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"After 11 Years" Reflections on Education Nation Summit debate between Canada and Ravitch
I just watched Education Nation Summit 2011's debate between Diane Ravitch and Geoffrey Canada concerning education reform.
For a while, I've been on the side of Geoffrey Canada. When I was teaching in NYC, I would agree that I was in a system that "isn't working" and when I visited a nearby charter school, I was blown away by the order, the focus on academic achievement, and a school culture that supported that focus. I tried to replicate that culture in my own classroom but found that I couldn't do it alone. One day, it hit me that I can walk away from this demoralizing environment because I have options, but my students are stuck in this system in which they can't get a good education. So I became a supporter of charter schools like KIPP and others that focus their efforts on serving low-income students and have proven successful. And by success, I don't just mean test scores. You can tell that this is a vibrant, working school from observing the energy, drive, and focus of the teachers and how they explicitly model and expect their students to do the same. It's not just academics either. KIPP had a fantastic music program. It was about setting big goals and working hard to achieve them. I thought, at the time, if I can't do this for my students, then I wish that every one of them, esp. those who had a little more academic motivation than others, could have the opportunity to go to a school like this. In Geoffrey Canada's worldview, radical, immediate change is needed because of his sense of urgency. And performance matters more than stability. Failure is the cost of innovation, and if schools aren't working, he's willing to take the risk and cost of disrupting it for the sake of better results.
Diane Ravitch isn't willing to risk that much, and I'm starting to convert to her view. When I moved to Boston, I developed an interest in local politics and issues through my involvement in a church member's run for Boston City Council and eventually mayor. His family lived in Dorchester and sent their kids to a Boston pilot school, a school that's part of the school district but has more autonomy than a traditional public school. That school had only been open a few years but couldn't improve its test scores so got on the list of schools slated for closure, its students to be transferred to a nearby school. The family fought alongside other parents and teachers to keep the school open, to no avail. I couldn't help thinking about how much the school must mean to the community, even if it wasn't performing well academically. My friends still believed in the school and was willing to send their kids there. Then I read about how the high school in Brockton has improved its test scores, but it took 10 years of hard work by the teachers and administrators. And as far as I know, this was not done through dramatic firing and/or closing of schools. Then Waiting for Superman came out, and I found the tone and methods of these so-called "reformers" to be caustic, divisive and even manipulative. Also, the negative effects of high-stakes testing are starting to be more evident. The reformers' reliance on this source of data to hold teachers and schools accountable is problematic. For Canada and others like him, standarized tests are a necessary evil - it's the best we've got for an objective measure. They wouldn't mind making tests better and fairer, but the basic idea of using test results as an important source of data and for accountability is core to this current trend of education reform. Even critics of the reform, like Diane Ravitch, use international testing results to make her points. She, would however, distinguish between good and bad uses of testing and test results, and I'm starting to understand that difference myself. What Ravitch advocates for is slow, steady change with the long-view in mind. Trust, stability, and relationships matter. As she puts it, "we can't fire our way to excellence" and "it's the things that matter the most that we don't have metrics for."
In NYC, I was impatient for change to come. I was worried that it wouldn't come fast enough to affect the children I was teaching. But I wasn't thinking about the bigger picture, or the unintended effects that charter schools, even successful ones, would have on the community. They "cream" the best kids, the ones with parents who are little more savvy to learn about these charter schools and enter the lottery. They set high standards for behavior and academic performance that "push out" the kids who have trouble following the rules or find the environment too stifling. Or perhaps some students want to play sports and charter schools tend to be too small and too focused on academics to support very many extracurricular activities. Many charter schools with this strong academic focus also tend to have a narrower view of what's valued - doing well on tests, for instance. I saw this first hand when I volunteered as a Sat. tutor for a charter school that required all its 10th graders to have 4 hours of test-prep tutoring per week. I worked with a student who was a musician and had an expressive, flowery way of writing that would not serve him well on the MCAS test so I had to train him to simplify his writing to fit the mold. He did fine on the test, which I felt relieved about, but I wondered if I might've killed some of his creativity in the process. Yet doing well on the high school MCAS and other tests would help open doors to college and eventually give him more choices in life, including pursuing music, so perhaps it's worth it? I don't know.
I don't regret believing something, feeling passionately about needing to find urgent solutions, and getting involved. Now, I am humbled by how much I don't know, and have become wary of getting caught up in ideological, narrow ways of thinking about the complexities of education. Geoffrey Canada, for all his passionate rhetoric, and myself, need to learn a few history lessons from Diane Ravitch, and consider the bigger, longer view.