Diane Ravitch is a prominent historian of education, the author of a dozen books including Edspeak: A Glossary of Education Terms, Phrases, Buzzwords and Jargon (2007), The Language Police (2003) and Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms (2000).
Diane is not a political type, but neither is she afraid of controversy. In recent years she’s become a lightning rod for controversy. She has been embroiled in an ongoing battle in the press with Joel Klein, the Chancellor of the New York City public schools, about academic achievement. Here she takes on both Arne Duncan and NCLB!
The Obama Administration and nearly every state have now endorsed national or common standards. Is this a good thing? Or is now the time to get worried, the logic being that, when ‘everyone’ is for something, the rest of us should watch out?
I have favored common standards for a long time. When I worked for Bush I in the early 1990s, I helped to launch federally funded projects to develop voluntary national standards in the arts, English, history, geography, civics, economics, science, and other essential school subjects. Some of the projects were successful; others were not. The whole enterprise foundered because a) it was not authorized by Congress, and b) it came to fruition during the transition between two administrations and had no oversight, no process of review and improvement. So, yes, I believe the concept is important.
However, I worry about today’s undertaking, first, because it will focus only on reading and mathematics, nothing else; and second, because I don’t know whether the effort will become a bureaucratic nightmare. But I won’t prejudge the outcome. I will hope for the best, and hope that today’s standardistas learned some lessons from what happened nearly two decades ago.
If we have common standards, are national tests likely to follow?
Not necessarily. If the standards are worthy, then any testing organization should be able to develop test specifications that are aligned with the standards.
On balance, has No Child Left Behind done more harm than good?
I would say, sorrowfully, that NCLB has failed. It did nothing to raise standards, because it left decisions about standards to the states. So many states have very low standards and yet announce that more and more students are “proficient,” as defined by that state.
We know from the National Assessment of Educational Progress that actual improvement has been very small over these past seven years, and in some ca ses, the rate of improvement has been less in these past seven years than in the years preceding the passage of NCLB. In the meantime, schools have become test-obsessed in a way that is not conducive to good education. Many schools and districts and states have learned how to game the system, and they are producing higher scores (by lowering the passing mark—or cut score—on their tests) that do not represent genuine improvement in learning. The amount of test-preparation now going on in the schools has a tendency to inflate test scores and even to invalidate the tests.
What’s the biggest downside of NCLB?
The biggest downside of NCLB is that it has promoted false, anti-educational values. Certainly high test scores are better than low test scores, but that is not all that matters in education. What about science, the arts, history, literature, foreign languages? My hunch is that NCLB is doing nothing to reverse the dumbing down of our children and our society, and may even be accelerating it.
The greatest benefit?
The greatest benefit of NCLB is that it has promoted concern for the lowest performing students and for narrowing the achievement gap among students of different racial groups. At least, that is the rhetorical benefit. But once again, if we examine the changes in the achievement gaps over time, we find that more progress was made in the years preceding NCLB than in the years since it was passed.
I remember your saying in an interview years ago that you favored public schools but not the public school system that we have. In New Orleans Paul Vallas has called for ‘a system of schools, not a school system.’ What’s your ideal approach? Are we moving in that direction?
If “a system of schools” means that the public schools should be handed over to anyone who wants to run a school, then I think we are headed in the wrong direction. Privatization will not help us achieve our goals. We know from the recent CREDO study at Stanford that charter schools run the gamut from excellent to abysmal, and many studies have found that charters, on average, produce no better results than the regular public schools. Deregulation nearly destroyed our economy in the past decade, and we better be careful that we don’t destroy our public schools too.
At some point, we will have to get the kind of leadership that can figure out how to improve our public school system so that we have the education we want for our children.
Recently the Obama administration announced the regulations for its $5 billion “Race to the Top” fund. That’s an unprecedented amount of discretionary money. How much was available when you worked in the first Bush Administration?
When I worked at the Department of Education in 1991, we had $10 million in discretionary funds, not $4.3 billion.
He’s using the money to push states in certain directions: lots more charter schools; lots more privatization; evaluate teach ers based on the test scores of their students; open more alternate routes into teaching to break the grip of professionalism. What’s your reaction?
I find myself agreeing with Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, who wrote on Gadfly that this “Race to the Top” program should be called “NCLB 2: The Carrot That Feels Like a Stick.” As a former Bush administration official, he knows what he’s talking about. He likes the Duncan plans, but can’t resist shedding a tear for the death of federalism. Now, says Petrilli, we have entered fully into the age of “Washington Knows Best at its worst.” He writes: “If you found No Child Left Behind prescriptive, just wait till you take a look at this baby.”
To me, the problem here is obvious: What if Washington doesn’t know best? What if the “reform” ideas are wrong? As I said before, the CREDO study at Stanford—which looked at performance in half the nation’s charters–found that 80% or more of charter schools are no better than or worse than their neighborhood public school. Why replace struggling public schools with worse charter schools? There is a ton of evidence that evaluating teachers based solely on student test scores is a bad idea (see the work of Jesse Rothstein at Princeton, for example). Test scores over at least three years should be part of the calculation, but only part of it.
Tell me more.
Sure. If Arne Duncan knows exactly how to reform American education, why didn’t he reform Chicago’s schools? A report came out a couple of weeks ago from the Civic Committee of Chicago (“Still Left Behind”) saying that Chicago’s much-touted score gains in the past several years were phony, that they were generated after the state lowered the passing mark on the state tests, that the purported gains did not show up on the federal tests, and that Chicago’s high schools are still failing. On the respected federal test (NAEP), Chicago continues to be one of the lowest performing cities in the nation.
I want to know why Washington is pushing “reform” ideas that have so little evidence behind them, ideas that might do serious damage to public education in America?