Brooks v. Ravitch: The Forest or the Trees?

Jul 13, 2011 by

Anne O’Brien

David Brooks recently wrote a New York Times piece that is quite critical of education historian Diane Ravitch. [She has since responded].

Aside from what seems a personal attack on Ravitch (of whom I am a fan), the gist of the piece is that Brooks recognizes that standardized testing can be problematic, giving schools “an incentive to drop the subjects that don’t show up on the exams but that help students become fully rounded individuals — like history, poetry, art and sports” and to “game the system by easing out kids who might bring the average scores down, for example.” He doesn’t mention the widespread Atlanta cheating scandal, or the one suspected in Washington, DC, or the concern that scoring on the Regents in New York is not exactly accurate, but one could argue that those too are caused by perverse incentives created by the testing environment.

Given such incentives, one could also argue (like Ravitch often does) that we should pause in our rush to use test scores to judge school, teacher and even student performance until we have worked some of these issues out.

Instead, Brooks points out that:

[T]he schools that best represent the reform movement, like the KIPP academies or the Harlem Success schools, put tremendous emphasis on testing. But these schools are also the places where students are most likely to participate in chess and dance. They are the places where they are most likely to read Shakespeare and argue about philosophy and physics. …

The places where the corrosive testing incentives have had their worst effect are not in the schools associated with the reformers. They are in the schools the reformers haven’t touched. These are the mediocre schools without strong leaders and without vibrant missions. In those places, of course, the teaching-to-the-test ethos prevails. There is no other. … If your school teaches to the test, it’s not the test’s fault. It’s the leaders of your school.

He takes us back to the “reformers” versus “establishment” debate that we [the Royal We – all of us in the education community] seem to have all the time. (This is not the first time Brooks has dipped his toe in it.)

Not to sound like a broken record (because I feel like I write this in most of my posts), but that debate is false. Some in both groups are high-performers (be they charters and traditional public schools, or veteran teachers and novice TFAers, or traditionally trained principals and New Leaders for New Schools) are good. Some in both struggle.  

Yet my favorite response to the piece does not come from an overzealous Ravitch supporter, or an “establishment” figurehead. It comes from John Merrow:

While I regret his unfair treatment of Ravitch, she has proven time and time again that she can take care of herself. What bothers me more is that Brooks and most observers are missing the larger point.

Which is this: Our public schools are the equivalent of yesterday’s pony express. Just as a faster pony express would not be sufficient to deliver the mail today, the “faster horses” that reforms like KIPP, Teach for America and charter schools represent are not in themselves adequate for our 50 million school-age children, nor will they ever be.

To be clear, I think that Brooks, while he makes a few good points [“Teaching is humane. Testing is mechanistic”], is wrong about a great deal in this piece. But I truly appreciate Merrow’s call to see the forest for the trees, and move beyond the debate Brooks proposes.

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