In some respects, this has been a tough year for me. It has been a year of brickbats and insults: I have been called a hypocrite, insincere, dishonest, pathological liar, and a cherry-picker, but best of all: Bill Gates Chief Adversary; and Whittaker Chambers of School Reform. I would much rather be Whittaker Chambers than Alger Hiss!
But if you are a teacher or parent, you have had to take many more insults and real hits than I have.
If you are a teacher, you have watched as state legislature passed bills to cut your salary, cut your pension, cut your health benefits, take away your collective bargaining rights, and base your evaluation on students test scores. You have seen governors call you greedy. You have watched as the richest man in America suggested ways to cut your annual paycheck. You wonder if your profession will survive.
If you are a parent, you have seen your child subjected to more tests, more interim assessments to get ready for the real tests, and more test preparation to get ready for the interim assessments to get ready for the real tests. You have seen your child’s class size get larger. You have watched in fear and awe as your district leaders propose tests for the arts, for music, dance, and physical education. You may be a parent of a school that was closed because it didn’t meet No Child Left Behind’s annual targets.
Wherever you are coming from and whatever your reasons, I thank you for being here.
All of us need to speak up and be heard to save our schools from the current so-called reform movement. If we don’t speak up, there will be more privatization of public schools. If we don’t stand up for public education, we will see more legislatures enacting voucher legislation, and more public funding going to schools of questionable quality. If we don’t speak out, we will see thousands more privately managed charter schools,
even though very few of them are better than regular public schools.
I have decided that you don’t need to hear another speech. So what I propose to do this morning is not to give a speech but to interview myself.
So, forgive me if I take the role of both interviewer and interviewee.
So began Diane Ravitch on Friday July 29 at American University, as she gave the keynote for the 2nd day of the conference at the Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action.
Here's the remarkable part of this remarkable exercise. You have read what is, with the exception of the final few sentences, the only written out portion of Diane's presentation that morning. All she had for the rest of it was notes: her command of the material as America's preeminent historian of education is that superb.
Please, keep reading.
There will eventually be video of this remarkable presentation. Yesterday I asked Diane, who has over the past several years become both an important professional colleague and a close personal friend, if I could share the text of what she had offered in that keynote. She sent me what she had and gave me permission to share.
What I will do for the rest of this document is present the words of her outline in bold text and occasionally add a few remarks of my own, and/or expand beyond the skeleton of the written notes to explain what she was saying.
OK, Dr. Ravitch—do you mind if I call you Diane?—here is your first question.
1. Is U.S. education in crisis?
a. No, we have had crises for over a hundred years.
b. 19teens: Industrial;
i. 1920s: immigrant kids;
ii. 1930s: not meeting needs of economy;
iii. 1940s; Schools overcrowded, antiquated, in disrepair as a result of 15
years of no capital improvements due to Depression and War.
Not ready for the Atomic Age.
iv. 1950s (Why Johnny Can’t Read; Educational Wastelands; Sputnik; Rickover)
v. 1960s: Institutionalized racism; crisis of disadvantaged
vi. 1970s: Charles Silberman: Crisis in the Classroom;
mindlessness, boredom, more freedom needed
vii. 1980s: Nation at Risk
Already in this first question and answer, you see the range of Ravitch's knowledge. The sad thing is how few of those writing about education come close to this. Thus reporters and talking heads act as if the idea that our schools are in trouble is somehow one that is new.
In fact, we could go back somewhat earlier than the list above to the 1890's the Committee of Ten proposed a national approach to education. That is really when the issue of immigrant kids began becoming a problem in our urban schools.
Note especially the 2nd point above - our economy constantly changes, and in periods of change we hear voices that lament how poorly our schools do in preparing children for the economic needs of our nation. But in the 1930s, we had the further problem of the Great Depression. And through most of the period above we did not even graduate half of each age cohort from high school - that did not occur until after the 2nd World War.
