Rhee and Ravitch, leading schools figures, square off in Martha’s Vineyard

It wasn’t quite the Smackdown in Edgartown, but two leading figures in the national education debate politely collided here Thursday over the causes of failing schools and the best ways to rescue them.

Michelle A. Rhee, the former D.C. schools chancellor whose take-no-prisoners stance shook up the city and transformed her into a leader of the school reform movement, parried with Diane Ravitch, an education historian whose criticisms of charter schools and high stakes testing has made her a hero to teachers’ unions and many defenders of traditional public education.

The Martha’s Vineyard encounter was the pair’s first faceoff in person, after months of dueling opinion pieces and Twitter feeds. They appeared at a panel discussion about the racial and ethnic achievement gaps, which was organized by Henry Louis Gates Jr., who runs the W.E.B DuBois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University.

Rhee and Ravitch quickly staked out opposing ground.

“What would you do, if you saw data that said a teacher, year in and year out for the last five years, not only didn’t improve the kids in her classroom but that the children have gone backwards, lost ground?” said Rhee, who heads an advocacy group called Students First. “Do you keep that teacher in the classroom? . . . Would I allow my children to go into that classroom with that person? Absolutely not. And no one in this room would allow their children or grandchildren in that classroom.”

Rhee said accountability — ensuring that teachers are effective and that administrators are making decisions in the best interest of children-- is key to improving education.

Ravitch, a former assistant education secretary under President George H.W. Bush, maintained that teachers are being scapegoated.

“I have been seeing profound demoralization among teachers in America today,” Ravitch said. “It is almost hard to convey. Teachers feel they are being held accountable for social conditions beyond their control. We have to have an ethos in education of encouragement, support, at the same time encourage and respect teachers and stop beating up on them.”

She said the 2002 No Child Left Behind law has narrowed curriculum, placed undue pressure on educators and perverted the proper role of testing.

“We are now as a nation investing billions in testing,” Ravitch said. “If we took all the billions and put it into early childhood education, we would make a difference. We’re using testing as punishment, and [as a result] we’ve got cheating in Baltimore, Washington D.C., Pennsylvania, Atlanta. [Teachers are told] if you don’t meet an impossible goal, you’re going to be fired and your school is going to be closed. Punishing people, threatening people never works...What people need is an appeal to a sense of purpose, they need autonomy.”

Ravitch argued that poverty causes achievement gaps and that the best solution is to offer poor children extra support and resources from birth on.

Rhee agreed that poverty plays a role but said educators must focus on what they can control.

“We have children in school six hours a day, 180 days a year, and in that time period we have to believe there is much we can do to better their station in life,” she said. “The reason why we have public schools is so that every single child can have an equal chance in life.”

The setting, in the 1787 Old Whaling Church in this town of expansive clapboard homes and gleaming sailboats, couldn’t be further removed from the issues of race, poverty and public education that were the focus of the discussion. (President Obama and his family are vacationing on the island.)

Just 1.2 percent of students enrolled at the local elementary school are African American, according to state statistics. Last year, 90 percent of students in the school met targets for English, and 84 percent met them in math.

One audience member made the point succinctly. “Public education here in Martha’s Vineyard is terrific,” one woman told the sold-out crowd of about 500 during the question and answer period. “We have really good early childhood [education], really good health care, and we have rich people who come here in the summer, so thank you very much.”

Lyndsey Layton has been covering national education since 2011, writing about everything from parent trigger laws to poverty’s impact on education to the shifting politics of school reform.
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