Ravitch sees our school systems as being in a state of crisis—not because they are performing poorly, but because they are under attack by those who would end our system of public education and replace it. A system originated in the belief that equality of educational opportunity was a requirement of a functional society would be replaced by a system in which inequality of opportunity is inevitable.
“….what is happening now is an astonishing development. It is not meant to reform public education but is a deliberate effort to replace public education with a privately managed, free-market system of schooling….This essential institution, responsible for producing a democratic citizenry and tasked with providing equality of educational opportunity is at risk. Under the cover of ‘choice’ and ‘freedom,’ we may lose one of our society’s greatest resources, our public school system….”
In 1983 a report was issued by a committee organized during the Reagan administration: A Nation at Risk.
“The commission warned that the nation was endangered by ‘a rising tide of mediocrity’ in the schools; it pointed to the poor standing of American students on international tests, a recurring phenomenon since the first international test was offered in the mid-1960s. Its basic claim was that the American standard of living was threatened by the loss of major manufacturing industries—such as automobiles, machine tools, and steel mills—to other nations, which the commission attributed to the mediocre quality of our public educational system….”
Ravitch correctly points out:
“….this claim shifted the blame from shortsighted corporate leadership to the public schools.”
Ever since, this notion of a failing school system has persisted, even though the predictions of impending doom have not materialized.
“….A Nation at Risk warned that if we didn’t change course, our nation was in deep trouble. We stood to lose our global leadership, our economy, and even our identity as a people. A very stern warning. But thirty years after that warning was issued, the American economy was the largest in the world, and the nation did not seem to be in danger of losing its identity or its standing in the world. How could this be?”
Ravitch produced her book in order to explain “how this could be.”
“Critics may find this hard to believe, but students in American public schools today are studying and mastering far more difficult topics in science and mathematics than their peers forty and fifty years ago.”
Dozens of charts are provided to prove her point that schools and student performance have steadily improved over the years. Where problems exist they can be attributed to the great American traditions of poverty and segregation of minority groups.
“Public education is not broken. It is not failing or declining. The diagnosis is wrong, and the solutions of the corporate reformers are wrong. Our urban schools are in trouble because of concentrated poverty and racial segregation. But public education as such is not ‘broken’.”
Much of the criticism of our schools arises from the performance of our students on international tests where they can be compared with peers from other countries. The gold standard for such tests has become the one supported by the OECD, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). This test is given every two years.
Generally, US students end up in the middle of the pack in PISA assessments. This is deemed unacceptable. Ravitch dances around this reality and points to improved performance over the years in other international comparisons, and she points out that US students from schools that are not hindered by poverty or segregation score quite highly on PISA. This approach is not entirely convincing.
A more enlightening analysis of student performance was provided by Paul E. Peterson, Ludger Woessmann, Eric A. Hanushek and Carlos Xabel Lastra-Anadón. The US has a test that it has used for decades to evaluate the performance of its own students, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). These authors took results from NAEP and normalized them to PISA results in order to illustrate how the students from each US state might have performed on the PISA test.
“Since the United States participates in the PISA examinations, it is possible to make direct comparisons between the average performance of U.S. students and that of their peers elsewhere. But to compare the percentages of students deemed proficient in math or reading, one must ascertain the PISA equivalent of the NAEP standard of proficiency. To obtain that information, we perform a crosswalk between NAEP and PISA. The crosswalk is made possible by the fact that representative (but separate) samples of the high-school graduating Class of 2011 took the NAEP and PISA math and reading examinations. NAEP tests were taken in 2007 when the Class of 2011 was in 8th grade and PISA tested 15-year-olds in 2009, most of whom are members of the Class of 2011.”
Such cross comparisons may not be particularly accurate, but they are informative. This chart was provided to assess competencies in mathematics:
Note that some states produce students who score among the best in the world and some states produce students who score among the worst in the world. How can one refer to an “educational system” when it appears that we have 50 systems (51 with DC)? Note also that states where teachers are heavily unionized tend to perform better than states that are fervently anti-union. As Ravitch duly noted, poverty and segregation play a role, but regional culture and politics also contribute to performance.
Ravitch provides an interesting and compelling perspective on the issue of performance testing. She wishes us to conclude that striving to be at the top of the testing ladder is not a healthy strategy for a nation. She introduces us to a study performed by Keith Baker who was a long-time analyst in the Department of Education.
Baker looked at the results of an early international student comparison performed in 1964.
“Baker looked at the per capita gross domestic product of the nations whose students competed in 1964. He found that ‘the higher a nation’s test score 40 years ago, the worse its economic performance on this measure of national health—the opposite of what the Chicken Littles raising the alarm over the poor test scores of U.S. children claimed would happen.’ The rate of economic growth improved, he held, as test scores dropped. There was no relation between a nation’s productivity and its test scores.”
How might this make sense? The goal of education is not just to provide a student with knowledge, it is to teach the student how to acquire knowledge on his/her own and to help them learn how to use knowledge effectively. Neither of these two things shows up on tests.
“A certain level of educational achievement may be considered ‘a platform for launching national success, but once that platform is reached, it may be bad policy to pursue further gains in test scores because focusing on the scores diverts attention, effort, and resources away from other factors that are more important determinants of national success’.”
“The United States has been a successful nation, Baker argues, because its schools cultivate a certain ‘spirit’ which he defines as ‘ambition, inquisitiveness, independence, and perhaps most important, the absence of a fixation on testing and test scores’.”
Ravitch also provides the perspective of the China native educator Yong Zhao:
“….it is bizarre for the world’s leader in science and technology, the nation with the most powerful economy in the world, to be on the perpetual hunt for another nation to emulate.”
Ravitch delivers her final thought on the matter:
“More testing does not make children smarter. More testing does not reduce achievement gaps. More testing does nothing to reduce poverty and racial isolation, which are the root causes of low academic achievement. More testing will, however, undermine the creative spirit, the innovative spirit, the entrepreneurial spirit that have made our economy and our society successful.”
Ravitch’s fears that traditional public education will be taken over by free market ideologues and predatory capitalists are real. That is exactly what many would like to see happen. Allowing for-profit private organizations to participate in college education has been a disaster. Let’s not let it happen to our younger children.