By Madelynn Coldiron
Author, education historian and professor Diane Ravitch does not hold her fire when it comes to many current education trends – including some held dear in Kentucky.
Speaking at the plenary session during KSBA’s annual conference Jan. 31-Feb. 5 in Louisville, Ravitch took on standardized testing, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Common Core Standards and for-profit charter school companies. On the flip side, it would be hard to find a better-armed defender of public education.
Photo: Dr. Diane Ravitch, far left, had a line of people waiting to meet with her after delivering a thought provoking presentation during KSBA's annual conference.
Ravitch, a former assistant U.S. education secretary, came down hard on the current emphasis on testing, saying it should be used for diagnostics and not “to rank and rate and discourage children.”
“The only thing that matters to the federal government and most of our states is test scores. Test scores have become the be-all and the end-all, not only here in Kentucky but in the United States, thanks to No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top,” she said.
Ravitch urged the conference crowd to “stand up against” the focus on testing.
“Policy makers are obsessed with test scores and data and they’re prepared to sacrifice children, public schools and learning itself because data are more important than children,” she said.
Ravitch said testing is not the best measure of school quality; instead, she called it, “an accurate measure of family income and education. It reflects opportunity and not capacity to learn … Tests do not close achievement gaps – they mirror them.”
Pointing to Kentucky’s education reforms and the progress they have produced, Ravitch said, “You know what school reform is.”
However, reform as enacted by the federal government often is “negative and punitive,” she said, marked across the country by budget cuts, firing teachers and support staff, closing public schools and turning tax money over to private managers and entrepreneurs.
“How can this possibly be reform? This is destruction,” she said.
Charter schools and vouchers
Ravitch listed what she called the “hoaxes” of education reform, including charter schools and vouchers.
“This is what we know about the highest-performing nations in the world: They have a strong and equitable public school system. They have no charters and they have no vouchers. That’s a fact.”
Ravitch pointed to the example of Milwaukee, which has public schools, vouchers and charters, and “all are doing badly. All this competition did not produce improvement.”
She also warned about for-profit charter school corporations, adding, education “is a civic responsibility and not a consumer good.”
Charters “directly weaken public schools,” and it is not true, she said, that they help low-income children. Instead they “skim” the best students from public schools and, unlike public schools, are not required to serve students with disabilities or English learners.
The charter corporations have a double standard, Ravitch said: They call themselves public schools for the purposes of getting tax dollars but use the private label to keep from having to follow state rules. She gave many examples of for-profit charter school companies that allegedly use political contributions and connections to keep their failing schools open.
Ravitch said she hopes Kentucky will continue to hold charter schools and vouchers at bay.
NCLB and Race to the Top
A prominent pair of federal initiatives, Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind, also received the hoax label.
“How many children were left behind by No Child Left Behind?” she asked. The law’s mandates were impossible to fulfill and resulted in the closing of schools, many of them in poor and minority communities.
Similarly, she contended, Race to the Top is not working. “There’s no part of Race to the Top that is based on evidence or experience,” Ravitch said. “It’s causing more teaching to the test.”
She said Race to the Top has also led to school closures, unprecedented demoralization of teachers, the funneling of public money to private entrepreneurs, and the adoption of what she called untested national standards.
The reform narrative is based on the contention that the country’s public schools are so bad we should try anything, she said, stating, “That’s bull. Wrong.”
Ravitch cited 40 years of trend data refuting that line of thought, including improved test scores, graduation rates and dropout rates. She said it’s ridiculous to say that students in other nations are overtaking those in the U.S.
“International test scores for 15-year-olds predict nothing about the future … America’s trump card has always been freedom, creativity, originality, innovation, ingenuity figuring things out,” she said. “Standardized tests reward those who are able to pick the right box. They will make excellent clerks. They might even be able to run a call center in India. But for the 21st century, our trump card is teaching kids to think outside the box. Not to get the right answer but to ask the right question, or to ask many questions.”
Ravitch said she believes in technology and the positive value of social media, but she cautioned school board members in dealing with technology corporations.
“What the corporations are all too often selling is not customization and individualization and personalization – they’re selling laptops and tablets and they want you to buy more of them.”
Plan carefully, she said. “Make sure you’re not investing in technology at the expense of class size and at the expense of the arts and the expense of children.”
Reformers say they want to improve teaching, but Ravitch said that is another hoax: “The reality is they’re destroying teaching as a profession.”
She cited plummeting enrollments in teacher education programs across the U.S. and lower standards for teaching in charter schools and programs such as Teach for America. “This does not elevate the profession, when you say that anyone can become a teacher. That’s inviting amateurs,” she said.
She also refuted test-based evaluation of teachers, saying the experience and research of the last few years shows that it doesn’t work. “When you judge teachers by the test scores of their students you will have a measure that is invalid, unstable, unreliable and it’s just about as good as rolling the dice or flipping a coin,” she said. “You cannot identify great teachers by test scores. What you’re measuring is who is in their class.”
Comparing education with the corporate world, Ravitch said the most successful corporations hire carefully, support and retain their employees, and make them better.