For those who don't know their history, "Why Johnny Can't Read" was a scare piece in Time in 1955 that had a profound impact on the discussions about education. Sputnik in October of 1957 contributed to the idea that we had fallen behind the Soviet Union in science, math and technology and led to the 1958 National Defense Education Act, in which the federal government began providing funds for better education in those fields. Hyman Rickover, father of the Nuclear Navy, also decided to insert himself into the educational debate, and it is about this time we begin to see the emphasis on fields related to the military and the economy being emphasized over others.
2. Is U.S. education declining?
a. Newsweek: Decline started about 50 years ago: Once upon a time, US schools were first in the world
b. W4S: Schools started to decline about 40 years ago.
d. Three major transitions since then:
ii. Inclusion of children with disabilities
iii. Immigration: LEP
e. Judged by NAEP scores, we have seen slow, steady progress,
especially for African American children, 70s and 80s.
f. From the first NAEP tests in the early 1970s until today,
the black-white achievement gap has been cut in half.
That’s not nearly enough, but it is real progress.
C is an answer in one word to the false meme about the decline of American schools. Please not especially the 3 points under D. And remember, many who are lamenting the state of our schools are making them worse by taking actions that are causing a resegregation of American pulbic education. Also remember that special ed kids and English language learners are more difficult to educate. If we insist on testing English Language Learners before they have had an opportunity to learn the new language properly, of course their performance will be lower. Yet because of anti-immigration "reforms" we now insist on testing them after only one year of intense learning of English. As in any other educational setting, if we do not meet the children where they are, we will not give them the education they deserve.
Let's transition to the international comparisons, which are used to beat up our public schools all the time, including by the current President.
3. But what about those terrible international test scores? Didn’t Secretary Duncan say they were a wake-up call and President Obama said it was “our Sputnik Moment? Remember 1957, when the Soviets beat us into space, and our lousy schools were blamed?
a. They don’t seem to know: we were never first in the world.
First assessment: 1960s: 12th out of 12
b. Usually bottom quartile, seldom at or above average
c. The International tests are not good predictors of future economic growth
or decline. If they were, we would have disappeared by now,
but we’re here and the Soviet Union is gone.
d. PISA: our low poverty (10% or less) schools are best in world,
better than averages for the world’s best-performing nations, Finland
and Korea. Our schools with 25% or less poor do just as well as Finland, Korea.
Throughout her remarks Dr. Ravitch emphasized using accurate information in making her arguments. On point C, the executive summary of A Nation of Risk attempted to scare us by saying if a foreign nation had done to us what our public schools were doing to us we would consider it an act of war. We were warned that the economies of the Asian tigers would soon surpass us. But in fact it was their overheated economies which had the serious trouble, at least until the missteps of the previous administration here.
Note especially the figures on poverty. We have a higher degree of childhood poverty than any industrialized nation except for Mexico. Our failure is to meet all the needs of our poor children - health, nutrition, access to books and computers. We still have some damaged by lead-based paint. Yet now our approach seems to be to even more severely restrict their education to drill and kill for low level tests so that we can claim we are improving their education. In the process we are beginning to damage the education for the rest of our children, those who are already performing at the top of the world.
One additional point Diane did not make. We are a more diverse country than most of those ranked above us in PISA. They can assume a common background on culture and history. Over 15% of my students at any point were not born in the United States. That has an impact on their learning, both as to language capabilities and for social studies in background knowledge.
4. What role does poverty play in student performance?
a. On every kind of test now in use, poverty is a reliable predictor of test scores.
Whether we look at the SAT, the ACT, the NAEP, or state tests,
kids from affluent families have higher scores than kids from poor families.
i. On the latest SAT for reading, students in the lowest income bracket
(under $20,000) have an average score of 437, while students in the
highest income bracket (over $200,000) have a mean score of 568;
the gap is as large and as regular in mathematics
ii. Poverty is associated with absences, ill health, poor nutrition, homelessness,
frequent change of residence, living in deterioriating neighborhood.
All of these factors affect students’ motivation and academic performance.
iii. Poor women likelier to give birth to low-birth weight babies,
who are 1/3 more likely to be born with learning disabilities.
The above should be self-explanatory.
5. Are you saying that poor children can’t learn?
a. Of course not. Poor children can learn. Poor children can excel.
But poverty stacks the deck against them.
b. Every child in America should get a good start in life and arrive in school
ready to learn.
