Education Guru To Dallas Teachers: In School Reform, "There Are No Miracles"

The big shakeups credited with turning around public schools in New York, New Orleans and Washington, D.C. -- which Mayor Tom Lepeprt and organizers cite as influences for a new school reform effort in West Dallas -- have only succeeded in separating top students in charter schools from lower-performing students packed in old-school classrooms. So said former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch -- the author of last month's best-selling The Death and Life of the Great American School System and one of the hottest tickets on the education circuit -- at a Dallas Institute talk last night.

Ravitch shared the speaking bill with longtime Dallas educator Louise Cowan, who made a case for a school curriculum heavy on the classics. For a smooth transition, she went with a Moby-Dick metaphor that cast our "beleaguered education system" as an Ahab that's been "forced to pursue test scores as relentlessly as if they were the white whale."

Before a full house of teachers and good-timing policy lovers -- including noted Ravitch fan DISD trustee Carla Ranger -- Ravitch tracked the rise of the school accountability movement, and how it's been used to soften the influence of local school districts. (DISD superintendent Michael Hinojosa had also been in the crowd, but ducked out to catch a flight before Ravitch spoke.) From No Child Left Behind -- which she helped shape during her time in D.C. -- to President Obama's Race to the Top, Ravitch said the last decade's school reforms have been great for businesses, and tough luck for public education.

Because "charters are chained to test scores," Ravitch said, pressure for results has driven many of them away from their original mission as proving grounds for new approaches to teaching in tough circumstances. Ravitch said charters rely on young, cheaper, teachers who work long hours, which can't be replicated in public school systems. "There are some charters that are excellent," Ravitch said, but generally, they've hit on "the only fail-proof way to turn around a failing school: Get rid of the failing students."

"I'm not arguing against testing," Ravitch said, "I'm arguing against accountability."

While charter schools sell themselves well to politicians and newspaper editorial pages, Ravitch said, many promise more than they can deliver. "There are no miracles" in public education, she said, so while charters typically take students through a lottery, kids who have special needs or can't handle the workload end up back in public schools, keeping the charters' test scores high.

"Long-term planning to turn around education as a whole," is what's needed, Ravitch said, with superintendents who are educators, not data-minded businessmen, and better-educated teachers.

"Everything she talks about in terms of NCLB and Race to the Top hits us squarely between the eyes," Hobie Hukill, a local Dallas American Federation of Teachers officer and librarian at W. W. Samuell High School, told us after Ravitch spoke. "Teachers' livelihoods are in jeopardy over some very unreliable measures." While "we've not been as completely overwhelmed by charters as New York or San Diego," he said, "It seems that finally the same rationale she's referring to has finally reared its ugly head here."

Last week's announcement of city support for a Dallas Faith Communities Coalition project to reform West Dallas education included a partnership between DISD and Uplift Education, which runs four of Dallas County's 37 charter schools (according to a Texas Education Agency database).

We were at DFCC's Travis Walk headquarters this morning, and mentioned Ravitch's talk -- especially the part about charters only keeping the easiest kids to teach -- to their executive director Regina Nippert, who told us she disagrees with, oh, "pretty much everything Ms. Ravitch says." She suggested taking a look at Uplift's Williams Preparatory classes, which include plenty of students with special needs. Nippert said school choice is a major piece of DFCC's West Dallas effort, where she isn't satisfied leaving kids without an alternative to public schools with deep-rooted problems.

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