Diane Ravitch Reign of Error Review

September23

Since my review is more than a day late (and likely not worth a dollar), I needed to find a niche to focus on in my review. Fortunately, there was a small kerfuffle in the ed tech blogging world last weekend around whether Diane Ravitch is hostile to technology. Please, when you are reading that piece, continue all the way to the end because the author Scott McLeod, credits some of Ravitch’s critiques about education technology and lists them.

Based on the conversation started there, I decided to look at what Ravitch says in her book. My conclusion, she’s not hostile, but is skeptical about education technology. She does have some idea of progressive and meaningful uses of technology in the classroom. Here is what I found…

What the book says

Page 7 – Their school should have a rich arts program, where students learn to sing, dance, plan an instrument, join an orchestra or a band, perform in a play, sculpt, or use technology to design structures, conduct research, or create artworks.

Introduction to Chapter 17 -New technologies appear almost daily, and schools are rightly expected to help young people learn to use them. Computers and access to the Internet are nearly ubiquitous, and no one doubts that if used appropriately, these are valuable tools for teaching and learning. Ingenious teachers integrate technology into the their lessons and engage young people in science experiments, historical research, and projects of all kinds. Students today can vicariously visit other lands, not just read about them in a textbook. They can see and hear presidents giving their major speeches. They can watch the historical events that changed the world with their own eyes, as if they were there. The possibilities for teaching and learning is within reach, one where students can learn at their own pace and explore topics far beyond the assignment.

These are both pretty strong statements in favor of a progressive use of technology in the classroom, that most of us would rally around, and there were some others in the book as well. All of the negatives are well citation-ed examples of cyber-charters gone amok, and making a fortune while producing dismal results, and other blatant mis-uses of education technology. The most judgmental statement  I found was that online schools are not for everyone, but even I agree with that. I suspect that the percentage that we feel it’s appropriate for is likely different (she uses the term small niche), but at this point with the entire industry taken over by for-profit scammers, and being driven NOT by any need from the public but big dollar marketing campaigns, and ALEC inspired legislation mandating that ALL students take at least one online course to graduate high school, I’m ready for a moratorium and strong weeding-out of the industry myself.

Why can’t we be friends?

Frankly the differences between progressive ed tech types and Diane Ravtich are like the differences between Diane and her old blogging partner, Deborah Meiers. All of them are at the opposite side of the ideological spectrum from the Bushes and Arne Duncan on education.  Really. Scott McLeod does occasionally tick me off with a post citing Moe and Chubb, but he was also the first blogger who shared about the innovative work towards portfolio-based assessments in Nebraska, which were, unfortunately, shot-down by the US Department of Education. While I don’t agree with him all the time, he believes in progressive education. Audrey Watters in her critique of Reign of Error is clear in her dislike of what education has become and agrees with many of Ravitch’s proposed solutions. Scott agrees with many of Ravitch’s complaints about the mis-use of ed tech. If anything, they seem to feel that Ravitch is not progressive enough, which may be a fair critique, but not germane to my mind.

What (some) ed tech advocates do not seem to get

If we get a bunch of new technology for testing, that is all it will be used for in most cases. A new implementation like this is a lot like building a railroad, once the tracks are laid, that’s where the train is going. Like train tracks, once folks “figure out” how to use them for assessment, that is how they will use them going forward, without much altering of their course. After things set in, movement in other directions with technology will be like moving train tracks, a lot of effort. This track of using technology for standardized assessment is a much different use than I, and other progressive ed tech advocates think they should be used (and based on her book, Diane Ravitch agrees with us). Some teachers will take this opportunity to use the tools for other purposes, but most, getting these tools in their classroom for the first time, will use it for what they are told to use it for (testing) and little else. This was the gist of my critique of Scott’s piece about Ravitch being hostile to technology. I’d rather not get this new technology at all. Sadly I think it will be inevitable.

Others, like  Audrey Watters, argue for more nuance in our discussion of education. While that’s nice when talking to folks who respect you, talking to these so-called reform folks (like Rhee, etc.) is not the place for nuance. Arne Duncan’s preferred method of negotiation really reminds one of Dick Cheney tactics wrapped up in Dale Carnegie-like charm. There is no room for subtlety, and that is not Ravitch’s role. She is a Thomas Paine, not a George Washington.

