The Diane Ravitch/Deborah Gist Meeting, and What it Tells Us About the Failure of Progressive Education Reform, Part 1
In mid-May, education reformer Diane Ravitch visited Rhode Island to speak with Governor Lincoln Chafee. We do not know precisely what she wanted to tell him, but we do know that she does not feel that she was afforded the opportunity to fully express herself. After her meeting with the Governor, Dr. Ravitch posted an item to her Education Week blog saying that an unexpected invitee to the meeting, Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist, had “dominated the conversation, interrupted me whenever I spoke, and filibustered to use up the limited time”. Dr. Ravitch went as far as to demand an apology from Commissioner Gist, though she later retracted the demand. (Governor Chafee told a Providence Journal reporter in regards to the meeting that “Commissioner Gist comported herself in an appropriate and respectful way at all times during this discussion”).
Meeting protocol aside, the incident invites speculation about what it was that Dr. Ravitch felt the governor needed to hear that he hasn’t already heard and isn’t likely to hear from anyone else. A broad outline of themes that Dr. Ravitch could have been expected to talk about can be found in a March 2010 Wall Street Journal op-ed where she explained her widely noted change-of-mind regarding educational philosophy. The op-ed concluded with Dr. Ravitch offering definite positions on several big-picture areas of education-reform: that “the current emphasis on accountability has created a punitive atmosphere in the schools” and that students need a “coherent curriculum” instead of a “marketplace”. But why a “coherent curriculum” should be posited as the alternative to a “marketplace” is not obvious, and the juxtaposition is worth pondering — especially when combined with the idea of reduced accountability.
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Leftist phobias aside, the features that define a marketplace are that, within its structure, transactions only occur when they are individually agreed upon by all parties involved, and outside parties do not get to veto transactions they are not involved in. Obviously, Dr. Ravitch doesn’t want curricular choices to be determined by the market; she wants the choice of curriculum to be set outside of the market, and not allow other curriculums to be offered by others who might try to create one. She is not alone in this belief, and this idea not inherently unreasonable. Not everything is best delivered by pure market mechanisms.
However, simultaneously rejecting markets and accountability is problematic. When someone, or some small group, is given strong powers to limit what others may choose, mechanisms must to be put into place to make sure that the choices provided are good ones. Something must be done to guarantee that people impacted by restrictions on their choices still get access to optimal-quality choices, especially if the option-setters can compel the selection of inferior options, even when better options might be possible. You could say that the answer to this problem is to create a system of accountability for those setting the options, but that answer is nearly tautological — which is what makes the idea of reducing accountability seem to be such an odd focus for an education reformer.
One possibility is that Dr. Ravitch is using the term “accountability” in some way peculiar to the education reform community. It is possible, for example, that the accountability she objects to in her WSJ op-ed is the specific regime imposed over the past decade by the Federal No-Child Left behind Act, but the record indicates that this is not the case. In a Policy Review article written in 2002 on testing and accountability, Dr. Ravitch described a “professional education paradigm” that included the idea that professional educators should be “insulated from public pressure” and was “suspicious of the intervention of policymakers”. After her change of mind, in a December of 2010 entry on her Education Week blog, Dr. Ravitch relayed a story of being told that there is “no word in the Finnish language for ‘accountability'”, while praising the education system of Finland. And in the more comprehensive exposition of her current thoughts on accountability contained in her recent book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, despite expressing support for the validity of testing, Dr. Ravitch criticizes an over-emphasis on accountability in education systems, on the grounds that education measures tied to consequences will always be gamed, no matter how accurate tests and evaluations might have a potential to be. Consistently throughout her career, Dr. Ravitch has treated the idea of accountability in its broadest possible sense, and not used the term as a shorthand for testing or a particular program like NCLB.
Alas, in opposing accountability at such a high conceptual level, Diane Ravitch — and her union allies — have proposed answers to old and familiar problems that are based on ideas that repeatedly have been shown to be unworkable…
Ravitch wants the same thing that the arch-Leftist Bill Ayers wants: an unaccountable priesthood of progressive “educators” who have complete power to indoctrinate our children into their atheistic, Statist religion.
It would be Orwell’s “1984” if they have their way.
“Progressive” government organizations suffer from the same two fatal flaws as their Marxist cousins: 1)There are no real incentives for workers to do productive work instead of simply shirking and exploiting the system for personal gain, and 2)Without market forces and prices, the “experts” in control of the system have no reliable information network through which they can effectively allocate resources. The only way to truly evaluate whether a school is successful or not is in a private or voucher system in which families are free to send their students wherever they please. Of course no parents (save maybe some of the RIFuture gang) would willingly choose to send their children to the unionized hellholes that pass for schools in Rhode Island.
