At Paly, education scholar blasts testing culture

So-called reformers obsess over accountability when real problem is poverty, Ravitch says

Palo Altans are as lucky as people who live in Dr. Seuss's mythical city of Solla Sollew, "where they never have any troubles, at least very few," education historian Diane Ravitch told an audience at Palo Alto High School Monday.

Ravitch, who was a top education official in the George H.W. Bush administration and advocated school choice and the testing regime of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, radically broke with her past positions in 2010. She's now promoting her newest book, "Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools."

In a talk to about 40 teachers in the Paly library, Ravitch said an "obsession with standardized testing" and the choice-oriented education reforms advocated by Bill Gates and others are contributing to a dangerous trend toward privatization of public education.

Poverty -- not low test scores -- is the real problem, she said.

"We have 23 percent to 25 percent of kids in this country living in poverty," Ravitch said.

"It should be a national scandal, yet we've been distracted with the idea that schools are causing kids to be poor, to not have high test scores, and if we could just get high test scores everyone would have a job, stay in school and we'd have a utopian society."

The testing labels under the No Child Left Behind Act "don't mean anything," she said.

"They're trying to squeeze us into boxes made by people in Congress who literally don't know what they're doing and didn't read the legislation," she said.

"It was stitched together largely by education aides who don't know anything about education... and it's causing many schools to close."

Ravitch called for a nationwide boycott of standardized testing.

Standardized testing and the so-called accountability movement have enriched armies of consultants while kids in low-income school districts go without instruments for their marching bands, she said.

"Everyone who wants to take their wackadoo ideas public is called a reformer today," she said, including conservative Republican governors such as Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Scott Walker of Wisconsin.

"The big myth is that education is failing, national security is at risk, when in fact my graphs show that test scores and graduation rates have never been higher for black, white, Asian and Hispanic kids, and dropout rates have never been lower.

Many so-called reformers, she said, are "corporate leaders who just echo what the Chamber of Commerce has told them. The more you say that schools are failing the more the public is willing to accept any 'cure' you're offering."

Quoting Mario Savio, the student leader of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement in 1964, Ravitch said, "There comes a time when the machine becomes so oppressive that you have to throw your body at the machine, stop the levers and make the machine stop.

"Here I am, 75 years old, and I'm throwing myself on the machine. It's actually making me younger. My body may be aging but inside there's a raging 25-year-old."

Ravitch was introduced by Paly English teacher David Cohen, who said he had invited teachers from throughout the district to the gathering.

She took few questions because she had to leave for her next speaking engagement at Stanford University.

Chris Kenrick


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Posted by ML
a resident of Menlo Park
on Oct 1, 2013 at 11:45 am

No comments?

I know. She left me speechless too.

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Posted by natalie
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 1, 2013 at 12:43 pm

Thanks, Weekly, for publishing this article. No other paper has that I know so far. A follow-up on how questions from the audience were answered would be welcomed. Also, comments from the teachers.

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Posted by Jack
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 1, 2013 at 12:51 pm

If standardized testing is abandoned, then how do we know that our kids learned core subjects? The teachers' union does not want to be held accountable, that's the long and short of it.

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Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 1, 2013 at 1:19 pm

"If standardized testing is abandoned, then how do we know that our kids learned core subjects"

Just quiz them at home, if indeed you know the material yourself.

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Posted by OPar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 1, 2013 at 1:30 pm

"Core subjects" is a misnomer--one problem has been that teachers spend so much time prepping for the tests that other parts of education get dropped.

I think some standardized testing is appropriate, but the test scores should be seen as a means of assessment--not as end goals. Learning is about more than filling in the blanks.

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Posted by Consider the Source
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 1, 2013 at 2:21 pm

Keep in mind that this woman has a book she is trying to promote. She is on a. Ross-country tour in an effort to get this book on the N ew York Times Best Seller List.

Sunday's NY Times had a less-than-flattering review of Ms Ravitch and her book.

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Posted by Interested party
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 1, 2013 at 2:47 pm

"Sunday's NY Times had a less-than-flattering review of Ms Ravitch and her book."

How is this a less than flattering review? Web Link&

Having read the book, I can see how you can criticize the writing itself and perhaps even the attitude of the author. Despite that, her points about the issues with testing and the privatization of public schools are very convincing.

