In The Gray

As a social entrepreneur, I’m often asked about the larger education reform movement of which Reach is a part. To be honest, I’m often frustrated by the conversation. In my opinion, the most recent opportunity to promote true dialogue fell flat.

On Thursday, Jon Stewart’s Daily Show welcomed Diane Ravitch. While I agree with many of the comments made by Ms. Ravitch, I find the certainty of her statements troubling. Like the ongoing dialogue related to many of the issues currently facing our country, the education debate has devolved into two groups shouting from opposite sides of a ravine. Ms. Ravitch contributed little to closing that gap. Perhaps most troubling, Ms. Ravitch spoke with such certainty despite the fact that she previously stood on the other side. Years ago, Ms. Ravitch was an outspoken supporter of both testing and charter schools.

Going through the 8 minute interview, I have a number of questions:

  • If she wants to attack the way the media has driven the dialogue about education, then she should use facts to support her feelings that teachers are being blamed, inappropriately, for the results of poverty. Instead, she started by asking the audience whether they liked testing. They booed. Are we to think that testing is bad because Stewart’s audience thinks so?
  • Ms. Ravitch, like many others, chose to compare the American education system to that of Finland. Scandinavian countries do well in Education. They are also substantively different when it comes to culture, politics, and the economy. When the context is different, the solution should be different. Would Finland’s system, if executed in exactly the same way, work here? If not, why do we use it as an argument to maintain parts of our current system (strong unions) but not promote parts of theirs (a national curriculum)?
  • Ms. Ravitch seemed to argue that our low test scores are blamed on teachers when really they are a result of childhood poverty. Are these options mutually exclusive? Can we not try to improve teacher quality and the contextual factors that influence student performance? Ravitch states that a California principal told her she had supervised 300 teachers and only 1 was bad. Beyond my trouble believing this statement, it’s made without context. This could mean a number of things: the principal had low expectations, the teachers were all good, or the principal simply felt they could not get a replacement of greater quality. Do any teachers out there want to make the argument that 99.6% of teachers are good?
  • Finally, in one sentence, Ms. Ravitch dismissed the work of the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and the Department of Education. While I have previously posted articles outlining the troubling role played by these major foundations, it is hard for me to swallow the idea that everything all three of the entities do is worthless.

I don’t claim to be the world’s leading expert on all things education, but I do recognize the complexity of our current challenges.

There are four things to remember during debates about education:

  • It’s easy to hate No Child Left Behind, but the legislation does require schools to report subgroup data. This forces schools to address the needs of minority groups (students with disabilities, racial minorities, etc.) that were previously ignored due to the ability of data aggregation to hide specific failures. Let us not throw the entire bill out for the purpose of simplicity.
  • Identifying and incentivizing good teachers (and firing “bad” ones) is an incredibly challenging proposition. First, incentivizing good teaching will not improve performance (see: Pink and Kohn). Second, frankly, we know little about effectively measuring teacher performance. What we do know indicates that peer review is more effective than public embarrassment (see paragraph starting, “But, in fact collaboration…) in improving teacher quality. In the end, really talented leaders will need a lot of support to provide the professional development opportunities necessary to build a high-quality teacher force.
  • More often than not, we find ourselves pinned between now and later. The urgency of the moment requires us to make changes as fast as possible, but our rush to change the world now sometimes leads us to make the wrong choices for building a better system for the future. The choices are difficult, and the answers are far from clear. To act otherwise is irresponsible and disrespectful. We can, however, be confident that all involved are trying to improve outcomes for children, whether or not we agree with their tactics.
  • Teachers take their work very personally, but we must remember that bad teaching is not the same as a bad teacher. Many teachers can improve. To have real conversations about teacher quality, we must depersonalize the work.

The conversations are complex and the work challenging. We must be comfortable wading through the gray. Despite Ravitch’s comments, the issues are not simply black and white.

Thanks, as always, for reading.


Posted in Ed Reform Notes, Updates |


  1. ed
    Posted March 4, 2011 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

    Great post Mark. Your ability to crank out incisive commentary on this so promptly is impressive.

    Pre-conversion Ravitch (with her arrogance and platitudes) infuriated me. Ravitch-2.o just frustrates me.

    Of course, no issue that is so complex and multi-dimensional can be reduced to an eight minute conversation. Stewart’s clear passion (due to his mother) was a moment of authenticity that I have never felt from Ravitch in either iteration.

    I think he is often a good interviewer. But in this episode, I thought the mash up of public workers with Wall Street bankers was the far better part of the show.

  2. Matt Emery
    Posted March 7, 2011 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this post, Mark! Great stuff.

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