After more than a decade working in education reform I learned long ago that if I stopped to kick every snapping dog along the pathway, I would never arrive where I needed to go. But every now and then I read something, such as Diane Ravitch’s latest op-ed on CNN.com, and have to take a breath and ask “Really?” One of my earliest resources as I was starting in education reform back around 2000 was her book, “Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms.” But now it appears she’s utterly abandoned that historical analysis in favor of status quo incrementalism and apologies for failure.
Let’s just think about Dr. Ravitch’s assertions:
The NAEP test scores of American students are at their highest point in history: for black students, white students, Hispanic students, and Asian students.
They are at their highest point in history in fourth grade and in eighth grade, in reading and math.
I tend to agree with Dr. Ravitch that the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test is the most valid measure of academic performance. But why is that? Primarily, as my American Center for School Choice colleague, Alan Bonsteel, recently reminded us, it is because most states have catered to their own self-interest, aligning examinations to weak standards to give the appearance of academic achievement rather than actually increasing the amount of learning necessary for student success in this century. So for most of the last 10 years, under No Child Left Behind, we permitted widespread creation of dysfunctional and often meaningless standards aligned to dysfunctional and meaningless tests. Logically, this history does not make for a persuasive indictment of the value of legitimate standards and assessment tools.
But beyond that, let’s look at Dr. Ravitch’s assertion:
The “highest point in history” while true, is relative to what?
With the exception of the Asian/Pacific Islander group, I doubt anyone is throwing a parade for the educational system’s accomplishments over the last 20 years. Are 7-point gains over 20 years for African-Americans and Hispanics and a 9-point gain for white students really the kind of progress we expect after multiple billions of real increased educational spending? Yet this seems to be what Dr. Ravitch finds acceptable performance.
Certainly, some improvement in 4th grade and 8th grade is better than utter stagnation, but the rubber hits the road for our nation in high school and college completion rates. We are still only graduating about 70-75 percent of high school students and the U.S. is the only developed nation where a higher percent of 55- to 64-year-olds than 25- to 34-year-olds have graduated from high school. That’s not a soul-stirring endorsement for educational progress in recent decades. As of 2008, the same percentage of Americans age 25-to-34 and age 55-to-64 were college graduates. Internationally, the U.S. has fallen from first to twelfth in the number of 25- to 34-year-olds with college degrees in a single generation. Raise your hand if you think the work force is demanding about the same number of college graduates as it did in the 1960s and ‘70s.
So I’m considerably less sanguine than Dr. Ravitch that because our economy succeeded 30-50 years ago, despite an underperforming education system, we will continue to do so in the 21st Century.
On to her next assertion:
Why are our international rankings low? Our test scores are dragged down by poverty.
I have done work in Oakland, Calif. for more than a decade, so I do not at all discount the effects of poverty. It is indeed, as she describes, a harsh fact of life. But it is not the determining factor in whether a child learns. Absolutely, these children need more focused attention, often more regimentation and structure, strong teachers, a rigorous curriculum, and adults who believe in them. When that happens, without any doubt, these children succeed. I have seen it over and over in a variety of schools. The work of Education Trust and others document that hundreds of schools nationwide are successful with low-income children. If we somehow have come to believe we have to wait until we cure their parents of all bad behaviors and make them middle class before we can teach the kids, we are waiting for the Easter Bunny, not Superman.
We know these children by and large can function at a high level. Our challenge is not whether it’s possible, but how do we scale our successes? Given the crucial role quality teaching and school leadership play, enabling these families to choose any school they wish to attend is a critical ingredient to promoting scalability. Just as these children should not have to wait until their parents become middle class, they should not have to wait til the adults figure out how to fix all the dysfunctional schools that populate low-income neighborhoods.
On to her assertions about teachers and teaching:
Merit pay fails because teachers are doing the best they can with or without a bonus. Merit pay destroys teamwork and collaboration in the school.
Teachers need tenure so they have academic freedom to teach controversial issues.
Given what seems to be a universally accepted fact – good teachers are the key to successful schools and our education system – one cannot help but conclude we have significant problems in the teaching profession. We do not have a successful system with thousands of failing or under performing schools. The quality of teaching is not a neutral factor.
Dr. Ravitch’s remarks on teachers cause me to wonder how often she has visited schools, toured classrooms in comprehensive high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools. I do this fairly regularly as a public school district board member and a charter school board member. Each time, I see vast differences in the teaching quality. And I have witnessed numerous instances over the years where clearly teachers were not doing the best they could, some in quite egregious ways. More often than not, they were the older and experienced, but unmotivated teachers. But I take the point that the schools of education so poorly prepare teachers and administrators that “mediocre” may indeed be the best that some can do.
Perhaps most disconcerting is that as a distinguished historian knowledgeable about a century of educational failure, Dr. Ravitch now seems to have concluded that since we cannot turn the Titanic on a dime, we should instead embrace icebergs. She sets up a straw man by seeming to say that merit pay can only be tied to standardized test scores when nearly everything I see on improved teacher evaluation utilizes multiple measures. To assert that teachers would not respond well to being rewarded financially and accessing some type of career ladder other than abandoning the classroom for administration is to believe that going to ed school mutates human DNA. Nearly every other profession, including those like research scientists where collaboration on projects is fundamental to their success, has both career ladders and financial recognition for achievement.
Furthermore, her assertion that tenure is necessary to protect teachers who deal with controversial subjects is pure bunk. For example, how much controversy does a kindergarten or music teacher engender? Most teachers never get within a football field’s length of much controversy, let alone one that threatens their jobs. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of curricular controversies I’ve encountered as a board member in the last 10 years and in no case was any demand made that the teacher be fired. That is not to say that it never happens, but the cost in teaching quality of providing lifetime employment after about 15 months of employee observation is too high to protect a few teachers from what might be unjustified administrative actions.
I can testify that a good teacher is in such high demand that a district or school would be crazy to fire one arbitrarily and if they did, that teacher would be picked up by another school fairly quickly. In the meantime, tenure protects not only grossly incompetent, sometimes criminal teachers, but even worse, removes any fulcrum for a lever to improve the mediocre ones, which are much greater in number. Research has clearly demonstrated the value added of a strong teacher and the value subtracted of poor teaching. We can provide due process to teachers, as is done for other civil servants, which at least attempts to balance fair treatment for the teacher with the critical need for all students, but especially those now being so poorly served, to have a skilled, motivated, and high quality teacher.
A truce in the supposed “war on teachers” would be much easier to negotiate if the teachers unions would stop using their intimidation tactics and political muscle to lob bombshells such as this and this at every effort to empower low-income families and fix a clearly broken system. We can improve our schools and our society, as Dr. Ravitch calls for, but not by becoming addicted to the intoxicating drug of gradualism that Dr. King warned us about in the last civil rights battle.