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Posted by Wondering?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 1, 2013 at 3:31 pm

> Standardized testing and the so-called accountability movement have
> enriched armies of consultants while kids in low-income school
> districts go without instruments for their marching bands, she said.

The US Dept. of Ed./National Center For Education Statistics (NCES) documents that nationally, the Country spends about $10,000/student-almost all of which is generated at the state/local level.

There is very little evidence that Ms. Ravich's claim is true.

Got to wonder how she has gotten from where she was a couple decades ago--to now?

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Posted by Former Paly Parent
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 1, 2013 at 4:17 pm

I went to her talk at Stanford last night.

It struck me as a revival meeting for frustrated and angry teachers who want to go back to the 'good old days that never were'.

Ravitch is a rather blunt and uncompromising old woman from Brooklyn.

Her message consisted of equal parts:

1) No standardized tests of any kind
2) No teacher assessments of any kinds
3) Teachers should not be fired because there are no competent administrators to judge them
4) The real solution to our education problems is to increase teacher pay by 40% and decrease teacher hours by 50% - so teachers have more time to compose and create their own individualized curriculum based on what they alone think is right
5) Technology is only designed to replace teachers and should therefore be minimized. IPads are really about access to pornography (that is pretty close to a quote, if you can believe it)
6) Tenure is vital to protect teachers from mass firings because they teach evolution
7) Any innovation of any kind is an attempt to take away jobs from teachers and profit off the backs of students...
8) The real solution to our science and engineering problems is to make sure every K-8 class has art every day.

Her message is 'students and teachers are better than ever, it is just these damn innovators that want accountability and improved teaching who are ruining everything'

You can see why the teachers love this. She is pretty clearly someone the teachers unions will want to come and give her rousing speech to get everybody worked up.

I was just angry at the end. Those who refuse to acknowledge an issue are most likely to be a primary impediment to a meaningful solution.

Putting nurses and social workers in schools will not solve many of the problems I saw in Palo Alto.. don't get me wrong, I am a big supporter of public education, but when you come to Silicon Valley and demean technology and suggest that 100% of the teaching population is extraordinary, you beg to be ridiculed.

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Posted by Ravitch-less
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 1, 2013 at 5:25 pm

If more money needs to be spent per student, how do you explain the success, educationally and academically, of Poland, Finland, and South Korea, the top three in the world?

How do you explain the failure rate, educationally and academically, of the US, which spends more money per student than any other country?

I think someone is just trying to sell a lot of books!

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Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 1, 2013 at 6:25 pm

I have no expertise in education, or testing but it seems to me we are running up against a lot of forces that are not acknowledged in schools and learning.

There is only so much time and attention a student has, or a person has, in their lives, and we are getting bombarded in ways different from the lives of humans that have ever lived before with different information and cultural values, yet we continue to carry along the cultural baggage and refuse to jump on the road to the future, where increasingly we are, or should be learning better technologies for teaching people ... and clearly we are for some, the elite.

So, perhaps rather than standardize testing we ought to do a little standardizing of the learning experience. If we do not also look at the teaching method, it seems that any standardizing of the results is meaningless?

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Posted by palo alto resident
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Oct 1, 2013 at 7:03 pm

The simplest explanation I have heard about the problem with our educational system is that we are expecting students to learn a great deal more than 25 years ago, yet we are only willing to fund an equal amount of classroom time to cover a great deal more info. We therefore expect our students to "teach themselves" thru homework (guess what, that doesn't work so well).

The simplest explanation for student difficulties is poverty and lack of preparedness in a large amount of students (aka government needs to help out here with adequate funding for food and preschool and kids need to speak English or be taught it).

The simplest explanation for the lack of teacher quality is tenure (no one should be guaranteed a job if they stink), pay tied to experience and education and not teaching quality, a low bar for teacher education ("those who can't do, teach", in other countries being a teacher is a prestigious, hard to achieve job) and a lack of support for our teachers. It is ridiculous that teachers are supplying paper and pencils, etc. for their students.

If we truly want our students to achieve, we need to give them enough time in the classroom to learn what they need to learn, teachers who are the "cream of the crop" not the bottom of the class, adequate supplies and safe schools with current books, etc.

