Diane Ravitch is Research Professor of Education at NYU. Her newly revised book The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education will be published in June. (March 2016)
In recent years, American public education has been swamped by bad ideas and policies. Our national leaders, most of whom were educated at elite universities and should know better, have turned our most important domestic duty into a quest for higher scores on standardized tests.
Fifty years ago, Congress passed a federal education law to help poor children get a good public education. As the House and the Senate now debate a reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, it is crucial to understand the law’s origins and how it has evolved over time.
Yong Zhao’s new book tells us that China has the best education system because it can produce the highest test scores. But, he says, it has the worst education system because those test scores are purchased by sacrificing creativity, divergent thinking, originality, and individualism.
Last week’s court ruling against job protections for California school teachers has distracted us from the genuine inequalities that harm minority children. It does not address the dire overcrowding of classes or the lack of resources for basic needs, including libraries, counselors, after-school programs, and nurses. Nor does it address segregation or poverty— root causes of poor academic performance.
New York City’s charter schools enroll only 6 percent of the student population. Contrary to popular myth, they are more racially segregated than public schools and performed no better on state tests. How, then, did a privately managed school franchise that serves a tiny portion of New York families manage to hijack the education reforms of a new mayor with a huge popular mandate?
For weeks, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the United Federation of Teachers have been battling over the issue of teacher evaluation. Governor Andrew Cuomo set a deadline for them to reach an agreement, but they failed to do so, potentially costing the city schools hundreds of millions of dollars. The state education commissioner, John King, jumped into the fray by threatening to withhold over a billion dollars in state and federal aid if there was no settlement between the parties. Now, Governor Cuomo says that he may intervene. What’s going on here? Why can’t the mayor and the union reach an agreement? Why does Commissioner King intend to punish the city’s children if the grown-ups don’t agree?
According to most news reports, the teachers in Chicago are striking because they are lazy and greedy. Or they are striking because of a personality clash between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and union president Karen Lewis. Or because this is the last gasp of a dying union movement. Or because Emanuel wants a longer school day, and the teachers oppose it.
None of this is true. All reports agree that the two sides are close to agreement on compensation issues—it is not money that drove them apart. Last spring the union and the school board agreed to a longer school day, so that is not the issue either. The strike is a clash of two very different visions about what is needed to transform the schools of Chicago—and the nation.
On May 23, the Romney campaign released its education policy white paper titled “A Chance for Every Child: Mitt Romney’s Plan for Restoring the Promise of American Education.” If you liked the George W. Bush administration’s education reforms, you will love the Romney plan. If you think that turning the …
On May 23, the Romney campaign released its education policy white paper titled “A Chance for Every Child: Mitt Romney’s Plan for Restoring the Promise of American Education.” If you liked the George W. Bush administration’s education reforms, you will love the Romney plan. If you think that turning the schools over to the private sector will solve their problems, then his plan will thrill you.
What makes Joel Klein and Condoleezza Rice’s new report on the schools different from earlier jeremiads is its profound indifference to the role of public education in a democratic society, and its certainty that private organizations will succeed where the public schools have failed. Previous hand-wringing reports sought to improve public schooling; this one suggests that public schools themselves are the problem, and the sooner they are handed over to private operators, the sooner we will see widespread innovation and improved academic achievement.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan loves evaluation. He insists that everyone should willingly submit to public grading of the work they do. The Race to the Top program he created for the Obama Administration requires states to evaluate all teachers based in large part on the test scores of their students. When the Los Angeles Times released public rankings that the newspaper devised for thousands of teachers, Duncan applauded and asked, “What’s there to hide?” Given Duncan’s enthusiasm for grading educators, it seems high time to evaluate his own performance as Secretary of Education. Here are his grades.
Teach for America is a worthy idea. It is wonderful to encourage young people to commit themselves to public service for two years. The program would be far more admirable if the organization showed some modesty, humility, and realism in its claims for its inexperienced teachers. Many foundations, corporations, and even the US Department of Education treat TFA as a systemic solution to the critical needs of the teaching profession. But it is foolhardy to expect that a profession of more than three million teachers will be transformed by the annual addition of a few thousand college graduates.
New York’s education officials are obsessed with test scores. In order to secure $700 million of promised funding from Obama’s Race to the Top program, the state wants to find and fire the teachers who aren’t able to produce higher test scores year after year. But most testing experts believe that the methods for rating teachers are inaccurate, unstable, and unreliable. New York’s hurried and wrong-headed teacher evaluation plan will profoundly demoralize teachers, as they realize that they have lost their professional autonomy and will be measured according to precise behaviors and actions that have nothing to do with their own definition of good teaching.
To an American observer, the most remarkable fact about Finnish education is that students do not take any standardized tests until the end of high school. They do take tests, but the tests are drawn up by their own teachers, not by a multinational testing corporation. The Finnish nine-year comprehensive school is a “standardized testing-free zone,” where children are encouraged “to know, to create, and to sustain natural curiosity.”
The response to the current crisis in education tends to reflect two different worldviews. On one side are those who call themselves “reformers.” The reformers believe that the schools can be improved by more testing, more punishment of educators (also known as “accountability”), more charter schools, and strict adherence to free-market principles in relation to employees (teachers) and consumers (students). On the other are those who reject the reformers’ proposals and emphasize the importance of addressing the social conditions—especially poverty—that are the root causes of poor academic achievement.
April 7, 2011 was a day that should be remembered as one of the strangest in the history of the public schools of New York City and New York State. On that day, by coincidence (or not), the Chancellor of the New York City schools, Cathleen Black, and the State Commissioner of Education, David Steiner, both resigned. Black was replaced by longtime city official Dennis Walcott; a successor for Steiner, who will leave by August, has not been named. Hopefully, there will be a national search. Black’s tenure of three months was certainly the shortest ever in the history of the city’s schools. For his part, Steiner lasted less than two years in a job in which his predecessors typically persisted for a decade. The reasons for Black’s sudden departure are obvious; we will have to wait a bit longer to get the inside story about Steiner’s equally abrupt exit, though his handling of Black’s appointment may have undermined him.
After a stormy eight-year reign, New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein announced last week that he was stepping down to work for Rupert Murdoch. Mayor Bloomberg immediately selected another non-educator, Cathleen Black, the chairman of Hearst Magazines, to take charge of the school system.
What is most striking about the mayor’s decision is that he seems to see the superintendency as a job not for an educator, but for a manager.
There is a clash of ideas occurring in education right now between those who believe that public education is not only a fundamental right but a vital public service, akin to the public provision of police, fire protection, parks and public libraries, and those who believe that the private sector is always superior. Waiting for “Superman” is a powerful weapon on behalf of those championing the “free market” and privatization.
Recently, I wrote a book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, in which I took issue with a number of currently popular education strategies that I had once supported, and now, seeing their questionable outcomes, challenge. Since then, I have been traveling across the country and have made three dozen speeches. What started out as a conventional book tour—with stops only in Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco—turned into something else: a whistle-stop campaign to warn against some of the education “reforms” currently in vogue.