Saturday, June 4, 2011

Dear Jonathan Alter (Again)

Dear Jonathan Alter,

I wrote you last November with concerns I had about a piece you wrote for Newsweek: "A Case of Senioritis." You responded and, to be fair, seemed initially open to having a real dialogue. You did not, however, engage with me beyond that initial email. I can understand that. I'm sure you're busy. But after reading your piece, "Don't Believe Critics, Education Reform Works," I find myself again compelled to raise some very serious concerns.

While the majority of your column was written in response to Diane Ravitch's work, my purpose in writing to you is not to defend her. Dr Ravtich is quite capable of doing so on her own. Instead, I'd like to respond to your ideas and rhetorical techniques. It is my hope that we might find a more constructive way to present our perspectives on education reform.

First and foremost, please, for the love of God, stop referring to people who disagree with corporate reform as "the forces of the status quo." Any time someone uses that phrase, I am immediately disinclined to give them any more of my time. It is both obnoxious and beyond exhausted. More importantly, there are many legitimate concerns with the corporate reform model. To suggest that anyone who resists it is against education reform (as you suggested of Dr Ravitch and me in our last email conversation) only demonstrates that while you may hear our side, you're not really listening. The corporate reform movement has spent a lot of money purchasing the terms of the educational debate. As a result, opponents of corporate reform find themselves on the defensive more often than not. While I believe a better job must be done advancing our preferred reforms, it is incredibly difficult to do so under constant attack. Please, pay closer attention.

Secondly, I wonder if it might be possible (although I am sincerely skeptical) to extricate ourselves from what I consider an entirely false conversation about school quality with a reliance on quantitative data as its basis, primarily test scores. You reference Bruce Randolph School as an example of a success story. I know nothing about the school. I could be wrong, but I bet you don't know all that much about it either, except that it had a 97 per cent graduation rate. You dismiss Dr Ravitch's skepticism of that indicator by suggesting that she's "bent on extinguishing any hope that our teachers and students can do better." You reference an op-ed she wrote for the New York Times in which she mentions that the school's ACT scores were far below the state average. Ravitch also notes (although you did not mention it in your column) that the school fared poorly on the reading, writing, and science standards. You ask, "since when does Ravitch credit test scores?" (I would briefly note that Ravitch has long professed that NAEP scores are worth study.) I understand your frustration. I have also been frustrated with critics of corporate reform who decry standardized tests as poor indicators of student progress but then use them when it serves their purpose. But I fail to see why you cannot see the legitamacy in Ravitch's concerns. Surely something strange is going on with those numbers, no?

There is, however, a much more important conversation to have regarding all this quantitative data. Quantitative measures, subject to manipulation, seem to be all we have to pass judgement on schools we've never visited. Shouldn't it be expected that when we threaten people with their livelihoods when the numbers don't improve and provide significant incentives when they do that the numbers will be subject to regular manipulation in schools that serve disadvantaged students by all but the most ethical individuals? Shouldn't we also be extraordinarily skeptical about the legitimacy of these data as a result? I think this is a serious concern that deserves real discussion. I'm not sure anyone who's never spent real time in a school can ever be truly qualified to pass judgement on its efficacy. I'm afraid continuing to allow our discussion about what works and what doesn't to be driven by numbers takes valuable time away from more important discussions about better ways of assessing school quality.

Continuing along the line of data, you seem to make the argument that we do not overemphasize test scores. You write that corporate reformers have said they want to use more than just the tests to make decisions about school quality. That may be technically true. I have heard many corporate reformers say test scores are not all we should be looking at. What I'm afraid you may not understand, however, is just how emphasized they are by policy. While it may sound nice to say that test scores are not the only thing we use to judge a school's quality, they are nearly the only thing we are using to judge a school's quality. Superintendents across the country are firing principals and closing schools because a failure to meet targets for boosting test scores.

The PARCC consortium, paid for by Race to the Top funds, will test students more often as a means of increasing accountability. In a recent letter touting the importance of the social studies, Arne Duncan wrote that he hopes in "some states where the curriculum has been narrowed, teachers may even want to work with educational leaders to include social studies in their accountability system..." You can take that to mean that they develop and administer more social studies tests. If you don't think the corporate reform movement has brought an increase in testing that has come at the expense of student learning, then you come off as either misinformed or disingenuous. The negative effects of testing, especially on disadvantaged students, is, in my opinion, one of the most important results an educational commentator needs to understand of our current wave of reform. Please be willing to investigate this matter more closely.