These same students need to come to school with a full stomach, spend enough time at school to learn and go home to a place where they can get their homework done - or have a place provided for them,

I heard Diane on NPR yesterday and while my overall impression was that she was pretty whiny, she is correct that poverty is a hugh ( and totally disgraceful in this country) problem for our schools. If you are hungry or you don't understand the language, its hard to learn.

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Posted by OPar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 1, 2013 at 9:12 pm

Hmmm, I haven't noticed kids having to "learn a great deal more" throughout the educational system than 25 years ago. I see "more" among the top-tier schools like the ones in Palo Alto, but not overall. I see some pushing down of the curriculum--i.e. reading in kindergarten, but nothing that explains our abysmal high-school graduation rates.

I think poverty and the disappearance of a stable middle class are much bigger factors.

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Posted by CarolineSF
a resident of another community
on Oct 1, 2013 at 9:46 pm

I attended the Diane Ravitch talk at Stanford and have read her book, and the descriptions by "Former Paly Parent" of what she supposedly says are entirely inaccurate. Also, Jonathan Kozol's review in the New York Times of Ravitch's book was extremely flattering.

Seems like the Hoover Institution has some sock puppets posting here. It also stuck one of its paid mouthpieces in the line for public questions at the Ravitch speech, which was extremely bad form.

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Posted by Buy the book
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 2, 2013 at 6:56 am

She's selling a book. The teachers union loves this sort of drivel because it takes the pressure off of teaching and places it on the failing child. It's their fault because they're poor or they don't speak English. Poverty doesn't cause low achievement and we have whole demographic groups that are low-achieving and are English-only. We Palo Altans spend a whole lot of money on our education system and it's sub-par.

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Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 2, 2013 at 9:09 am

"how do you explain the success, educationally and academically, of Poland, Finland, and South Korea, the top three in the world?"

Can't speak for Poland and S Korea, but Finnish teachers are almost totally unionized. Draw your own conclusions.

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 2, 2013 at 9:20 am

It is probably a good time to look into if and why countries with an exam based system are doing a better job of educating their students.

We are told that they are just teaching to the test, but are they? Is a system which has strong testing actually educating their students to think or are they just educating to pass the exam? Is our system of continual assessment doing a better job of real education when it comes to producing young adults who are proficient in their field and able to competently work in their chosen career to be the best professionals they can be. Is the purpose of education (in the school arena) to produce the next generation of leaders, workers and innovators, or is it to make them feel like well rounded adults?

Do exams produce better incentives for teachers to teach and students to take their studies seriously?

If we have to look outside schools to get teaching for SAT prep and college prep are we doing a good job of preparing students for college and the real world? If we are not preparing our students for college and future careers, then what are we doing in school?

If employers are choosing foreign schooled candidates over American schooled candidates, then are we doing something wrong?

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Posted by former reformer
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 2, 2013 at 11:10 am

Our nation's schools could be much better but not without well-prepared teachers. This means attracting smart folks. The biggest difference between U.S. schools and admired school systems in other countries is the prestige of the teaching profession and the resources devoted to teachers' continuing education. As long as we bash teachers and focus on those who truly don't belong in teaching, those interested in teaching as a profession will continue to drop.

Making teaching attractive to the best and the brightest -- for more than one or two years -- and grappling with poverty are the keys to kingdom. Pretending that "higher" standards and "better" tests will change the teaching force, what students learn, and what jobs are available is a fool's errand.

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Posted by weekly reader
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 2, 2013 at 11:29 am

We don't know for sure whether other countries are testing every student like we do. Sometimes children of poverty in other countries, especially those with agrarian or low-level manufacturing economies, do not even go to school. Many upper class children in those countries go to private school. And some of those countries have a caste or class system which has been in place for thousand of years which selects for academic skills such as memory.

We do know that in some other countries kids specialize in middle school not in college. That means they are probably not being tested outside their area of interest or concentration beyond the age of 11 or so, while we test students on a wider variety of subjects till the age of about 17.

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Posted by Bob
a resident of Mountain View
on Oct 2, 2013 at 12:03 pm

Last evening, I attended a lecture at SJSU by Professor David S. Saurman, titled How the Worlds Poorest are Educating Themselves.His travels to the poorest areas of India, Africa and China found a grassroots private school system that was born from parent frustration with and student abandonment by the government schools in those countries. He has written a book about his experiences titled "The Beautiful Tree". He looks to entrepreneurial spirit of the private sector to provide an educational choice from the government school by creating small private schools providing parents with a choice.

