Dreaming big: Diane Ravitch can talk educational policy form, but walking it out is a different story

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The audience packed tightly into Lehigh University’s Baker Hall on Tuesday February 10th in anticipation of hearing Diane Ravitch’s controversial approach to stifle our government’s current efforts towards school reform. Ravitch presented her argument through a witty self-debate that vehemently defended the American public school system and fought against any interventions that posed to threaten it such as privatization, choice/voucher systems, and the establishment of charter schools. Her reasoning was compelling: transforming education into a for-profit, business-like industry turns students into commodities, encourages efficiency and money over student innovation, and attempts to, in her eyes, inaccurately quantify the abstract character of intellect through the use of standardized measures. She also argued that permitting school choice through voucher systems would not result in academic competition between schools that would increase quality of education, but rather leave schools’ disparities and children’s education largely unchanged. This would be likely due to the lack of knowledge and/or interest from low socioeconomic families in changing their children’s schools, the inaccessibility of transportation for the students across towns, the lack of seating available in better schools, and the insignificant amount of vouchers available compared to the extensive needs of many districts.

Ravitch also considered charter schools a major threat to the success of the public education system, pointing out that not only do charter schools students not perform any better than regular public school students on assessments, they have also deviated from their original missions of helping the neediest students to becoming specialized academies that are in many cases operating as an industry and luring away the most motivated students through their attractive, creative programs. In this way, charter schools continue to foster segregation among students by collecting money from states for their newly specialized programs for specialized students, leaving public schools to suffer with the most challenging and expensive heterogeneous student body, including the learning disabled and non-native English speaking children- and to do this under increasingly restrictive funds.

While these arguments are neither epiphanous nor unfamiliar to educators, Ravitch was able to make her position unique by the sheer scope of her perspective. While teachers struggle every day in the classroom to find better, more effective ways to improve their students’ education, Ravitch acknowledged that this struggle is futile on the individual level because the issues hindering academic success remain much bigger than the classroom. Zooming out past a classroom, a school building, a district, and even a state, she posited that the real sources of our current academic system’s failure lay in macro-level influences such as self-interested business powers, misled government policy, and major inadequacies in social services contributing to a lack of academic resources, poor mother and child healthcare, and persisting poverty. Ravitch not only challenges, but places blame on these dominating, powerful overhead forces like private corporations and the federal government that she herself once worked for.

The way Ravitch uses language is her most powerful tool. She purposely chose to present her speech with a dramatic, igniting vocabulary, claiming that she wants to ‘destroy’ the current education reform, that we are ‘failing’ to defend our public schools, we are inhumanely using ‘fear’ and ‘punishment’ to incentivize better assessment scores, that business elites have ‘no place’ in public education, and that for-profit charter schools should be ‘banned by law’. It is this fearless, defiant attitude that separates Ravitch from the masses that agree with her, but it is also the quality that has her labeled as a radical.

She insists that the problems that current education reforms are designed to attack, such as low test scores, are not the true problems at all, but rather the negative consequences of much larger underlying causes such as under-resourced schools, under-trained teachers, poor social services, poverty, and poor health. And while I absolutely agree that these struggles inhibit student’s performance as well as their wellbeing, Ravitch’s suggestion to address these great forces are just as grand as their scale. Ravitch is absolutely correct that a poor, malnourished child attending an under-resourced school is going to face overwhelming barriers to academic success and benefit little from privatization, voucher systems, or charter schools. However, how exactly she plans to eradicate global crises such as poverty and hunger and persuade the federal government to significantly increase funding to public education and improve social services, I have no idea. The importance of addressing these crises is immense, and I do not think anyone is willing to dispute that. However, I would like to ask Diane Ravitch how she plans to practically overcome these barriers to educational equality and success, and if stifling current governmental reforms is just the place to start.

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Cognitive Dissonance and No Child Left Behind

Students thrive in a school environment where they are able to interact with their teachers, have more individualized learning plans catered to their skills and needs, and feel safe in the school community. My best learning experiences were in community-based classes that fostered analytical thinking and asked me to challenge what I was being taught. However, we live in a nation where schooling is typically not like that. To better understand the experience in schools, I interviewed my friend who is a preschool teacher with experiences in classrooms of pre-K, kindergarten, and second-grade. She describes that, “the only time that I have had free reign to be creative with my teaching was as a preschool teacher, where there was no pressure to teach to a test because tests don’t exist at that level. Students any older than that are always preparing for some sort of test, whether that is a simple quiz, a unit test, or a state exam. The fact that schooling is so based around exams limits your freedoms as a teacher.”

