My take on Diane Ravitch's message to KIPP, TFA

[REEP, KIPP and TFA Lecture Series from Jon Paul Estrada on Vimeo]

Diane Ravitch (NYU Ed Researcher) recently gave a talk at my alma mater (Rice University) at an event sponsored by the Rice Education Entrepreneurship Program (REEP), KIPP:Houston, and Teach For America. During this talk, she takes on some of the biggest issues in the reform movement - value-added assessment, Race To The Top, charter schools, and alternative certification. (For a brief review of the talk, check out Valerie Strauss's WaPo blog.) Ravitch speaks candidly and intelligently on each of these topics.

"We need to improve education, not replace it," she states, in reference to recent reform efforts that emphasize assessment, merit pay, and "free market" approaches. She also tells us that merit pay is an old idea that's been around since the 1920s, going on to cite a recent study from Vanderbilt that showed that it doesn't make a difference (using random assignment). 

She pushes KIPP and TFA to distance themselves from the charter and alternative certification movements, noting that these are not sustainable education reform solutions. I generally agree, but with a few caveats...

KIPP and the Charter School Movement

Charter schools offer a platform for us to test the effectiveness of school-level systems and provide choice for parents and students. That said, replacing all schools with charters is not the solution. As Ravitch points out, charter schools, on the whole, do not show higher student achievement than "traditional" schools, and many of them are worse. But some of them, like KIPP, do work. Baby, bathwater, etc.

To use a nerdy analogy, you can think of charter schools as the "Open API" of the school system. The platform itself is the public school system (a Pew poll a few years ago showed that about half of the US thinks that charter schools aren't public, so I make the point here). Charter schools are "apps" that work inside the system to try to make it better - again, by (a) providing options to parents and students and (b) testing new techniques that might someday be incorporated into the larger system.

So yes, KIPP should separate themselves from the "educational robber barons, dilettantes, and incompetents" that running some of our charters, but it should also embrace the fact that without a charter school movement, they wouldn't exist. Let's stop talking about charters vs. non-charters. Let's just talk about schools vs. schools.

High and Mighty TFA

Ravitch claims that if she were graduating from college today, she would be inspired to apply for TFA. But she quickly turns around to urges TFA to "please stop claiming that TFA will close the achievement gap... no one can teach for 2 or 3 years and close the achievement gap."

I agree. But my understanding of the TFA is grossly misaligned with Ravitch's. My understanding of TFA's message is not that "smart people working in tough schools for 2 or 3 years is enough." Rather, TFA's message to me (and the one posted on their website) is that you can have an immediate impact in the classroom if you work hard, your experience will help you understand the achievement gap and educational issues better, and the educational system needs to people inside and outside school walls to care and work to increase the status quo.

I've heard Tom Dooher, Education Minnesota's President, claim something similar during an MPR interview (to paraphrase, "TFA has been around for 20 years, but the achievement gap still exists"). It is entirely possible (and likely) that the public's perception of TFA is that of a bunch of Pollyannaish young people trying to save the world. If TFA does in fact believe that "their efforts are sufficient" and that "schools don't need additional resources," then I'd agree with Ravitch that showing some humility is in order.

(On a side note, I think TFA's slogan should be: "To improve American education so that we don't need Teach For America.")

But Diane, what have you done recently?

With all due respect to Ms. Ravitch, I ask, "Do we really need another Ivory Tower professor telling us what's wrong with education today and naysaying any attempt to improve it?"

While I respect her independent and intelligent thinking, I cannot recall her providing a single suggestion of a systemic solution for education. She spent an hour talking about what doesn't work in education and indicting people that are working on the hardest problems in education today.

But then again, maybe that's Ravitch's point - there is no single solution, there is no one systemic change that will make education perfect. Maybe that point has slipped past all of us, and that's why we need people like Ravitch to remind us of these things.