My personal views are a bit more radical. I would like to abolish tenure for primary and secondary schools, and shut down the California Teachers Union. Tenure is fine at university's and colleges where we have a clear choice to attend or not. For primary and secondary schools, where you live determines what school your children attend; no choice. We have all experienced suffering under teachers who should not be in the classroom, and are protected by the teachers union and/or tenure. Currently this is next to impossible to remove them. It's not just California, The New Yorker ran an article titled "The Rubber Room", where incompetent teachers who cannot be fired are sent with full pay and benefits, until they retire. That's how bad it has gotten. Remember, it's called "The Teachers Union", not the "student union" or the "education union" and everything they do is for the benefit of teachers, period.

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Posted by Joyce Beattie
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Oct 2, 2013 at 12:48 pm

Excellent article. I wish she or her counterpart in office now would voice the same sane arguments.
Teaching to test scores, is not teaching at all.
Palo Alto schools are an excellent example of High Scores = Many resources for students/ Including highly motivated parents, comfortable life styles and access to intellectual and physical resources.
And WHAT is all this animosity to teachers having a Union?? We don't even pay our teachers enough to live in this area, can't we at least provide them with some benefits?
I bet you find your Gardeners and Household workers over compensated as well? For shame!

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Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 2, 2013 at 5:00 pm

"If employers are choosing foreign schooled candidates over American schooled candidates, then are we doing something wrong?"

Yes. We are teaching our children the American Dream, which prompts them to expect higher pay than foreign schooled candidates.

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Posted by Carlos
a resident of Green Acres
on Oct 2, 2013 at 8:12 pm

I would take a very skeptical view of Ravitch's statements because:
1. She's selling a book, and this is a convenient time to come up w/ some interesting revelations. She definitely had plenty of chances to voice these views before, when she was in a better position to implement changes.
2. School systems that traditionally rely on test scores have done much better on the international PISA tests than we have. For those who don't know, the PISA tests evaluate critical thinking.

In an imperfect world, test scores are probably the least unfair way of measuring a student's accomplishments. At the very least, it would eliminate that unfair category called 'legacy students' when it comes to gaining entrance at elite colleges in the US.

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Posted by Fred
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 2, 2013 at 8:18 pm

That NY Times review was neither flattering nor critical - it was more like a book report, ending with the old "on the one hand.... On the other hand" wind-up:

"In her zeal to deconstruct that narrative, Ravitch takes on almost all the well-known private-sector leaders and political officials. It isn’t likely they’ll be sending her bouquets. Those, on the other hand, who have grown increasingly alarmed at seeing public education bartered off piece by piece, and seeing schools and teachers thrown into a state of siege, will be grateful for this cri de coeur."

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Posted by Former teacher
a resident of Portola Valley
on Oct 2, 2013 at 8:59 pm

The issue in education today is that we have a volume-driven model: more standards to cover, more information for kids to learn, more "knowing" and less "learning," more testing to diagnosis the knowing. It's an inch deep and a mile wide. That's what Ravich is railing against and what NCLB was misguided on. Kids need to explore more about less, and there should be accountability for what they've learned through better testing that doesn't measure right/wrong "knowing," but allows them to demonstrate what they understand in ways beyond fill in the bubble.

But follow the money and you'll see why the testing machine (College Board and the myriad others in the test-making game) is the tail wagging the education dog.

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Posted by Ed
a resident of Menlo Park
on Oct 3, 2013 at 10:26 pm

Former teacher from Portola Valley summarized the key issues nicely. One other point to add -- the profound lack of respect for teachers (evidenced in far too many of the comments above) is also a tremendous problem.

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Posted by Wondering?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 4, 2013 at 12:47 pm

> the profound lack of respect for teachers (evidenced in far
> too many of the comments above) is also a tremendous problem.

The following points about "teaching" are taken from the 1982 "A Nation at Risk":

Web Link

The Commission found that not enough of the academically able students are being attracted to teaching; that teacher preparation programs need substantial improvement; that the professional working life of teachers is on the whole unacceptable; and that a serious shortage of teachers exists in key fields.