Actually, you are giving away the ending of Part 2 of this post.
Nice theory BobN but more importantly, I think she just wants to sell books. How else can she maintain her liberal elitist status.
Easy. As a card-carrying member of the Leftist elite she can easily get highly-paid sinecures at bogus “think-tanks” backed by Soros and the Tides Foundation.
True and well established in the process improvement world. But the last part of your assertion is the real whopper. As Deming said, “Hold everybody accountable? Ridiculous!”
What’s confusing here is that you seem to be equating process improvement with accountability, unless that is you think accountability itself is the goal. That, I think, is the core of your misunderstanding about what critics are saying. What folks like Ravitch are saying is that attempts to focus on individual accountability while ignoring process are destined to fail.
Deming and others went into this at length so there’s plenty of evidence that this exactly what happens. Aren’t you the one falling prey to “answering old and familiar problems with solutions based on ideas that repeatedly have been shown to be unworkable?”
The problem with your invocation of Deming is that Deming’s methods assume there is some broad-based, high-level criteria that everyone agrees on about what an optimal output looks like. For a factory-process example, consider an automobile assembly line that produces cars that explode on start-up. Deming assumes that a team that sees a problem of exploding cars will self-organize to find the best remedy to the situation.
The problem is that if we applied the philosophy of progressive education reformers to exploding cars, their response would be to say the anyone who thinks that cars shouldn’t explode doesn’t understand what a car should be, and that it is horribly judgemental to declare that cars that explode on start-up are worse than ones that don’t. Then they would make sure that only people with that philosophy ran the assembly line.
I’m not familiar with Deming’s specific writings on the subject of accountability, but if a car is 99% ready to go, but they guy who is delivering the tires says “it’s going to take 10 years for me to get them to you”, I’m pretty sure Deming’s recommendation would not be to wait 10 years.
I’m almost done editing the second part of the essay, that explains the unworkable solutions to which I refer. You may not agree with everything that’s in it.
Russ does not understand Deming, and although he is a good source to quote from, no source is good to misquote from. The only area in which I agree with Russ is that you cannot make the individual responsible for the faults in the system over which he has no control. But beyond identifying that aspect of the problem correctly, the trouble starts when Russ begins to advocate the “Progressive” party line as the solution. Key to that trouble is that the “Progressive” approach to pedagogy has been dominant in public education for nearly fifty years now – it IS the flawed system. Only radical innovation away from the “Progressive” canon will improve the skills, knowledge and lives of our children. This kind of innovation requires freedom and competition. The best way to get those is to privatize the school system so that teachers can offer their best ideas and parents can choose which ones they believe offer the best value. Here is a passage from “Out of the Crisis” that is directly relevant to today’s public education system. It is part of a memo that Deming wrote to the management of a client: “Everyone in your company knows that the aim is perfection, that you can not tolerate defectives and mistakes. You make every worker responsible for the defectives that he has produced. Yet from the records that you have showed to me, it is obvious that you are tolerating a high proportion of defectives, and have been doing so for years. In fact, the levels of various kinds of mistake have not decreased; they have been pretty constant and predictable over a number of years. “Have you any reason to think that the level of mistakes will decrease in the future? Have you ever thought that the problem… Read more »
” if we applied the philosophy of progressive education reformers to exploding cars, their response would be to say the anyone who thinks that cars shouldn’t explode doesn’t understand what a car should be, and that it is horribly judgemental to declare that cars that explode on start-up are worse than ones that don’t.”
“The problem with your invocation of Deming is that Deming’s methods assume there is some broad-based, high-level criteria that everyone agrees on about what an optimal output looks like.”
Actually, Deming offers up specifics on what an optimal output looks like for education in “The New Economics: for industry, government, education” (and keep in mind that Deming was an educator during part of his life at NYU). What he said was “our schools must preserve and nuture the yearning for learning that everyone is born with” (p.145).
When asked how to measure that, he pointed out that is the wrong question. His reponse was “you don’t [need a theroy on how to measure this yearning for learning]. You need a theroy on what you ought to be doing.”
Proposing rigorous testing and evaluation is a fools paradise (no offense intended). Again from “The New Economics”(p.46-47).
Deming goes on to make a number of specific proposals, which folks are welcome to read themselves.
