Duncan's paranoia about Diane Ravitch reaches to The New York Times and David Brooks

When an Op Ed column touting charter school myths by conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks was scheduled to go live, first on line and then in the Times's June 30 editions, Brooks had a major and powerful fan: U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Duncan's expensive underlings made sure that the U.S. government told people to go to Brooks's article to learn the "truth" about KIPP and Harlem Success charter schools in New York City — and to refute the charges by historian and critic Diane Ravitch that Duncan's charter school promotionals and relentless attacks on the nation's real public schools are anti-American, un-democratic, and, as more and more people are seeing it (both in the context of Duncan's work in Chicago and his subsequent policies in Washington: Racist.

Ironically, Brooks's attack on Ravitch is measured, just as his promotions for the charter schools Duncan touts as national models is based on incomplete information or, worse, deliberate lies. One of the ironies of the placement of the Duncan promotional for Brooks is that it appeared on the same day when the Chicago Editions of the Times published a story challenging the claims by Duncan's former White House associate, current Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, that a longer school days would "improve" achievement. The Times's Chicago article chowed the opposite, viz. that the Chicago charter schools, virtually all of whom were promoted by Duncan during the years (2001 - 2008) he served as "Chief Executive Officer" of Chicago's public schools are, by Duncan's own measures (test scores) failures.

Here Substance shares both the Brooks piece and then the current critique of Chicago's much touted charters:


Smells Like School Spirit, By DAVID BROOKS Published on line June 30, 2011

Diane Ravitch is the nation’s most vocal educational historian. She once was one of the leading intellects behind the education reform movement — emphasizing charter schools, testing and accountability. Over the past few years, she has become that movement’s most vehement critic.

She pours out books, op-ed essays and speeches, including two this week at the Aspen Ideas Festival. She is very forceful, but there are parts of her new message that are hard to take. She is quick to accuse people who disagree with her of being frauds and greed-heads. She picks and chooses what studies to cite, even beyond the normal standards of people who are trying to make a point.

She has come to adopt the party-line view of the most change-averse elements of the teachers’ unions: There is no education crisis. Poverty is the real issue, not bad schools. We don’t need fundamental reform; we mainly need to give teachers more money and job security.

Nonetheless, Ravitch makes some serious points.

Most important, she is right that teaching is a humane art built upon loving relationships between teachers and students. If you orient the system exclusively around a series of multiple choice accountability assessments, you distort it.

If you make tests all-important, you give schools an incentive to drop the subjects that don’t show up on the exams but that help students become fully rounded individuals — like history, poetry, art and sports. You may end up with schools that emphasize test-taking, not genuine learning. You may create incentives for schools to game the system by easing out kids who might bring the average scores down, for example.

In sum, Ravitch highlights a core tension. Teaching is humane. Testing is mechanistic.

This is true, but look at which schools are most distorted by testing. As the education blogger Whitney Tilson has pointed out, the schools that best represent the reform movement, like the KIPP academies or the Harlem Success schools, put tremendous emphasis on testing. But these schools are also the places where students are most likely to participate in chess and dance. They are the places where they are most likely to read Shakespeare and argue about philosophy and physics.

In these places, tests are not the end. They are a lever to begin the process of change. They are one way of measuring change. But they are only one piece of the larger mission. The mission may involve E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curricula, or character education, or performance arts specialties. But the mission transcends the test. These schools know what kind of graduate they want to produce. The schools that are most accountability-centric are also the most alive.

Contrary to Ravitch’s assertions, these places are not just skimming the best students. At the Urban Prep Academy of Chicago, which Ravitch holds up as an example of a bogus success story, over 15 percent of the students are special ed. Ninety-six percent of the school’s first incoming class were reading below grade level.

And contrary to Ravitch’s assertions, these schools, hundreds of them, have taken their students and put them on trajectories much different than the ones you would predict just by looking at the socio-demographic backgrounds. Carolyn Hoxby has rigorously shown good charter results in New York and Chicago. New Orleans is dominated by charters and choice. Since 2007, the New Orleans schools have doubled the percentage of students scoring at basic competence levels or above. Schools in New Orleans are improving faster than schools in any other district in the state.

The places where the corrosive testing incentives have had their worst effect are not in the schools associated with the reformers. They are in the schools the reformers haven’t touched. These are the mediocre schools without strong leaders and without vibrant missions. In those places, of course, the teaching-to-the-test ethos prevails. There is no other.