Too many teachers are being drawn from the bottom quarter of graduating high school and college students.

The teacher preparation curriculum is weighted heavily with courses in "educational methods" at the expense of courses in subjects to be taught. A survey of 1,350 institutions training teachers indicated that 41 percent of the time of elementary school teacher candidates is spent in education courses, which reduces the amount of time available for subject matter courses.

The average salary after 12 years of teaching is only $17,000 per year, and many teachers are required to supplement their income with part-time and summer employment. In addition, individual teachers have little influence in such critical professional decisions as, for example, textbook selection.

Despite widespread publicity about an overpopulation of teachers, severe shortages of certain kinds of teachers exist: in the fields of mathematics, science, and foreign languages; and among specialists in education for gifted and talented, language minority, and handicapped students.

The shortage of teachers in mathematics and science is particularly severe. A 1981 survey of 45 States revealed shortages of mathematics teachers in 43 States, critical shortages of earth sciences teachers in 33 States, and of physics teachers everywhere.

Half of the newly employed mathematics, science, and English teachers are not qualified to teach these subjects; fewer than one-third of U. S. high schools offer physics taught by qualified teachers.

Wonder how much has changed in our nation's teachers during the past thirty years?

Hard to respect people just because they are teachers, and not because they deserve our respect from their education, and the results of their work.

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Posted by NoDisrespect
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 4, 2013 at 5:41 pm

There are certainly some benefits to testing, but it's like a scale: no matter how many times you weigh yourself, it's not going to make you any thinner. So I can see how excessive testing is still not improving the primary education interface: that between a child and their teacher.

There is a problem with the status of teachers. The Varkey Gems Foundation just completed a global survey of teacher status: Web Link

I'm sure many people will read into it what they want to believe. But I have to say that my own respect for teachers was extremely high; until I had one teacher give my child a hard time. I thought it was a one-off incident the first time. The following year, it happened again...still a minority of teachers, but not uncommon. Finally when we had experienced 6 teachers over 5 years for our two students, we come to realize that there is a pattern. Some of these teachers were extremely disrespectful, some were bullies, or completely uninterested in the students. You can tell immediately when they start the discussion with: "I don't care about your child, because I have 140 students".. (that they also don't care about).

You can only come to the conclusion that while teaching as a profession has some outstanding people, they also have some real duds.

They have a professional problem. As a group. And it is their problem, not the public's problem to solve.

Unlike other professions, there is no effort improve the quality of their group. The best will associate with the worst. And band together to defend the worst kind of behavior. Okay, fine, that's their right; but it is a direct cause of society disrespecting teachers. As a group, they don't seem to understand that their public image is tarnished badly by a few members. And tarnished in a way that the public is very emotionally connected to: our children.

The ideal world would be one which has very high quality, dedicated teachers; who are well respected, and well paid. A profession that attracts the best talent.

There is a long way to go to reach such a goal. The first step is for teachers to stop viewing themselves as low-tech assembly workers, unionized for defense. Throw out those who drag you away from a professional image. Use your unions and associations to better yourselves as a profession, not to defend the horrible.

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Posted by Few bad apples
a resident of Juana Briones School
on Oct 4, 2013 at 7:03 pm

Wow! That was well-said NoDisrespect. However, teachers know that they protect the worst, and in fact, the union reps tend to be the horrible teachers that you have written about. So many great teachers in Palo Alto, but too many mediocre and even harmful ones, too.

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Posted by David Cohen
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 7, 2013 at 12:45 am

David Cohen is a registered user.

I always find it disheartening to see so many anonymous comments here. Is it possible for us to disagree with each other and have a civil conversation?

However, since I'm the one who organized this event at Paly, I will jump in. After this post, I'm glad to engage further with those willing to shed their anonymity here, or post under whatever name you like on my blog (see comments policy there).
Try this post, in which I reviewed Ravitch's book:
Web Link

1. I hardly see how someone's viewpoints are less valid because they write a book and want people to read it. By that logic, should we mainly trust people who don't write books? And as I point out in my review, this book it is thoroughly researched and annotated, so you may disagree, but she more than backs up everything she says with ample studies, examples, and data. Diverting attention to her age, gender, or tone diminishes only the commenter. Of course, many of Ravitch's current critics thought she was a top-notch scholar - until, as she puts it, she looked at the evidence for the reforms she once supported and found they didn't work.

