Wednesday, October 23, 2013

My response to Grant Wiggins and his open letter to Diane Ravitch (and like minded educators)

Grant Wiggins wrote an open letter to Diane Ravitch titled Is significant school reform needed or not?: an open letter to Diane Ravitch (and like minded educators).

Wiggins takes issue with Ravitch's stance against privatization and poverty because he thinks she is avoiding "the elephant in the room" which is "to what extent today's teachers are doing an adequate job." Wiggins goes on to make the argument that "merely undoing harmful privatization is thus nowhere near sufficient to make schools serve our students properly." Wiggins punches home the point that, "we face a complete lack of quality control in teaching in most schools, in most districts. Unlike poverty, this is in our control as educators."

Is there common ground?

Even though I am a staunch supporter of Public Education, I am very aware of the problems that plague traditional schooling. I believe that school needs to look a lot less like school.

Like Wiggins, I am very critical of traditional-formal education that makes school something done to children while they play a passive role, and compliance and obedience are the gold-standard. Like Wiggins, I object to the idea that if a child can sit quietly through a morning's worth of lecture followed up with an afternoon of filling in worksheets, then students are receiving a good education and teachers are doing their jobs.
Which kind of school do you want for your child?
Which kind of school is good enough for other
people's children?

For too many people, the game of school sounds all too familiar. It's like the learners and teachers exchange winks that say: I will pretend to teach and you will pretend to learn; it won't be all that enjoyable, but it will be easy.

While I agree that undoing privatization is not sufficient in improving our schools, it is necessary.

Where do we differ?

After I read Grant's open letter, I tweeted him:

If Wiggins believes that Ravitch's fight against privatization is distracting us from improving school, might it be said that Wiggins' fight to improve schools is blinding us from the dangers of privatization and poverty?

No where in Wiggins' open letter does he address privatization -- instead he focuses with laser like proficiency on teacher quality. (For the record, the book I co-edited on De-Testing and De-Grading Schools is strong evidence that I agree with some of what Wiggins writes about.)

I'm the first to criticize elements of traditional schooling but you don't fix public education by destroying it, abandoning it or throwing it to the free market.

Wiggins wants teachers to focus less on things he perceives as out of our control (poverty and privatization) and more on things that are in our control (teacher quality). But who benefits from encouraging teachers to see poverty and privatization as things outside of their locus of control? Do we really want one of public education's greatest advocates, teachers, to see poverty and privatization as none of their business or a distraction to be avoided?

It's important not to talk ourselves into believing that poverty and privatization are out of our control. Poverty and privatization are no more or less out of our control than teacher quality. Inequality is a choice and our social policy choices have an indelible mark on our school's successes and failures. (I consider addressing inequality and poverty more like the civil rights issue of the 60s than choice)

The good news is that we don't need to choose between addressing poverty, reversing privatization and improving our schools, and I think this is why Diane Ravitch's most recent work is so important. She's helping us understand that we must stop going in the wrong direction before we can go in the right direction.

I see Diane Ravitch as someone leading the charge on all three fronts: address poverty, reverse privatization and improve our schools.

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