Ongoing review of Reign of Error, by Diane Ravitch, Chapter 6

Chapter 6 of Reign of Error is focused on the performance gap that exists between white students and their minority classmates. There seems to be little doubt that the achievement gap is real and that it is particularly egregious with respect to African-American students.

The corporate reformers and other advocates of charter schools, vouchers, more testing and accountability, and privatization of education cite the data as irrefutable evidence that we need to rescue as many kids as possible from our underperforming schools. Rarely do they acknowledge any responsibility to help the schools that are being abandoned or to reach out help the people who seem unable to escape. The reality from the perspective of the poor is that they are being written off once again. How can they think otherwise?

Ravitch acknowledges that the gap is unacceptable but insists that much progress has been made in closing the gap over the past two decades. I suggest the progress has been too little, too slow.

While the reformers say that education is failing, Ravitch and other defenders of traditional education say that test scores and other measures of student performance, including graduation rates, are higher they have ever been. This may be true but neither the progress nor the data is good enough! The results are simply unacceptable. It is comparable to a president boasting that unemployment has dropped from 25 to 22 percent on his or her watch.

As we have noted in prior sections, we concur that the educational system is failing but believe that it is the educational process that is failing, not schools and their teachers.

While reformers call for what amounts to wholesale abandonment of traditional public education in America, Ravitch and her defenders suggest that we cannot fix education until we address the societal problems that cause the failure; specifically poverty and racial segregation. Once again, both sides of the argument totally misinterpret the forces that influence all that is taking place in our public schools.

One of the issues with which we agree totally with Ravitch is the importance of preserving the links between our schools and the communities they exist to serve. We agree that privatization of public education, the crippling of unions and the establishment of for-profit schools “inevitably means deregulation, greater segregation, and less equity with minimal oversight by public authorities.” Then Ravitch adds “Privatization has typically not been a friend to powerless groups.”

I find it remarkable that Ravitch has sufficient insight to recognize that many of the citizens and their communities who depend on public education are powerless yet she fails to grasp the role that this “powerlessness” plays in our educational crisis and she is not alone. Few people seem to recognize that unlike poverty, which is a condition over which we have been able to exert almost no control, “powerlessness” is a state of mind that is within our power to do something about. As we have said so often, we need to attack powerlessness and hopelessness relentlessly.

Rather than developing strategies that will help people learn how to begin exerting control over the outcomes in their lives we promise to take care of them; a promise we have yet to keep. Such promises do not help alleviate this sense of powerlessness rather they create dependencies to which the powerless can cling.

What the reformers do not seem to realize is that the farther you remove the community from the decision-making process the more powerless the citizens of those communities become. If we take away a community’s schools we effectively deprive the community of its ability to bridge the performance gap, themselves. In other words we increase their level of powerlessness and, therefore, their sense of hopelessness.

Ravitch states emphatically that African-Americans are making great progress and cites NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) results that show a reduction of the number of students scoring “below basic” in math and reading.

My interpretation would suggest that Improvements between 2007 and 2011 have been marginal, at best. The numbers speak for themselves. NAEP results show that, in 2011, 49 percent of black students scored below basic in 8th grade math and 41 percent in 8th grade reading. In other words, virtually half of African-American eighth graders scored below basic in Math and 4 out every 10 scored below basic in reading. Hardly cause for celebration. Most importantly, “basic” is not an acceptable for which to strive.

The NAEP defines basic, which is one of its three achievement levels, as “denoting partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work. Think about what that means. It is partial mastery, not mastery. And, it is not even partial mastery of the knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work but rather partial mastery of the “prerequisite” knowledge and skills.

NAEP’s definition of “proficient”, on the other hand, is “demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject-matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real-world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to the subject matter.” [The emphasis is mine.]

So, when one is proficient by this definition, it means they possess the ability to actually apply what they have learned to real life situations. “Basic,” on the other hand, implies that the knowledge and skills are not sufficient for utilization in solving “real life” situations. In other words, the gap between “proficiency” and “below basic,” as defined by NAEP, is as cavernous as the gap between the performance of white and black students.

In the business world, one would never send an employee out in the shop, plant, field, or office to do a job if they could only demonstrate partial mastery of prerequisite skills. They have to be able to apply their knowledge to “real-life situations” or they are of no use to their employer and pose a risk to customer satisfaction. Clearly, the performance bar needs to be raised to “proficient” and what we are doing now is blatantly inadequate.

Here, the data is every bit as disturbing. From 2003 to 2011 the percentage of black students who have achieved the level of “proficient or above” in math has risen from 8 percent to only 14 percent. In reading, during same time span, the percentage of African-American students who have achieved “proficient or above” has risen only from 13 to 15 percent. During this period, the percentage of white students who have achieved “proficient or above” in math and reading has risen to 43 and 44 percent, respectively.

The gap is alarming but why would we ever be satisfied that less than 45 percent of our children are achieving “proficiency or above.” We must raise our targets and change the way we do things.

We need to reinvent the educational process to one that is focused on success and that is structured in a way that it supports teachers and students in what they do. And, we need to create a nation-wide campaign to resell the American dream and engage parents from all demographic groups as full partners in the education of their children. The good news is that such a reinvention is well within our power to do if only we will open our minds to new ideas and to the possibility of a desirable outcome.