Why you should be learning about more progressive uses of technology than computer-adaptive tests and scoring bots

So where does that leave you, as a classroom teacher in these times? First, read Diane Ravitch’s book so you understand the context for all these shiny new items being bought. After that, you’re going to be really mad that your district got bonds to boost Apple and NewsCorp’s stock position, instead of getting a parcel tax to lower class-size (I know that feeling — trust me). You will have a few choices. There is refusing to use these tools at all. In the middle there is just using them for testing. I’m going to suggest a third path, which is to use them for something else.  The use of these tools is not limited to testing. You can have your kids do progressive, creative, and wild things on iPads, Chromebooks, or whatever device they toss out there. Your students don’t have to spend all day on them, or use them everyday. If you just use those devices for the new tests, you are participating in creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that these tech devices are only for testing, and only  for using software created by Rupert Murdoch (yeech). On the other hand, you could subvert that paradigm.  I prefer to use the man’s tools against the man myself.  I will be doing a post in the next few weeks giving a manifesto on HOW ed tech should look if we really want kids getting a progressive education.

To get to that end, you’ll need to listen to more than the Pearson/Agility rep/trainer telling you how to administer tests on these shiny new things, and start reading up on folks who believe in putting computers in the hands of kids to create something. I’m going to suggest reading some ed tech bloggers. Why would you want to read any of these folks, some of whom are complaining about Diane Ravitch (especially if you’re a fan)? They know about how to use these tools in the ways that Diane herself says they should be used. If you are already a progressive educator, this won’t be a leap. Here are some names, I’m sure others will be suggested in the comments section:

 Who you should be following to see genuine and progressive ed tech

Audrey Watters - Yes she criticized Diane, but she is very active in the hacked education movement, and I would consider her a deep thinker on the subject. Good for the theory part.

Gary Stager - Another deep thinker. He is a follower of Seymour Paparet, a professor at MIT who brought us “Constructivism” a theory of education that students learn by constructing. Paparet also invented Logo, and one of the earliest education robots, the Turtle. Stager is firmly in the progressive education camp. Audrey pushed his book (co-authored with his wife Sylvia Martinez) in her book review.

Ira Socal - He doesn’t write as often, but Ira is a Special Education professor and is very concerned with adaptive technology issues, and open source versions. He is in the deep thinker camp, because his posts are infused with a lot of theory. His background is very progressive and includes time in a Summerhill school.

Bill Ferriter - Moving down to the applied folks, Bill Ferriter is an NBCT in North Carolina (not an easy place to teach these days). He teaches middle-school science and uses a lot of technology integration that is free and available (like having kids use their cell-phones in class). If you’re looking for how someone makes this work, he’s the man.

Larry Ferlazzo - Larry has a skeptical outlook on education technology, but made his name in blogging using online tools (free!) to help new immigrants learn English. He still does posts on free online ed tech tools. His is more of a resource with links, rather than a how-to, (although there are some links to those). He likes to find tools that don’t require a lot of planning or work to use, so he provides really easy entry points.

Richard Byrne - Another blog with lots of links to online tools. Although you will see many ads on the side for ed tech, note that the pages along the top are not for how to test kids, or use an Interactive White Board, but things like making videos, blogs, etc. that have kids creating stuff. That’s progressive.

5 Comments to

“Diane Ravitch Reign of Error Review”

  1. September 29th, 2013 at 12:45 am      Reply chemtchr Says:

    I wish there was some way to have conversations with Audrey Watters, or in fact with anybody involved in this “maker culture” movement.

    Audrey complains Diane Ravitch’s call-to-political-power doesn’t sufficiently address all the unfulfilled possibilities creative techies see in education technologies:
    “I don’t think we do anyone any service by neglecting nuance around education technology – it’s neither wholly corporate enslavement nor wholly liberatory. ”

    Is this what she means?
    http://fablearn.stanford.edu/2013/category/workshops/

    And is this?
    http://www.doe.mass.edu/edwin/

    The latter is what rolled out in my district on Friday. All teachers, from primary onward, were ordered to pilot test it on our live students four times this year, through online assessments that will be stored in the Edwin instrument, to become part of each student’s permanent data file. My student rosters, their actual names, were already in the system, and so was I.

