Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Death and Life of the Great American School System by Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch has written an interesting and timely book: The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. The author certainly has the background to write a book about the ills of our education system. She currently is Research Professor of Education at New York University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. She was an Assistant secretary of Education during the first Bush administration and has written extensively on subjects related to education.

She inveighs against "pedagogical fads, enthusiasms and movements" that have introduced the emphasis on testing and choice that she says is undermining education. Her assignment of blame in the subtitle is a bit misleading. She readily admits there is a role for testing and choice, so it is really the implementation of testing and choice that she sees as the problem. That is an important distinction to keep in mind.

Ravitch describes the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk, as "the all-time blockbuster of education reports." She agrees with that report in concluding that the nation’s educational process had seriously deteriorated and was in dire need of reform. Her only criticism was that the report focused on high schools and ignored the difficulties that were already apparent in the lower grades.

Just to read the author’s title one might conclude that education reformers are "undermining" a healthy system. A more sympathetic voice might claim that many have tried in vain to fix our broken system. Ravitch is so determined to demonstrate that many programs like No Child Left Behind (NCLB) are inherently misguided and counterproductive that she tends to impugn the motives of those with whom she disagrees, and she misses, or chooses to ignore, the few encouraging signs that have appeared. There are two areas that she discusses in which I would have claimed some prior familiarity: KIPP charter schools and the activities of the Gates Foundation. I found her treatment of these two subjects to be confused and misleading. I wrote separately about her position on those two topics. Those essays can be found by following the links. I did not feel motivated to check any of her other claims.

The type of testing she refers to is the standardized testing of students in math and English that are used to evaluate teacher performance and overall school performance. She views this form of testing as counterproductive. The necessity of scoring well produces too much emphasis on preparing for these specific tests, and takes away from time that could be spent on developing a broader knowledge base. She also points out that judging a teacher’s performance solely on students’ scores is inaccurate and unfair to the teachers. She believes that peer review, complemented with student performance measures is the proper path to follow.

These are all excellent points. Teacher evaluation has probably been too lax in the past, but many of the attempts to insert measures of performance have been poorly conceived and implemented. Ravitch often falls into the mode of insisting that everyone wants to evaluate teachers solely on the basis of test scores. That may have happened, but that does not appear to be the current policy of anyone in a position to matter. Peer review is seen to be at least as important. The emphasis on math and reading skills, while limited, is not necessarily bad. Yes one should also be concerned with performance in science, history, social studies and civics, but try learning those topics with poor reading comprehension. There is also the political expediency associated with avoiding standardized tests in controversial subjects such as science. Sigh!

Choice once meant vouchers, but that concept has been replaced by the implementation of charter schools. The author believes that charter schools have a role to play if they are viewed as experimental platforms where techniques and approaches are tried to see how they work. The approaches that improve performance should be fed back into the traditional public school (TPS) system and be made available to all. Unfortunately, the implementation of charter schools was rather haphazard and many were put in place for the sole reason of competing with the public schools. However, there are successful approaches that have been demonstrated.

Ravitch quotes a study that finds that the performance of 37% of the charter schools was below the level of TPS, for 46% there was not significant difference with TPS performance, and 17% of the charter schools produced significantly better results than TPS. The author concludes from this that charters are a failure and they are undermining TPS. I conclude that this is a story of success. Now let us get rid of the bad schools and take advantage of what we have learned from the 17% that were successful.

Ravitch tries to maintain the purity of her narrative by claiming that the charters that perform well are gaming the system. She claims they take the best students, avoid students with learning disabilities and send back to TPS any student who is an academic or a behavioral problem. She may be correct in some instances. Most charters are aimed at economically disadvantaged children and one gains entry by participating in a lottery. Clearly a student who enters the lottery is motivated, but it does not follow that the motivated students are the best students. One can find here a study that indicates that the claims of the author with respect to KIPP schools are incorrect. The only assertion that has validity is associated with the paucity of students with physical or educational disabilities. It is not too surprising that these students would not be seeking entry into an even more challenging environment than their current one.

Diane Ravitch has written an important and thought-provoking book. In spite of the fact that I have here emphasized our disagreements, it is a book I highly recommend. Her repeated emphasis on the necessity of providing our students with a robust and well-rounded education is tremendously important. The summary of the evolution of public policy with regard to education should be read by anyone who claims an interest in the subject.

The author believes that
"The most durable way to improve schools is to improve curriculum and instruction and to improve the conditions in which teachers work and children learn, rather than endlessly squabbling over how school systems should be organized, managed and controlled. It is not the organization of the schools that is at fault for the ignorance we deplore, but the lack of sound educational values."That description is hard to argue with—but does it constitute a way forward? What does she mean when she suggests ‘improving the conditions in which teachers work and children learn?" Does that involve eliminating poverty and discrimination? Do we have to grow the economy faster so we can invest in more modern facilities? I am afraid that there is no viable path forward other than the one we are presumably beginning to pursue: use Race to the Top and charter schools to perform experiments and feed the best results back into the traditional system.

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