A Conversation with Diane Ravitch
Noted education historian Diane Ravitch talks with educator Arnold Dodge about what's wrong with the testing obsession and the corporate reform movement.
I have to state, though, that I am aware of the many arrows, daggers, and spears thrown at me daily on the blogosphere and in the media. The tremendous support of teachers is my armor.
I try to encourage people who study child development to speak up, to say, this is wrong, children develop in different ways and at different paces and respond differently to different experiences. Standardized tests can't be the measure of all things that have to do with children.
The narrative that is so powerful right now in the United States is supported and promoted by corporate heads. I don't have a conspiracy view of the world, but it gives me pause to know that Viacom owns NBC, and Viacom owns Waiting for Superman, and NBC promotes Waiting for Superman, and they get $2 million from Bill Gates to promote the movie. You begin to feel that an overwhelming amount of money is going toward ends that are misdirected.
Often the graders take a cursory look at the tests, especially the constructed-response questions, and place a grade on them. So you have bad questions, bad scoring—even the computers make errors in scoring. We have had example after example in which the testing companies had to go back and say 8,000 of the tests had an error. Yet we use testing in ways not used anywhere else in the world. The top-performing nations do not test every child every year.
Testing is a very flawed instrument, and we are basing our kids' futures on it. We have to think about what testing does to children over a 12-year period. Taking these tests year after year teaches them that the aim of education is to be able to get the right answer and that you will be given four choices, three of which are wrong and one of which is right. What does that do to the child's thinking? What does that do to creativity, to imagination, to the ability to take a problem and turn it around and see something that no one else can see?
Using test results to evaluate teachers will incentivize teachers to teach to what we know are bad tests. Just last year, all the test scores had to be recalibrated because the state had allowed the tests to become easier over time and the scores were inflated. (By the way, the New York State Race to the Top grant is based on the inflated test scores of 2009, not on the recalibrated scores of 2010.)
This whole reliance on testing shifts the balance of power in the classroom. And it's not just New York State. This legislation is coming by way of the Obama administration and Secretary Duncan, who think it is terrific to judge teachers by student test scores. If the students are absent, it's the teacher's fault. If the students choose to withhold effort, they now have the power to fire their teacher. All of the outcomes are going to be bad for kids, bad for teachers, bad for education. Both evidence and common sense are totally against using tests for teacher evaluation, and we are doing it anyway.
Berliner used this story to point out that while the ostensible cause of student failure may be the teacher, are we looking upstream to find out what the problem is? Do we look into communities? Do we look at poverty? Do we look at the home life of children before we blame the teacher?
Kids who are homeless, who don't speak English, who have preventable illnesses, and who live in communities where there is a lot of violence, have challenges. These challenges come with poverty and get in the way of high achievement. Even before the very first day that children arrive in school, there is an achievement gap. Some children have had exposure to lots of vocabulary, and others have not. It's not the children's fault, and it's not their families' fault; it's the result of poverty. If we don't address the cause, we will just continue blaming teachers.
The corporate elites say that teachers are using poverty as an excuse, but they excuse themselves from having to do anything about poverty. They don't worry about the effects of outsourcing jobs. They don't worry about the fact that 20 percent of the nation's children live in poverty. They are let off the hook if the conversation continues to be about blaming teachers. The problem is that if they are sincerely interested in education, this is a poisonous narrative. If you so poison the public mind against teachers, then who will teach?
But many charters are working to compete with and replace the regular public schools. In New York City, two-thirds of the charter schools are installed in what has become known as colocation. Charter schools are wedged into public school buildings, so the public school loses its art room, music room, and resource room. The charter movement has taken on the banner of "We are better than you are, and choice is better than the public school."
Many people behind the charter movement are actively seeking the destabilization of public education and have the support of wealthy Wall Street hedge fund managers and philanthropic money. The choice movement has created enormous entrepreneurial and profit-making activity. Across the country, some CEOs of small charter schools get paid $400,000 per year. This is in no way replicable.
What is so wrong about this is that public education is vital to our democracy. It would be a tragedy if children had no more neighborhood public school. The public school is a building block of democracy. It's where neighbors meet and where families get involved in community action. Have every child on a bus heading to school outside the neighborhood, and you lose one of the elements that make a democratic society.
A race means there will be few winners and lots of losers. What does the top mean anyway? The top test score? It won't be our children who benefit. What we want is equity of resources. We want high-quality early childhood education in our communities. We want communities and parents to be involved in any decision about the closing of a school. We want stable and experienced teachers in our communities. We want to be sure that all of our children have access to good public schools. Now, that's all different from Race to the Top.
Competition is a good thing in the right place. In the free market, we end up with better mouse traps as a result of competition. Maybe we get better products on our grocery shelves. Competition is good in foot races and in football.
However, there are certain things that belong to the public sector that should not be competitive. We have a police station in the neighborhood. We have a fire house in the neighborhood. I don't care if my fire department puts out more fires than somebody else's. I just care that when I have a fire, firefighters are there and I can call them and they will respond. There should be a public school in every neighborhood. There should be a public library that's accessible to every community. To privatize these and say now you have a choice, that's the wrong way to think.
The private sector should do what it does best, and the public sector should do what it does best. And we should work to make public facilities the best they can possibly be. In those neighborhoods that don't have good public facilities, we have an obligation to make them far better because their needs are greater.
I am also hopeful because the evidence keeps accumulating that the agenda of the corporate reform movement is wrong. A major study from the National Research Council2 says that our reliance on test-based incentives doesn't work. A study from the National Center on Education and the Economy3 points out that other nations around the world are not judging teachers by test scores and are not testing students every year. Yet these nations are building strong education professions. And they would never dream of bringing in a non-educator to be the superintendent of a major school system.
The evidence is getting stronger and stronger over time. But we need to continue building the case about the importance of education, about the importance of having strong professionals, about the importance of having children ready to learn, about the importance of the family, about the importance of the community.
What gives me optimism is to know as a historian that the corporate reform movement and the testing mania are going to end. These ideas advance a narrow behaviorist agenda, not the needs of the 21st century. They do not promote the critical thinking, the innovative ideas, required for the future. History will not look kindly on those who supported the retrograde ideas of the current era.
The thing that worries me most is how many lives will be damaged in the meanwhile. How many kids will be harmed? How many good teachers will lose hope and leave? Who will want to be a principal? I don't know how long this wrongheaded movement will last. I don't have a crystal ball. But I don't believe this thinking will ultimately prevail because in the end what they are doing is wrong. We have to fight for a different narrative, one that makes sense to parents, one that's right for kids, and one that's right for education.
1 Gardner. W. (2011, February 7). The golden age of education never was [blog post]. Retrieved from Walt Gardner's Reality Check athttp://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/walt_gardners_reality_check/2011/02/the_golden_age_of_education_never_was.html2 Hout, M., & Elliot, S.W. (Eds.). (2011). Incentives and test-based accountability in education. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.3 Tucker, M. S. (2011). Standing on the shoulders of giants: An American agenda for education reform. Washington, DC: National Center on Education and the Economy.
Diane Ravitch is a research professor of education at New York University, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a former assistant secretary of education in the first Bush administration, and the author of 10 books and 500 articles. Her latest book is The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (Basic Books, 2010). Arnold Dodge is the chair of the Department of Educational Leadership and Administration at Long Island University–C.W. Post Campus. He served as a New York State teacher, principal, and superintendent for 37 years.
Copyright © 2011 by ASCD