Thrust And Parry

This C-Span conversation with Diane Ravitch and Steven Brill is really worth watching.

12 Replies to “Thrust And Parry”

  1. Surprisingly, I liked Brill’s comparison of liberals v. conservatives. At about 50 minutes in, he wondered why conservatives are against gun control when it would be in their best interest to keep guns from terrorists and then with liberals why do they not want educational reform when it would seem their constituency would benefit most? I found that very compelling. At first. But on reflection, I surmise that conservatives view limits on all as a kind of philosophical statement about them personally and they are willing to take the risk of bad people having guns. And besides, if they have a gun, they can always take out the bad guy, thus proving their need to have guns in the first place.

    With liberals (myself included), I should welcome reform but I don’t. At least, not with the political baggage it comes with not to mention I think the analysis and the proscriptions for better education are based on flawed assumptions and analyses. Presumably, Brill thinks unions get in the way of reform and liberals are loathe to dismiss them. I’m one liberal who understands the role of unions and their value but also thinks he has a point but not the biggest one.

    Thought experiment: imagine there were no education unions. My best guess is that reform would still face obstacles and be contentious. If you take out the unions as actors, you still have plenty of other interest groups who would stall change or try to implement their own version of the truth. I suspect there is something almost primal about how we feel about our kids. We are willing to give them over to other adults for a few hours a day in a trusting relationship for various reasons one of which is that our cultural norm is to do so and only homeschoolers really question that. Basically, we give up our kids, trust other adults are like us and would never harm our kids and seek to do the best by them. But should anything go wrong or be perceived as going amiss, then we are all over the offending teacher, policy or institution. In short, I wonder if there is any resolution short of going Finland and how to do that, I have no idea.

    PS. I did also like when Ravitch talked about teachers in Finland and how they have no word for accountability. What is fascinating here is 1) how do a modern people have a language without that word or concept? 2) Instead, Ravitch suggests they have a common notion of professionalism which I take to be an aspect of culture in an anthropological sense. Thus, if you are a professional you are, by definition, going to know that others are watching you and you take a kind of pride in your work. Americans, by contrast, while being a rather agreeable lot on many things, are deep inside, also suspicious and wary of claims of competence and authority. We need some kind of system to make sure all of us are not slackers. My best guess here is a strain of Puritanism or basic Protestantism that has been here since the Mayflower. This is something the Finns could know nothing about and could never infect their culture.

    I’m just wondering aloud here, thanks for the forum.

  2. Joe, do we really need to throw unsubstantiated insults around? Just because someone draws different conclusions than you does not make him “clueless”.

  3. Jeffrey:

    We don’t have do do the “thought experiment” about life without unions. We’ve had the actual experiment going on for the past 100 years. It’s called Mississippi and Texas and the other “right to work” states in the south where there are no teachers unions.

    Feel free to tell us how non-union states like Mississippi compare to union states like Iowa in terms of student outcomes.

  4. Kent: Good point. Whenever people try to place the blame for all the ills of modern education on the backs of teachers unions, I point out that many states don’t allow teachers unions. As you said, we’ve had the actual “experiment” going on for years, without any great result.

  5. Attorney DC, I’m still waiting for your response to the latest discussion involving this topic:

    Both you and Kent must understand the inherent problems in flatly comparing unionized and non-unionized districts and assuming any differences found are the result of one variable.

  6. Re: ” Whenever people try to place the blame for all the ills of modern education on the backs of teachers unions…”. To his credit, Ravitch asked Brill if he simply abolishing the unions would make education better and he said absolutely not. He makes a strong case that they are often an impediment to progress, but he also says unions are just one part of the problem. People keep trying to simplify his argument, but he’s not laying all the blame on unions by any means.

    On another point, Ravitch keeps coming at him to prove that charter schools aren’t the answer and he keeps having to say that, yes he agrees, charter schools can’t possibly be THE answer given the numbers versus traditional public schools. She seems determined to fight the straw man. They disagree on how effective charter schools are, but they both agree that the traditional public schools are where
    the big reforms need to happen.

    I thought they had an interesting debate about accountability for teachers. She seemed to imply that if we had the right “atmosphere” or “professional culture” or something, there’d be no need for accountability. Hence her example that Finland doesn’t even have an equivalent word for that. But Brill’s point is not just that teachers should be accountable in the “negative” sense of the word, but they should be rewarded for good work just like other professionals are. I found it interesting that she defined job security as part of what makes teaching a “profession”, whereas I would argue that is just a byproduct of having a skill that is in high demand.

    She makes another false argument that socio-economic background accounts for the majority of academic performance, so why should teachers get all the blame. Brill is not saying that poverty has NO role, it’s just that we can still make an impact with good teachers and schools.

  7. Does anyone really believe Ravitch’s quip about Finnish not having a word for accountability? It sounds like something she would have made up, or that her friend would have said as a joke. Surely it can’t be true.

  8. vastuuvelvollisuus is the finnish word for accountability. It exists.

    Now, it very well may be true that if you define accountability very narrowly, that you could make the point that it doesn’t “exist in the education system.” Knowing that this is a country that is awfully obsessed about teacher quality, to say that there is literally no concern whatsoever for how well each teacher is actually teaching seems to be quite the stretch though.

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