Becoming Diane Ravitch

Monday, October 4, 2010
Even before Alexander Russo's tweet last week ("I read somewhat [sic] that you should wait at least 30 min between switching sides and diving back into the debate, just like eating & swimming"), I was drafting this blog item about Diane Ravitch and had landed in just about the same place.

I struggle in making a professional assessment of Diane Ravitch's conversion from a Lamar Alexander-era U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education and a No Child Left Behind proponent to chief curmudgeon on all things draped in education reform. Her past explanations about "accumulating evidence" and getting "caught up in the rising tide of enthusiasm" for school choice don't seem to tell the whole story. I'm not suggesting she's insincere, but I just don't understand how she got from here to there.

Don't get me wrong. I find myself in agreement with many of Ravitch's recent statements, especially those about the one-sidedness and rhetorical hyperbole surrounding Waiting for Superman and other education reform PR vehicles, such as NBC's Education Nation. And I think she is right in her efforts to recast what education reform is or should be. So it's not that I think that people don't have the ability to change. It's more about trying to process and understand so fundamental a change that takes someone from being a ringleader for an accountability-driven education system to a few years later being the foremost national critic of educational accountability, charter schools, and business-style approaches to education reform. How could a highly educated person have gotten it so wrong and so immediately reversed herself? Perhaps I should just go and read her book and see if the answer lies within?

Ravitch doesn't make my job of processing her transformation any easier with her misleading tweets and blog posts. On 9/23/2010, Ravitch tweeted about the recent Vanderbilt University teacher merit pay study and its connection to the federally funded Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF):
Vanderbilt U study discredits merit pay so next day USDOE hands out hundreds of millions for...merit pay. Blind to evidence and research.
Really?!? Ravitch is too intelligent not to know that she is engaging in deliberate simplification in support of her apparent stance against differentiated compensation of teachers. With spin like that, she should go run a political campaign. 'Tis the season, after all. Ravitch is engaged in the same kind of hyperbole that she rightly criticizes in what Alexander Russo has taken to calling "reformy types".

The National Council on Teacher Quality provides a wise counterpoint to Ravitch on the merit pay study here:
Good teacher pay strategies are never written in a vacuum: they're part of a well-thought out system of incentives and professional supports designed to attract and keep the best teachers.... First off, it's no surprise that the findings showed no correlation between performance pay and increasing student achievement, meaning that the very premise of the study might be called into question. Performance pay is a reward system designed to send strong signals that the profession honors and rewards results but, perhaps even more critically, it should increase the profession's appeal to individuals who might not otherwise consider teaching, convinced that the profession disdains excellence. It's a silly notion to think that teachers leave their "A" game at home, absent the promise of a little extra pay.
Funded TIF proposals -- and the federal program itself -- are about much more than pay tied to student test scores. Proposals all have a compensation component, but also embed other critical elements such as classroom evaluation, professional development and collaboration. As examples, check out the CLASS Project led by the Chalkboard Project in Oregon, Chicago Public Schools District #299, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards proposal for the state of Maine and Richmond, Virginia, and several successful Teacher Advancement Program (TAP) proposals, including one in Knox County, Tennessee.

Absolute, steadfast consistency in the face of mounting or available evidence is not my suggested goal here. Blind faith and arrogance are found in too many education advocates and policymakers on all sides of the debate. So, at a certain level, I appreciate Ravitch's conversion. But the credibility of her current positions and statements are, in part, determined by a plausible explanation for that evolution.

As a final thought, I recognize that I've been especially critical of some education reformers and reform ideas as of late (here and here and on Twitter). Given that I place my personal views somewhere in the middle between the most aggressive reformers and the most steadfast defenders of the educational status quo, I only felt it appropriate to share some nagging questions I've had about someone on the opposing side of the debate.