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Is Education on the Wrong Track?

A TNR Symposium.

From: Diane Ravitch

To: Kevin Carey

Subject: We don't yet have all the answers for fixing American education, but we know current reforms aren't working. So why keep supporting them?

I am gratified by the astonishing response to my book, including your appreciation of certain chapters. Yet I didn’t write The Death and Life of the Great American School System to win plaudits from you or anyone else. I wrote it because I had to.

I did not intend to “repudiate my ideological fellow travelers,” as you say, but to explain as clearly as I could why I had changed my mind about certain strategies. These strategies--accountability and choice--became known as the “reform consensus” just about the time I realized they were not working. That meant that I would find myself virtually alone in the world of the chattering classes. That was okay with me because I have reached an age where I don’t care anymore whose side I am on. I am just trying to tell the truth as I know it. I may be wrong, and the consensus may be right. Time will tell.

It was not easy to go public and admit that I was wrong, but I had to do it. Maybe someday that will happen to you too. You never know. The New York Times said that I had made a “U-turn” and made it sound as though I had changed my mind overnight. This was not true. As I explained in the book, I began to have doubts about No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in November 2006, when I was asked to summarize the papers at a conference at the American Enterprise Institute. One scholar after another got up and said that NCLB’s remedies were not working. By the end of the day, I was convinced they were right. The next fall, when the NAEP scores came out and showed meager improvement, I wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times titled “Get Congress Out of the Classroom.” From that point on, I definitely was outside the consensus.

Your hostility to neighborhood schools is puzzling. In many neighborhoods, in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, the school is the safest place for children, the one place where they can count on finding stability, shelter, and support. In neighborhoods where there is a functioning community, schools are often community anchors. To close such schools is to tear the hearts out of communities. You must wonder why so many parents turn out to defend the schools that distant reformers disdain. Most parents want their children to attend schools close to home, if possible. Ask them.

My fundamental philosophy of education is this: I would like to see all children get a great education, one that engages them in the study of history, literature, the arts, science, mathematics, geography, foreign languages, and civics. When I worked in the U.S. Department of Education in the early 1990s, I oversaw the award of grants to create voluntary national standards in those subjects. For reasons I explain in the book, the idea of content standards became toxic to political leaders, so they turned to test-based accountability. I explain in the book that test-based accountability is not a continuation of the standards movement, but a repudiation of it.

I hoped that accountability and choice might bring us closer to the goals I believe in, but I was wrong. They are means, not ends. Getting higher test scores is not the same as getting a high-quality education. As I explain in my chapter on accountability, there is so much cheating, so much gaming of scores, so much manipulation of data by states and districts that the state scores are unreliable. Because of its high stakes and its onerous sanctions, NCLB has incentivized everyone to raise scores by any means necessary. Often this is just institutionalized fraud. Or ,as Arne Duncan likes to say about the dumbing down of state tests, “We are lying to our children.”

As for charters, I readily grant that there are some excellent charters. But most people who have studied charters recognize that the range in quality among them is very great and that there are far more mediocre charters than excellent ones, as well as some that are abysmal. Many of the “high-performing” charters do not take a fair share of English language learners or special education students and shed low-scoring students, which contributes to their “high performance.” The fact that charter students have never outperformed regular public school students on the NAEP indicates that they are not going to produce the quantum improvement that is needed in American education. So, my intent is not to discourage hard-working charter leaders, but to remind them that charters were originally envisioned to help the public schools, not to replace them.

At present, charters enroll about 3 percent of the public school enrollment, yet they seem to consume about 50 percent or more of the attention of energetic reformers such as yourself. Don’t you think that we should figure out how to improve the system that enrolls 97 percent of the kids? If we don’t, our nation is unlikely to see any real progress. Even if the charter sector doubles to 6 percent, we’re still left with 94 percent of our students in a system that needs major improvement.

I regret that I don’t have all the answers, or at least not the answer that you are looking for. But, even if I can’t give you a satisfactory answer about what will work, it is nonetheless very important to say that what we are doing is not working. Surely you do not suggest that we should continue pursuing and funding ineffective policies until someone comes up with a better idea.

I think we should stop looking for “the answer” and agree that education is a complex activity that involves many different actors and many influences. We can’t control all of them, but those that can be controlled can surely be improved. I would like to see better-educated teachers; better entrance exams for teachers; better assessments that gauge understanding, not test-taking skills; better evaluations of teachers and schools; a rich curriculum that goes way beyond basic skills in every school, whether it is created nationally, by state, by district or by school. I would like to see well-educated and experienced educators at every level of our school system (that’s what the highest performing nations do). I would like to see more attention to the health and well-being of young children.

This may sound like pie in the sky to you, but, to me, it reflects common sense about what must happen to improve achievement across the board in our schools. Maybe someday you will see it my way. Maybe not. If you do change your mind, you might find it worthwhile to re-read The Death and Life of the Great American School System.

Diane Ravitch is Research Professor of Education at New York University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. She is a historian of education.


By Andrew Rotherham: Death and Life is being debated as a policy prescription. That's a problem, because it doesn't offer an agenda.