By Mike Myslinski
What teachers and their unions have been saying for years about the pitfalls of high-stakes testing and the dangers of privatizing public schools, education scholar Diane Ravitch confirms. “Congress does not know how to reform schools,” Ravitch told the appreciative audience of educators at the CTA Urban Issues Conference in San Jose in a keynote speech in February. “Neither does the U.S. Department of Education.”
CTA members might also add the California Legislature and the governor.
Ravitch, a research professor of education at New York University and author or editor of 20 books, said testing, choice, and privatizing of public education are threats to the nation. “There is something awful going on today in America. It has to do with scapegoating teachers, demonizing unions and undermining education.”
She should know. She was once a strong advocate of charter schools, testing and teacher accountability and served as assistant secretary of education and counselor to Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander in the administration of President George H.W. Bush. President Clinton appointed her to the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees federal NAEP testing, which she trusts. She hailed the signing into law in 2002 of President George W. Bush’s flawed No Child Left Behind Act.
In recent years, she has had a change of heart.
In her insightful speech, she touched on many of the points in her new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. Ravitch now believes that public schools cannot be run like a business, and one chapter in her book shows why. She documents the failure of Alan Bersin to impose top-down reforms when he was superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District — reforms that alienated teachers and the San Diego Education Association.
Bersin had the backing of the business community and entrepreneurs, which do not understand education or why the public school system should not be viewed as a marketplace where schools are closed like a bad franchise in a retail chain, Ravitch said.
“Managing schools is not like managing a stock portfolio, where the object is to pick winners and get rid of your losers,” said Ravitch. “Rather, it’s like managing a family. When a family member is struggling with poor health, financial woes or bad decisions, the family leader does whatever is possible to help him or her recover, get on his feet and return to a sound footing. The family leader does not kill off the weak siblings. Educational euthanasia is not a good idea.”
Transforming struggling schools into charters does little, she said. “There is no evidence that charter schools or privately managed schools are a cure for low-performing schools.”
Ravitch considers charters and test-based teacher accountability reforms ominous. She opposes test score-based merit pay for educators and believes teachers must be fairly paid and more involved in local education decisions.
She questioned how the federal government, which she noted only provides about 8 percent of all public school funding, has come to drive states’ education policies.
By forcing teachers to teach to the test, NCLB caused many states to “dumb down” their standards to get better test results. Ravitch recalled how U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan — the former superintendent of Chicago schools — has said such tactics amount to lying to children. “He’s right. He should know. They did it in Illinois.”
If people thought punitive NCLB concepts would be discarded by President Obama when he took office, think again, Ravitch warned. She described the testing and accountability reforms sought by Obama and Duncan as “NCLB on steroids.”
She cited as proof Obama’s Race to the Top (“dash to the cash”) guidelines for states to qualify for $4.3 billion in federal grants. California failed to qualify for the first round of grants. CTA raised red flags about all of the grant program reforms states must make to win the race for grants — reforms that Ravitch also criticized: lifting caps on charters; linking test scores to teacher salaries; the demand that struggling schools be turned around or closed; creating a statewide data tracking system linking test results to teachers.
This administration fails to see that there is no one-size-fits-all strategy for every school, she asserts, and that testing should not be used for punitive purposes.
She is saddened that Obama has said he wants to close as many as 5,000 low-performing schools in America, instead of finding them the resources they need to succeed. Communities need their neighborhood schools open and thriving, she said.
“Schools are often the heart of their community, representing traditions, values and history that help bind the community together.”
Related Tags: Volume 14 Issue 6, Inside Educator, Make A Difference, Educator, Charter schools, ESEA-NCLB, Race to the Top, Testing, Educator Feature, Featured,