You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Is Education on the Wrong Track?

A TNR Symposium.

From: Diane Ravitch

To: Andrew Rotherham

Subject: We need to improve our education system—not tinker with models that affect tiny numbers of kids and can’t be replicated.

You complain that, in my new book and in this symposium, I fail to provide the way forward or at least a few silver bullets. You say that I do not show the way forward. So let me give it a try.

First, the punitive approach embedded in NCLB, in my judgment, has poisoned the atmosphere. Teachers feel fearful, beleaguered, and disrespected. A few months ago, a national survey found that 40 percent of U.S. teachers were "disheartened.” I have heard from many teachers (and posted some of their e-mails, often anonymously at their request, on my website at They are indeed discouraged because of the blame game that makes teachers the culprits for poor performance.

Second, I am sorry to say that the Obama administration continues to play the blame game and, if anything, has racheted up the rhetoric that accuses teachers of being the root of all educational failure. NCLB gifted us with the utopian goal that all children should be proficient, so, if they are not, someone must be held "accountable." Accountable now means "someone must be punished."

Maybe students are failing because they don't speak English; or because their family lost its home and they have changed schools repeatedly; or because district leaders picked a really bad reading or math program; or because district leaders overloaded their schools with disproportionate numbers of troubled students who disrupt the classroom and make it impossible to learn; or because they have personal problems and don't care about school and cut classes often. No matter the cause of students’ low performance, the teacher will be held accountable. The teacher's head will roll, the principal will be fired, the school will be stigmatized and shuttered and turned over to others--perhaps an entrepreneur who knows how to play with data and make things look better, possibly by getting rid of low-performing students and replacing them with willing students.

If this is a way to improve education, it is certainly not one that other nations follow. Nor is it one that is likely to succeed. With all the current interest in fixing schools, the people whose voices never get into the conversation are teachers and principals, the ones who know from first-hand experience what is working, what is failing, and why. Instead of listening to them and learning from their experience and knowledge, we are now embarking on a national policy (whose roots were firmly planted in 2002) to punish them, brand them as failures, and replace them with fresh faces. We are not likely to improve our schools by stigmatizing those who work in them.

Why not a federal program to encourage states to create inspection teams of expert educators to visit every low-performing school, analyze the reasons for its poor test scores, and make constructive recommendations to improve the performance of its students? Why not recognize that schools present different problems and should not be subjected to blunderbuss punishment? Why not a federal program to determine the validity of different school-improvement or turnaround strategies? We know by now that there is no successful model, so why not invest federal research dollars in identifying some? The last federal report on this topic contained four recommendations to "turnaround" a chronically low-performing school yet admitted that not one of its recommendations was supported by evidence. Let's get evidence, not anecdotes; that's an important part of the federal role.

Here are some answers. We need better teachers. We should have state and even national policies requiring that those who want to teach have a major and a minor in two subjects that are taught in schools. Those with these qualifications must learn how to manage a classroom and how to transmit what they know to young minds. Both content mastery and pedagogical skill are needed, as is on-the-job training under the supervision of expert teachers. We should establish rigorous examinations (not at the eighth-tenth grade levels!) to ensure that incoming teachers are well-qualified in their subjects. When they are admitted to the teaching profession, educators should be regularly observed and evaluated by their principals as well as peer review teams. We need principals who have been master teachers, not newbies who went to a one-year training program called "How to Be a Principal." We need principals with the experience and knowledge to evaluate teachers and to help those who are struggling and want to get better. Principals decide who gets tenure, so it is crucial that they make sound judgments. We need superintendents with deep knowledge of education, because they evaluate the principals and set education policies. It is not good enough to entrust our schools to well-meaning but clueless lawyers, businessmen, and military leaders.

In short, we need a strong education profession. That's what successful nations do. Why should we expect to get better results by turning our schools over to amateurs, no matter how well-intentioned they are? "Reform," unfortunately, has become synonymous with de-professionalism. I think that is a mistake. 

We need far better assessments that elicit demonstrations of knowledge and understanding, not just the test-taking skills and the ability to ace the multiple-choice tests that are now so prized. Unfortunately, the Obama administration plans to close schools and fire principals based on the results of tests that even the administration acknowledges are woefully inadequate. This is unfair on its face. 

We need, as I have written for about 30-40 years, a solid, content-rich curriculum. We must get rid of this delusion that we can test in reading and math, hand out sanctions based on those tests, yet still supply a good education. We can't. We don’t. All of the incentives favor only basic skills, yet somehow, when our high school graduates get to college, an incredible proportion fail entry tests of basic skills. Why do remediation rates remain so high in basic skills when they have been the singular focus of our national testing system? 

Our students should leave high school with a foundation in history, geography, civics, the arts, science, literature, and foreign languages. We must raise our sights.

As for charter schools, I admire the dedication of the thousands of young people who work hard to create good schools under private auspices, but I don't see charters as the solution to our nation's educational needs. Consider that, as I’ve said previously in this exchange, after two decades of agitation for charter schools, they now enroll 3 percent of the total enrollment in public schools nationally. In New York City, often called ground zero for the charter movement, there are 100 charters with 30,000 students, also 3 percent of the city’s overall public-school enrollment. With enormous effort, it might be possible to double the charter enrollment in another five to eight years. Charters would then have 6 percent nationally, perhaps even 10 percent in a city like New York. But who will fix the system that enrolls the remaining 90-97 percent of our students?

If smart people like you devote your time to the charter movement, who will demand the changes that will uplift and transform the vast majority of schools in our educational system? The future of the next generation relies on improving the system, not on tinkering around the edges. We wasted the last eight years; let’s not waste the next eight.

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: School reform has to happen now, not at some magic moment when the conditions are just right. Also, surely we can find common ground on charter schools.

By Nelson Smith: Public charter schools are community schools, providing a model of success that we know can work. They deserve more credit than Ravitch gives them.