We know that all students would benefit from a great education that is catered around individual needs, but not all students receive it, due to social, political, and economic factors. Our current policies on schooling are not helping to achieve the goal of quality education for all.

The wording of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 pulls at the heartstrings, and it feels bad saying that you might disagree with “not leaving a child behind.” The act can be interpreted as a large-scale form of cognitive dissonance, an attempt to rationalize and forget why schools are failing.

The act aims to increase teacher accountability, raise standards of teaching, and ensure that students across the country are learning similarly well. It places an incredible emphasis on achievement testing, basing success of teachers and schools on students’ test scores. School funding, teacher salary, and school maintenance is all based on how students perform on tests. This places immense pressure on all people involved in schools.

Children feel pressure because they know that their teacher might get fired if they don’t score well on their test. On No Child Left Behind, this teacher says, “in theory it’s a good idea, but it was executed poorly. It’s important that all children have the opportunity to go to school and learn to the best of their ability, but it’s unfair that they’re expected to take all of these exams. There are the anxious test takers that freeze up when it comes time for an exam. It’s not right to do to the kids.”

Teachers feel like they need to base their entire curriculums around the test content, because their jobs and the students’ welfare is at stake. This teacher says, “in a large classroom setting, it’s difficult to cater to everyone’s needs because there are time pressures. The curriculums tell you specifically what questions to ask and how to teach it. In some cases, you’re pretty much given a script to read from, and that leaves no room for creativity at all.”

Administrators fear the test results because they dictate whether their schools will continue as usual or the government will take over. This act has instilled a sense of fear and tension within schools that are supposed to be safe havens.

The No Child Left Behind Act seems like an attempt at an easy fix to a system that needs be prioritized more by the federal government. It puts the education system into simple terms: if you score better, you get more funding. That ignores the systemic impacts on schools and students. It is easier for students in wealthy communities to score better on tests because those students do not have some of the same concerns as students in poorer communities.

In a case study example of schools in West Tallahatchie, Mississippi, as seen in the documentary “LaLee’s Kin: The Legacy of Cotton,” LaLee’s grandchildren spent their days trying to find fresh water, taking care of their family, and seeking out school supplies that they could not afford (Dickson, Frömke, & Maysles, 2001). How could a child who is looking for fresh water have time to do their homework? They do not have the same opportunities to succeed and are at a disadvantage in school. These children should be bolstered by the government. Their schools should be given more funding to help support the children who need it the most. No Child Left Behind does the opposite. It rewards the schools that are achieving the highest, which are typically not attended by students in poverty. It punishes schools that are struggling and could use help most.

This act feeds into the myth of meritocracy, essentially saying that lower achieving schools have not worked hard enough, and therefore should not be the recipients of more funding. What the act does not consider is the extreme hardships faced by students in poverty, and the systemic reasons why students are not achieving as high as their counterparts.

A system that only rewards schools based on achievement testing actually sustains an inequitable schooling environment around the country. When high stakes testing is the most important thing, it devalues the concept of the whole student and undercuts the quality and creativity of education. However, with a name like No Child Left Behind and an attitude that is trying to rationalize why some schools fail, this policy allows people to lessen their cognitive dissonance and forget about the schools that struggle the most. This policy allows people to make sense of the fact that some students are achieving much lower than others, and that is not ok. The education system in our country should work to support children who need help, not punish them.

 

References

Dickson, D., Frömke, S., & Maysles, A. (Directors) (2001). LaLee’s Kin: The Legacy of Cotton. United States: HBO.

No Child Left Behind, Retrieved from: http://www2.ed.gov/nclb/landing.jhtml

Study Abroad… BUT Why?

Welcome to my blog series on study abroad! Study abroad is becoming an increasingly important and valued part of a college education. This series will first look at why study abroad is important for personal development and success in the job market, then will move on to ‘getting off the veranda’ (or the importance of true immersion during a study abroad experience), and finish with how students can make their experience ‘work for them’ by providing tips on how to showcase their international experiences. Enjoy!

