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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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We Must Change the Narrative About Public Education: Guest Blog by Diane Ravitch

Betty Ray

Director of Programming and Innovation @Edutopia

Editor's Note: Today's guest blogger is Diane Ravitch, an historian of education, an educational policy analyst, and former United States Assistant Secretary of Education. She is now a research professor at New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

Diane Ravitch

As the protests in Wisconsin dominate national news, and the White House and Congress gear up for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, currently called "No Child Left Behind"), we have a unique opportunity to put to rest some of the inaccurate narratives that have come to dominate debates around education policy, and to lay the foundations for a set of policies that can achieve our broader societal goals for children.

Myth #1: The Achievement Gap is Widening

Central to the current focus on using standardized tests to hold teachers and schools accountable is the belief that low-income children, especially minority children, are losing academic ground, and that weak schools and teachers with low expectations are to blame. In reality, African-American fourth graders have gained so much ground over the past two decades - when their schools were ostensibly failing them miserably - that they now score higher, on average, on reliable (NAEP) math tests than their white peers did as recently as 1992. And the very lowest-scoring students have seen the largest gains. White students have also gained a lot of ground, so the achievement gap hasn't closed, though it has narrowed a bit. (Over the same time, reading scores, which are likely much more tied to factors outside of schools, have not increased nearly as much, especially in the later grades.) These gains actually slowed after the adoption of No Child Left Behind, possibly because the intense demand for testing caused diminished time for studies that engage children most in school, like the arts, history, science, even physical education.

Critics of so-called "bad" schools point to gaps of a year or more between poor and middle-class fifth graders as evidence of that the school is a failure. Yet there is a gap of as much as two years when at-risk students enter kindergarten - bad schools clearly didn't create it, and seldom have the resources to overcome it.

Myth #2: Achievement Will Soar With Younger, More Enthusiastic Teachers

A second, related narrative asserts that teachers who work in the poorest schools are lazy and burned out; achievement will soar if only we can fire more of the older teachers and replace them with young, enthusiastic ones, especially those from Teach for America, who have only five weeks of training. But this demand runs counter to what we know to be true in every other profession: experience is a plus. Indeed, while the evidence is mixed on some aspects of education policy, it is unmistakably clear on this point: experience is one of the best predictors of teacher quality. Moreover, teachers familiar with community circumstances are especially needed in schools in which students have experienced poverty, inadequate housing, lack of sufficient food, and health problems. All these limit students' focus in class and prompt behavior problems.

The incontrovertible evidence about the effects of poverty on family life and student motivation flies in the face of the pervasive narrative that policymakers and the public have been hearing. It makes clear the need to reverse the increasingly narrow focus on testing, accountability, and the use of both to get rid of tenured teachers and to close "failing" schools. And it points to several suggestions for policymakers as they look to ESEA reauthorization:

1) Given the remarkable progress in math that schools serving poor and disadvantaged children have made, we should use data collection as a tool to figure out what has worked well - such as improved curricula and class size - and to help schools and teachers improve, rather than as a weapon to punish schools and fire teachers, which further destabilizes already fragile communities.

2) The current system forbids us to say openly what we all know: Students who live in poverty and isolation face tremendous hurdles to learning, and they bring those problems with them to school every day. If schools are to succeed, and students to reach their full potential, teachers, principals, and parents need to have the necessary resources to help them do so. This means helping all students arrive at the kindergarten door ready to learn through quality early childhood education, parent education, targeting scarce resources of money, small classes, and the best teachers to at-risk students to maintain those early gains, and linking schools to the range of community supports, such as after-school and summer programs and mentoring opportunities that middle-class children already enjoy.

3) The federal mandates in No Child Left Behind that require schools to demonstrate Adequate Yearly Progress in reading and math embody a utopian goal that no state or nation has ever met: 100% proficiency on state tests. This has resulted in accountability measures that narrow the curriculum, especially for poor children, and game the system rather than helping students learn more. Measures that help schools and teachers determine how well they are serving their at-risk students require: enhancements to NAEP that will allow it to provide disaggregated data in more nuanced ways and to assess a much broader range of subjects; additional tools to assess children's health, values, civic engagement, and other curricular and societal goals; and state flexibility in designing accountability systems so that a range of models can be tested to meet district needs.

