforts move forward and escalate as planned, of a very different political landscape. The battle for public education represents nothing less than a major part of the cutting edge of a movement that could potentially unravel McWorld.

The people in charge of this dysfunctional McWorld have been riding high for some thirty years, doing grievous damage to everything they touch. They are about to be taken on the ride of, and for, their lives.

What a refreshing development, this taste of a different future! Many of the people coming into the streets on March 4th are new to political actions, probably the vast majority of them. It certainly looked that way to me in the streets of L.A. The age range was about as wide as could be, with, of course, many young people intermingled with red-shirted UTLA teachers, white-and-black shirted CSU students, and yet another variant of red-shirted CSU faculty. Signs ranged from “Defend Public Education” to “Revolution.” The intensity of the feelings here was remarkable. As one student leader put it in her spoken word poem in a Cal Poly Pomona rally prior to boarding buses and cars to attend the L.A. downtown march/rally, “The world is on fire!” This powerful sense of urgency also comes through in the student poem that I end this essay with.

The bankrupting of public goods such as public education from Kindergarten to University, which has reached a critical point here in California, has been a deliberate strategy by those who run this country. After withholding the requisite funds for public goods in order to strangle these services, public officials and educational administrators have been busy privatizing everything they can, on the grounds that the institutions and organizations are “failing.” Public education and higher education in particular have been enormously successful for a very long time. California’s K-12 system, until the privateers engineered the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, was the foremost school system in the nation, the envy of the world.

Because of Proposition 13, a major part of the “Reagan Revolution” of starving public services and the public domain in the interest of private capital and private interest that has led nationally and state by state, to bankruptcy and mind-boggling deficits, California’s K-12 system has gone from first to last: it is now at the bottom along with Guam and Mississippi.

This awful outcome has not shamed the privateers – the neoliberals and the neoconservatives – who have taken their disasters and parlayed them into grist for furthering their destructive agenda: “We’ve made a grand mess of things. Now give us more power to do even more of the same! Let us do to higher education what we’ve done to K-12.”

The privateers’ cure for their induced – iatrogenic - disease is to kill the patient. Their target has been from the beginning to eliminate public education and all other public goods. But because they can’t attack these public goods straight on they have to be circumspect about it and attack them indirectly, using ploys.

Their strategy has been and is the equivalent of a doctor applying a tourniquet to a healthy limb, thereby inducing gangrene, and then declaring that he has to amputate to save the patient because the limb’s gone bad. And now, after amputating two limbs, they are tying a noose around the neck of the patient, claiming that the head is diseased and it’s a tourniquet that’s needed to save the body.

Even before this current “budget crisis,” brought on by the policies of those who claim to have the solution to this crisis, the leadership of California’s higher education attempted to carry out “restructuring” – that is, department and program eliminations - under the signboard of “Prioritization and Recovery.” Faculty fought these plans successfully and the administration had to back off.

Now that the budget crisis has hit full-force, the administration has reintroduced their restructuring measures, now citing the budget as the compelling reason for their draconian cuts – annihilating departments, programs, colleges, faculty, raising student fees and denying places for students, even while they refuse to cut administrative bloat and curb their grossly extravagant self-dealing and corrupt contracts with corporate friends.

The decimation of the public interest by private, for-profit corporations means that nothing but naked cash transactions are supposed to rule our mean spirited McWorld. The McWorld clown is, however, an evil clown. The goods, this malignant clown says, shall go to those who already have a lot (think Goldman Sachs) and when they get into trouble the filthy rich will be bailed out, using the public’s money. But when precious public goods like public education are in trouble, precisely because the largesse has been going to the big corporations through tax breaks and subsidies and thereby slowly strangling the public sector (California is the only state in the union that doesn’t tax the oil and gas companies for extracting oil and gas), they scurry in like rats to put private corporate entities in charge.

This is wholesale theft. It is a crime. The people presiding over it are criminals. These criminals are far worse than the criminals depicted in crime dramas.

Not only is this the taking of wealth and resources and hoarding it for the few, like a giant vacuum scooping up whatever isn’t anchored down, governmental and business elites’ goal is grander than this: to dictate to society as a whole with no institutional opposition to their power. They’re instituting a plutocracy, plain and simple. After all, as the Supreme Court just said, corporations are people too!