Fellow blogger and colleague Sarah Spiegel wrote an important blog a few days ago called “Generation Study Abroad: The Quest to Become “Citizen Diplomats.” In her post, Sarah discussed the very real boundaries that exist for students who want to study abroad. But as someone who has studied abroad, worked abroad and now works in study abroad, I believe more needs to be said on why students should go abroad and why institutions of higher education should work harder to get their students abroad through outreach and funding opportunities.

While it is true that only about 10% of American undergraduates are studying abroad, these 10% (about 300,000 students) are quickly becoming much more competitive in the job market than their peers without international experience. Stacie Nevadomski Berdan, an international careers’ expert who helped do research for the popular study abroad guide A Student Guide to Study Abroad, found that employers across many industries hire students who have studied abroad for very specific skills sets: ability to solve problems in complex, unfamiliar situations; adaptability with culturally diverse situations; excellent communication skills; and practical, useful knowledge of languages and cultures (Why Study Abroad).

Students often develop these ‘soft skills’ while they are studying abroad. However, these skills are not developed through chance while abroad; they are the direct result of interacting with local classmates and professors, interning or volunteering abroad with local companies and groups, and studying abroad on programs that enhance students’ academic programs (programs that aren’t just travel abroad but STUDY abroad).

Students who return from study abroad are certainly reporting these changes. IES Abroad, a large study abroad provider, recently polled its program alumni from 1950-1999 on the value of study abroad. 3,400 of their alumni responded, saying that study abroad mature more than they did during their whole on-campus career. They gained intercultural communication skills that not only gave them appreciation for other cultures, but also prepared them to be leaders in global workplaces. Many alumni also said that specific classes, internships or relationships helped them move into jobs that advanced their careers. Also, 42% of students who lived in a homestay report that they now use a language other than English on a regular basis (IES, The Benefits of Study Abroad).

These sentiments are being echoed all over right now from the New York Times Room for Debate: Study Abroad is Essential, where international experts debated the value of study abroad, to a recent RAND study of HR managers, which states intercultural competence was the 5th most desired attribute of an employee, to the Generation Study Abroad developed by the Institute for International Education (IIE- the group that also brings us the Fulbright program) that aims to double the number of Americans studying abroad by 2020. Colleges and universities around the country are signing on and pledging to increase the number of students going abroad on their campuses.

Generation Study Abroad has also been noticed by the White House, particularly by the First Lady who has become a very vocal supporter of study abroad. Mrs. Obama spoke with CNN on April 4 stating that

“the benefits of studying abroad are almost endless. First of all, it is going to make you more marketable in the United States. More and more companies are realizing that they need people with experience around the world.”

There is a noticeable trend of employers desiring more globally aware employees with international experience coupled with the trend of colleges and advocacy groups around the country pushing their students to go abroad more than ever is creating a supply and demand like never before. Employers are demanding candidates with international experience and colleges and universities are supplying more graduates than ever who have studied, interned, volunteered, taught and lived abroad. Now, institutions of higher education and study abroad program providers must also create funding sources and (or) create study abroad programs that maximize the experiences the students can have abroad while minimizing the price the students must pay. Colleges and providers must strive to make programming affordable so that all students can have the opportunity to go abroad, not just the students who can afford it.

Stay tuned for the next blog in the series, Study Abroad, BUT Get Off the Veranda!

Nevada: A Case Study in Crisis?

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Crisis.” It’s at once the most used, abused, tossed-off, throw-on, and bandied-about buzzword in our collective hysteria over the state of American education these days. It’s the short-but-sick pabulum for everyone from Christian Conservatives prophesying the day we’ll all be pledging allegiance to Charles Darwin to stuffy policy wonks fretting over our ostensibly dismal PISA scores (“Estonia scored better than us! Really! Estonia!”). And so but while I’m generally cautious about the use of this term, this catch-all diagnosis for the big, impossibly complex and interconnected dynamics of 21st century education, I’m leaning toward using it – as most Nevadans are inclined to do – when it comes to describing the quagmire that is the state’s educational situation, particularly Clark County’s (Las Vegas).

