Monday, August 02, 2010

Tired Again

Today marks the first day of my retirement, both the end of a long previous working life and a new beginning.  Over the weekend I had a couple of related turning points that marked the change. 

I finished Diane Ravitch's book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, ultimately a book about woodenness of mindset, the March of Folly to use Barbara Tuchman's expression.  In this case folly with regard to a persistent belief that market based reforms can cure what ails American public schools.  These beliefs resulted in a drastic narrowing of the curriculum, a movement away from a broad based curriculum to one that emphasized math and reading at the expense of other subject matter, an over reliance on testing to demonstrate where school performance has gone afoul, and a move to charter schools which unlike public schools could exclude the under performers. 

It was hard to read this book.  I felt like I was being bludgeoned with one bad reform after another, each eventually going awry, a horrible amount of self-induced destruction.  Instead of learning from the mistakes many in positions of authority attempted to conceal them.  Midway through I wondered if the real cure might be a broad airing of The Oxbow Incident.  America has become Fascist and exhibits its authoritarian nature vis-à-vis school reform, how ironic. 

Ravitch's history seems fairly complete and, the bludgeoning notwithstanding, is well told.  She is quite even handed in her presentation and mainly non-judgmental.  At the end she does provide her pronouncements and there is no doubt about what they will be.  But during the rest of the book she provides arguments for the reforms, arguments she once believe in herself, but no longer subscribes to.  I did puzzle over some things and have some quibbles with what Ravitch advocates.  I detail those below.

Reading and performance on the reading portions of standardized test seems incredibly important to the reformers.  Yet I saw no mention whatsoever in Ravitch's book about any attempts to measure how much the kids were reading outside of school and what it was that they were reading that wasn't assigned to them as homework.  This seems rather strange to me since it is something that can be tracked and evaluated, even if much of the data are self-reported.  I really don't get why this sort of data collection is not being done on a widespread basis.  Ravitch argues that the tests are indicators at best.  The reformers overstate the value of the tests and regard them as sufficient.  Ravitch argues that the reformers only want to look at quantifiable information and that is a mistake.  I agree, but I'd also point out that it is fairly easy to represent outside of school reading in quantifiable form (measure volume and grade level of what is being read).  Ravitch does point out that in the high stakes environment we find ourselves in many people go out of their way to manipulate the measurements, ergo my previous post on Campbell's Law.  The same would likely be true for out of school reading.  But that doesn't explain why such data are not collected and discussed. 

Ravitch came of age as a Historian of Education studying the New York City Schools in the late 1960s, in particular the tensions that arose in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville district in Brooklyn that precipitated the Teachers' Strike of 1968.  I was a ninth grader then, starting the school year at Bayside High School, where I had to take a bus, and then after being miserable there transferring to Cardozo High School, which was walking distance from home.  In the interim there was the strike, during which I had my wisdom teeth out (mine were impacted and I was pretty sick afterward).  Then I attended a scab school held at Francis Lewis High School, but ultimately my mother became a member of the teacher's union and I stopped attending the scab school and/or the strike came to an end about that time.  (My memory is a little fuzzy on this detail.)  In any event, my recollections of this period suggest that Ravitch perhaps painted too glorious a picture of the past before the current reform era. 

The schools had busing to achieve integration but the integration was really only partial.  Gym, art and music were integrated but most of the academic classes were not.  We had a tracking system for the academic classes.  Tracking was achieved via the diploma - academic, commercial, or general (which I believe was found discriminatory right around the time I graduated in 1972) and within academic by a system that featured Honors classes for so-called bright students.  In math, we even had extra honors classes.  The sole academic class I had that was not tracked was economics.  It was a terrible course that taught us very little.   I wouldn't, however, attribute the outcome to lack of tracking but rather to the school not knowing what should be taught to high school students about economics, yet it being required within the curriculum. 

My point here is that the sorting out of the students far precedes the reforms of the last 15 - 20 years.  Housing patterns will create such sorting.  Beyond that, the schools themselves will do it.  Charter schools may push the idea that much further.  But the idea was already present quite a long time ago. I wonder if such sorting existed in the Houston public schools of the 1950s, schools that Ravitch extols as exemplar of good local public schools.  The sorting certainly was a feature of the schools I attended in Queens during the 1960s and early 1970s. 

