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Reviews: Channeling Ravitch

Blueberry imac There are some excellent points made in Joanne Barkan's new article about the reformy focus on teacher effectiveness, but so many mis-statements, thin spots, and exaggerations that I fear few will read or heed what Barkan has to say other than those already of like mind. 

Even those who (like me) share some of Barkan's concerns will find that, while there are tantalizing moments reminiscent of the reporting and insight of Barkan's previous article (on philanthropy in education) and some excellent zingers, there's too much argumentation and too little new or in-depth reporting.

Read on for the strengths and weaknesses I found.    

To be sure, Barkan is correct to say that there are some seriously misguided elements to the current reform agenda, especially when it comes to fetishizing student test scores as a measure, and that non-reform success stories like the salary agreement in Montgomery County are being ignored or downplayed. She's right that principals and administrators share more blame for the broken teacher evaluation process than they've been given in the press. And she's right that poverty deniers are tiresome and the crisis-mongering among reformers is ridiculous and desperate.  (She includes a few nice zingers, too, describing reform efforts a "fix-the-teachers campaign," VAM as "a modern, mathematical version" of the Emperorer's New Clothes,and reformers' attitudes as "better a train wreck" than nothing.

I couldn't agree more and have said many of the same things in this space and elsewhere.  That being said, Barkan begins her piece with an obvious straw man -- that reformers are monolithic in their thinking and nearly all-powerful in their ability to get things done.  Making an argument that the other side is overgeneralizing is especially difficult to win when you're doing the same to them.  In reality, reformers differ sharply among each other on issues of approach and substance and are more likely to come away from the current reform moment with little to show than with any sort of nationwide transformation.  (States and districts will take their money and sing their song, but have an ability to dilute and delay that should not be underestimated.)  Barkan also mischaracterizes NCLB, which quickly proved to be no serious threat to restaffing, school closings, or charter conversions.  That just didn't happen, despite massive funding increases, for some of the reasons described above.  (Nor did Obama's education secretary Arne Duncan choose Jon Schnur as an advisor; if anything it was the other way around.)  Barkan claims that nobody wants to be a teacher any more, which seems both untrue and if accurate then is attributable to the economy as much as to reform. Who wants to go into a field that is shedding workers every year?

Barkan is obviously smart and engaged and can write well, but on the whole there's not enough that's new or compelling here to make this the "must read" that I was hoping it would be, full of new and useful information. I wish she'd focused on issues we don't already know much about from previous stories -- the civil service precedents to due process, for example, or the story behind the miraculous-sounding wage agreement in Montgomery Country, for example -- and reported out details and depth, instead of rehashing news stories we've already read and refining arguments we've already heard. 


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