If we are serious about school reform, we would change our efforts from the current punitive approach to a strategy of building a strong education profession and attending to the conditions of children's lives. Instead of closing schools that are often the most stable institution in the neighborhood, we would be improving them. Instead of firing experienced teachers, we would be making sure that they have the tools to do their job. Instead of ignoring poverty and its negative consequences, we would be designing programs to help families and children. Instead of creating programs to insert inexperienced teachers, principals, and superintendents into our schools, we would take steps to recruit, support, and respect those who work in our nation's schools.

Diane Ravitch is Research Professor of Education at New York University and a historian of education. In addition, she is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. She has written numerous articles and books -- her most recent, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (New York: Basic Books, 2010).

Betty Ray

Director of Programming and Innovation @Edutopia
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Comments (36)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Frank Krasicki's picture

@Barbra Yes, I did cite two movies that use precisely the same criticism of school seniority practice. While your movie criticism is fascinating, do tell us about how seniority works at your school. can administrators simply assign the most appropriate class to the teacher who is best at presenting that class regardless of seniority?

I have taught in urban schools, an isolated Midwestern school, and at a community college in a less-than-well-to-do district. I am married to a teacher. Some of my best friends are teachers. The Board of Education I serve on is largely populated by ex-teachers or family of teachers, or actual teachers. I still remain objective about the profession and what needs doing.

@LB The question for education is not why people are poor but why we as a nation practice herding the poor into urban concentration camps and then criticize the schools in these camps and then raise taxes on the poor to dismantle the schools.

I too have a hard time understanding the lack of motivation on the part of educators to demand an honest discussion, a union that proactively presents a sane educational vision, and to deconstruct and reconstruct their union negotiations to introduce enlightened teacher policies. Total mystery to me.

@Lee Barrios - YES! FINALLY! I knew there were teachers out there who get it. The education debates are a fraud. Schools can work. Kids can learn. And teachers need to be freed of idiocy. Get the politicians back to the whorehouses and out of the classroom.

My answer to your math question is this. Why should the teacher be the only one reading. How much more would kids learn by blogging their assignments and getting feedback from fellow students, parents, grand-parents? Why not collaborate? Suddenly the math gets easy and the grades less important than the strokes kids can get from the whole community of learners and teachers.

LB's picture

The poor in my district are rural. When Guidance tells us we are getting a new student, teachers ask if they are special ed. A quick celebration follows if they are not.

Secondly, it is interesting that you applied the motivation quote to the adults.........why didn't you apply it to the students instead?

LB's picture

The poor in my district are rural. When Guidance tells us we are getting a new student, teachers ask if they are special ed. A quick celebration follows if they are not.

Secondly, it is interesting that you applied the motivation quote to the adults.........why didn't you apply it to the students instead?

Frank Krasicki's picture

[quote]The poor in my district are rural. When Guidance tells us we are getting a new student, teachers ask if they are special ed. A quick celebration follows if they are not.

Secondly, it is interesting that you applied the motivation quote to the adults.........why didn't you apply it to the students instead?[/quote]

The poor come in all shapes and sizes - their truer poverty is cultural deprivation - this can often be misdiagnosed as special ed. needy.

I intentionally used some fair play in my role reversal. I chronically hear the same excuses about why school sucks from teachers. They claim with no particular empirical evidence that students are not motivated, that parents are unhelpful, that ever-shrinking classes are still too large, that new media distract students and so on.

Any intelligent human being subjected to repetitive high-stress, no-win testing will lose motivation. What we are doing to kids in public schools should be written into the Geneva Convention as a war crime - the war against children.

The Obama/Bush approach to education is intellectual poison.