Amongst the 50 states plus the District of Columbia, Nevada ranks only above D.C. in high school graduation rate – i.e. it’s basically dead last (for whatever reason, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Idaho haven’t reported recent data). Similarly, with a deficit-ridden state budget, Nevada ranks near the bottom in per-pupil K-12 expenditure, outspending only UT, ID, OK, AZ, MS, and TN. In 2011, citing his conviction to not raise taxes during a time of economic strife, Nevada Governor Sandoval vetoed Assembly Bill 568, a plan that would have effectively raised education spending by $660 million. In January of this year, just ahead of the currently in-progress legislative assembly[1] Gov. Sandoval’s 2013 budget plan for the recently commenced legislative session directs some of Nevada’s increased tax revenue to education, but, citing the costs of the Affordable Care Act, it more or less “maintain[s] the existing expenditure levels.” Nevada state democrats have argued that Sandoval’s budget continues to woefully underfund a struggling school system by some 300 odd million dollars. (You can check out the budget’s education spending in detail here.)

Budget holes aside, there are other indicators of the Nevada education mess. Last week, after only a year on the job, Nevada’s state superintendent of education, James Guthrie, unexpectedly resigned. Hand-picked by Gov. Brian Sandoval, Guthrie, most recently a senior fellow of education policy studies at the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas, was considered by many to be an odd and potentially controversial choice for the state’s highest education job. More of an academic (or “educational entrepreneur” as described in the video below) than an experienced educator, having taught/worked at prestigious education schools such as Vanderbilt and UC Berkeley, Guthrie was in step with Sandoval in downplaying the need for educational funding by championing charter schools and strict accountability regimes designed to expunge/penalize underperforming teachers.

Most significantly, Guthrie almost immediately drew the ire of Democratic legislatures and K-12 educators across the state by insisting that class size doesn’t have a significant impact on educational outcomes. To make matters worse, only shortly before Guthrie’s surprise resignation[2], Dwight Jones, the superintendent of Clark County public schools abruptly resigned as well, citing the need to take care of his ailing mother in Dallas.

At the moment the education system of Nevada, including Clark County, the country’s fifth largest district, is attempting to mend the wound of its dismal graduation rate, one of the country’s worst, while it faces a budget short fall of millions of dollars, leading to well below-average per pupil expenditure, teacher wage freezes, staff layoffs, and cuts to programs such as teacher healthcare and English as a Second Language courses. Worse yet, it’s attempting to do so in a leadership vacuum, with figures like Dwight Jones and James Guthrie coming in one day and going out the other. All this in a state that was one of the hardest hit by the economic downtown of recent years. Nevada ranks high in the number of households underwater and foreclosed upon. And, oh yeah, with an unemployment rate of 9.6%, Nevada, tied with California and Mississippi, ranks dead last among the 50 states in this crucial category.

Originally, I wanted to write a post about something much more specific – a proposed bill to shift the governance of Nevada community colleges from the Nevada System of Higher Education to the state Dept. of Education, effectively instituting a K-14, high school to community college feeder system. But before laying out the particularities of that, I couldn’t help but give a sketch of the Nevada state of education in general, some needed context, a report from the field. And that sketch turned it this – an assessment and argument for what many think is a true American education “crisis.”

Above are the facts – and actually only the faintest sketch. Undoubtedly, the reasons for Nevada’s educational struggles are complicated and interconnected with the peculiar social and economic realities of the state: a high number of poor people, many of them immigrants, and the monoculture economy of the gaming industry, which engenders its own set of particular incentives for the state’s young people and their families to eschew educational success (i.e. you can make a decent wage working in the gaming industry with very little education). But so the necessary follow-up question thus (and what will perhaps be the substance of some more content on this blog) is how and with what policy choices are the beleaguered residents of the sagebrush state attempting to respond to their educational “crisis” – with fist-on-table pounding insistence or, a la Professor Guthrie, with resignation?


[1] Nevada is one of only six states in which the legislative body meets only every two years (on the odd numbered years). Maybe that’s part of Nevada’s political/bureaucratic gridlock (although the state’s libertarian vein would argue the opposite). I don’t know, just saying …

[2] There is some speculation that heat from Democrats in the legislature prompted Sandoval to pressure Guthrie for his resignation.