Noted author issues withering assessment of education reform

Noted education author and historian Diane Ravitch tugged on “Superman’s” cape, and declared the public education system under siege during a compelling presentation that drew a standing ovation from a packed house at Tilton Hall on Dec. 1. Ravitch delivered the inaugural Dr. Lee Gurel ’48 Lecture, jointly sponsored by the Mosakowski Institute for Public Enterprise and the Hiatt Center for Urban Education. She recently released her 10th book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” which the Boston Globe called “a fiercely argued manifesto against fads in education reform.”

“We must stop high-stakes testing. It leads to bad education." ~ Diane Ravitch  

Ravitch, a research professor of education at New York University and assistant secretary of education in the President George H.W. Bush administration, was unstinting in her criticism of efforts to revamp public education using free-market principles. Promoting high-stakes testing, touting charter schools as inherently superior to public schools, and failing to acknowledge the roles poverty and lack of access to health and social services in failing schools are serious flaws in the reform quest, she said. Ravitch described the effort by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates, politicians from both major parties, and the national media as a “well-funded machine intent on dismantling public education” and moving toward privatization.

Ravitch criticized the much-lauded documentary “Waiting for Superman” as being rife with “factual errors, misrepresentations and distortions” about the state of public education. Chief among them is the film’s contention that 70 percent of U.S. students are performing below grade level, a misreading of the data, which put the actual figure at about 25 percent, she said. Ravitch lamented the fact that the film has been embraced as “the reform narrative of the day,” earning two segments on “Oprah,” the cover of Time magazine, and $2 million from the Gates Foundation. She called it a “frontal assault” on public education.

The federal government imposed its will on education through the Bush administration’s “toxic” No Child Left Behind law, Ravitch said, which sets the “impossible goal” of 100 percent proficiency in English and math for every student by the year 2014, a standard no nation or state has ever achieved. It’s “the timetable for destruction of public education,” she contended. (Ravitch noted that Massachusetts, which has the highest test scores in the country, boasts a 50 percent proficiency rate. “Massachusetts should be showering its teachers with praise,” she said.)

The reform narrative insists several things are needed to improve education, among them: high-stakes testing and data-driven accountability, merit pay for teachers, school choice and less teacher-union involvement.

High-stakes testing, a key component of NCLB and of the more current Race to the Top initiative, is being used to punish underperforming schools rather than as a diagnostic tool to help guide improvements, Ravitch said. She at one time supported high-stakes testing and market-driven reform, but shifted her views over time to support a model that puts the responsibility for strong education in the hands of the educators rather than the federal government.

Judging teachers solely by their students’ test scores is flawed because the measures are “inaccurate and unstable,” she said. The system has turned overwhelmingly punitive, leading to an emerging pattern: fire the principal, fire teachers, close the school. Once testing becomes the basis for accountability it becomes meaningless, because schools will teach to the test, try to beat it or game the system. What gets lost along the way, she said, are the arts, physical education and even recess, which are gradually eliminated because of the overwhelming focus on testing.

“We must stop high-stakes testing. It leads to bad education,” Ravitch said.

Merit pay for teachers has been attempted since the 1920s, yet has been shown not to work, she said. Ravitch cited a three-year study in which a group of middle school teachers paid a $15,000 bonus exhibited no appreciable difference in either effort or classroom results than another group of teachers not paid the bonus. Still, the Department of Education released $442 million for merit pay. “Ideology trumps evidence,” Ravitch said.

Students in the country’s 5,000 charter schools fare no better than public school students, according to a studies conducted by Stanford University and others, Ravitch said. A voucher system instituted in Milwaukee in 1990 has not produced the expected results, she noted. Students who attend the school of their choice with vouchers have shown no more academic gains than students in the traditional public schools.

Ravitch scoffed at some of the recommendations that emerged from “Waiting for Superman,” including a call to fire 5 percent of the nation’s teachers every year. The problem, she said, is that 50 percent of the people who enter teaching leave the profession within five years. The nation loses 300,000 teachers a year already, and well-meaning programs like Teach for America can’t begin to fill the gap.

“Where will we get [teachers] every year?” Ravitch asked.

The delivery of education is being taken away from the educators and handed over to politicians, she argued, with No Child Left Behind “the most dramatic expansion of federal control over education in history.” Principals are being recruited from industry and other fields; the new chancellor of the New York public schools has never taught in the classroom. Schools are being eyed as an entrepreneurial opportunity by “free-market ideologues,” a move that “will not end well for our country,” she said.

One major falsehood that continues to be propagated is that poverty and resources don’t matter to education, Ravitch said. “Children do not arrive ready to learn when they are hungry and homeless,” she said, noting that Finland, which has the highest achieving schools in the world, boasts a poverty rate of 4 percent compared to the United States’ 20 percent.

Ravitch pointed to a success story highlighted in “Waiting for Superman” — the Harlem Children’s Zone — which boasts an abundance of resources that were never revealed in the film, including $200 million in assets, a powerful board of trustees and two teachers per each class of 15 students. “People who say resources don’t matter are people who have enough resources,” she said.

In her remarks, Ravitch noted her admiration of Clark’s first president, G. Stanley Hall, as one of the leading figures in American education, despite her disagreement with some of his theories. She said Hall likely would join the chorus of those concerned with the students being turned into “data points.”

“If we don’t improve public education, we’re sunk,” Ravitch said.

-          Jim Keogh, Director of News and Editorial Services

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