2. Regarding the state of the teaching profession, I agree that teachers and unions need to do their part in this regard, which is why I've been involved in teacher leadership projects and reform efforts both within and outside the union framework. However, I respectfully disagree when Carlos suggests "it is their problem, not the public's problem to solve." The school system belongs to the public, the voters, the community, parents, students and teachers together, and mutual engagement is the superior strategy. See David Kirp's book "Improbable Scholars" for great examples.

3. Regarding unionism more broadly, the top-performing nations and top-performing states are the most heavily unionized. The states with the weakest labor are also weak in most measures of both economic and educational well-being. The cause/effect analysis is certainly more complicated, but at the very least, the lack of a negative correlation is certainly an indication that union strength is no impediment to educational quality. Union engagement has been vital to successful education reforms in the following examples: NEA Priority Schools, California's QEIA schools, Minnesota's Q-Comp and Denver's Pro-Comp programs, and two highly regarded and thoroughly researched peer evaluation programs in California (San Juan Unified and Poway Unified). In California and in Ohio, there is both qualitative and quantitative evidence that joint HR panels with ≥50% union-appointees actually are tougher on teachers and dismiss more teachers than their districts did prior to these union-based reforms.

4. "Tenure" in K-12 education is not equivalent to tenure in universities. It might need some reforms (and I've helped publish recommendations to reform teacher evaluation and career pathways - again, see my blog site), but it does serve a vital role. Ravitch's comment about evolution was an example, not the entire argument. There is undue external pressure on teachers when dealing with controversial issues or powerful people; due process rights not only provide a healthy counterweight, but they even shield administrators from being pressed in to improper actions on behalf of their higher-ups. I have friends who teach in North Carolina who fear for their jobs if they speak out against the political and education policy malpractice going on there right now.

5. Regarding Ravitch's appearance at Stanford, I was there as well; the summary laid out by Former Paly Parent reveals more frustration than substance. Rather than debate what's incorrect or how distorted those examples are, I'd suggest people read Ravitch's book, or watch for the video of the event (not yet available, but to be posted soon at Web Link ).

6. Regarding spending, poverty - our national poverty level is disgraceful, and mostly the result of politics (see: "Inequality for All"). The problems of poverty are causally related to children's lower performance in school. Finnish education expert Pasi Sahlberg has said repeatedly that he believes a swap between their teachers and ours would produce little if any change in outcomes - because of the poverty. As for comparative costs, it's hard to compare nations that have significantly different approaches to health care, pensions, special education, athletics, transportation, insurance and liability, just to name a few big budget items. Bottom line for me is, whatever is being spent on any given school or district, is it meeting students' needs? If spending is above average and students still have no library, no counselors, insufficient equipment, etc., then spending is insufficient. If it's a matter of moving other money to cover those basics, then specify the cuts and have that debate. Just comparing averages across dissimilar situations isn't helpful.

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Posted by palo alto resident
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Oct 7, 2013 at 1:09 pm

Mr. Cohen - your comments are excellent but I do have a question regarding tenure - why should the teaching profession be guaranteed job security, even when incompetent, when most other professions are not?

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Posted by David Cohen
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 7, 2013 at 6:01 pm

Palo Alto Resident,

That's a perfectly reasonable question. Why the anonymity?

In short, you need to separate the ed. code from the practice. It's not guaranteed job security in ed. code, as long as administrators who want to remove a teacher are doing their job. Administrators may be unable to do that job properly because they are stretched too thin. A national (unscientific) poll of secondary school principals, conducted by their national association, found that most felt teacher removal was time-consuming but manageable. None of us want to work with truly incompetent peers, but those of us who've been around long enough or know enough teachers in enough places know that teachers can be pressured to leave when they earn too much, when they question their superiors, or any other number of non-performance reasons. There are other complications, including the instability of schools, the isolation of our classroom practices, despite its very public political dynamics, the unusual nature of our workplace (can't just go to the school down the street and change jobs), that make it actually beneficial to schools and students to protect teachers in ways that are different from other jobs. Not saying it's perfect, but it's an idea worth preserving even if we debate reforms.