What a shock, more misquoting of progressive ideas about education. No doubt there are some who are “progressives” who advocate the status quo. I’m not one of them, and that’s not what progressive educators think either (most schools don’t use a progressive curriculum but more shoud). In fact, the use of standardized testing is really just “the status quo on steriods.” See “How to Sell Conservatism: Lesson 1 — Pretend You’re a Reformer” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alfie-kohn/how-to-sell-conservatism-_b_767040.html Even before the implementation of what should be called the Many Children Left Behind Act, states and school districts were busy standardizing curricula, imposing more and more tests, and using an array of rewards and punishments to pressure teachers and students to fall in line — with the most extreme version of this effort reserved for the inner cities. Before anyone outside of Texas had heard of George W. Bush, many of us had been calling attention to the fact that these policies were turning schools into glorified test-prep centers, driving some of the most innovative teachers to leave the profession, and increasing the drop-out rate among kids of color. Yet the so-called reformers have succeeded in convincing people that their top-down, test-driven approach — in effect, the status quo on steroids — is a courageous rejection of what we’ve been doing. Here’s what would be new: questioning all the stuff that Papert’s early 20th-century visitors would immediately recognize: a regimen of memorizing facts and practicing skills that features lectures, worksheets, quizzes, report cards and homework. But the Gates-Bush-Obama version of “school reform” not only fails to call those things into question; it actually intensifies them, particularly in urban schools. The message, as educator Harvey Daniels observed, consists of saying in effect that “what we’re doing [in the classroom] is OK, we just need to do… Read more »
“if we applied the philosophy of progressive education reformers to exploding cars…”
And if we applied a free market reformer’s philosophy to exploding cars, we’d suggest paying off possible lawsuits for resulting deaths rather than fixing the design flaw because it was less expensive.
Is there no bound to the idiocy that Russ will blurt out on these pages?
Russ conveniently forgets that NCLB was written by the the staff of the Liberal Lion of the Senate, Ted “Splash” Kennedy, and supported by Bush in an ill-advised gesture of bipartisanship. There was never anything conservative about it. In fact, it is a great example of how central planning imposed by a totalitarian government has counterproductive effects.
But to acknowledge that would admit that the entire Leftist premise is invalid, and Russ will never do that.
Measure, don’t measure, memorize, discover, whatever…let privately run schools experiment to find the best ways to teach. Parents and children will judge which are the winners. Free enterprise in education – it’s the only way to reform the system successfully.
How many times is Russ going to blockquote-spam self-proclaimed “progressive education expert” (and insufferable elitist) Alfie Kohn before he realizes that nobody here acknowledges Kohn as an authority or cares the slightest bit about what he has to say? If Kohn wants to contribute to the discussions here, he can write comments himself and be humiliated defending failed top-down feel-good public education policies with zero accountability just like Russ is on a regular basis.
If Russ and Kohn were in charge of computer manufacturing, computers would cost more than a car and run at 1/10 their current speed. Then they would try to convince us that this was natural and a privatized system would result in worse, “unfair” results. Hmmm, even our nation’s poor can afford decent computers now, absent any government intervention or mandates. How about that?
The argument that education is a “public good” is total nonsense – it doesn’t meet any of the traditional criteria and it’s such an individualized and subjective service that it makes no sense to socialize it. It should be a private service and parents should be able to send their kids wherever they want, end of story. The only legitimate debate is whether vouchers should be provided in such a system to the poorest individuals in our society.
The mistake here is that “progressive education” is not synomous with whatever someone in the Democratic Party might propose. Gist is promoting the Obama plan, which is not progressive.
As for Kohn, so long as BobN feels the need to misrepresent what progressive education means or to suggest that progessive educators want the status quo I’m going to point out that’s not the case.
Dan, Jefferson felt quite differently about the necessity of public education in a democracy. Me, I’m with TJ. Vouchers are another issue, and one I’ve never objected to on principle (I’d personally benefit for one thing). Although the idea that the public education system should be scrapped in favor of vouchers is not an idea I’d get behind.
For the record, computer manufacturing has long used the methods suggested by folks like Deming, which speaks to my original question to Andrew. And I hate to break it to you, but folks like me are in charge of computer manufacturing.
It is not worth responding to Russ’s post because it adds absolutely nothing substantive to the discussion. Just more appeals to authority, misrepresentation, and bizarre statements like “folks like me are in charge of computer manufacturing.” Whatever that means. In that case, “folks like me” are in charge of this country and we should start converting to a private education system immediately because education is not, and has never been, a “public good” in any sense of the economic concept.
