Thursday, July 8, 2010

Why I Changed My Mind: Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch is a Research Professor of Education at New York University and was Assistant Secretary of Education for Research in the George H. W. Bush administration. She has written a book entitled The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education. She has also written an article for the June 14, 2010 edition of The Nation magazine which seems to provide a preview of her book. Ravitch says she was an initial supporter of charter schools and the accountability through testing approach incorporated in the No Child Left Behind legislation (NCLB). The article discusses why she has changed her mind on both counts.

The author argues that the testing requirements in NCLB have had unintended consequences. Since each state was allowed to set its own standards, many have lowered their requirements to appear more proficient than they actually are. The focus on testing has also directed too much education time to preparing for a specific test to the detriment of a more general understanding of the subject and leaving less time for other classes.
"Billions have been invested at the federal and state levels in testing and test-preparation materials. Many schools suspend instruction for months before the state tests, in hopes of boosting scores. Students are drilled on how to answer the precise types of questions that are likely to appear on the state tests. Testing experts suggest that this intense emphasis on test preparation is wasted, because students tend to learn test-taking techniques rather than the subject tested, and they are not likely to do well on a different test of the same subject for which they are not prepared."She supports her position further by indicating that there are no signs of progress when students take national tests for which they are not provided this time for preparation.

Ravitch is upset because the focus has been taken off the need to provide a "coherent curriculum" that includes strong classes in history, literature, geography, civics and the arts, as well as math and science. She seems to support a return to a more traditional approach to education provided it can be made to work better. Better teachers, better administrators, better curricula and national standards seem to be her solution.

The author’s argument against charter schools is based on the evidence that they do not perform any better than traditional schools. There is of course a range of performances among the various versions of charter schools, but she argues that the ones who perform better have gamed the system in some way, usually through student selection. She worries that charters will attract the best students and weaken the remaining public system.

Ravitch also has a problem with evaluating teachers performance using student test scores because it is difficult to do that fairly, and it places the blame for student performance on the teacher when there are, in fact, many factors at work over which the teacher has little control.

Finally she criticizes the Obama administration.
"I expected that Obama would throw out NCLB and start over. But, on the contrary, his administration has embraced some of the worst features of the George W. Bush era."My initial reaction to Savitch’e comments is that she is overreacting. My recollection of what the Obama administration is planning is a series of experiments aimed at figuring out what does and does not work. That supposedly was the philosophy behind the "Race to the Top" funding which Ravitch also criticized. If my impression is correct, then all of Ravitch’s complaints are null and void until a specific policy is enunciated for national application. If there are good and mediocre charter schools, let’s sort them out and keep the good and get rid of the bad. Some level of performance testing is necessary. The devil will be in the details, which we do not have. Teachers do have to be held accountable for their performance. Even the unions are beginning to realize that. Again, it will be beneficial if it is done right and disastrous if it is done poorly. Let’s wait and see how this plays out.

This topic and Ravitch’s book sound like great material for a book club to sink its teeth into. I know for sure that I need to do more reading.

I found this brief description of the goals of the Race to the Top competition.
Through Race to the Top, we are asking States to advance reforms around four specific areas:

Adopting standards and assessments that prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace and to compete in the global economy;

Building data systems that measure student growth and success, and inform teachers and principals about how they can improve instruction;

Recruiting, developing, rewarding, and retaining effective teachers and principals, especially where they are needed most; and

Turning around our lowest-achieving schools.

Awards in Race to the Top will go to States that are leading the way with ambitious yet achievable plans for implementing coherent, compelling, and comprehensive education reform. Race to the Top winners will help trail-blaze effective reforms and provide examples for States and local school districts throughout the country to follow as they too are hard at work on reforms that can transform our schools for decades to come.

That sounds pretty good to me.

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