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Thompson: Good Intentions Vs. Good Results

Nyt081009_povstrike All historians, not just public school educators, should reflect upon The Death and Life of the Great American School System

The past could become prologue for the Obama administration if it does not learn from Diane Ravitch’s masterpiece. 

"It's as if a bunch of do-gooders sat together at the NewSchools Venture Fund summit and brainstormed a list of popular reforms ideas, and now they are going to force them upon the states," writes Ravitch, quoting Mike Petrilli's "NCLB2: The Carrot That Feels Like a Stick."

In 1969, Ravitch saw firsthand how the dangers of a well-meaning nonprofit "trying to engineer social change" when the Ford Foundation contributed to the tragedy that culminated in New York City’s teacher strike. These educational novices helped ignite "a conflagration between the city’s Jews and Blacks." 

A quarter of a century later, the Gates Foundation followed the ill-fated Annenberg Challenge and continued their effort to create small high schools. "It was never obvious why the Gates Foundation decided that school size was the one critical reform," writes Ravitch, when "both national and state tests showed that large numbers of students were entering high school without having mastered basic skills ..." Worse, "the foundation seemed unaware of the disadvantages of small high schools." Worse yet, Gates was unable to get practical advice from experienced educators because of an "‘amiable conspiracy of silence.’"

Ravitch lists the Gates’ donations to 22 educational organizations and observes that even after acknowledging the flaws in the first effort, his new initiative on teacher quality is bound to suffer from the same problem. "Given the foundation’s significant investment in advocacy," Ravitch explains, "it was improbable that anyone would challenge Bill Gates and tell him his new goals were likely to be as ill advised as the $2 billion he had poured into restructuring high schools."

The Broad Foundation has also invested in 28 educational institutions, including many of the same as Gates, and it seems even more oblivious to the reasons for the ineffectiveness of its reforms. One reason why Broad invested heavily in Oakland schools was that their school board had been stripped of its power, creating "‘a politics free zone.’" Faced with the evidence of their failure, Broad learned the wrong lesson and consequently in the future it will "take care to invest in communities where there was a mayor in charge ... or a ‘near unanimous’ elected school board, so as to ensure stability and minimize conflict."

Today, the Obama administration is recreating their mistakes, hiring entrepreneurs from the Gates/Broad axis of nonprofits, and freeing them from the pesky clash of evidence, peer review, and democracy. If you like the methods of an incestuous group of novices, imposing the "best practices" of their field on education while assuming that their statistical models have a relation to the actual classroom, then you’ll love the way that the same mentality created the "bubble" on Wall Street and the financial meltdown.

Even so, the Obama administration has been slow to divest itself of younger wonks like Tim Geithner and to listen to the reality-based wisdom of Paul Volcker. Whether we are wrestling with education reform, health care, or financial engineering, "the blind worship of data" places us at risk. Just as Ravitch borrowed the following insight from Deborah Meiers, President Obama must learn that our schools, health services, and finances must be "‘data-informed,’ not ‘data-driven.’"

By the way, when Ravitch published The Great School Wars, I was a true believer in the "history with the people left out" that dominated academia. It did not take much time in the inner city classroom to understand why Ravitch was right and I was wrong about curriculum and pedagogical theories.

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