Here is one further thing.  Since the reformers are so vilified in Ravitch's book (Kozol in The Shame of the Nation makes essentially the same points as Ravitch does, though Kozol is more explicit about the role race plays in the equation) there is not much room in the book to ask whether there are alternatives to what Ravitch argues for the antidote - have a sound and thorough curriculum.  The curricular approach can be critiqued for imbuing much disembodied knowledge that never gets connected to anything else.  For example, on that list of Hirsch's I cited in an earlier post, we were all taught that in 1066 William the Conqueror led the Normans to victory in the Battle of Hastings.  (Indeed, my dad in some one-upmanship taught us that in 1166 there was the Assize of Clarendon.)  So I know the factoid.  But I can't connect it to other English History or to American History in a meaningful way.  It is just an isolated and therefore meaningless event, as it exists in my mind.  Clearly Ravitch doesn't want to fill the heads of students with isolated factoids.  But apart from her bit on her own favorite teacher from high school, Mrs. Ratliff, there is no argument put forward in her book that a rigorous curriculum will provide the right intellectual fodder so that students so taught can weave the facts into interesting and coherent narratives.   I would argue that desired outcome requires more than curriculum.  Ravitch does say the pedagogy is important, but she also indicates it can be quite idiosyncratic and nonetheless be good, though she doesn't make me confident in that proposition.  I do not quite understand why she didn't argue for some kind of curriculum-pedagogy nexus, whether she thought it really was unnecessary or rather that it would open up its own can of worms.  Regardless, that is not in the book. 

Later Saturday afternoon I decided to get some exercise on the stationary bike.  (My blood pressure meds say to avoid excessive sunlight though the nurse this morning said with sunscreen and a hat I'd be fine being outside.)  For some reason I couldn't get the DVD player to work so I looked for something on the satellite to keep me amused.  Ultimately I found Compulsion and I watched the second half of the movie.  This is the fictionalized version of the famous Leopold and Loeb case.  (Afterward I asked my kids if they had heard of it.  They hadn't.  But they knew who Clarence Darrow was from Inherit The Wind.)   As a kid I was both frightened yet fascinated by the story.   I read the book and saw the movie.  (One of my high school classmates was fascinated with the TV show Adam 12 so it was interesting to see Martin Milner in such a different sort of role.)   The idea was to commit the perfect crime and get away with it, to murder an innocent kid, a way to demonstrate the inherent superiority of certain people.  The plan was impeccable and the execution of it near flawless.  It unraveled nonetheless.  One of the perpetrators dropped a pair of glasses at the scene of the crime.  The glasses had a unique design.  This provided the telltale evidence the District Attorney needed to make his case.

Orson Welles, appearing worn but still with some spit in him, makes an interesting Clarence Darrow (Jonathan Wilk in the fictionalized version).  After the six days of impaneling the jury he switches the plea from innocent to guilty, thereby eliminating the jury from the decision about punishment.  His closing speech, intended mainly for the judge but which all in the courtroom heard, is all about compassion. A hanging would be pure vindictiveness and provide no deterrent.  It is stirring oratory, influencing the aforementioned Milner (Sid Brooks in the movie) to change his mind about what the defendants deserved, where earlier he was completely unsympathetic to them owing to their barbarous act, after Wilk's speech he could see there was still some humanity in the defendants and that they deserved to be treated with decency. 

I wonder if in the near future we will come to regard the current school reformers, Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein to name two of the more prominent figures, as tragic figures a la Leopold and Loeb, so convinced that what they are doing is right that they remain oblivious to the vast destruction of human potential they are responsible for. Ravitch would rather us preserve our compassion for the children who are now being poorly educated. But if Ravitch changed her mind on these things, why couldn't the reformers do likewise? And what would more likely succeed in bringing them to a different point of view, a compassionate argument or another bludgeoning? How would a modern day Clarence Darrow go about convincing them that they should change their approach? 

I don't know. It seems in many respects that we in America are on the path to destroy ourselves.


Bryan's workshop blog said...

Dark post, Lanny. You brought to my mind Jacobs' last book, Dark Ages Ahead. Is the cumulative inertia really that strong?

PS: didn't Hitchcock do a version of the L&L case?

Lanny Arvan said...

I believe the Hitchcock movie you are referring to is Rope. It was inspired by L&L but is not the same story. And I think inertia is not the right word. The problem is not neglect.

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