This doesn't help either:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/07/opinion/07krugman.html

Cap Lee's picture

Clearly the No Child Left Behind mandate is primarily responsible for pushing students out of school. And for schools, AYP is totally crazy. At least in Wisconsin to show progress the 7th graders are tested one year, and again the 7th graders are tested the next year. And the scores are compared for progress. Sounds logical right? Logical but not rational. Guess what,the second year most seventh graders move to 8th grade. THEY ARE COMPARING DIFFERENT KIDS! THIS IS NOT VALID! TO BE VALID THEY HAVE TO COMPARE PROGRESS OF THE SAME KIDS. THIS IS INSANITY!

Barbra's picture

The kind of fiefdom approach to school management hasn't been seen in my district for 15 years. Maybe it was like that when I first started teaching, but it's not anymore. And even back then, the classes were assigned based on who was strongest at that level just like they are now. Is kind of school you describe the exception or the rule? In my district, the administration and department coordinators work together to match the best teacher to the best grade level. I know this because I am a department coordinator, and before I was a coordinator, I had a clear choice about which grade levels I was able to teach based on my strengths and weaknesses.

I might add that your use of movies to back up your argument is still ridiculously flawed. I might just as easily cite Coach Carter as an example of how school boards are the real culprits as they put people with little or no teaching experience in charge. In that movie Mr Carter tries several initiatives to get his players to perform on and off the court, but the board shuts him down and refuses to support him even after he gets tangible results. Should we assume that all school boards and board members are guilty of the same?

Furthermore, your arguments about class size only reinforce your lack of experience in other teaching fields. Sure, the debate about class size says a distinction between a class of 25 and 28 is irrelevant. How about a difference between 28 and 40? Because that's the size my colleagues and I have been told to expect in high school English next year. My classes discuss issues on our discussion forum, we collaborate by peer editing and critiquing constantly, and we use rubrics to evaluate our progress according to a set standard. But at the end of the day, I am still the teacher of record. My kids deserve to be evaluated by the trained professional in the room who is paid to do the job that is expected of me. If I take 5 minutes, half of what Lee Barrios suggested, it still takes me 15 hours to grade each student's essay. Raise the class sizes to 40, and I'm looking at 20 hours. That kind of grading load happens at least once a six weeks for an English teacher. And by the way, because we are so conscientious, we don't use scantron tests to assess writing skills.

I will close my comments by adding that I live in a right-to-work state which means non-union. When these changes happen, classes so large that we can't fit enough desks in the room, extended duties that take place outside our contract time, and cuts in pay and benefits, we have no recourse and no representation that can argue on our behalf. It just happens, regardless of the effect it will have on our ability to deliver any semblance of a quality education to our students.

Frank Krasicki's picture

[quote]Clearly the No Child Left Behind mandate is primarily responsible for pushing students out of school. And for schools, AYP is totally crazy. At least in Wisconsin to show progress the 7th graders are tested one year, and again the 7th graders are tested the next year. And the scores are compared for progress. Sounds logical right? Logical but not rational. Guess what,the second year most seventh graders move to 8th grade. THEY ARE COMPARING DIFFERENT KIDS! THIS IS NOT VALID! TO BE VALID THEY HAVE TO COMPARE PROGRESS OF THE SAME KIDS. THIS IS INSANITY![/quote]

Well, this is a statistical practice that is common for many things but wholly inappropriate for evaluating unique individuals or the impact a teacher can have one year to another with a brand new set of unique kids.

Call it crazy (and it is) but the teachers unions merrily marched along in mant cases greasing the political skids with campaign donations. The unions need to decide if there is any veracity to the profession or if it is just an expedient salary insurance agency.

Frank Krasicki's picture

[quote] In my district, the administration and department coordinators work together to match the best teacher to the best grade level. I know this because I am a department coordinator, and before I was a coordinator, I had a clear choice about which grade levels I was able to teach based on my strengths and weaknesses. [/quote]

Well, it sounds as if *you* had the choice which implies that the administration could not put the teacher they felt was best suited to a position in place. That's a real issue. can the youngest teacher in the school become a department co-ordinator? I'll bet not no matter how gifted that person may be. That's the seniority trap.

