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.
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.