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Is Education on the Wrong Track?

A TNR symposium.

From: Diane Ravitch

To: Ben Wildavsky

Subject: The education reform "consensus" ignores teachers, the very people needed to carry out change in classrooms.

Ten years ago, I would have written the same things that you wrote for this symposium. I too would have been hopeful that the business model of schooling would inject new dynamism into American education. I too would have been impressed by the lingo and data-talk of the corporate suits. I too would have imagined that deregulation was the answer to our problems and that the market would produce competition and improvement. The point of my book is to explain that these strategies don’t work and to supply the evidence for my conclusions.

Ben, I am no critic of the market economy. I love having choices about where I shop. But, as I point out in the book, going to school is not the same as shopping. Most parents want a stable school that is within a reasonable distance of their home, so that they can drop off their child in the morning and pick her up at the end of day or get to school quickly if she gets sick in the middle of the day. Schools operate differently from, say, shoe stores, which open and close in response to consumer demand. Schools are essential community institutions, like firehouses. They are cooperative enterprises, where the adults are expected to work closely with one another towards common goals. Teachers should not compete with each other for extra dollars (Edward Deming says that this kind of competition doesn't even work in business, that it demoralizes the workplace). Teachers should share what they know, not hoard their trade secrets for their private benefit.

Ben, you ignore the evidence that charter schools, on average, do not outperform regular public schools. Charter students have been tested by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2009, and they have never done better than regular public schools. Charters have the supposed advantage of deregulation, non-union teachers, longer hours, longer years--and, in some cases, the extra money contributed by generous philanthropists, yet they have not outscored regular public school students on NAEP, which is the gold standard of educational testing. One sector or the other may get a blip one year, but there has been no sustained advantage for students in charters, be they black, Hispanic, low-income, or residents of urban districts, compared to their peers in regular public schools.

Nor has test-based accountability produced genuine improvement in education. The era of NCLB has been marked by lowered state standards, cheating, and widespread gaming of the system. While the states claim big leaps forward, NAEP shows very little improvement. In math, the gains were larger before NCLB than after it was implemented. On eighth grade reading, there have been no gains at all since 1998, even though these are the students who grew up with NCLB.

When I was asked, at the meeting where you heard me speak, about educational progress in Massachusetts, I said that it is a stellar example of what can happen when a state adopts genuine curricular standards and provides the professional development for teachers to learn to teach the improved content knowledge in the standards. Massachusetts also introduced entry exams for teachers, which weeded out poorly prepared candidates. I lauded Massachusetts highly, both in my book and at the meeting, so it is surprising that you now charge me with failing to recognize its progress. Massachusetts, by the way, has relatively few charter schools; it has earned its high marks the old-fashioned way, by improving its curriculum, testing incoming teachers, and sponsoring assessments far superior to those in most other states. I do not object to graduation examinations. What I object to is using the results of tests to punish teachers and close schools.

You describe the reform "consensus," but the consensus seems to exist mainly inside Beltway think tanks, corporate suites, foundation offices, editorial boards, and at the highest levels of government. Those who are not part of the consensus are ordinary classroom teachers, the very people who are supposed to implement the “reforms.”

I am not happy with the state of American education. I do not long for the mythical good old days. I would like to see our education system vastly improved, so that it provides a great education for every student. I would like to see American education become more professional, not less so. Where we part company is that I have concluded that the market will not produce those results.

Diane Ravitch is Research Professor of Education at New York University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. She is a historian of education.


By Kevin Carey: Why Diane Ravitch doesn't answer the problems plaguing education.