In The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch charges that the Obama administration's enthusiasm for charter schools can undermine democratic values because, when more motivated parents choose charter schools, regular schools are left with a concentration of needier students. She mocks the administration's claims that its policies are evidence-based, describing research showing that charters, on average, perform about the same as regular schools--probably because "abysmal" charter schools are balanced by excellent ones.
Ravitch may concede too much here, if the only basis for claiming that some charters are successful is the standardized basic-skill test scores that she also shows have corrupted American education. Disadvantaged children that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) purports to help are those most likely to have scores inflated artificially by incessant drills and training in test-taking. This pedagogy may raise scores, but it can also subvert interest in math and literature. Thus, while some charters may be successful, others may only seem successful because they are good at making test performance an end in itself.
Ravitch once supported narrow, test-based accountability, but, in her new book, she now repudiates such systems generally and NCLB in particular. Acknowledging past error is embarrassing and courageous, but, in fact, she goes too far in her mea culpa: Her denunciationof the curriculum narrowing that inevitably results from holding schools (and teachers) accountable only for students' math and reading scores is fully consistent with a lifetime of stressing educators' obligation to transmit a common culture with a curriculum that includes the arts, science, history, literature, foreign languages, geography, and civics. With her new book, she has returned to deeply held convictions, expressed in such past works as The Troubled Crusade, The Revisionists Reconsidered, and Left Back, her continued membership on the board of the Core Knowledge Foundation, and her promotion of programs like the Concord Review, which publishes original historical research of high school students. Ravitch's support of NCLB's test obsession was the aberration.
In the new book, Ravitch observes that NCLB creates incentives for schools to abandon historical knowledge and appreciation of literature, and that the law's obsession with short-term test scores also pushes schools to teach reading poorly. While easily testable decoding skills are important, more important is the hunger for book knowledge stimulated by children's literary imaginations or curiosity about historical events. NCLB has its pedagogical theory partly backward: Mechanical skills do create the capacity for understanding, but understanding also creates motivation to learn mechanical skills.
In the past, Ravitch sometimes underestimated the obstacles to implementing a universal high-quality curriculum, leaving her somewhat vulnerable to the seduction of NCLB's promise that accountability alone would close the achievement gap. For example, in her book Left Back, she praised an 1893 report that recommended a classical academic education (including Latin, Greek, and modern languages) for every high school student and asserted that progressive educators of the twentieth century erred by abandoning this model. Yet, in 1893, only 4 percent of American adolescents attended high school. The report's authors never imagined that their curriculum would ensure college readiness for sharecroppers' children whose families were emancipated from slavery only 30 years before, for urban slum-dwelling children of illiterate Italian peasant-immigrants, or for the many adolescents in the remaining 96 percent whose exposure to the common culture we call "Western civilization" would be limited.
Ravitch corrects her oversight in the book. Good standards in all academic areas are needed, she says, along with a curriculum that implements these standards. Good schools also require standards of character and behavior appropriate to an effective learning environment. And, as she writes in this TNR symposium, we must also "pay attention to the health and well-being of students, so that they arrive in school ready to learn." In Death and Life, she goes further. Regular schools, she says, "cannot be improved if we ignore the disadvantages associated with poverty that affect children's ability to learn":
Disadvantaged children need … preschool and medical care. They need small classes … and … extra learning time. Their families need … coordinated social services that help them … acquire necessary social and job skills, and … obtain jobs and housing. While the school itself cannot do these things, it should be part of a web of public and private agencies that buttress families.
NCLB's proponents have asserted that poverty is correlated with low achievement mostly because educators confront disadvantaged children with the "soft bigotry of low expectations" and forget that "all children can learn." But, in truth, even with the best curriculum, instruction, and teacher expectations, children who come to school with limited vocabularies and who are unfamiliar with books and the treasures of imagination they unlock will learn less, on average, than children who come to school prepared to learn. Children in poor health have difficulty taking advantage of good instruction, if for no other reason than their excessive absences. Children whose parents are struggling economically come to school with more stress than children who are secure. Children with unstable housing are more likely to switch schools and thus less likely to develop the inspiring relationships with teachers that Ravitch describes experiencing as a child.
Ravitch is not the only prominent supporter of test-based accountability who has reconsidered a prior stance. Others include Susan B. Neuman and Christopher Cross, who, like Ravitch, were former assistant secretaries of education in Republican administrations--Neuman was in charge of NCLB's initial implementation, and Cross chaired a committee that drafted NCLB's regulations. (All three were signatories, along with me, of the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education statement, issued nearly two years ago, that challenged NCLB supporters' views on how to close the achievement gap and raise students' test scores. I worked with Ravitch, and others, in drafting the statement. When it called for holding schools accountable by means of expert inspections, not tests alone--a theme that reappears in Death and Life--it was Ravitch who insisted we make clear that inspectors should assess whether children are gaining appropriate knowledge, not just a broader range of academic skills.)
Ravitch says she was converted because the "facts have changed," but that's not really the case. What has changed is the recent appreciation by her and her colleagues of how incentives to boost basic-skill test scores at the expense of all else inevitably corrupt education. In Death and Life, she describes the familiarity of sociologists, economists, and business theorists with a 1975 observation of Donald T. Campbell that such corruption erupts in any field where simple quantitative measures are substituted for careful evaluation. "Campbell's Law" is expressed when cardiac surgeons, held accountable for raising surgical survival rates, refuse to operate on the sickest patients most in need of intervention; when employment agencies held accountable for job placement numbers meet their quotas by placing the unemployed only in the most easily filled and lowest-skill jobs; when colleges send pre-completed applications to unqualified high school students because U.S. News & World Report ranks college selectivity by the number of applicants rejected; or when Wall Street traders take reckless risks because they are rewarded only for short-term, easily measured outcomes.
In the education world, some critics long opposed to test-based accountability have reacted churlishly to Ravitch's late conversion. In a letter to The New York Times, Peter Sacks, author of a 1999 book denouncing the nation's obsession with standardized testing, complained, "Dr. Ravitch had access to the same evidence that the rest of us had, but chose to ignore it. I won't be the only scholar who will feel embittered by the whole Ravitch affair." Yet Sacks and others like him presumably penned their critiques to convince people like Ravitch. It is curious that his own success should embitter him.
Any supporter of narrow, test-based accountability who claims to have an open mind should read Ravitch's new book and consider the evidence that caused her to reconsider. If any are persuaded that they have erred, I suspect she would welcome their support and not be embittered that they clung to a dangerous panacea longer than she.
Richard Rothstein (email@example.com) is a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute. His most recent book is Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right.