Ravitch’s assertion that blacks and other minorities are making real progress is difficult to accept given the facts. Possibly Ravitch and others are referring to the many middle class and professional blacks who have risen to the corporate boardroom, the operating room, and even to White House; but this population is an exception. The gap between uneducated blacks in our poor rural and urban communities and more accomplished middle class African-Americans is, itself, cavernous. The accomplishments of so many is clear evidence that African-American students can excel.

So we are left with the question “why do so many fail?” And let us not forget that many of the most accomplished African-Americans and other minorities rose from the same neighborhoods as their underperforming classmates.

Diane Ravitch is correct that “Achievement gaps begin long before children start kindergarten.” She is also correct that the variance with respect to preparation and motivation of students as they arrive for their first day of school is as disparate as the population is diverse. It is also true that where families fall on the affluence continuum, the degree to which education is valued in a given culture, and the availability of quality healthcare all play a role in determining how motivated and well-prepared a child is upon arrival for their first day of school.

The most important influence on the relative preparation and motivation of children is the level of hopelessness and powerlessness that surrounds the child from the day of their birth and up until they head off for their first day of school. Where I disagree with Ravitch is not the relative scope and scale of the challenges these children face but with our perceptions about what we have the power to do in response. Most Americans have the attitude that only our government bears responsibility for bringing about such changes and has the power needed. Because of that attitude, we go about our business as usual and we sit back and wait for the world to change around us.

The reality is that we are not powerless and we need not be hopeless. We need a plan of action; we need to work together as a community; and, we need to do that which is in our power to do, even if it is one step at a time or one family, school, or community at a time.

The reference to the work of Thomas B. Timar’s (University of California), I thought, was particularly helpful. Timar wrote, as quoted by Ravitch,

“One reason [why there was so little progress in closing the achievement gap] is that although schools can be held accountable for some of the disadvantages these students experience, they have been given the entire responsibility for closing the achievement gap. Yet the gap is the symptom of larger social, economic and political problems that go far beyond the reach of the school. . . . While schools are part of the solution, they alone cannot solve the problems of educational disparities.” (Timar, Thomas B. and Julie Maxwell-Jolly, eds., Narrowing the Achievement Gap: Perspectives and Strategies for Challenging Times, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard Education Press, 2012, page 230).

According to Ravitch, Professor Timar also suggests that “policy makers have invested for thirty years in strategies that are “misdirected and ineffectual,” managing to keep urban schools in a state of “policy spin,” bouncing from one idea to another. . . .”

The most salient points by Timar are:
• Schools can’t solve the problem alone. . . .
• The value of local initiatives without which, Timar suggests, reforms cannot succeed.
• Creating social capital that exists between schools and their community. He describes them as built on a “sense of community, organizational stability, and trust. Leadership has a shared vision and a “sense of purpose, a plan, and individuals with responsibility for coordination and implementation.
• Teachers working collaboratively to improve teaching and learning
• The need to think in terms of long-term, comprehensive strategies.
• That American policymakers haves grown too politically conservative and are unwilling to address structural issues.
• “bureaucratizing the process of school improvement and turning it into a chase for higher test scores” have not worked.
• Federal programs like NCLB and Race to the Top have made schools less stable, encouraged staff turnover, promoted policy churn, and undermined professionalism.

The best chance, Timar implies and we which I suggest in my book Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream, lies with grass roots models of change.

Where Timar strays off course is the traditional view that until we can address the issues of poverty there will always be achievement gaps but he redeems himself by saying that we need to “work vigorously to improve conditions” of families and communities. I would exchange the word “conditions” to “states of mind,” suggesting that we need to address hopelessness and powerlessness.

Ravitch writes, in reference to Timar’s point of view, “Rather than regulation and mandates we need professional collaboration, community building, and cooperation that require that schools have authority to design their own improvement plans and act without waiting for instructions or permission from Washington or the state capital [sic].”

My response to that is “RIGHT ON, DR. RAVITCH!”

Ravitch concludes this chapter by saying, “What we know from these scholars makes sense. The achievement gaps are rooted in social, political, and economic structures. If we are unwilling to change the root causes, we are unlikely ever to close the gaps. What we call achievement gaps are in fact opportunity gaps.”

She continues, “The schools did not cause the achievement gaps, and the schools alone are not powerful enough to close them.”

I think the point Ravitch is really striving to make, here, is that schools did not cause the gaps and should not be blamed for our lack of success in closing them. In Reinventing Education, I suggest that schools provide the perfect vehicle with which to attack the “root causes,” which I define as “powerlessness and hopelessness” rather than “poverty, segregation et al,” and that if parents and schools can be brought together in partnership, we have more than enough power to transform public education.

Finally, Ravitch says:

“So long as society is indifferent to poverty, so long as we are willing to look the other way rather than act vigorously to improve the conditions of families and communities, there will always be achievement gaps.”

The unfortunate but sublimely subtle truth—and the reason why poverty and deteriorating communities remain a reality—is our fixation on the idea that changing these realities is society’s or government’s responsibility. At no time do Ravitch and the legions of well-meaning professional educators, policy makers, and social scientists recognize the subtle but profound truth that these conditions exist because we have robbed the poor and the disenfranchised of a sense of responsibility for their own circumstances and we have enabled their sense of hopelessness and powerlessness.

We cannot change the economic conditions in which people live without addressing their dependency and helping them recognize the power that they have to begin changing their own lives. We can be of great assistance in helping people shed their sense of powerlessness and hopelessness but we cannot do it for them. What we must do is teach them that success is a process that even they can master and then help them deal with the obstacles that stand in the way of their children.

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