Ravitch Run

You’ve got to love a public figure who can admit to having been wrong without being forced into mea culpas by screwing around and getting caught. 


Diane Ravitch—a highly visible educational policy wonk for decades—committed no indiscretions and broke no laws.  Nevertheless, her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choices are Undermining Education, is an extended apology for having promoted and promulgated a variety of school reform strategies that failed, utterly, to accomplish their aims. 


Ravitch trains her ray gun on high-stakes testing, charter schools, the corporatization of schools, the takeover of schools by well-meaning but misguided philanthropists, and No Child Left Behind. 


Aside: a few weeks ago I blogged about Push, the book on which the movie Precious is based.  I promised to discuss a related book the next day but I never did.  This is the book. 


Here’s the connection: In Push, a pregnant, illiterate, abused, and extremely damaged teenager finds a toehold in the world—just the bottom rung, really.  It’s not school reform that saves her.  It’s not taking the state standardized test.  It’s not winning a lottery to get into a charter school (the girl’s parents certainly would not have applied on her behalf).  The small-academy-within-the-large-high-school strategy devised and funded by the Gates Foundation could not have helped her.  No Child Left Behind would undoubtedly have left this girl in the dust—shoved into dropping out by a school that did not want her 0% test score to bring down their average. 


What makes the difference for Precious is the teacher who notices what she needs to learn, and has the authority and freedom to teach it. 


And that sums up Diane Ravitch’s discussion of all the ways that bureaucrats have attempted to improve the public schools.  Poppycock, all of it, that does more harm than good and distracts education professionals from what really matters: what we teach.


Curriculum development has been sadly neglected in favor of endlessly drilling the narrow set of reading and math skills that appear on the state-mandated tests.  My own children went through my state’s standardized testing last week.  They were both hammered mercilessly with oh-my-god-important-tests-coming-up pressure beforehand.  Afterward, they both declared the tests stupid simple, which of course they have to be to ensure the best possible pass rate.  I can see no value for my kids in taking these tests.  No useful information is gained.  No instructional decisions are made as a result.  They gain nothing, and they lose school time in which they might otherwise be learning something.  But my kids’ high test scores make their schools look good.  Who is supposed to be serving whom?


Good news: the State of Texas has figured out how important curriculum development is.  Bad news: they’ve loaded the school board with Christian wingnuts who rewrote the standards to reflect right-wing religious ideology.  Really bad news: since Texas is such a huge market, their curricular tastes are catered to by the textbook manufacturers, leaving many other states little choice but to use the same books.  This was probably not what Diane Ravitch had in mind, but perhaps it will spur the education establishment to think more deeply about content and less about test scores.


The trouble with test-based accountability is that it imposes serious consequences on children, educators, and school on the basis of scores that may reflect measurement error, statistical error, random variation, or a host of environmental factors or student attributes.  None of us would want to be evaluated—with our reputation and livelihood on the line—solely on the basis of an instrument that is prone to error and ambiguity.  The tests now in use are not adequate by themselves to the task of gauging the quality of schools or teachers.  They were designed for specific purposes: to measure whether students can read and do mathematics, and even in those tasks, they must be used with an awareness of their limitations and variability.  They were not designed to capture the most important dimensions of education, for which we do not have measures.






14 thoughts on “Ravitch Run

  1. My kids get out of school on 6/18 and learning has pretty much come to a halt already.  From here on out, it will be all reviewing for the tests, taking the tests, snacking during the tests and eating to celebrate the ending of the tests.  We’re still only 3 years into the school thing in our family, but with each passing year I come to despise the standardized testing more and more.  My daughter asked me if we used to study for these tests in school, too.  She could not believe that there were no cumulative tests that were standardized across schools.  My classroom teachers tested us how they saw fit and that was that.  (And you can bet we didn’t get popsicles as a reward for taking tests, either!!)

  2. @turningreen – yes, all year long the teachers and principal moan & groan about “instructional hours” – NO, wait, “instructional MINUTES” – in the classroom, about not having enough of them, that is, and about not having “time” to teach art or music or, gee, I don’t know… science!   Why?  Because of all the test prep.  And then I have to wonder: hey, what if we spent the entire wasted month of May – no, really, post-Spring Break onward, teaching art & music & science?  Instead, we shift from test-mania to really just giviing up the last month of school or so.  Last year, my son’s 6th grade year, I swear the entire month of May (they took the state tests last week of April) was loaded with class parties, school-wide parties, movie day, beach day, “free choice” time, silent reading (i.e. sit at your desk & text your friends) time, all-school field games, extra recesses as rewards for – you guessed it – finishing the tests!, half-days, etc. etc.  It was a joke.  Instructionally speaking.   And yet, DON’T BE ABSENT… because the school still needs their fundng for those days.

  3. My kids are with your kids and find the tests pointless and annoyingly simple.  I find the number of days that they learn absolutely nothing appalling (granted, this is a big reason I applied to fill the vacancy on our school district board.  Not a big step, since we get guidance from higher up, but a step nonetheless)

  4. hahahahahahaha re: Texas.  This is a bizarre and frightening development that would have spurred many blogs from me if I hadn’t been too busy rescuing my child from the “but he’s passing the State tests” crowd who are trying to deny him an appropriate education.  Yeah, a monkey could pass your stupid tests, particularly if you gave the monkey ENDLESS REVIEW SHEETS for weeks and weeks on end instead of teaching the monkey to oh, I don’t know, read literature or grasp scientific ideas or study fucking CIVICS, maybe, so we wouldn’t have a bunch of blogging monkeys in ten years who don’t understand the first freaking thing about the CONSTITUTION or their history or any other basic concept associated with a learned human being.  I’m still reading this book.  I’m taking a lot of notes.  There is a lot of good, nuts and bolts information about why schools are the way they are, which is now a primary interest of mine.

  5. For what it’s worth, I’m glad I put my efforts in teaching them how to learn. Eldest is a junior in high school, and has come to me and stated, in simple terms, that the tests that the kids are getting pressure-cooked on are demeaning, futile, and outright silly – and has compared schools to a temporary containment facility for minors. His words.Sometimes, he scares me.Youngest came to me, and explained what he was being taught in the classroom: how to pass the test, using a formula of elimination for the majority of the questions, pre-reading further questions for hints as to the correct answers, etc. He then demonstrated this dubious skill to me, using one of the take-home practice tests.I scrambled things up, rewording how the questions were presented – although he could have a passing score on a standard test in the fashion I remembered as a kid, the ScanTron tests practically guaranteed nothing short of a B- or better grade, even if the student only vaguely had an understanding of the material present – based on the How to Take a Test formulas.I wish I were kidding.That aside: @Stanelle – it might not be such a far-fetched idea for you – you’d be sure to instill people who would teach the same skills of learning to the students.@transvestite_rabbit – the title made me click the emailed link. Nice touch.

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