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Posted by Fred
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 7, 2013 at 8:24 pm

Mr. Cohen, a question - how are teacher and principal performance reviews handled in PAUSD? Who reviews you, how often, and what is at stake? How is the review conducted and what are the criteria that are evaluated?

I'm curious since I've always felt that if we like good performance, we'd better like performance reviews, since while sometimes uncomfortable, they provide feedback vital to improving performance. But I have read about some districts where little or no actual review takes place. What is the practice at PAUSD?

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Posted by Former Paly Parent
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 8, 2013 at 11:40 am

David -

We have met. You taught my son. To quote him 'David is very good - Top 10%'. But I am very interested to understand why you (as is increasingly true of many if not most teachers unions) are choosing to back positions that I consider to be very inflexible (some might even say extreme when viewed in the context of how most industries in the country work) with respect to the teaching profession.

When asked why tenure is important, you launched into a long list of reasons why teachers need to be protected. Many of these reasons are not at all unique to the teaching profession. Overworked and distracted bosses/administrators? Powerful parents (substitute in its place customers, coworkers, politicians, you choose...)? That is a problem in technology, in government, in corporate america, and in life. Yet no high performing organization anywhere has a guaranty of lifetime employment after two satisfactory years of employment. Tenure and how teachers unions fail to respond to the problem of poor and unmotivated teachers is a very real issue. It is not unfixable, but if the teachers union refuses to participate in the discussion, then the only way to a solution is without them or instead of them, rather than with them.

Let's look at Palo Alto (probably the worst possible place to draw any conclusions about anything in America since we live in such an affluent community....). You have proven yourself to be an excellent teacher, but in your High School it is an open secret that there are several very clearly incompetent and unmotivated teachers. I have been here for a very long time, and had several children make it through very visibly in the high school, so I know the stories, I know the back room conversations - I know who works hard and is inspirational and I know who is marking time and depending on the protection of instructional supervisors and teachers union. My son has had you and he has also had the teacher who has, by an administrators acknowledgement, rung up the most parent and student complaints in the district over the last five years. Yet you are paid the same amount if you have the same academic qualifications, and the same length of service. Multiple attempts to discipline this teacher by well meaning and thoughtful administrators have failed due to the power of the teachers union.

So when I see you backing Diane Ravitch, who is clearly very knowledgeable yet takes what I consider to be unreasonable positions, and panders to the teacher community I get frustrated. The Palo Alto Weekly reported that Ms Ravitch in her session with the Palo Alto teachers 'teachers should boycott all standardized tests'. That is an unreasonable position.
The general feeling that I had that night at Stanford was that this was about 'mobilizing the teachers unions to fight back' instead of participating in the discussion and reflecting on meaningful reform.

Perhaps some time we should get together and talk about your ideas. I am most interested in hearing how you feel we can improve the overall level of teacher quality in Palo Alto as well as in California and the nation. And how we provide both carrot and stick incentives to build a world class teacher corps.

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Posted by NoDisrespect
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 8, 2013 at 9:40 pm

David asks: "why the anonymity?"

That's simple - retribution runs strong in this district. Kids are intimidated and bullied by their teachers. That was my point; and these teachers are protected explicily by the union, and implicitly by apologists who defend them.

I do admire your willingness to share your opinions openly, and read your posts with some interest.

But, surely you must realize that any sane parent would not knowingly subject their kid to abuse.

Is this clear?

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Posted by David Cohen
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 9, 2013 at 3:43 pm

David Cohen is a registered user.

Truly glad any former student would say I was "top 10%" - though ask enough former students and parents and you'd hear a mix of reactions. I would caution anyone from assuming to know too much based on hearsay, and even from the limitations of personal experience. I'm also sorry that anyone would have cause to think teachers would seek some kind of retribution on parents through their children if we had an open conversation about teaching. (The issue of anonymity on Palo Alto Online runs much deeper though. Seems like comments are roughly 95% anonymous on almost any topic). Bottom line, the vast majority of teachers I've known, worked with (here and around the state), talked to (here and around the country), and dealt with as a parent in PAUSD have been hard-working, knowledgeable, dedicated, and interested in helping children learn and thrive. Like any profession, we have some practitioners who should be doing better, and like any profession, there are numerous causes for those problems; there are numerous ways we could improve school, and numerous layers of responsibility up and down and sideways. I'm going to bow out of this thread now. If you want to keep going, I've written almost 200 blog posts on education at my site, plus guest posts at EdSource, EdWeek, and a couple other sites. I've also been a contributor or lead author on policy reports offering reform ideas for teacher evaluation, compensation, and career pathways. More comments and discussion welcome - here's the starting point Web Link
Read, comment, download, and keep engaging with people you disagree with, in an open-minded way, please.

