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One would think education traditionalists would be as slightly relieved by the deal New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo forced the state’s education department to strike with the American Federation of Teachers’ state affiliate as school reformers are (slightly irrationally) exuberant. While Value-Added analysis of student test score growth over time culled from the state’s standardized tests would account for at least a fifth — and as much as 40 percent — of the overall evaluation, the overall evaluation will still be largely based on classroom observations that are generally less accurate in reflecting their performance than student surveys. Considering that districts can still base half of the test portion of evaluations from third-party instruments (instead of from state tests, as Cuomo had wanted), teacher evaluations will still remain less useful than they could be in rewarding high-quality teaching and helping teachers improve performance. From where your editor sits, the deal is just a slight change for the better, either for good-to-great teachers or for our children. For reformers, it’s a cosmetic victory, and for education traditionalists, it’s far less of a defeat than they could have otherwise expected.

But for once-respectable education historian Diane Ravitch, who seems more than willing to debase whatever reputation she has left as a polemicist in order to defend failed thinking (and collect speaking fees), the Empire State deal is still far too much to bear.

In the Education Week blog she co-writes with the equally intellectually challenged Deborah Meier, Ravitch proclaims that the deal harkens “a dark day for New York” because the new evaluation system will actually go a little further in measuring teacher performance based on the ability to improve student achievement (and thus, requiring instructors to be accountable for their work in improving student success). From where Ravitch sits, the new evaluation system is also “draconian”, forces teachers to be “graded on a curve” and puts them into the awkward position of “competing with all other teachers.” because teachers who do well on the classroom observation component of the evaluation may still be rated ineffective if student performance isn’t improved on their watch. Ravitch is also offended that Cuomo and state legislators dare to weigh into the discussions and, in her mind, “impose an untested scheme on educators”.

But Ravitch reserves her greatest scorn for the weight given to Value-Added test score data in the evaluations. She declares that the decision to allow objective data to account for nearly half of the overall teacher rating is just “purely arbitrary” for which there is “no research… no evidence whatsoever”. As far as Ravitch is concerned, teachers now have to deal with an evaluation based in part on what she considers to be “inaccurate” data that will have “negative consequences”. What could those horrific outcomes possibly be? Ravitch doesn’t say.

Ravitch conveniently ignores last month’s report from the Gates Foundation’s Measures of Effective Teaching initiative, which actually suggests that Value-Added data should account for more than half of an overall evaluation because they are far more accurate in measuring teacher quality than classroom observations. She also fails to admit MET’s finding that the reliability of even the best-structured classroom observation — including the Classroom Assessment Scoring System developed by teacher training firm Teachstone – was less than half of a standard deviation in math and a fifth of a standard deviation in reading; that’s far lower than the reliability of the Tripod student perception survey developed by Harvard’s Ronald Ferguson and Cambridge Education (which accurately determined teacher performance by two-thirds of a standard deviation). The fact that Value-Added has withstood scrutiny as being useful in measuring teacher performance is also left out of her argument; so is the reality that classroom observations have been proven over and over again to be ineffective as tools in evaluating the ability of teachers to help students learn.

Ravitch also fails to realize that the deal struck is actually not that much different from the state law passed two years ago (for which the AFT lobbied largely as a defensive measure); save for the option of using state test score data for the 40 percent of the evaluation based on teacher impact on student achievement, the plan has hardly changed. Her derision of politicians weighing in on how teachers are evaluated and compensated also shows that she has no grasp of how things work in a democratic republic. Last I checked, education is mostly government run and financed. This means that legislators and governors elected by taxpayers — including parents who are compelled by law to leave their children in the care of teachers and administrators — are supposed to have a hand in structuring how districts operate and even how districts are evaluated. This is especially true when one considers that districts are considered by law arms of state governments, who are in most states, constitutionally required to provide education to its citizens.

If anything, one of the reasons why politicians are teaming up with school reformers to overhaul American public education is because  we have left education to “experts” in the classroom, administrative, and ed school ranks for far too long. What their expertise has wrought includes such practices as the overuse of suspensions and expulsions, the overdiagnosis of learning disabilities (especially among young black men, whose reading deficiencies are often diagnosed as being special ed problems), that manifestation of early 20th century racialism (and belief that minorities and immigrant are incapable of learning) that is ability tracking and the comprehensive high school model, and a system of recruiting, training, compensating and evaluating teachers that has proven ineffective in providing high-quality instruction to our children. And these failures come at a high costs to everyone, both in terms of human lives lost into poverty and prison, and billions of taxpayer dollars wastefully spent on practices that don’t work (including $7 billion a year on salary increases for teachers attaining master’s degrees that have no correlation to student achievement).

Certainly one can argue convincingly that our children would be better served if traditional districts were dismantled and we moved to a Hollywood Model of Education in which schools are operated by teachers, charter school operators, community groups, churches, and even families. One may even argue (less convincingly) that government should be out of the education business altogether. But so long as education is a government-controlled system, legislators and governors (along with families) should play more- active and thoughtful roles in shaping teaching, curricula, and other school operations.

What Ravitch defends is continuing a system in which laggard instruction and those who serve it up remain unaccountable and hidden from view. She defends incompetent and mediocre teachers keeping their jobs at the expense of better-performing colleagues whose success in helping students deserves public recognition and financial reward. Ravitch basically wants education to remain a preserve of anti-intellectualism in which sophisticated use of data in helping students and teachers is verboten. And, ultimately, while Ravitch may care about the futures of children, the ideas, practices, and policies she defends do little more than condemn their lives to economic and social despair.

This is one of the latest examples of Ravitch offering arguments in defense of education traditionalist thinking has more bombast and mawkish thinking than scholastic rigor and intellectual depth. Last week, she attempted to weigh in on Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson’s efforts to reform that city’s failing traditional district with claptrap that merely defends the kind of atrocious and indefensible poverty myth-making that deserves to be tossed into the ashbin of history. Last month, Ravitch declared California Gov. Jerry Brown was a “visionary” for his efforts to stem the slow efforts in reforming the state’s woeful schools under predecessor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and his general unwillingness to actually take responsibility for the failing districts (and their effects on children) under his watch.

But this is nothing new. For much of Ravitch’s career — especially after her criticisms of multiculturalism moved her into the public intellectual spotlight — she has been more of an enfant terrible than anything else. These days, she is more interested in being the Camille Paglia of education traditionalists without either the latter’s intellectual curiosity, scholastic rigor, or skillfulness in bombast. So she spends more time offering straw-men arguments and faulty interpretations of research that thoughtful criticism and intelligent analysis. All in all, Ravitch doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously on any level — and her thinking doesn’t merit more than the passing consideration on the way to more serious thinking.

Certainly your editor will hear from Ravitch’s erstwhile supporters and her friends among otherwise-sensible conservatives in the school reform movement, who will proclaim that I’m once again taking potshots at her intellectual reputation. After all, the former adore her defense of their indefensible worldview while the latter, for reasons I don’t ever want to fathom are more concerned with their personal friendships with her than with calling out her sophistry (and fulfilling their own mission as reformers). But facts are what they are. And Ravitch discredits herself with every new word from her pen.

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