“A system of general instruction, which shall reach every description of our citizens from the richest to the poorest, as it was the earliest, so will it be the latest of all the public concerns in which I shall permit myself to take an interest.”
–Thomas Jefferson to Joseph C. Cabell, 1818.
Dan, feel free to drop out of the discussion anytime. It will be a tough pill to swallow, but I think I can handle it.
btw, what I meant is that I’m an engineer and have done quite a bit of work in the area of quality improvement. In industry, we’d never run an improvement effort with the methods being proposed for schools.
Russ expounds at soporific length, using other people’s words, about what is wrong with today’s public education system, but I can’t remember his actually proposing any realistic solutions to the problem about which he complains so loudly.
Why is that?
So Deming offers a high-level criteria that he believes everyone should be focused on, like making a good car, or a good computer. So far, I seem to be understanding him. Now how do we tell which schools or teachers or principals are doing a good job of preservin’ the yearnin’?
As to markets and exploding cars, most people want to apply a mixture of market forces (i.e. people get to choose from a range of options) and accountability (i.e. peole get recourse, if they weren’t delivered what was promised, i.e. a car that doesn’t explode) to such problems. Diane Ravitch and other progressive education reformers don’t want to allow markets or accountability. So what does that leave exactly? (Answer coming in Part 2).
And what computer company sells its product by giving people one store they are allowed to buy from, based on what their address is, stocked with a limited number of options, and where going to another store in the company is not allowed if their assigned store does not have the product or service that they want?
Poor memory perhaps?
“And what computer company sells its product by giving people one store they are allowed to buy from, based on what their address is…”
That’s simply false. Nothing prevents someone from chosing a private school or from chosing home schooling. What you’re suggesting is more like someone deciding that because they don’t like the police response to burgleries the town needs to subsidize their hiring a private security service.
Also many towns (including Providence) run a lottery, allowing students to select from available public schools. I think we can agree that there are efficiencies in giving kids preference to the public school in their own neighborhood.
I read the first of Russ’s references. There is not the slightest sign of his proposing any solution to the public education problem.
My memory is fine. Russ’s failure to back up his sarcastic comments is a fact that only he can change by actually doing something new and different from his past behavior here. While I believe there is hope for redemption in nearly everyone, I’m not holding my breath waiting for Russ to develop a sense of intellectual honesty or constructive participation.
“Now how do we tell which schools or teachers or principals are doing a good job of preservin’ the yearnin’?”
You don’t. I think that’s part of what makes Deming so difficult for people to accept. Common sense says that we should do these things, but that does not make them any less counterproductive (see p.38, “The New Economics”).
Whatever rankings you might develop are “inconsequential” (for instance, Google “the Red Bead Experiment” sometime) The question is only, “by what method” and the techniques are the same as those used for improvement of any process, service, or method.
“There is not the slightest sign of his proposing any solution to the public education problem.”
The first link contained Deming’s suggestions, the second Kohn’s. You can lead a horse to water…
Both of those statements address narrow details of the topic and are laughably incomplete. Merely “not measuring” is not an adequate answer.
More importantly, neither is your own. You quote (and frequently misquote) other people all the time, but never have anything of your own to say.
Unlike Russ, I learned long ago not to drink downstream from the herd. Perhaps his chosen watering location is the source of all the BS he deposits in these columns.
You asked, I answered. You call it drinking downstream of the herd. I call it standing on the shoulders of giants.
The greater irony, of course, is that I’m offering truly transformative suggestions versus the “status quo on steriods” of more rigorous testing and reviews that have failed repeatedly. To my knowledge I’m the only one in RI critiquing the faux reform from this perspective, although I don’t doubt there are others who feel the same.
As always, you’re free to ignore the decades of process improvement studies, literature, and opinion.
One other comment on “not measuring.” This one from Peter Scholtes (talking about the harmful nature of merit pay/performance reviews)…
Oh, stop whining. Is there nothing else you can do?
btw, here’s what BobN says when I offer an opinion about a subject I know more than a little about…
There’s no pleasing some folks.
Russ, you haven’t demonstrated that you know anything about education, which is the topic of this thread.
I’ll take your attempt to change the subject as an admission of defeat.
Collaboration and process improvement? Let me guess, that’s not the strawman you’re planning to knock down.
Never claimed to be an education expert. I’m a parent who wants the best for my kids and for my neighbors’ kids.
What I do know is how we do process improvement in industry.