03/08/2011 04:32 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Educating for Democracy: Diane Ravitch and Mr. Tilson's 'Status Quo'

In the recent response by Whitney Tilson to Diane Ravitch's book, "The Death and Life of the Great American School System", Tilson demonstrates the unintended consequence of good intentions. I would like to believe, unlike many of my fellow-critics, that people like Mr. Tilson, Bill Gates, Eli Broad and other "educational reformers" have the best interests of inner-city youth when they rail against unions and what they see as "defenders of the status quo" in education. However, there are few critics of education that are more clearly defenders of the status quo than they are.

I don't question Mr. Tilson's character or sincerity -- he has established ICV Partners, a private equity company for supporting businesses in minority neighborhoods. I think Mr. Tilson sincerely believes that our present economic system as it is constituted will eventually "grow everyone out of poverty," massive evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. If our economic system had been able to do that, how does one explain the rise in poverty, the lowering of wages for working class and middle class families, the dramatic increase in incarceration and the disproportionate redistribution of wealth to a smaller and smaller percentage of the population with the result that soon the United States will become the richest third-world country on the planet?

I have read Mr. Tilson's rebuttal of Ms. Ravitch which includes a great deal of ad hominem arguments and the implication that she has not visited enough charter schools to justify her negative opinion of them. Rather than go into the issues of how charter schools educate young learners, how they deal with children with learning disabilities, or non-native speakers, how they "choose" their students because parents who have the time, interest, and information to even apply for enrollment of their children are a self-selected group, I would prefer to concentrate on two points: testing and environment.

One of the primary arguments of advocates either of charter schools or public schools is based on test scores from standardized tests. Relying on these numbers for either advocating for public schools or charter schools is, to borrow a term from the law, "fruit from the poison tree." There is little convincing evidence that test scores have ANYTHING to do with measuring what students are actually learning. I could site dozens of studies, easily accessible on Google, that call into question the reliability of these tests but I'd rather just quote from the oft-cited "Campbell's Law": "The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor."

The rewards and penalties for raising or failing to raise standardized test scores which include such consequences as losing one's job turns the whole complex process of education into a numbers game. But although Mr. Tilson cites studies that show that many charter schools perform better than public schools -- and the objectivity of many of these studies is questionable -- he makes no mention of a factor that has a demonstrable effect on the quality of learning: economic well-being.

This is why I would describe Mr. Tilson and his well-meaning colleagues in their version of "education reform" as ardent defenders of the status quo. In his rebuttal to Diane Ravitch, he mentions nothing about poverty except that it is a shame that good teachers are not more prevalent in high-poverty area schools. But not bringing poverty into the picture in discussing education reform is like trying to describe the chemical composition of water without mentioning oxygen. The only CERTAIN correlation that has been confirmed over and over again is that children from higher socio-economic brackets perform better in school compared to those in poverty and although there are some notable exceptions, that simple correlation is overwhelmingly true.

If Mr. Tilson really wants children in poverty to get a better education, he should support programs that will get them out of "high-poverty" areas by helping to make a society that has "no poverty" areas. But to do that, Mr. Tilson would have to revisit the basic structure of an economic system that is consistently failing to produce good-paying jobs except for the economic and educational elite. If he would address that issue, he would be truly challenging the status quo.

Finally, to end on a positive note, since he castigates Ms. Ravitch for not offering alternatives in her criticism of charter schools, let me do so:

1. That all schools in the United States be equally funded.
2. That all young learners be given exposure on a regular basis to museums, musical events in and outside of school, presentations by artists, musicians, philosophers, sports figures, other celebrities and educators.
3. That all young learners be provided with after-school activities that would make their schools a recreational and social center and not the streets.
4. That all schools offer a complete array of arts programs including music lessons with instruments provided by the school, abundant art lessons and supplies, theatre and dance programs from kindergarten up, and lots of basic educational materials so that teachers don't have to pay for them out of pocket.
5. That all young learners be provided with safe neighborhoods, supportive, caring families, good nutrition which might include all meals in school, reliable public services, and a realistic hope that they are part of a thriving economy in which they can get a good-paying job with a reasonable amount of security.
6. That all teachers in public schools be given classroom autonomy and that they and parents be treated with consideration, respect and regard for their opinions. Those teachers who are not adequate to the job -- which under the above circumstances would be far less difficult to do well -- should be given a fair and full hearing and opportunity to improve their practices with good, positive mentoring before they are considered unfit for teaching.

If there had been any mention of these issues in Mr. Tilson's critique of Ms. Ravitch, I would not only feel that he has the best intentions in what he is doing, but actually knows what to do with his best intentions.

Personal disclaimer: I have reviewed Ms. Ravitch's book and have occasionally corresponded with her online. I am certain that her motivations for doing the equivalent of crying "fire" in a burning building are not only beyond question but, given the flak she's been getting over the recent past, personally admirable.