    I questioned out loud whether it is educationally sound to demand that daily decisions about each child’s learning had to be data-driven through the interface with this program, as was being demanded. I asked where the data was going, and for how long, and whether the data on emerging English students or special ed might compromise a student’s future educational opportunities, and whether parents were being informed. I am very brave, but even I feel a little sick from being so exposed to retaliation.

    Unfortunately, in these times of very real “corporate enslavement”, actual teachers don’t have much luxury to consider edtech from a constructivist learning perspective.

    At the same time, I’m trying now to link anybody in my public district up with a nearby university’s Maker Spaces outreach program to bring us into some kind of relationship to these other new new possibilities The university has an NSF grant, of course, not DOE. Administrators and teachers from some districts met on a Saturday to pull together participation in the project. It’s not secret, but I’m afraid to name the university or the districts because collaboration in the project was somehow blocked last year, in one district under mayoral control.

    The DOE is interested only in the other face of edtech, the one Audrey mentions and dismisses much too lightly. I don’t even know if I’ll have a job Monday. Where’s the nuance in that?


  2. September 30th, 2013 at 1:31 pm      Reply Audrey Watters Says:

    I’m really glad you wrote this piece, Alice, and I’m confident you and I agree more than we disagree here.

    Chemtchr: I’m pretty critical of ed-tech, I think. Indeed, I’ve had several startup-y folks who responded to my review of Ravitch’s book by saying “Oh. I thought you hated technology.”

    The Stanford FabLab project is certainly the sort of thing I’d like to see more of. The project was created by Paulo Blikstein, a student of Seymour Papert — one of my heroes and no doubt a person who informs much of how I view technology’s ability to shape how we teach and learn. And so yeah, there’s a constructivist piece there that I would agree is increasingly difficult to foster in our current education policy/political climate. But not impossible — hence the recommendation in my book of Invent to Learn.

    (And really, Ravitch is no constructivist. She might have changed her mind on standardized testing, but she hasn’t changed it on the central and authoritative role of a teacher. She hasn’t changed it on instructivism. She hasn’t changed it on a focus on curriculum.)

    I think we need a vision for how learners can use technology in powerful and progressive ways — again progressive pedagogy not just progressive politics — AND I think we need a thorough and thoughtful critique of corporate interests in tech. I try to get at both.


    • September 30th, 2013 at 5:09 pm      Reply alicemercer Says:

      I imagine that I’m a lot more instructivist than you are too Audrey, but more constructivist than Diane Ravitch. I’m less concerned with instructional issues (which I agree are important), than with the parasitical entities that are dictating policy, instruction, and everything about our schools. There is NO way we will get to a more child-centered form in education with these clowns in charge. I understand your greater concern for figuring out what we do in place of this travesty that our education system is, because someone needs to have the replacement plan. I have some ideas of my own, but I imagine they are not nearly as comprehensive, and complex as what you have in mind. That’s okay, we all bring something to the table, as I’m sure you discovered in Seattle.

      Here is what I worry about, there is a pretty concerted effort to discredit Diane Ravitch in advance of, and immediately following publication of this book. Some were folks who got a lot of $ from various entities that she critiques in her book. I would not classify your piece or Scott’s in that category, but it contributes to this pile on. I worry that the message that things like K12Online are bad, may get lost. That’s more important than whether you’re right, Diane’s right, or I’m right about how to teach.


  3. September 30th, 2013 at 5:29 pm      Reply Audrey Watters Says:

    I’ve never taken a dime from the Gates Foundation or New School Venture Fund or the Brookings Institution or anyone other than the “donate” button on my blog (and, I admit, the speaking fees I get). So when I offer up my critiques, it’s just little ol’ me with a little ol’ blog.

    That makes it really easy to dismiss my point of view on one hand. It makes it super easy to know which side of the barricades you can find me on the other.


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Howdy! I teach sixth grade at an elementary school in Sacramento, CA. I started my career in Oakland, Ca, and moved here to Sacramento in 2001.

My goals are:

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