[quote]
I might add that your use of movies to back up your argument is still ridiculously flawed. -snip- Should we assume that all school boards and board members are guilty of the same?[/quote]

The movies cited illustrated just how pernicious and sticky the teacher seniority meme is. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that the public and parents are tired of having their children in the hands of fools when EVERYONE knows there are better teacher choices for certain situations.

[quote]Furthermore, your arguments about class size only reinforce your lack of experience in other teaching fields. Sure, the debate about class size says a distinction between a class of 25 and 28 is irrelevant. How about a difference between 28 and 40? Because that's the size my colleagues and I have been told to expect in high school English next year. [/quote]

First, the best studies show that class size *CAN* matter. But studies around the world have failed to objectively and broadly observe significant education differences in the quality of education students get from smaller or larger settings. The studies (STAR included) also say that teacher assistants add virtually NO value to the educational components of classes.

When education is improved by smaller classes is usually when a teacher is either gifted or trained to take advantage of smaller classes to individualize and personalize the learning experience for children.

I have to be brief but, for the most part, this is not what happens in most public schools regardless of class size though teachers universally swear their students get better education. No such thing shows up despite the desire of researchers to prove this very thing!

If you in fact get forty students per class, you should start planning on how to effectively teach to those forty.

[quote]My classes discuss issues on our discussion forum, we collaborate by peer editing and critiquing constantly, and we use rubrics to evaluate our progress according to a set standard. But at the end of the day, I am still the teacher of record. My kids deserve to be evaluated by the trained professional in the room who is paid to do the job that is expected of me. If I take 5 minutes, half of what Lee Barrios suggested, it still takes me 15 hours to grade each student's essay. Raise the class sizes to 40, and I'm looking at 20 hours. That kind of grading load happens at least once a six weeks for an English teacher. And by the way, because we are so conscientious, we don't use scantron tests to assess writing skills. [/quote] It sounds like you should use your study hall time wisely or learn to stagger the work load or get over the ego thing and empower your students to critique each other's work in such a way that you can add value as well without additional paperwork.

[quote]I will close my comments by adding that I live in a right-to-work state which means non-union. When these changes happen, classes so large that we can't fit enough desks in the room, extended duties that take place outside our contract time, and cuts in pay and benefits, we have no recourse and no representation that can argue on our behalf. It just happens, regardless of the effect it will have on our ability to deliver any semblance of a quality education to our students.[/quote]
Well - this is a secret so don't tell anybody else - that's exactly how it works in the private sector too. And you know what? Everyone rises to the occasion, decides what makes the most sense to do and not do, and then goes about their business.

Barbra's picture

1. As I said, I work together with admin to determine who teaches which class. In fact, our principal can override my decision at any time, but he doesn't... because we make the schedule together.
2. I am one of the youngest people in my department. The teacher who was on the hiring committee and sat in on my interview is old enough to be my mother.
3. The seniority meme hasn't operated that way since the Baby Boomers started retiring. At my previous school we had 5 teachers retire at the end of one year. That was 1/4 of our department. The next year saw even more retirees. At 35, I was the second most experienced teacher in our department. I had been teaching longer than my department coordinator.
4. Study hall? What study hall?
5. Since I didn't agree with everything you said, even though my class does everything you suggested, I must be a bad teacher with an ego problem right?
6. Does anyone really disagree that an effective teacher can make the difference in any classroom? No, and neither did I. But you seem to want to hear yourself talk instead of being open to listening to other opinions.
7. In the private sector, when a client comes in and asks a company to sign on to a project with only a fraction of the usual budget with only a fraction of the supplies and workforce required but expects unprecedented results, the client is often turned away in favor of projects with more realistic expectations. Ever heard the old saying "You get what you pay for?"

I'll bow out of the conversation from here on out. I have nothing more to add.

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