Also pretty straightforward.
6. What do you think of No Child Left Behind?
a. It was one of the worst pieces of federal education legislation ever passed.
No, I take that back, it is the very worst. It was supposed to be reauthorized
in 2007, but Congress can’t agree on what to put in its place.
b. NCLB set an impossible goal: that 100% of students would be proficient
in reading and math by 2014. No state is close to meeting that goal.
So by 2014, if the law is not changed, nearly 100% of our schools will
be stigmatized as failures. No other nation in the world has ever passed a
law that flunked almost every one of its schools.
c. On the basis of this impossible demand, schools are narrowing their
curriculum, eliminating the arts and other subjects, states are gaming
the system by lowering the passing mark on their tests, and grown ups
are cheating. Furthermore, schools are closing, principals and teachers
are being fired, all because they could not meet an impossible goal
without lying or cheating.
d. NCLB has made testing the central preoccupation and goal of school reform,
and this is ludicrous. Instruction, inspiration, knowledge, and love of learning
should be our goals, not higher test scores on multiple-choice tests.
e. NCLB has been a bonanza for the testing companies and for consultants who
will sell you advice on how to raise test scores, but it has been a tragedy for
education, educators and students.
This SHOULD be self-explanatory. Ravitch originally supported No Child Behind because she hoped its provisions would make a difference. She became convinced it was having a negative impact and began opposing it strongly.
7. What do you think of Race to the Top?
a. If you like NCLB, you will love Race to the Top.
b. RTTT takes the assumptions of NCLB and doubles down. Race to the Top,
like NCLB, believes in carrots and sticks, rewards and punishments, and test
scores as the ultimate goal of education.
c. RTTT says that if states want to win federal funding, they must award merit
pay, based on test scores; they must agree to close schools, fire their staffs,
or turn them into charters, based on test scores; they must agree to evaluate
teachers, based on test scores.
d. RTTT is wrong to use the metaphor of a race. A race has a few winners and
a lot of winners. Our goal in education is not to pick winners, but to enable
every child to prepare for a full and productive life in American society.
Pay close attention to point d. Ravitch regularly emphasizes this. In one sense, the difference in titles between NCLB and RTTT shows a further straying from what we should be doing, which is devoting the resources to fully educate every child. And remember, those resources will often have to be applied outside the classroom to make up for the deficits of the inequality of American society.
This is getting very long. So let me list the remainder of the questions without comment, as well as Diane Ravitch's conclusion.
8. What do you think of evaluating teachers by student test scores?
a. This is one of the worst ideas ever. If scores go up over the course of a year,
the teacher is good; if they don’t go up or go down, the teacher is no good.
b. Testing experts warn that the methods used to calculate teacher quality by test
scores are inaccurate and unstable. Many factors influence test scores, not just
the teacher. Students are not randomly assigned. The same teacher may be at
the top of the ratings one year, and the bottom the next year, depending on the
composition of his or her class. There is a large body of research that warns
against using value-added assessment to rate teachers.
c. And of course, if teachers are judged by test scores, they will be compelled to
teach to the test, narrow the curriculum, and sadly some will cheat.
d. Where’s the logic in any of this? Why should politicians design evaluation
systems for teachers? How can they decide whether test scores should count for
10% or 50%? Why do they disregard the experts? Shouldn’t methods of teacher
evaluation be decided by educators? How did this get to be a political issue?
9. But aren’t teachers the main cause of low test scores?
a. No. Economists tell us that teachers are the most important factor within the
school in affecting student scores. But they also say that the family—especially
family income-- and the student himself or herself—especially how hard they are
willing to work—makes an even bigger difference by far than the teacher.
10. Is it true that teachers can never be fired? That they have life tenure?
a. No. Typically, teachers have no job protection at all for three or four years.
During that time, the principal decides whether they deserve tenure.
Tenure is not a guarantee of a job for life. It is due process, the right to a
hearing if the principal wants to fire you.
b. Many teachers don’t survive. 50% leave in first five years on the job. They were
either fired or quit. No other profession has such a high attrition rate.
