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

Betty Ray

Senior Editor at Large
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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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Cap Lee's picture

There is much talk about scheduling, seniority and the like. In the middle school I designed, teachers worked in teams utilizing large blocks of time. They were free, on a daily basis, to schedule there students into the subject area or project they desired. Students received support in the proficiencies they were to develop. In our case, 2 teachers, and Ed assistant and sp. ed tchr broke students into groups with appropriate class sizes. (30 per class with 2 class teams was the conservative norm) They could do all groups of 15 or any combination of the above based on what they were working on at the time. Students base teacher assured that the students they were responsible for got the proficiencies they needed. For example, 15 could be in the community for an educational experience while 8 were in a concentrated study. and the remainder working on a project. All options were controlled by the teachers in the team on a daily basis. No department heads. Specialty classes were programmed in by admin. (me) for all. It's all in my first book Quashing the Rhetoric of Reform.

Frank Krasicki's picture

[quote]1. 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?" [/quote]

It sounds to me like you have a lot of control over your department. That's a good thing assuming you use it wisely.

4. Okay you don't have a planning period. You point is? Oh, wait. I get it. Instead of managing your class load you want to play a pity game.

5. You sound like you have a chip on your shoulder but you never say what it is. If you're doing everything right then you'll have no problem with 40 students in a class. But reading Cap Lee's book sounds like something you might need.

6. If no one argues that point then why are you upset with me. I simply point out factually that effective teachers are hard to find especially in a system that precludes the effective.

7. Taxpayers are not "getting what they pay for" and they know it. The lack of supplies issue is bogus. Salaries, health care, benefits, and maintenance eat up 70-85 percent of school budgets and those budgets are huge. The testing game is wrong but its the deal with the devil that the unions were happy with as long as the money kept flowing. Now that they've driven the communities to bankruptcy, not so much.

And teachers unions invested their pension funds in shipping jobs overseas so that the people here who paid their salaries lost their jobs, homes, and benefits. Do you really expect those who have been getting hurt for a decade to feel sorry for the profiteers who had no compassion for them?

Joseph Grace's picture

I have read most of the posts here and it seems to be the same story time and time again. Who to blame? What went wrong? Where's the money? Let's stop talking about the problems and start talking about the solutions! I think one thing that is missing from all sides of the discussion is how do we measure intelligence? Is it filling in a bubble properly? Is it writing an essay in proper format? Did Shakespeare write in APA or MLA? Did Einstein fill in his bubble with an X or shade it in?
I think we need to relook at the way and what we teach. Individualized education is key and many factors play into it, class size, parent involvement, available technology. IBM has a great idea involving technology and monitoring while personalizing education. Connexions is another idea involving ebooks with cutting costs of printed material.
Again, these are just ideas about solutions and not presenting more problems. I was taught not to present a problem without a solution, I have given couple. There are many, many ideas out there. The task is bringing them together. I am currently in the beginnings of a localized grass roots movement to change our public system to replicate Oklahoma. Pleae, please feel free to leave comment or ideas! I will be attending board meetings soon, and becoming more actively involved as time allows. Thanks to anyone that reads and/or replys!

Cap Lee's picture

Education has 2 systemic problems. Of course many others that follow. The problems and solutions are in my book but basically they are:

1 Design a system of education that recognizes and accepts that students learn in different ways and demonstrate learning in different ways. Why do a standardized test out in the stratosphere that has students demonstrate learning in one artificial way. Most schools are doing it better within the school. Save money and tap into their data. But this is only a very small piece of the puzzle.

Assessment is only as good as the information gathered and its application to the education of the child. Take the information from small "snapshot" assessments as well as many many other types of assessment and use it to drive your lesson. And then teach in the way kids learn best. Taking education into the community to make it real is one way.

2. Design a system that recognizes and accepts that students learn at different rates. They are not failures if they are behind or ahead. We have a horrible system of failure that does not resemble failure in life. In life we learn from failure, in school we fail from failure.

Students should move through the system based on learning that they can demonstrate rather than passing a class with a D-. Demonstrating proficiencies allows students to generalize learning rather than just talk about it. Do you really want a surgeon that has only done a test?

Recognizing and accepting different learning rates is the most difficult part of the neccessary change because a whole bunch of "dominoes" fall when you go down this route. However, if you don't make this change, you will fail! Grade levels become mute, letter grades can no longer be used as the lie they are, age limits to learning no longer exist (Kids blossom at different times), and the failure system no longer pushes kids out of school but allows them to use failure immediately as a learning tool (sorta like life)

If the new law does not provide for these systemically, it will fail. It is mathematically impossible to have some one first without having someone last.

