Haven’t been there, done that!


Part 4—The word from the absentee experts: In his new book, I Got Schooled, M. Night Shyamalan presents “the five keys to closing America’s education gap.”

In this recent post, Kevin Drum summarized Shyamalan's ideas.

In her own book, Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch offers eleven solutions. On page 229, she starts with this:
SOLUTION NO. 1 Provide good prenatal care for every pregnant woman.
That sounds like a good idea to us! We’ll look at other solutions below.

We don’t necessarily disagree with any of the recommendations from these two observers. Ravitch’s work is more important because she’s more highly placed.

(She isn’t so highly placed as to merit attention from MSNBC. According to the Nexis archives, Ravitch has appeared on the channel’s late afternoon and evening programs exactly once in the past year, for a single segment on the October 4 Chris Hayes program. To his great credit, it seemed that Hayes had actually read Ravitch’s book, as we’ll note below! Manifestly, though, the liberal world doesn’t seem to care about low-income kids.)

We don’t necessarily disagree with any of those recommendations. But even as we read Ravitch’s more influential work, we get a familiar feeling about these writers:

We get the feeling they’ve never been there or done that. We get the feeling that they don’t really know what they’re talking about.

A great amount of our “educational expertise” comes to us in this manner. Here’s how the system works:

Our experts sit in their comfortable quarters, preferably on the campus of Stanford. As they sit, they sift through the incoming.

They examine the kinds of data you can review without ever leaving your home. They may even work with data from our various statewide tests. They may be using such data even now, when even they must understand that a lot of those data are grotesquely compromised.

(For ourselves, we first discussed outright cheating on standardized tests with the Baltimore Sun in 1971 or 1972. We did a full column on this subject in 1981, complete with implausible scoring patterns from individual schools. In the past few years, the nation’s educational experts have begun to catch up with what’s going on. Generally, this has occurred because of the whistle-blowing of non-experts.)

Our educational experts tend to be the last ones to know! Reading Ravitch, we get the sense that she strongly cares, but that she hasn’t been there.

What are the actual problems in urban elementary schools? Those who have never taught in such schools may have little idea. Briefly, let’s discuss the late Dr. Sam Banks, in our view a very fine person.

As of the early 1970s, Dr. Banks was in charge of social studies instruction for the Baltimore City schools.

In the 1950s, Baltimore had been a legally segregated, dual system. Dr. Banks was in the vanguard as Baltimore became majority black in its student population and in its administrative ranks.

In the early to mid-1970s, Dr. Banks created a sprawling, wildly ambitious social studies curriculum for the elementary schools. There was one major problem. Dr. Banks, a superb person who deeply cared, didn’t seem to understand the problems of Baltimore’s elementary schools.

In 1982, we described a problem with his curriculum in the Baltimore Sun:
SOMERBY (2/9/82): [I]n grade after grade, for topic after topic, [Baltimore City teaching] guides recommend textbooks which are clearly too difficult for most city students to work from—books which are completely inappropriate for children who may be several years below traditional grade level in reading. In the first semester of fourth grade, for example, the two most commonly cited textbooks are Daniel Chu’s “A Glorious Age in Africa”—a textbook with a measured eighth-grade reading level—and Frederick King’s “The Social Studies and Our Country”—Laidlaw’s sixth-grade textbook.

Few fourth graders anywhere will be able to profit from textbooks as difficult as these. In an urban system like Baltimore’s, this selection is particularly surprising—and dooms any attempt to teach the social studies curriculum in a rigorous, systematic way.

The results of this situation are all too predictable. Baltimore teachers find it difficult—indeed, impossible—to find readable textbooks with which social studies and science can be taught to their numerous below-level readers. The result may be that such children are not taught social studies and science at all.
Long before Amanda Ripley, there we were, discussing “rigor!” But we knew what we were talking about. For the most part, Ripley doesn’t seem to.

Back to the basics: You can’t ask fourth-graders to read eighth-grade books, especially if the kids are reading on traditional second- or third-grade level. Rather, you can ask them to do that. But they won’t understand what they’re reading, and they’ll learn to hate “learning” and school.

Dr. Banks lives in our memory as one of the most caring people we’ve ever met. But in our view, he didn’t seem to understand some of what happens in low-income elementary schools.

That’s the same impression we get when we read Shyamalan, Ripley or Ravitch. Due to her rather peculiar stature as the leading liberal in this area, Ravitch’s work is important.

At least in principle, some of the work in her new book is very good. Example: Early on, she lays out a lot of information about the rise in scores on the NAEP over the past twenty years.

(In our view, she does less well with international tests. She belongs to the cult of Finland!)

In some very basic ways, we’re less impressed with Ravitch’s eleven solutions. Below, you see her early summary of same, which she goes on to detail in later chapters.