11. Is TFA the answer to improving the teaching profession?
a. No, TFA is akin to the Peace Corps. Each year, TFA selects about 8,000 smart
and idealistic young college graduates to teach in urban and rural schools. TFA
gives them five weeks of training. The recruits agree to teach for two years.
Some stay longer. The district pays TFA $5,000 for each recruit.
b. TFA is a worthy organization, but sending 8,000 bright young people into the
classroom each year does nothing to change the profession, particularly because
most of them leave after 2 or 3 years.
c. TFA is so popular among corporations and foundations and even the US DOE
that it has taken all the air out of any attempt to discuss changes in the
recruitment, preparation and retention of teachers. Over the past decade,
TFA raised nearly $500 million. Good for them, but not good for any
12. Are charters the way to reform US education?
a. The original idea was promising. They would focus on neediest kids, show
innovative ways to help them.
b. But most charters now are aggressively seeking to replace public schools, take
their space, brag they are better. Have become a favorite of Wall Street hedge
fund managers, bankers, real estate speculators.
c. About 5,000: excellent to awful. On average, no better.
d. Some states promoting charters because of GOP commitment to privatization.
Charter sponsors giving big $$ to legislators.
e. Some charter chains are taking advantage of federal tax law—New Market Tax
Credit program—to nearly double their money by investing in new charter
f. Meanwhile, a major equity group has put up $500 million to sponsor tennis
star Andre Agassiz’s charter chain. Philanthropy or smart investment?
13. Do vouchers work?
a. Milwaukee: 21 years:
b. State scores: no difference
c. NAEP scores: no better than Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia for black students
14. Does merit pay work?
a. Never has. The idea that never works, never dies.
b. Vanderbilt. $15,000. No difference.
c. NYC: 3 years, $56 million. No difference.
d. US DOE: $1 billion. NYC: we’ll try again.
15. Should schools operate like businesses? Portfolio model?
a. Frederick Winslow Taylor, B.F. Skinner: Taylorism, behaviorism:
early 20th century industrial model
b. Education is not a business. No profits or losses. Everyone should succeed.
All schools should be well-equipped.
c. Public sector/private sector
16. Do incentives and sanctions work?
a. National Academy of Sciences: Incentives and Test-Based Accountability:
teaching to test, inflated test scores, gaming the system, cheating
b. Atlanta: culture of intimidation, fear, retaliation: unrealistic targets,
c. Dan Ariely, Daniel Pink, Edward Deci: intrinsic motivation matters most
17. How can we promote innovation, creativity and imagination?
a. Assessments: demonstrations, not multiple choice.
b. Arts, science projects, essays, active participation. Create settings where
imagination and creativity are valued and you are likely to get it.
18. What should we be doing to improve our schools? School and Society:
i. poor academic performance has more to do with poverty than with
ii. Prenatal care: 1/3 of low birthweight babies have learning disabilities.
iii. Early childhood education, 0-5: so children arrive in school ready to learn
iv. Parent education, so parents can help and support their children in school
v. School-based clinics, so children stay healthy
b. School improvement
i. A full and balanced curriculum for every child: the arts, history, science,
mathematics, civics, languages, physical education, health
ii. Music in every school
iii. A library and media center in every school
iv. Fully resourced schools, with extra tutoring for children who need it
v. Congress: fully fund special education
19. What must we do now:
a. Tell your Congressman
b. Write blogs
c. Write letters to the editor
d. Get 10 friends to do the same, and ask them to get 10 friends to do the same.
e. Bottom line: the corporate reformers have almost all the money and political power, but they are few and we are many. Let’s make this democracy work for the many, not the few. Let’s save public education, save our children, save our country.
Let me repeat that conclusion, because it explains why Diane Ravitch so tirelessly promoted Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action, why she gave $10,000 of her Moynihan Prize to SOS (the other 10,000 being split between Parents Across America and Class Size Matters), why she agreed to speak at both the Conference and the Rally before the March.
These are words that should motivate ALL of us:
Bottom line: the corporate reformers have almost all the money and political power, but they are few and we are many. Let’s make this democracy work for the many, not the few. Let’s save public education, save our children, save our country.