It's All Been Done Before!

This weekend, I'm attending a conference at Yale entitled, "Visualizing Global Asia."  Before leaving DC, I picked up a copy of Diane Ravitch's new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, at the DC public library and read it on the train up to New Haven.  It's a fairly quick read as the language is not dense and most of it does little more than confirm most of my biases about our educational debate.  But there was one chapter that really stuck out to me that I want to quickly comment on.

Have you ever had an experience that you felt really opened your eyes to the world - one that you found so utterly groundbreaking given your own life experience that you wanted to share it with everyone so that they could glean some of the knowledge that you took from it - only to discover that that same experience already happened to thousands of people before you, that you're really nothing more than one of a long line of people who just happens to be among the most recent people to experience such a situation.  On one hand, it kind of makes you feel like your experience was less significant than you originally thought (although it probably shouldn't when you consider that pretty much any lesson you learn in life has already been learned by billions of people who've come before you), but on the other hand, it kind of makes you feel more a part of some sort of universal human experience.  Well, this is exactly what happened to me when I read Ravitch's fourth chapter, "Lessons from San Diego."

Unbeknownst to me (a complete amateur in the world of education history, policy, and practice), many of the things happening in DC today played out in a similar fashion in San Diego between 1998 and 2005.  Ravitch tells the story of San Diego's choice to make a federal prosecutor, Alan Bersin, superintendent of San Diego's public schools.  Apparently, Bersin believed that democracy and educational reform don't go together.  He took a top-down approach and immediately downsized central office staff, fired principals, and created a culture within the public schools that minimized trust and maximized conformity.  According to Ravitch, Bersin sent instructional coaches to schools that most teachers felt were there not to help them improve, but rather to "catch them" teaching the wrong way.  From the book:
"The coaches sowed animosity, especially among experienced teachers.,  The coaches made teachers feel less competent, not respected.  Teachers saw them as policemen and did not trust them.  They came into classrooms to inspect the 'word walls,' and the 'leveled libraries,' and the mandatory student-made posters..."
Later on:
"A National Board-certified teacher who was a former Teacher of the Year for the district spoke contemptuously of the regimented language, the scripted talk, such as 'I am a reflective practitioner.'  Teachers were not allowed to question the leaderships' strategy.  'We bonded, we spoke in code words.  They spied on us, videotaped staff development meetings, with the camera pointed at the audience, not the presenters.  Sometimes we agreed that no one would talk.  We would sit quietly, in a form of passive noncompliance.  It was a totalitarian atmosphere.  We were subversive.  We knew what they wanted to hear.  We would be punished if we didn't parrot the words they wanted to hear,' she said."  
I felt like I'd taught with these teachers.  I know exactly what it means to work in a school that feels like a totalitarian dictatorship and mentioned it in my blogging multiple times, especially here when I said I felt like Winston from Nineteen Eighty-four.  It also reminded me of a something a colleague e-mailed our department when we still thought there was something we could do to stop the constant teacher turnover.  I shared this quote in my blog when I finally decided I was Checking Out.  Referring to teacher turnover, my former colleague said:
"Here's the matter what we think, I bet the administration doesn't think this is a crisis. I think there has been a very conscious decision made which is something like this: 'We have a program which is designed to lift the average test score by X%. The program penalizes teacher creativity and risk-taking, while it rewards conformity and not thinking or asking questions. Above all, we value obedience. We accept that a lot of people will not like this program and will leave. They can be replaced."
Ravitch also mentions that teachers in San Diego flocked "to the clinic 'in droves' with 'work-related depression and anxiety due to a hostile work environment,'" (see my post on Abused Teachers Syndrome) and that Bersin was backed by "more than $50 million from foundations, including the Gates Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the Broad Foundation.  Several foundation grants had a specific contingency: The money would be available only as long as Bersin and Alvarado remained in charge of the district."  If that doesn't sound familiar, go here.

So it seems DC's story has been played out before, the only thing different about Rhee is the attempt at IMPACT and merit pay.  In San Diego, Bersin left after having alienated and disenfranchised too many of the stakeholders, only to be replaced by a superintendent with an actual background in education, imagine that.

Well, you know what they say: wait it out and it'll all go away soon enough.  Ugh - I don't know.  I have no conclusions to draw here.  Just making a comparison.


  1. Awesome post, I just sent you an email. More people need to know what you know.

  2. Yes, RE - I had a similar feeling when reading that Chapter about San Diego - deja vu all over again.

    San Diego didn't make national news - as far as I know their superintendent was not the media star that Rhee is, but is otherwise the same character.

  3. I, too, enjoyed her book. I hate that it took her so long to come around, however.

    The following quotes from it resonated with me:

    "There are just so many hours and minutes in the school day, and if more time is devoted to testing and test preparation, then less time will be available to teach subjects that will not be on the state tests. Yet lack of attention to history, science, and the arts detracts from the quality of education, the quality of children's lives, the quality of daily life in school, and even performance on the tests. Ironically, test prep is not always the best preparation for taking tests. Children expand their vocabulary and improve their reading skills when they learn history, science, and literature, just as they may sharpen their mathematics skills while learning science and geography."

