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The George Burns School of Public Policy

June 3, 2011
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Earlier today, Jonathan Alter posted an odd and misguided attack on Diane Ravitch’s recent piece in the New York Times. Resorting to some of my ‘favorite’ school reform tropes, Alter grossly mischaracterizes virtually all of Dr. Ravitch’s professional opinions, all for the crime of noting–quite accurately– that our far-too-credulous mass media often hypes education reform “miracles” that are typically not miracles at all.

To prove that poverty doesn’t matter, political leaders point to schools that have achieved stunning results in only a few years despite the poverty around them. But the accounts of miracle schools demand closer scrutiny. Usually, they are the result of statistical legerdemain.

On this particular day, at the end of this particular week, I’m way too tired to pick apart point for point every little reason why Alter’s post made me so dizzy. But I just can’t let his exhortation to “Don’t Believe Critics, Education Reform Works” go unchallenged.

In making this statement, Jonathan Alter joined a group of people I mentally catalogue as graduates of the George Burns School of Public Policy.

Graduates of the GBSPP like to point to example schools that are “beating the odds” in order to show that their particular style of school reform (yes, Mr. Alter, “education reform” comes in many flavors, not just Corporate Yuck!) is working. They publicize the stories of so-called miracles and miracleworkers to win public support for would-be unpopular policies, and to try to silence skeptics. Many times, as Dr. Ravitch points out, there’s much more to the story than originally reported. For instance, while some of the Data looks great, other measures may tell a different story, or there are other explanations for the increased performance, like attrition or a dramatic shift in the student population that results in the loss of low-performing students. Too often, there’s also a fair bit of cheating and lying at the heart of the success story (::cough:: Texas Miracle! ::hack::).

But even if we assume that the schools highlighted for their success under NCLB/RTTT-style reforms legitimately do make the gains that are claimed, there’s still the bigger problem that the majority of poor, underperforming schools don’t. That’s why these stories stand out so much in the first place– they’re anomalies. We know that for most poor schools, more testing and pressure do little to improve problems fueled by high teacher turnover, underfunding, neglect, and high concentrations of student poverty. We know that frequent side effects of these reforms include a narrowed curriculum, increased stress for teachers and students alike, a powerful temptation to cheat and cut corners, etc.

And yet, proponents of this kind of reform push to continue and amplify policies to which teachers, parents, and students heartily object. This, instead of trying to give all children what many of these “reformers” provide for their own kids: small class sizes; well-trained, experienced teachers; and a full, rich curriculum (to say nothing of health care, a well-balanced diet, etc…).

To me, that’s a lot like using the example of George Burns– who lived to be 100 despite smoking between 10 and 15 cigars a day for decades– to encourage the federal government to reverse its position on the labeling and sale of tobacco products. If we applied this kind of reasoning to public health policy, using exceptions to dictate policy instead of rules, our Surgeon General’s warning might say something like, “Tobacco products aren’t perfect, but if you smoke every day you could live to be 100! All those people who got cancer and emphysema and whatnot just weren’t trying hard enough to be healthy. They had low expectations of themselves.”

I bet they all had bad teachers, too.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. phillipcantor permalink
    June 4, 2011 8:10 am

    Amen!

  2. Zulma permalink
    June 4, 2011 2:39 pm

    Sister, you wrote some awesome stuff!

  3. June 4, 2011 2:40 pm

    Excellent post. I was so incensed by Alter I issued a rebuttal as well:
    http://educationclearinghouse.wordpress.com/

  4. June 4, 2011 6:03 pm

    Nice analogy. I was equally distressed by Alter’s logic.

  5. Jill permalink
    June 4, 2011 7:23 pm

    I would laugh out loud if it didn’t hit so close to home – the George Burns School of Public Policy unfortunately is alive and well.

  6. June 4, 2011 7:56 pm

    Another great post, Sabrina. And I’ve always wondered how to punctuate the “cough, hack” thing in text. It really works.

  7. June 4, 2011 8:17 pm

    I shall use your analogy re George Burns. Its a hard issue for the best intended folks to understand: why the exceptions don’t prove that everyone could….

    Thank you for a very useful analogy that I intend to use! Why the exceptional doesn’t prove that they could be the norm is useful to think about, and we need to but enjoy that it’s do-able and curb our gushing until we can also prove that it’s sustainable over time, etc.

    And, of course, “could” is a tough word too.

    And it’s particularly irritating because when progressive educators had astonishing results–although never quite up to 97% attending 4-year colleges–we were told (by many of the same reformers) that we were exceptions of no use to them. What they were seeking was a method that was quickly replicable “by ordinary people”. Once again, an understandable impatience, but… trying to change the world overnight generally leads to frightful ends.

    Thanks.

    Deborah

  8. July 3, 2013 1:54 pm

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