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We Must Change the Narrative About Public Education: Guest Blog by Diane Ravitch

Education historian Diane Ravitch presents a good case for changing the way we think and talk about public education

March 4, 2011

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).

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