Lee Barrios's picture

Mr. Lee - Thank you for your comment. May I say that your two system designs that "recognize and accept that students learn in different ways and demonstrate learning in different ways. . . and at different rates" ARE those being used by effective teachers. Our education system and teaching profession, like all others, needs to support its members in developing, applying and maintaining this knowledge and the essential skills required to reach every community of learner. On-going training, mentoring and experience in the classroom should be the focus of any real or perceived need for reform.

Instead, as you alluded to, the belief that we can test our way out of what has been labelled negatively as the "status quo" pervades.

We have had our focus STOLEN from the individual child in the classroom to a national "blueprint" that would offer what erroneously appears to be a simple solution of providing everyone with a uniform curriculum and its necessary test that produces a grade that purports to be proof of some kind of success or failure. It's so damn easy for the public to see how this could work. But it is a complex mass of predications producing a morass of unintended consequences and costs from which only the private business and investors will benefit.

I will steal two comments you made that clarify so concisely both the problem and the solution: In life we learn from failure, in school we fail from failure. It is mathematically impossible to have someone first without having someone last.

We need to stop painting our public education system as a failure. It is a roaring success. Society changes over time. The needs of that society change. We need to use this as a wakeup call that our response to change needs to kick it up a notch. Public Education for All!!! Equity and Excellence!!

Greg's picture
Middle School Principal

After reading Diane Ravitch's book, it was quite refreshing. We have put up with well over ten years of the consistent political rhetoric that public education is broken. While there is always room for improvement with anything, it is not broken. During NCLB, private companies have made millions upon millions of dollars capitalizing on the perceived problems of public education. As with so many issues, this is about money, people are willing to sell out our future for their own profit.

Again, there is always room for improvement - we need to look at a variety of areas from management, board governance, contracts, etc. However, the system is not totally broke and does help millions of children grow into productive citizens.

After you read Diane's book, I also recommend Cathing Up or Leading the Way by Yong Zhao.

Cap Lee's picture

Let be clear about what I am saying. Those inside the schools are not broken. The teachers are not broken, The kids are not broken. However, the system is broken as it does not allow teachers to teach and students to learn. In the words of historian James Anderson: "We are still trying to develop both the philosophy as well as a system of education which really does respect the intelligence and abilities of ordinary people"

Frank Krasicki's picture

@Lee We have lost our way in public education, that's for sure. Public schools are less a failure and more like a dysfunctional teacher who was lost in war on a desert island and arrives in a future generation ready to resume their place at the front of a classroom ready to give a spelling test.

Public education has become a Frankenstein system cobbled together by teaching staffs who stopped learning thirty years ago - by high-tech "philanthropists" whose primary goal is a roi on education, by taxpayers who have watched their money thrown away with less than nothing to show for it, and by an increasingly class divided society that has no interest in child development and learning - none.

To call this a roaring success is to mistake the flatulence of today's education establishment with the sounds of intelligent discussion.

@greg Money will not resolve the education crisis. But public funds are in crisis. We have passed the point of being able to continue funding programs that clearly do not work. Schools are quite visible in this category, fairly or unfairly, like it or not. Tweaking and smiley faces are not the answer.

@Cap You have many good and true ideas. However, what has happened in public education is a political and religious campaign of educational cleansing. Some of our finest teachers have been muzzled and marginalized. We have stocked our schools with parrot trainers. Teach to the test and the test only. The government is the single source of what will be taught. Children are not individuals that are cohorts who WILL all be alike in every grade in every way come hell or high water. Teachers, administrators, and schools that don't goose step to Obama's tune have their careers exterminated.

Broken? There are no words to describe the crime being perpetrated on our kids in public schools.

My problem with Ravitch is that she waited until it was too late to save public schools to suddenly show up and announce that she knew it all along and has no apology for cashing in and cashing out. Many of us have gone years unpaid and ignored, long warning of how badly these issues were being addressed.

And Ravitch's wilful ignorance of the broader issues and solutions impugns the integrity of her arguments. It is fine to say that alternative education schemes score no better than public schools in the bizarro world of high-stress testing but why not admit that these schools are doing some fine and interesting work nonetheless? And what prevents public schools (or brain-dead unions) from adopting and insisting on better practices?

Jacob Beasley's picture

Am I the only person here shocked by the following statements:

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.

Where is the citation? Please take a few minutes and explain what evidence our research was conducted and why it is relevant. Without any citation, an intelligent, critical thinking reader should really hear:

I (Betty Ray) disagree with the pervasive narrative that policymakers and the public have been hearing. I make 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.

The fact that I am the first person to bring this to attention underlines the problem with our education system; those in education are not being held even to their own standards of performance. How can we teach children if we do not set an example in our own actions?

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