We strongly disagree with the very first thing she says:
RAVITCH (page 6): We know what works. What works are the very opportunities that advantaged families provide for their children. In homes with adequate resources, children get advantages that enable them to arrive in school healthy and ready to learn. Discerning, affluent parents demand schools with full curricula, experienced staffs, rich programs in the arts, libraries, well-maintained campuses, and small classes. As a society, we must do whatever is necessary to extend the same advantages to children who do not have them. Doing so will improve their ability to learn, enhance their chances for a good life, and strengthen our society.

So that readers don't have to wait until the later chapters of this book, here is a summary of my solutions to improve both schools and society.


Children need prekindergarten classes that teach them how to socialize with others, how to listen and learn, how to communicate well, and how to care for themselves, while engaging in the joyful pursuit of play and learning that is appropriate to their age and development and that builds their background knowledge and vocabulary.

Children in the early elementary grades need teachers who set age appropriate goals. They should learn to read, write, calculate, and explore nature, and they should have plenty of time to sing and dance and draw and play and giggle. Classes in these grades should be small enough—ideally fewer than twenty—so that students get the individual attention they need...

As students enter the upper elementary grades and middle school and high school, they should have a balanced curriculum that includes not only reading, writing and mathematics but the science, literature, history, geography, civics, and foreign languages. Their school should have a rich arts program, where students learn to sing, dance, play an instrument, join an orchestra or a band, perform in a play, sculpt, or use technology to design structures, conduct research, or create artworks. Every student should have time for physical education every day. Every school should have a library with librarians and media specialists...
For the full text of the fuller passage, you can just click here.

It’s hard to disagree with any of those prescriptions. We agree! Children in the early elementary grades should to read and write!

The problem is, everyone has always known. The question has always been this:

For kids who may be struggling in school; for kids who may be years “behind;” for the many beautiful kids who don’t come from “homes with adequate resources,” how can actual urban teachers accomplish those obvious goals?

Ravitch says such kids should get prekindergarten classes. (We agree!)

After that, she says teachers should set “age appropriate goals.” As they advance, children should get a “balanced curriculum” with a “rich arts program.” Later, she says this at the start of Chapter 24:
SOLUTION NO. 3 Every school should have a full, balanced and rich curriculum...
We agree with that! But at no point does Ravitch say what a “rich curriculum” ought to like for a fifth-grader who may be years behind, and confused and discouraged, in both reading and math. Meanwhile, concerning those “age appropriate goals,” riddle us this:

Two first-graders may be exactly the same in age but light years apart in development. What is the age-appropriate goal for them? And if a fourth-grader is two years behind in math, should the teacher set goals which match his or her age? Or should the goals match his or her state of development?

Somewhat blithely, Ravitch says “we know what works.” Sitting at Stanford or in New York, it’s amazingly easy to say that.

But that sandwich offers empty calories; that sadly familiar statement is fluff. Nowhere in 325 pages do we find Ravitch explaining what actual teachers can actually do to get better results in the classroom:

What if children don’t “learn how to listen and learn” in those prekindergarten classes? What should teachers do then?

From her perch atop Olympus, Ravitch simply says “we know” that those pre-K classes will “work.” But she never explains how to make them work, or what to do next if they don’t.

We’ve come to strongly dislike such writing, which is quite widespread. Beyond that, Ravitch’s writing is jumbled, self-contradictory, routinely confused. We can tell that Hayes must have read her book because at one point in a fairly short segment he actually asked her this:
HAYES (10/4/13): So, two different ways of thinking about critiquing testing, right? One is the presence of tests in themselves. The other is not having the right tests.

Sometimes it seems, in your book, you kind of move between those two different— There’s parts of the book where you say we need, children need to not be worrying about testing, particularly when the young need to be creative and playful. But at other times, you seem to be saying testing is important, we’re just doing the wrong testing.
Dude! Indeed, from page to page, from graf to graf, Ravitch constantly seems to self-contradict, on that specific topic and many others.

You can always make the adjustment for Ravitch, imagining what she must have meant. That said, fifty years into this discussion, her overpowering fuzziness can make her book infuriating to read. Fifty years in, how can this possibly be the best work the liberal world can produce?

Ravitch’s eleven “solutions” are the kind you can dream up in your office. That doesn’t mean they’re bad ideas. It just means they won’t likely be solutions, and it means that, in many key ways, she doesn’t really seem to know what she’s talking about.

Of her eleven solutions, Solution 3 is as close as she comes to prescribing what urban teachers should do. We think this is basically useless:
SOLUTION NO 3 Every school should have a full, balanced and rich curriculum, including the arts, science, history, literature, civics, geography, foreign languages, mathematics and physical education.
We agree with that! That's what we were saying in 1982, in the passage we posted above. (“The result may be that such children are not taught social studies and science at all.”)