    " It (NCLB) demanded that schools generate higher test scores in basic skills, but it required no curriculum at all, nor did it raise standards. It ignored such important studies as history, civics, literature, science, the arts, and geography...Accountability makes no sense when it undermines the larger goals of education. How did the testing and accountability become the main levers of school reform? How did our elected officials become convinced that measurement and data would fix the schools? Somehow our nation got off track in its efforts to improve education. What was once the standards movement was replaced by the accountability movement. What once was an effort to improve the quality of education turned into an accounting strategy: Measure, then punish or reward. No education experience was needed to administer such a program. Anyone who loved data could do it. The strategy produced fear and obedience among educators; it often generated higher test scores. But it had nothing to do with education."

    "Any genuine school reform, he argued, 'is dependent upon empowering those at the bottom, not punishing them from the top.'...Can teachers successfully educate children to think for themselves if teachers are not treated as professionals who think for themselves?...If a get-tough policy saps educators of their initiative, their craft, and their enthusiasm, then it is hard to believe that the results are worth having."

  4. In DCPS schools, where until recently there was no attempt to evaluate seriously or cull the herd--decades of weeding out that was never done--there was, to start with, no evident initiative, craft and enthusiasm. Teachers write off the kids, disrespect them, appear lazy, and look down on their parents and economic class. This is not uniform, but it is widespread. For most of these "teachers," there is little hope of relighting any flame because it was never there. I do not want to give many of these a raise, nor phoney performance pay because they won't earn it.

  5. Dear Anon 9:22 - You speak in broad, negative terms. How do you know that what you say is accurate?

  6. Truly excellent post, RE! I am reminded of the Emerson quote "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines." We are certainly beset by hobgoblins and little minds in DCPS.

  7. To the 10:54am percon: I have data and information--from many teachers and parents in various parts of our good City. I also see how few the anti-schools-reform voices are, and, can see the stats of teacher turnover in the last couple of decades. It fits the "quit rate" often seen in government jobs, but that has never lined up with even a bell curve of expected teacher performance. There is a reason--an ominous one--that federal civil servant performance assessments are typically more than half "excellent." Teachers themselves and parents and certainly children in class can easily ID teachers who need help or a new place to work. Also visible is an apparent quick rejection by public school teachers of performance evaluation (Impact I think it is called) by some teachers. You call the use of the fact-based conclusion negative; many would call it positive--because we are finding the parts of the overall problem that can be fixed by DC government (including Council of the District of Columbia) action in our lifetime, rather than preparing to sing Kumbaya while all social ills are cured. Most people's reaction to needed change of this type is to be negative, as yours may be, but I hope you see that we have a chance to continue in the right direction here, and that is positive. Make sense to you?

  8. to anon 11:35 - I agree that there are few anti-school reform voices - most everyone wants school reform - but many firmly reject the type of school reform Rhee has brought.

    No one wants to wait until all social ills are cured either -- but what's the point of firing teachers - does that take the place of curing social ills?

    As for your claim that "I have data" - not good enough - anyone can say that. Let's see it - and the proof of it.

    To reflective educator - congrats - someone downtown thinks you're important enough to a staffer here to try to sell the chancellor's program.

  9. Poster at 4-41pm -- i think I have seen almost all dc school test data debunked--one way or the other. Unreliable and/or invalid or bad sample or queered by unseen demographics glibly forgotten in the analysis. So why use it in public? Waste of time to prove any side of the popular education arguments. Educational research seems to be so bogus and wasteful; the best ed schools put out some pretty gamey stuff, I have heard and even read with my own eyes. That study of paying kids is the best example, and that was Harvard if I remember correctly.

    I question sincerely--and with much ccontac w educators--that many teachers really want reform. Not visible in many performances one learns of or in private convos. Most of all the idea of teachers wanting reform is almost invisible on all the usual comment boards and even some union meetings one hears accounts of. (And if you listen and then watch people like Randi Weingarden, there is living proof that you can mouth reform and not mean one iota of it)

    What can be seen clearly is (1) teachers seem to minimize to the extreme the impact they might have (2) bald concern for job protection--hey even the feds can't be as rock solid secure as they used to be. At the state and local level, fuhgeddaboutit. What other line of work offers guaranteed lifetime jobs?

    Frankly, I wish we could reward consistently good teachers with something meaningful professionally and economically (with rigorous assessments yearly at least), but giving "tenure" to all w negligible chance of getting fired for dogging it or laid off--that is too much for the taxpayers to swallow. Every good work force is always shedding some staff by involuntary means and some voluntary decisions and also taking in new blood.

    The entire DC government is sort of stagnant after coming down from the Marion Barry bloat. Again, stability makes sense, but the kids change teachers every year. Turnover is only bad if too many good ones walk out the door. The rep of the schools and recent labor war are going to push out more good ones, which is of great concern.

    It isn't because of the superintendent for the most part but instead the raw politics within the system, an age tension, a needless class war in a city where majority home rule stretches back to the early Seventies, and rather sadly, some groundless racial arguments which some folks can't keep from using, for no good reason.

    Just read this and apologize for posting TMI.


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