Thirdly, I felt you really avoided real issues concerning poverty in the section of your column entitled Straw Men. You say that it's false for Ravitch to suggest that political leaders are suggesting that poverty doesn't matter. I disagree. I've heard educational and political leaders say on a number of occasions that poverty doesn't matter in terms of student achievement given an excellent teacher. I've heard Wendy Kopp, Joel Klein, Alfred Tatum, Paul Vallas, and Michelle Rhee all say this. Furthermore, when you say these leaders don't want to use poverty as an excuse for inaction, you imply that those against corporate reform do. That's strikes me as both false and vile. It offends me deeply. The question over poverty is not whether concerned people want to act to serve impoverished students, it is the extent to which its effects can be mitigated by excellent schools.

In the Straw Men section, you go on to ask "what's wrong with business executives or other interested outsiders devoting time and money to public schools?" Again, you hint at a serious misunderstanding of what's happening in some charter schools. Your posing of a question that leads the reader to no other answer than the one you would give misleads the reader into a false sense of complacency concerning business interests and their ties to public education policy and school operation. Business executives are not merely devoting time and money to public schools. They have a significant say in how they're run. A businessperson who knows only business and nothing of the workings of an organization is often a detriment to any business, organization, or system. The same is true in public education. Furthermore, corporate reformers assume that public education can be operated like a private business despite its attempt to provide an extraordinarily valuable public service. Your column suggests that you're either not familiar with the very serious dilemma that comes with treating a public service like a private service or you'd rather not acknowledge it. Again, this concerns me.

Lastly, you argue that charter schools are public schools, not private, and imply there should be no concern over attempts to privatize them. Again, you are technically correct. But, again, you refuse legitimate arguments on the other side. Some charter schools have, for all intents and purposes, become privatized. They receive vast funds from private donors, are not required to disclose their financial dealings, treat education as a product and test scores as profit, refuse to educate those students who are most expensive to educate, advertise heavily in an attempt to draw those students easiest to educate, and counsel students who do not live up to their expectations out of their schools. These very corporate-minded practices raise issues of racism, bigotry, and the exacerbation of racial and income inequality. They give pause to anyone who thinks pursuing truly public education is a worthwhile endeavor. It would have done your column a great deal of service if you had acknowledged this reality. While I am decidedly ambivalent over the role of charters at large in public education, you do your readers a very serious disservice by ignoring their critics' legitimate concerns.

I sincerely mean this letter as a point of entry for real dialogue. You demonstrated to me in November that you're at least a little willing to converse honestly with the other side. However, your columns continue to eschew the kind of thoughtfulness held as a requirement by readers interested in finding practical solutions beyond the constraints of ideology or opportunistic agendas. While the way you've worded your column may make many of your claims technically true, I'm very worried that you're using clever wording to dance around very serious discussions. You are writing at bloomberg.com, so I suppose you may be intending to preach to the choir rather than win new converts, but as a member of the media, I do think it's incumbent upon you to strive for a more honest critique of school reform, particularly as a man with such intellect, and in a democracy so starved for independent thought.

Please accept my criticisms of your writing not as personal attacks, but as potential starting points for real dialogue. Make me believe you value divergent perspectives.

Sincerely,

The Reflective Educator
New York City Public School Teacher

9 comments:

  1. What a beautiful piece RE.

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  2. "These very corporate-minded practices raise issues of racism, bigotry, and the exacerbation of racial and income inequality."

    RE, What an insightful definition of most charter schools!

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  3. It's a very nice letter, but ultimately pointless. Alter, like most education writers now being published in major publications, is a bought and paid for apologist for the "corporate" model of education. Writing to him asking him to consider that he might be mistaken is useless.

    Unfortunately, I don't see any likelihood that this model is going away, as the influence that money buys is just too great, and it allows the purchase of media to question anyone who dare suggest that this method isn't perfect.

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  4. "First and foremost, please, for the love of God, stop referring to people who disagree with corporate reform as "the forces of the status quo."

    Thank you for that line especially.

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  5. That's the signature line of the corporate education reformers, the heart of their case. They undoubtedly took considerable trouble to make it the message that they stay on. Considering that, it's probably pointless to beg them to drop it.

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  6. Very well-written, thoughtful, comprehensive, reasonable, and clear. Great job!

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  7. Thank you for this eloquent piece. To the person posting as "Anonymous", let me just reply that there is nothing pointless about attempting to engage in dialogue with others who hold differing opinions. It's what we try to teach our students to do every day, and it is our responsibility to model it as a fundamental part of what we believe. The influence of money IS great, as Anonymous claims. However, the influence of our voices combined is also great and is, I personally believe, beyond price.

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  8. Hey..
    thanks to give us authentic knowledge. i got brilliant ideas from your post.
    thanks for that one article..

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  9. James - Alter is clearly running scared to write such a venemous piece about Diane Ravitch. The think the whol reform movement is - not just because they are meeting stiff resistent, but because their reforms are clearly not working.

    Keep it up, but don't be disappointed if you don't here back from Alter -- he may be too threatened by your sensible tone to respond

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