The New York Times
By PAUL TOUGH
In the early days of the education-reform movement, a decade or so ago, you’d often hear from reformers a powerful rallying cry: “No excuses.” For too long, they said, poverty had been used as an excuse by complacent educators and bureaucrats who refused to believe that poor students could achieve at high levels. Reform-minded school leaders took the opposite approach, insisting that students in the South Bronx should be held to the same standards as kids in Scarsdale. Amazingly enough, those high expectations often paid off, producing test results at some low-income urban schools that would impress parents in any affluent suburb.
Ten years later, you might think that reformers would be feeling triumphant. Spurred in part by the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative, many states have passed laws reformers have long advocated: allowing for more charter schools, weakening teachers’ tenure protections, compensating teachers in part based on their students’ performance. But in fact, the mood in the reform camp seems increasingly anxious and defensive.
Last month, Diane Ravitch, an education scholar who has emerged as the most potent critic of the reform movement, wrote an Op-Ed for this newspaper arguing that raising high-poverty schools to consistently high levels of proficiency is much more difficult and less common than reformers make it out to be. When politicians hold up specific schools in low-income neighborhoods as success stories, Ravitch wrote, those successes often turn out, on closer examination, to be less spectacular than they appear. She mentioned the Bruce Randolph School in Denver, which President Obama singled out in his 2011 State of the Union address as an example of “what good schools can do,” and the Urban Prep Academy in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, which the education secretary, Arne Duncan, praised in a speech in February. Each school graduates a very high percentage of its seniors, but, Ravitch said, test scores at those schools suggested that students were below average in the basic academic skills necessary for success in college and in life.
The backlash was quick and intense. Duncan said that Ravitch was “insulting all of the hardworking teachers, principals and students all across the country who are proving her wrong every day.” Jonathan Alter, a columnist for Bloomberg View, wrote that she was “sliming reformers” and later, when he and Ravitch appeared together on a Denver radio show, accused her of “abusing statistics” in her analysis of the schools’ achievement-test scores.