Monday, March 08, 2010

A lesson for Mrs Tolley?

Education is all about changing your mind when facing new evidence. Mrs Tolley ( NZ's shrill Minister of Education) by this definition fails relying on simplistic sound bites to answer all critics. She would , however, do well to read about Diane Ravitch's astonishing about face before it is too late and we all head down the American failed way to a standardised McDonald's approach to learning.

Diane Ravitch has long been a passionate advocate of injecting greater competition and accountability into the US education system but she realized, three years ago, that her ideas had evolved to a point that she had changed her mind. In her latest book 'The Death of the Great American School System; How Testing and Choice are undermining Education' she makes it clear she no longer supports market orientated reform strategies in education and the current national testing regime.

Diane Ravitch may not be well known in New Zealand but she gained a formidable influence in the Republican -dominated 1980s becoming assistant secretary of education in the 90s and since then has become a much sought after policy analyst and research scholar. In the nearly 20 books she had previously written she has weighed in against progressive education focusing on free market solutions to educational problems.

Her turnaround has become the buzz of school policy circles; lets hope it can be heard as far away as our beehive!

Ravitch, who once supported requirements for testing in maths and reading, now writes that this emphasis has squeezed out other vital subjects and has encouraged teachers to narrow their curriculum by teaching to the tests. This emphasis , she now believes , is undermining public education.

This is ironic because no one has done more in the past than Ms Ravitch to drive home the messages of accountability and testing. She now knows the testing agenda has not raised student achievement and now sees that testing has became not just a way to measure student learning, but an end in itself.

'Accountability', she writes, ' was not raising standards but dumbing down the schools'. 'Accountability has turned to test cramming and bean counting, often limited to reading and maths'. She told a convention of school superintendents that the accountability programmes were ' ill conceived, compared with those nations with the best performing schools. Nations like Finland and Japan..we are on the wrong track'.

Mrs Ravitch traces the start of the deterioration from the effort to introduce top down balanced literacy approaches to reading - it became a formula that was replicated in increasingly heavy handed ways. When such an approach was tied to accountability ( 'league tables') she began her turnaround and her criticism of such a narrower approach. A scenario that is being replicated in New Zealand - and one that has already failed in the UK.

She writes, 'School reform is like a freight train, and I am out on the tracks saying, you're going the wrong way!'

How can we ignore such a revelation in New Zealand?

Along the way she also skewers much of President Obama's agenda for improving the nations schools with the president's keenness to introduced national standards ( an improved version on No Child Left Behind testing) and the growing emphasis on using test school data to guide educational decision making. Standards based reform is a 'formula for incoherence and obfuscation'. It is she says, 'A high jacking of public education'. 'You can't have a rich and full education by teaching only basic skills'.

It is not often that one of the fields most influential thinkers publicly reverses themselves. But it does show that Ms Ravitch has the courage to do so .She now believes that a collaboration and trust model would work better than a market and competitiveness model. She now appreciates that the previous competitive model was a threat to the traditional public neighbourhood schools and democracy itself. We need reform that supports the professional wisdom of teachers. One of the worst ideas Mrs Ravitch now believes is to make our schools work like a business' That trend, she says, 'threatens to destroy public education' - 'Who will stand up to the tycoons and politicians and tell them so'?

Mrs Tolley,and her Ministry apologists, cannot write off Mrs Ravitch's new position as 'mischievous' as she has sidelined those who have dared criticize her within New Zealand

Ravitch's epiphany needs to be taken seriously before it is too late in New Zealand.

Is Mrs Tolley up to it?I fear not but we have been warned

Post script: an extract from Diane Ravitch's blog 6th March 2010.

' My hope for the book is that it will provoke a counteroffensive against misguided policies.These misguided policies...have the support of the most powerful people in our society, including our best known pundits and editorialists'.

'I do not agree that our schools are overrun with terrible teachers.Part of the goal of my book is to discredit the current knee jerk reaction of editorials and public officials, who blame teachers for everything that goes wrong with the schools. Blaming the teachers lets everyone else off the hook: families, the media, the popular culture, policy makers, and the students themselves. The overwhelming majority of our nation's teachers are doing the best they can under difficult circumstances with not enough support from society, parents, the media.'

Wish there was the moral courage for some Ministry people I used to admire to speak with such honesty - but then they would lose their jobs.


Anonymous said...

Wow - great stuff! But it will be ignored as usual by the Ministry of Miseducation.

Anonymous said...

Well said Bruce.Unfortunately neither Anne Tolley, her MOE people nor the seriously misinformed and educationally challenged NZSTA are up to admitting the folly of their persisting with this flawed policy.

Bruce said...

You are probably right but time will hold them all accountable!

Wizzo said...

I have been reading and using parts of your blog for a couple opf years now and it has inspired me to change how I teach.
However, when I read of what is happening with NZ politicians I despair.
Here in the UK the system of standards, top down curricula, league tables etc has failed. The profession - at the grass roots: teachers and heads - has lost confidence in government but appears to have no influence on policy makers.
In NZ you should be very sceptical of this political dogmatism. It will paint your system into a corner over the next decade. Politicians should have nothing to do with curricula, standards and testing - this should be a purely professional matter.
Strike! Campaign! Protest! Don't let it happen to you!