Ravitch: Don’t believe in miracles

Waiting for a school miracle? Don’t hold your breath, advises education historian Diane Ravitch in a New York Times op-ed. Most turnaround success stories are public relations triumphs, she writes.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama hailed the Bruce Randolph School in Denver, which he said went from “one of the worst schools in Colorado” to a school that graduates 97 percent of seniors.

Randolph, a middle school that’s added a high school, does have a high graduation rate, she concedes, but students’ ACT scores are far below the state average, showing students are not well prepared for college. Middle schoolers rank in the fifth percentile statewide in math and the 1st percentile in science.

After Miami Central was “reconstituted” — the principal and half the staff members were fired — President Obama said “performance has skyrocketed by more than 60 percent in math” and that graduation rates rose to 63 percent from 36 percent.

But Miami Central is one of the lowest-ranking high schools in Florida, Ravitch writes. Only 56 percent of its students meet state math standards, and only 16 percent met state reading standards. The graduation rate is well below the state median of 87 percent.

Her point?

Families are children’s most important educators. Our society must invest in parental education, prenatal care and preschool. Of course, schools must improve; every one should have a stable, experienced staff, adequate resources and a balanced curriculum including the arts, foreign languages, history and science.

If every child arrived in school well-nourished, healthy and ready to learn, from a family with a stable home and a steady income, many of our educational problems would be solved. And that would be a miracle.

The kids could fly to school on winged pigs.

So-called 90/90/90 schools — with 90 percent low-income students, 90 percent minority students and 90 percent achieving high academic standards — are a myth, writes Justin Baeder in On Performance. That’s unless you think getting 90 percent of students to “basic” skills, not proficiency, constitutes high academic standards.

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Comments

  1. Couldn’t agree more with everyone quoted here who is not named Obama. Getting kids to 90 percent high achievement is easy, when you consider that to pass some standardized tests (Ohio for example), students need to get fewer than half of the questions right. Last time I checked, that’s not passing; it’s failing.

  2. Mark,

    “students need to get fewer than half of the questions right. Last time I checked, that’s not passing; it’s failing.”

    The magic number of 60% or 70% correct is passing is simply a magical number used traditionally. The problem is not necessarily where the passing rate is set, it is what the test is testing. If it is a low-level test then you are only measuring low-level knowledge.

    You only need about a 50% on a AP science exam to get a 3 (considered good enough at some colleges). I remember getting 20/100 on some college exams and that was considered awesome.

  3. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Parker-

    I agree. I’ve given tests where 100% was an A, 86% was a B-, and anything lower was an F.

    That was a reading check test — the sort of thing where if you were a halfway competent reader and actually read the text, you shouldn’t get anything less than 7/7.

    It’s all about how difficult the test is supposed to be.

    Now, Mark has a point: most of the standardized tests that are used in schools for tracking performance and graduation requirements are seeing if the students can get a 50% on what’s essentially junior high material.

    Maybe that’s all we should expect from a high school graduate, maybe not. I’m inclined to think not, but I know some people think that expecting more than a so-so facility with pre-algebra and the ability to haltingly decipher TV guide (dating myself) is simply unrealistic.

  4. Homeschooling Granny says:

    “Families are children’s most important educators.” -Ravitch

    I fear that she is correct. Take a look at children who do well, whether educated in school or at home; their families are a lot alike. In “Academic Achievement and Demographic Traits of Homeschool Students” Brian D Ray describes families pretty much identical to those in more productive school districts.

    But improving family milieu isn’t as popular with experts and politicians as beating up on teachers (while ignoring the colleges that certified them as competent).

    If fixing schools is difficult (impossible?), it is nothing compared to fixing dysfunctional families. So let’s be like the blind man and look for our keys under the street light even if that is not where we dropped them.

  5. Stacy in NJ says:

    Homeschooloing Granny, Fixing familes could be amazingly easy. Follow these simply rules:

    1. Don’t have sex or children until you’re married
    2. Graduate from high school
    3. Stay married
    4. Don’t commit a felony

    Those four things will almost certainly guarantee you a place in the middle class.

  6. Stacy; I’ll add a corollary; return to the days when HS graduate meant a certain, decent level of knowledge, skills, behavior and work ethic. That translates to the kind of person employers want to hire. Today’s push to increase graduation rates has meant devaluing a diploma to the point that it often doesn’t guarantee basic literacy and numeracy.

  7. “I know some people think that expecting more than a so-so facility with pre-algebra and the ability to haltingly decipher TV guide (dating myself) is simply unrealistic.” Mr. Lopez above

    “Today’s push to increase graduation rates has meant devaluing a diploma to the point that it often doesn’t guarantee basic literacy and numeracy.” momof4 above

    A diploma should mean *at least* a demonstrated mastery of basic skills, the lack of which does not merit a diploma. Yes, a diploma should mean something.

  8. Richard Aubrey says:

    I think doing things like Affirmative Action admits, and beating up on teachers, and calling for more money, are all far easier, less threatening, and manageable than going into a disfunctional home and getting the clowns therein to straighten our their act.
    I have a relation who spent years in the effortt, with one family. It was like dragging a wagon with square wheels. And as soon as she had to stop due to health issues, it went all undone practically immediately.

  9. “I fear that she is correct.”

    Don’t fear that she is correct–she IS correct. For the first time since she wrote her most recent book.

  10. Joanne,

    Before I even read this post, I had printed out and stapled together both the Ravitch and Baeder pieces, copied them and distributed them to several of my colleagues as well as my superintendent. I’m trying to educate my colleagues about the prevalence of fraud and charlatanry in the field of education. We rarely ask critical questions –and yet so many of us are gung-ho about teaching critical thinking!

  11. Tom Linehan says:

    Although demographic factors and parents are important factors, still many shcools more than compensate for them. Other countries do as well. My favorite is the original AIPCS in Oakland. And this school has been duplicated with similar results. But there are many others if you bother looking for them.

  12. Roger Sweeny says:

    Tom Linehan,

    I’d be interested to know what these schools are and how they do it. My impression is that nobody makes a big difference over time. Some schools do very well for a few years and then settle into a more modest (but still significant) improvement. Some crash and burn because they relied on one or more extraordinary teachers who burn out or leave. Others succeed by using various means to ensure they have better students, e.g., requiring various commitments before enrolling and mustering out those students who won’t “get with the program.”

  13. Richard Aubrey says:

    Roger.
    When I was in the Army, seeing that the losers in your unit got transferred, or were on sick call when various unit tests were scheduled, was a requirement of any commander who wanted to maintain promotability.
    At one point when I was in an Infantry training unit, our battalion commander imposed extra PT requirements for the daily schedule. Our company was the first to finish a training sequence under the new regime. Our PT scores were so much higher than others’ that the general in the post-cycle critique was so suspicious he was practically hostile. But we did it the right way. Point is, sudden improvement has many potential fathers.
    This is an issue which has to be investigated thoroughly when a school makes a significant and impressively rapid improvement. Of course, it could be something simple like getting rid of the three worst teachers or something.

  14. Fixing familes could be amazingly easy. Follow these simply rules:

    1. Don’t have sex or children until you’re married
    2. Graduate from high school
    3. Stay married
    4. Don’t commit a felony

    Those four things will almost certainly guarantee you a place in the middle class.

    What about families that don’t want to be ‘fixed’?

  15. Stacy in NJ says:

    “What about families that don’t want to be fixed?”

    What about them?

  16. Maybe they should be offered money to be “fixed”.  As in, what’s done by a vet.