Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Deconstructing the Debate: Ravitch v. Alter

After Diane Ravitch's NY Times op-ed criticizing President Obama for holding up a Denver school as an example of the success of current education reform policies, Jonathon Alter rebutted Ravitch's views in a Bloomberg Times article. This written exchange drew widespread attention and led to a debate on the David Sirota talk show, which aired yesterday. If you missed the debate live, a podcast is available here.

For non-educators who are concerned about the current education reform policies, listening to this debate is highly useful. Few opportunities exist to become informed. The debate was well moderated by Sirota, key points made, and for non-educators short enough and non-technical enough for easy understanding. There are a couple of items that caught my attention.

Ravitch restates her criticism of the way politicians, including President Obama, are using some failing schools as models of success. For example, Denver's Bruce Randolph middle school is in a neighborhood that Alter calls a "gang zone" and heavily Latino. President Obama cited this school as a turnaround success story in his State of the Union address. Alter brought statistics to show the "stunning improvement" of where the school had been and where it is now:

  • Reading: (2007) 15% (2010) 36%

  • Writing: (2007) 7% (2010) 15%

  • Math: (2007) 5% (2010) 14%

Alter complains that Ravitch is "using and abusing statistics to disrespect great progress."

Ravitch counters that progress has been made, but it is minimal. The students may go on to graduate high school, but their abilities will still require remediation and lots of it if they choose to go to college.

Alter picks on the word "miracle" that Ravitch used in the NY Times, but doesn't have a problem with using "stunning progress." He accuses her of "gross oversimplication" and suggests she supports sticking with the failed status quo. He complains Ravitch uses generalizations that make caricatures and cartoon-like images of education reformers. He repeats that current education reform policies are intended to reverse the national "disaster" related to the inability to fire teachers who are manifest failures in their jobs, including those who are drunks or those who write sexual-oriented notes to their students. I don't know where Alter got this data, but I can say that in Florida teachers do get fired and prosecuted for such failures. Those cases have been reported in newspapers and I have read them. Florida communities do not tolerate criminal and unethical behavior in public schools.

Ravitch reminds listeners that current legislation across the nation is not simply targeting "bad teachers" but changing the professional landscape for all teachers, including those who are high performing.

While Ravitch points to Right wing promotion of President Obama's policies, Alter notes support for education reform by Democrats, citing a group called Democrats for Education Reform. Ravitch reminds the audience that this group is comprised of hedge-fund managers and questions both their interest and expertise in determining what is best for the nation's education system.

Frankly, this is a "must listen" debate. My personal view is that Alter maintains the narrative that is all too familiar now. If you criticize or ask policy makers to justify their decisions, you belong to the group who wishes to maintain the "status quo." If that isn't a caricature or cartoon of parents, community members, and taxpayers across the nation with legitimate concerns on many levels, I do not know what is.

Ravitch will be appearing in more debates this summer, including a televised one on C-SPAN with Michelle Rhee. More information on these events to follow.


  1. Ravitch vs. Alter is like Dirk Novitski going one-on-one with a pre-schooler. She destroyed him, and what's more, so did the host. Alter had no real answer when asked how he'd feel if he were held "accountable" for NEWSWEEK going under.

    The Orwellian use by Alter and the rest of the deform crowd of the phrase "status quo" gives the game away. The status quo of free public education is one of the ideas and institutions that makes this country an actual democracy. The status quo of a billionaire and multi-millionaire plutocracy who buy and sell the likes of ethical midgets like Jonathan Alter to shill for anti-democratic policies is what we need to be worried about. There was a time when Alter would have been worried about them, too. Now, he just cashes their checks.

  2. True Michael. Thank you for the term "plutocracy." I think it is the right way to describe what is going on.
    The facts and "debate" are not reaching ordinary folk so they can understand. Political affiliation and ideology are not separating ordinary folk on this issue. Doing my part to move this important issue beyond education oriented blogs and into communities.
    Thank you for your comment!

  3. Reformers like Alter, Klein, Rhee love to point to the "status quo". What they fail to acknowledge is that the reform agenda IS the status quo. We have had 20 years of charter schools, 10 years of high stakes accountability via NCLB.

    In addition to outright elimination of teachers unions, these are two of the pillars of the reform agenda. So, how's that working out?

    We need to change the ground rules of this conversation by redefining "status quo".