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Posted by NoDisrespect
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 9, 2013 at 9:43 pm

David - thanks for the comments. One could interpret this a few ways:
-1 you're sorry we 'have cause to think' retribution happens. Appears to deny the reality of the retribution WHICH HAS ACTUALLY HAPPENED already.

-2 you believe the vast majority of teachers are hard working, dedicated, etc. This sidesteps the issue; many are as you say dedicated, hardworking, etc. The issue I raised is that a minority are not, and they ruin the public image of teaching.

-3 there are numerous causes....

Yes, and the cause is an issue for the profession to deal with. It is not me laboring under a stigma of association with the uncaring and uniterested peers. Your profession is, and while you may not care to acknowledge or take action, the reality remains: your profession is not always regarded as well as it could be.

Finally, I am familiar with your FHAO class, it is no small disappointment that you stand by and act as an apologist for some rather bad behavior. It is not what you teach.

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Posted by village fool
a resident of another community
on Oct 9, 2013 at 11:19 pm

@curmudgeon - I responded to you here: Web Link

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Posted by Few bad apples
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 12, 2013 at 8:43 am

It only takes a few years, as few as two, to see that the quality of Palo Alto teachers can vary to a great degree. Many of us parents begin in elementary school and it is there where we are spoiled by the majority of teachers, but horrified by lackluster teachers, mediocre teachers, teachers who are more interested in taking personal necessity days than showing up everyday. PAEA is useless in setting a high standard or even suggesting it yet they demand union dues every month. I would rather pocket that money as a raise instead of funding some of the most inept teachers in the district. There has to be more to PAEA than asking for a raise every year because gasoline is expensive and beginning teachers cannot afford to live in Palo Alto. News flash, it is difficult to afford to live in Palo Alto for the vast majority of Californians, including those living in Palo Alto. But back to the original point of this thread, Diane Ravitch is on a book tour. I just received another email yesterday regarding another place where she will be speaking and likely regurgitating the same points she has been making for the past few years. This is less about children and more about celebrity.

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Posted by palo alto resident
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Oct 12, 2013 at 11:30 am

@David Cohen - I'm posting anonymously simply because I still have kids who are PAUSD students and it would not be fair to them to be targeted for a parents view points. I have a couple questions again regarding tenure. You comments that teacher need tenure they "can be pressured to leave when they earn too much, when they question their superiors, or any other number of non-performance reasons", all those happen in non-teaching jobs too. People in other professions are fired because they can be replaced with lower paid workers and because they disagree with their boss. I still don't see why a teacher is different than the rest of the work force. I also don't understand why a teacher "can't just go to the school down the street and change jobs", is there a reason a teacher can't teach at another school district?

Many PAUSD teachers are terrific, most are at least extremely competent, but there are some that in ANY other profession except for teaching, would be long gone.

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Posted by Do tell
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 12, 2013 at 8:27 pm

David Cohen please comment on the Paly math letter. As you have tenure you have been the academic freedom by Palo Alto taxpayers to say what you think. You seem to be thoughtful so please tell us your view as it bears on the question of poverty versus teacher quality.

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Posted by David Cohen
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 14, 2013 at 9:19 pm

David Cohen is a registered user.

I'm not sure if anyone is still tracking this topic, but I meant to post this link earlier; it's a blog post I wrote several months ago in response to a filmmaker with whom I debated the need for tenure and seniority, and the union roles in negotiating relevant policies.

Web Link

If you have any response, please post at the blog.

Regarding the comment that I "stand by and act as an apologist for some rather bad behavior" - I don't even understand the reference, but it is the kind of comment that dissuades open, extended dialogue about issues we should be able to discuss as a community. It's too bad we reached that point. I'm not going to stand out here as the only person signing my name to posts and also tolerate anonymous digs at my character. With that, I'll take my exit from this thread, with no further inclination to read or respond.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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