But what if you have a bunch of fifth-graders who are several years behind in math, and confused? What textbook do you use with them? What curriculum should you follow? What should “age appropriate goals” look like in that case? Does any study guide exist for children in that predicament?

Those are the questions real teachers must answer. Ravitch, the best we pseudo-liberals have, has no apparent idea.

This just in from the Common Core: We’ve never understood how grade-level standards are supposed to work for kids who are years behind.

We’ve also never seen anyone explain that basic point. Nor do we know how such kids are helped when we make our standards tougher.

Whatever! As with Ravitch, so with the Common Core. These are some of the standards in reading for grades 2-5:
Grade 2: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RF.2.4a Read grade-level text with purpose and understanding.
Grade 3: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RF.3.4a Read grade-level text with purpose and understanding.
Grade 4: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RF.4.4a Read grade-level text with purpose and understanding.
Grade 5: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RF.5.4a Read grade-level text with purpose and understanding.
Apparently, the student is supposed to be able to read a grade-level text!

But what if the student isn’t reading his grade-level text with purpose and accuracy? What does the teacher do then?

Like Ravitch, the standards don’t seem to say. Why do we feel that the Common Core standards were worked up in somebody’s office?


  1. "We don’t necessarily disagree with any of the recommendations from these two observers."

    Just as I thought - what a freaking maroon.

    You agree with someone's recommendations - but go on and on and on and on about misstatement this, misrepresentation that about peripheral issues.

    What a maroon.

    1. You are clearly a sad example of what Bob has been saying. Your reading comprehension level is below grade.

    2. Horace Pleigh you right as if you were Irish.

  2. As Bob says, these lists of recommendations look like they were derived from the POOMA method. Where are the scientific studies comparing, e.g., children's educational success against their mother's degree of pre-natal care? For that matter, are there even specific anecdotes? Take some highly successful blacks, like David Blackwell or Amalya Kearse. Has anyone ever looked at the type of pre-natal care their mothers got?

  3. The only real criticism sees to be
    " SOLUTION NO 3 Every school should have a full, balanced and rich curriculum, including the arts, science, history, literature, civics, geography, foreign languages, mathematics and physical education.

    We agree with that! That's what we were saying in 1982, in the passage we posted above. (“The result may be that such children are not taught social studies and science at all.”)

    But what if you have a bunch of fifth-graders who are several years behind in math, and confused? What textbook do you use with them? What curriculum should you follow? What should “age appropriate goals” look like in that case? Does any study guide exist for children in that predicament?"

    That can be summarized as

    "What you are saying is right in general, but won't work for severely disadvantaged kids."

    Since we know that the blogger is a liar - we need to go to Ravitch's book to see if she has covered that elsewhere in the book.

    Interestingly Ravitch says,parents with advantaged kids ask for small classes, but Shyamalan's five recommendations does not include that. In other words, a good teacher would trump large class sizes.

    Sorry Kool Aid drinkers, even in his alleged field of expertise, the blogger doesn't measure up. His limitless bile for liberals trips him up every time and makes him look vile and despicable, even on his pet topic.

  4. OMB (The world in which BOB lives)

    Since BOB just took us on a trip down Memory Lane (His memory of his glorious moments in journalism based on his glorious moments in teaching, of course), we'll relive a comment of ours from the past.

    -----"By a conventional rule of thumb, a ten-point gain on the NAEP scale is actually rather large—a full academic year." BOB, yeseterday

    This 10 points = 1 academic year is constantly cited by BOB.

    This 10 points = 1 academic year is never cited by reporters who are thus frequently chided as illiterates by BOB.

    This 10 points = 1 year is parroted through commentary threads by very literate BOBfans who gain their information here rather than from other sources.

    Zarkon would like a link to this mighty rule of thumb.

    Zarkon would be especially happy for a link to prove the wisdom of the Anonymous genius who keeps writing gems like this: "The improvement of scores by one academic year over the last ten years means that today's fourth graders in NYC are scoring as well as NYC fifth graders did in 2003."

    Zarkon would settle for a link showing when fifth graders ever took the NAEP in 2003.-----

    Zarkon of course did not post this during the Reagan era. In fact we posted this this morning on a thread for a post from yesterday. We repeat it because it is as relevant to this post as is the number of times Ravitch has appeared on MSNBC is to her being the best we pseudo liberals have.