The reform movement is most famous for tests and assessments. But the untrumpeted and undeveloped secret of the reform movement is the content — the willingness to develop character curriculum or Core Knowledge curriculum, the willingness to infuse the school with spiritual fervor.

Ravitch thinks the solution is to get rid of the tests. But that way just leads to lethargy and perpetual mediocrity. The real answer is to keep the tests and the accountability but make sure every school has a clear sense of mission, an outstanding principal and an invigorating moral culture that hits you when you walk in the door.

Ravitch’s narrative is that America has humane local schools that are being threatened by testing wonks. The fact is that many schools have become spiritually enervated and even great teachers struggle in an inert culture. It’s the reformers who often bring the passion, using tests as a lever.

If your school teaches to the test, it’s not the test’s fault. It’s the leaders of your school.

A version of this op-ed appeared in print on July 1, 2011, on page A23 of the New York edition with the headline: Smells Like School Spirit.

Of course, Brooks, being a pundit, can achieve his opinions either by relying on the reporting of others, or by the "helicopter" method: dropping in for a quickie (usually sponsored and scripted by the group promoting something like KIPP or Harlem Success. Reporting can take longer, and perhaps a Closer Look.



July 1, 2011 at 12:20 PM

By: Erin Jameson

Read Martha Woodall's Charter Schools Series In The Philadelphia Inquirer

I was listening to Terry Gross's program on NPR. It was very interesting. This is an excerpt from the website but listen to the whole program.

Charter schools are taxpayer-funded schools that are overseen by their own independent boards. Because of their independence, they are allowed to do things that traditional public schools cannot do. School administrators can experiment with things like the length of the school day and the makeup of each school's curriculum.

With that freedom, charter schools have become academic beacons for parents looking to find the best and safest schooling options for their children. But the system's lack of oversight has also created problems. In recent years, there have been investigations in states, including California, Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania, which found charter school CEOs taking money from their own schools, putting unqualified relatives on their payrolls and engaging in other questionable activities.

On Monday's Fresh Air, Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Martha Woodall details her ongoing investigation into Philadelphia's charter school system, where 19 of the 74 charter schools operating in the city are under investigation for fraud, financial mismanagement and conflicts of interest.

At one school, the Philadelphia Academy Charter School, parents raised concerns in 2008 after school administrators told them that there was no money available for special education students.

"The school kept saying 'We don't have money [for these students],' " Woodall tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "However, there was money being spent on all kinds of other issues. [When parents] raised questions at the Board of Trustees meetings, [they] were basically told, 'We don't want you asking questions.' "

Ultimately, both the founding CEO of Philadelphia Academy Charter School and his successor were charged with stealing almost $1 million from the school's coffers, including money students had collected for a Toys for Tots campaign. The two men — one of whom had only a high school education — also allegedly engaged in questionable real estate deals. As a result, the high school paid rent money for its facilities directly to them.

"They charged really high rental rates for the school to use the building and then they accumulated money through the higher rates," she says. "They were using taxpayer money that was supposed to go to the school for other purposes."

In addition, both the school's founding CEO and his successor had relatives on the school's payroll. The founding CEO's wife was the head of the board of trustees.

"They were making more money and supervising people who had far more experience and more credentials than they had," she says. "In order to keep the school open, the Philadelphia School District required the top administrators to leave and required a replacement of the board, and the board then basically fired all of the relatives. They wanted to sever all ties with all of the families involved."

But Philadelphia Academy Charter School wasn't the only charter school in Philadelphia with ethical and financial problems.

"We've had cases here where large numbers of family members are on the payroll and [other instances where there were] contracts awarded to relatives and friends that include leases on luxury cars," she says. "Part of the problem that we have found is that the boards that are overseeing some of these schools are not involved as deeply as they should be. ... They may be friends of the CEO and therefore they're reluctant to provide the type of oversight that they should be providing."

School districts are supposed to monitor charter schools' academic progress. In the Philadelphia School District, says Woodall, there are seven people overseeing all 74 charter schools in the district — but that office will soon be halved owing to budget cuts.

"You have so few people keeping track of the charter schools," she says. "They don't have opportunities to go out and visit the schools and pay too much attention until the charters are up for renewal. So that gives several years in between where people can get away with things.

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