The last remaining major institution that has not yet been brought to heel by these privateers is higher education. The privateers have already, through taking over school boards and the Board of Education, under Bush and now Obama, turned K-12 public schools into test-taking mills in which the teachers “don’t have time to teach,” and history, music, art, P.E., and social studies have been cut back sharply or eliminated altogether, because there’s yet another high-stakes test they have to administer every few weeks. Students coming out of this system, trained under No Child Left Behind (aka No Child Left Unharmed), have real difficulty knowing how to see the whole picture and the parts within that larger context, the basis for critical thought, because they have been so inculcated with being told what to memorize and what the answer is.

The privateers themselves don’t tend to go into education as faculty because the money isn’t enough to satisfy their large appetites for material goods. The people who gravitate to education as teachers and professors tend to value non-material things more than cold hard cash. Silly things like knowledge, being mentors for the young and for the disadvantaged, curiosity, skepticism, learning about and from history, exploration, co-operation, dissent, debate, flexibility of thought, consideration of alternative viewpoints, empirical data, and open-mindedness.

In order to take over this arena, the privateers have thus had to do so from the very top, via highly over paid, ridiculously privileged, perk-ridden, high administration positions, as Trustees, as Chancellors, as Presidents and as Provosts. These are the people who have little or no appreciation for education, for what teaching is, and what true learning is and requires. Either that or they, like many or all of the Provosts, have turned their back on their academic backgrounds. Their orientation, and in many cases, their occupational backgrounds, are as business-people, not as educators. They think that education is no different than a business.

The roots of the troubles here stretch back several decades.

The targets of the privateers are the public interest and public goods. They wish to dismantle New Deal programs such as welfare, unemployment compensation, and social security and reverse the 1960s movements’ gains that challenged the old boy network and authority: programs such as affirmative action, women’s rights, abortion rights, the movement to end the Vietnam War, anti-imperialist soldier movements, Miranda Rights, FISA, exposures of and restrictions on programs, such as COINTELPRO, of police agents provocateurs, and the Watergate scandal that revealed the skullduggery and dirty deeds just beneath the surface. The problem with the 1930s and 1960s, from these privateers’ perspective, is that the people challenged authority altogether too well. They demanded too much, became “entitled,” and dared to think that they could be more than pawns in the game of the rich and powerful.

The neoliberal attempts to annihilate these programs and reverse these gains achieved by the people and mass struggles are part of their larger effort to quell dissent, free thought and inquiry, critical thinking, and behaviors that don’t promote the world as they want it to be: a populace consumed by consumption, oblivious to the predations and inequities of capital’s relentless march to exploit everywhere it goes, the savage measures taken to protect and advance imperialist Empire, and obscene further gross enrichment of the plutocracy.

Under their mantra of privatization and doing things the way business does them, these free marketers ought to be shamed by the dramatic evidence of the bankruptcy of their policies – depression level unemployment, a financial crisis that threatened to bring the entire economy down, Katrina’s devastation worsened by Bush’s neoliberal policies, and the debacle of California going from #1 in the nation in K-12 to next to last.

Movements of the people often lag behind events since mass mobilizations are very difficult to accomplish, especially in a country such as this where protest actions aren’t a customary thing. It sometimes takes matters getting very bad first before people will rouse themselves into sufficient action. That time is now for education.

The carpenters are on the move, ready to tear down these boards.

The fight for public education is a battle for all of us because it concentrates all of the elements of what ails the rest of society. Young people, who have always played an indispensible leading role in awakening the rest of society, are in motion. Who can stop them?

The following is a poem by Giezi Perez, read by him at the Cal Poly Pomona campus rally on March 4:

Mi nombre,
No es AB 540
Y mis esfuerzos y mis ganas,
No las vas a degradar con tu dinero
I said my name
Is not AB 540
And you will not degrade my determination and my struggle with your currency
Because currently, you pamper special interests and men in suits who juggle the people’s trust and hopes
Jesters making gestures ridiculing the masses behind classes
We hold you accountable for the future of this state
Where you’d rather incarcerate criminals than invest in the education of the youths so they won’t become one in the first place
The cost of housing an inmate is over $30 thousand per year
And putting a student through college is around half that
It’s apparent where your priorities lie
You focus on people who have done
And not on those who can do
Yet expect me to forget the past
We see through your intentions behind expensive framed glasses and listen past your over intellectualized rhetoric
I hear I have to be patient, to have faith
But you are full of deceit
Like the LIE hidden in the middle of the word “beLIEve”
You’ve given the people a sweet tooth with all the sugar coating of the truth that you’ve done
And you have the audacity to try to blame us for the cavity
Ya Basta
We are people, not statistics
Estudiantes who are tired of being tucked in bed by idle hands from idle lands
But only a people who have been asleep for too long will accept Dream Acts instead of rightful progress
Some of us are waking up
See I, like most of us had no choice but to be brought along to our ancient territory which was invaded by greed and borders
Roadblocks made by gluttonous to provide the sufferer with more struggles
Your belly full but we hungry!
Your ThanksTaking day tables are infested with food, most of which most likely will go to waste
You would rather threaten to take the meals of school children and eliminate 200 of California’s 279 state parks than find better ways to make up for your mistakes
But I refuse to give my seat to someone who is more privileged
Because a transcript cannot transcribe my life and my story and my will to learn and to succeed
Just because someone else can pay you off doesn’t mean he can help build a better society
You are pimpin education and I aint trickin for my knowledge
My name is not AB 540
But I do have an identity, and it on aint laminated paper
No I don’t have a greencard, no I can’t get no license, no I don’t qualify for financial aid at school, I can’t even open an account with Blockbuster how can you expect me to find some legal labor?
For the same reason that when I was a kid they’d hardly let me play outside with the neighbors
And I wish I could truly put to words how much it hurts
Metaphorically it’s like, my life has been dirt
But I’ve made it fertile enough to germinate this heart underneath my secondhand shirt
And cultivate the destiny I was given at my birth
See poverty is my other mother and she raised me to believe
Mi segundo padre es mi patria y me enseƱo como resitir
Now I guess I conduct felonies everytime I (exhale) breathe (inhale)
And with every criminal intent, I speak, because I know that it’s their intentions to make me feel weak
See I was born a Soul Rebel so forever my spirit fights when I breathe
Because “I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees”
Yo soy Joaquin
I am the stories in the news that you hear about but never see
This is for them, for the hungry and the meek
This is for the sixth year elementary school graduate my father never got to be
This is for all the opportunities that have eluded me
For the strife this life is giving to my entire family
For the dreams my younger brothers have that they will never see
For the WIC coupons that mama got to give us something to eat
For those first years that we lived in garages and hid from cops out on the streets
I breathe, and with each breath I move suns like Quetzalcoatl because we all have god inside us
And I know there aint no law against divinity

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Magic of Deliverology

This ran as a Letter to the Editor in the [Cal] Poly Post 2/16/10 issue on p. 11.

By Dennis Loo, Professor of Sociology

The CSU administration wants to accelerate graduation rates - through the magic of Deliverology – while also reducing faculty, programs, and class offerings. This makes as much sense as a ship’s captain ordering his ship to go faster when the boat is already in danger of sinking.

When faculty asked Provost denBoer why he’s cutting academic services most and administration not at all, he said “regulatory requirements” protect administrative ranks. When asked to explain, he said that they have to report to the government the size and pay of administrators, and the government has yet to complain. An inventive tale, I’ll give him that.

You don’t pay outside consultants like Michael “Deliverology” Barber to tell you about teaching in a time of fiscal crisis when you have twenty-three CSU campuses full of teachers who can tell you what’s needed. You don’t oppose increased funding of the CSU - via AB 656 taxing the oil companies - because you don’t like that the bill mandates increased monies be spent on instruction only.

In 2005 and 2006 I was faculty chair of the Academic Quality and Support Subcommittee of the Enrollment Management Advisory Council. I played a leading role in creating a survey in which we attempted to determine what was standing in the way of students' graduation.

Our survey showed that students’ two most often-cited reasons for delaying graduation were both related to the fact that they couldn't get the courses that they needed. Several of the other people within EMAC were convinced, despite what the survey said, that the main reason was that students were frittering away their time and taking courses they didn't need or refusing to take courses because they didn’t want to inconvenience their schedule. The problem, according to our administration, is the students.

A hint of the real agenda at work behind the administration’s attempt to impose “Deliverology” is their talk of loosening up graduation requirements. They want, in other words, to make a degree easier to get – and therefore less valuable. Deliverology treats education as if teaching and learning could be reduced to the assembly production of widgets. Education isn’t something you can just deliver. It is, and has always been, a relationship between human beings, between mentor and mentee. It is something that requires effort to attain. It’s not something that you can package, reproduce like Xerox, and sell to the highest bidder. Yet this is what Chancellor Reed and his loyal lieutenants believe – to them, education is simply a business, the cheaper, the better. Education isn’t a business, it’s a public good and it is under unprecedented assault.

March 4th is a day of action to stand up for higher education and to oppose the elimination of programs and the wrong-headed approach to education that the administration represents. Go to and to learn more.