    KZ (On Planet Doom Zarkon rules with fist, not thumb)

    1. Hi KZ,

      It looks like the blogger pulled it out of his ass

      "Validity Issues I
      nvolved in Cross
      Grade Statements About NAEP Results
      NAEP Validity Studies
      Somerby’s blog commentary used this same kind of
      “rule of thumb” (a rounded,
      four value of the four
      year change in average reading scores on the
      NAEP scale) as “one year’s growth.” Given the expected decelerating nature of
      growth on assessment scales commonly used to measure academic achieveme
      nt, that
      is clearly wrong. However, one can turn the question around and ask “how wrong
      can it be?” The answer to that would be “not very wrong.” Assuming only that
      NAEP scores would grow more or less like those on any other academic
      achievement test, we k
      now that “one year’s growth” would be a (decreasing) fraction
      of the within
      grade standard deviation, which for NAEP scores is in the low to mid
      30s. Ten points would be one
      third of that, which is very near the average for “one
      year’s growth” for reading
      in grades 3

      8 tabulated by Bloom, Hill, Black, and Lipsey
      (2008) and reported by Tirre and Oranje (2010). Bloom et al. (2008) also report
      values for mathematics tests that are about one
      third larger than for reading. So if
      NAEP is basically like all other
      achievement tests, we know that “one year’s growth”
      is between about 8 points (growth of 0.25 within
      group standard deviations), which
      is about right for reading around grade 8, and 17 points, which is about right for
      mathematics around grade 4, based on
      the data presented by Bloom et al. (2008).
      Ten points for reading may not be “right,” but it cannot be far wrong"

      So the club he uses to bash librulz may be a dud.

    2. Anon @ 12:13

      I asked for a link to prove it, not to prove its anal origins.
      Off with both your thumbs.

      BTW, I liked the conclusion of the study you linked, which was commissioned by the NAEP Validation Panel.*

      Validity evidence can and should be assembled to support, and make more precise, interpretive statements of the first kind (“one year’s growth”). “How many NAEP scale points is one year’s growth?” is a question users of the scores can sensibly ask; there should be an answer. It is not difficult to obtain the answer; it is merely expensive.,,,,,,,

      These conclusions are consonant with the current official NAEP statement about the cross-grade scale for the 2009 reading assessment, which could be succinctly summarized as “it is cross grade, but don’t push it.”

      In other words you might be able to prove BOB is right but nobody has tried because it costs too much so don't go laying that bullshit as TRUTH on me, dude.

      KZ ( Pulling out a plumb)

      * Said study was written by a professors. As hard core literate BOBfans know, "who needs professors."**

      ** Quote from a highly literate blogger who recently posted about the anti intellectualism of the NYT editorial board.

  5. Bob just thinks that if somebody was once on the "dark side" of whatever, unless of course it is a man like David Brock or Michael Lind, that condemns her for life, no matter if her change in views is sincere. Diane Ravitch doesn't go quite far enough in her book with her suggestions--she should be pushing for outright abolition of charter schools, for example--but she has been quite effective in countering the onslaught of privatization. BTW, has Bob been that critical of Obama and Duncan for their disastrous education policies which are destroying the country? I doubt it, yet they have given the green light to this garbage. That's because both political parties have been hijacked to the point any differences between the two are meaningless.


    Thats Shyamalan being interviewed by Chris Mathews

    If you watch you will realize

    "We get the feeling they’ve never been there or done that. We get the feeling that they don’t really know what they’re talking about."

    is pure bile, hate and envy.

    Shyamalan actually taught inner city kids and makes the astounding claim that even while doing nothing about the horrific cultural environment inner city kids face OUTSIDE school, SCHOOL ALONE can close the gap between them and suburban kids.

    No pious hand-wringing here - direct specific recommendations to address the core of the problem.

    1. "Shyamalan actually taught inner city kids . . ."

      How ironic! The same credentials that makes Somerby think he is such an expert on education. And of course, we all know that Somerby was so dedicated and cared so much about low income children that he quit to become a corporate stand-up comic.

    2. Anonymous @12:53

      Are you referring to the first or second time he quit? I thought he quit to become a journalist. What did he quit comedy to become?.

    3. "Shyamalan actually taught inner city kids..."

      Wow. You mean you think that because Shyamalan showed up for a "Teach for America thing" which amounted to him conducting a class period long Q&A with 9th graders in an inner city school and because Shyamalan passed along to them the same advice he offers college students when appearing as their special invited guest, namely that each of them should try and have as great a sense of self-worth as he does about himself, that Shyamalan has "actually taught inner city kids"? How ironic, indeed.


    "Classroom Jams Records produces popular music that turns kids on to literacy and learning. Our educational concept albums get kids interested in what they’re studying in school. We craft rich, relevant vocabulary into catchy lyrics to hammer home important information and hone higher reasoning skills. Our songs are fun, simple, yet deep in their scholarly groove and unique in how they improve attitudes and performance. Our records are the cutting edge in teaching tools."

    There are all kinds of creative people out there trying to help disadvantaged kids.

    The blogger's universal condemnation of all efforts to help isn't helping anybody.


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