What's Wrong with School Reform: Interview with Diane Ravitch



Craig Thurtell was a teacher at Ardsley High School in Ardsley, NY, and is a contributor to HNN's forthcoming "Teachers' Edition," which will provide historically-grounded lesson plans on current events to elementary and high school teachers.

Diane Ravitch, Research Professor of Education at New York University and non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, addressed teachers at the National Council for the Social Studies national conference on December 2, 2011.  She agreed to be interviewed for HNN the following week.

Where do you rank poverty among the factors that push the U.S. so far down the international rankings in educational performance?

Poverty is the primary factor that reduces the U.S. rankings on international assessments.  Poverty is highly correlated with poor academic performance, and to some extent, perhaps a large extent, it is a cause of poor academic performance.  The best recent summary of the evidence is Professor Helen Ladd, "Education and Poverty: Confronting the Evidence," which can be found online.  Dr. Ladd, a distinguished economist, explains the impact of poverty on educational outcomes and shows that this is the case not only in the U.S. but in other nations as well.  Other developed nations, however, don't have as much poverty as we do.  If one looks at the PISA results for 2009, released in December 2010, the effects of poverty on test scores are clear (as they are when you look at SAT scores, ACT scores or NAEP scores).  As family income rises, test scores go up; as family income declines, test scores go down. Look at p. 15 of Highlights from PISA 2009, which shows that low-poverty schools in the U.S. (less than 10 percent poor) have scores that exceed those of schools in Finland, Korea, and Japan.  U.S. schools with 25 percent poverty have scores equivalent to those of Finland, Korea, and Japan.  Poverty directly affects our international performance.  The extent of child poverty in this country (over 20 percent) is scandalous.

How do you regard charter schools?

I like the original charter idea, which was that they would be laboratories of innovation that seek out the lowest-performing students and find new ways to educate them, then collaborate with the public schools.  Today, however, most charters don't have those goals.  In response to No Child Left Behind, and the competitive pressures of their philanthropic backers, they try to compete with and beat the regular public schools, in some cases skimming the best students or excluding low-performing students to prove that they are better.  In some cities, like New York City, the charters take space away from the regular public schools and use their superior scores to argue that they deserve to take the space away.  So, I don't like charters that refuse to collaborate, I don't like those that try to put public schools out of business, and I don't like those that make a profit for their corporate sponsors.

The school reform movement has targeted teachers’ unions as an obstacle to reform and improved performance.  What are your views?

Consider the evidence. The highest performing states are Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Connecticut, which are strongly unionized states.  I don't know of a high-performing weak union state.  Finland, a very high performing nation, is 100 percent union.  If work rules need to be changed, then that should be negotiated.  If administrators have awarded tenure to a teacher, the teacher does not have a guarantee of a lifetime job but the right to a hearing.  Hearings should take months, not years.  I see no evidence that states or districts without collective bargaining have higher performance.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has proposed merit pay as a key component in improving teacher performance.  What do you think?

Merit pay has been tried again and again.  There is no evidence that it has ever improved student performance or teacher performance.  The most comprehensive trial of merit pay was released by the National Center on Performance Incentives in 2010.  Despite a $15,000 bonus, the merit pay had no effect on student or teacher performance.  Yet the U.S. Department of Education has spent over $500 million to encourage more merit pay plans, and intends to spend another $500 million.

School reformers believe that tenure impedes improved performance. Does it?

Again, I know of no evidence that new and inexperienced teachers are more successful than veteran teachers.  The question is whether teachers who have been awarded tenure should have the right to due process, and I think they should.  Administrators should evaluate teachers before they award them tenure, based mainly on their performance in the classroom.  If they’re ineffective, they should be fired.  Many are, and many fire themselves.  About 50 percent of teachers are gone within their first five years.  That is a very high rate of attrition.  I don't know of any other profession with such high turnover.  Once teachers have tenure, they should get a fair and expeditious hearing to determine whether the charges against them are substantiated.  And if they are, they should be fired.

The Bush-era No Child Left Behind law imposes proficiency requirements that most schools will be unable to meet.  What is the Department of Education doing and do you agree?

NCLB has been a disaster. By 2014, when 100 percent of all children in grades 3-8 are supposed to be proficient in reading and math, nearly 100 percent of our schools will be stigmatized as failing schools.  This was an unattainable target, and schools will be closed or their staff fired for not being able to reach it.  The U.S. Department of Education has offered waivers to states to exempt them from this absurd goal, but only if the states agree to accept the Department's mandates, which involve more testing and more sanctions for the schools with the lowest test scores.  These are likely to be schools in poor districts with disproportionate numbers of poor and minority students.  So, instead of encouraging help for these schools, there will be more of the NCLB-style punishments.  And no one will be freed from the regime of test-based accountability that has proven ineffective for a decade.

NCLB and the fiscal crises gripping most states have given the federal government a great deal of leverage over education policies.  Is this good or bad?  How so or how not?

It is terrible, in my view, that the fiscal crises have given the federal government so much control over state and local policy because the federal government is not promoting evidence-based reforms.  Instead, it is pressuring states to evaluate teachers by student test scores, which has no track record of success; to open more privately managed charter schools, despite their mixed record; to award merit pay, despite the evidence against it; and to adopt the Common Core standards, which may or may not be good but have never been given a field test.  Many, though not all of these strategies, have been tried out over the past decade in Chicago and New York City, and the results have been unimpressive, certainly not impressive enough to call them national models to be imposed on the entire nation.  This is a very big country and a very diverse country.  Washington can fairly distribute resources based on need, and it can enforce civil rights and conduct research, but it has no special expertise in school reform.

Reformers have proposed and, among state Race to the Top recipients, are implementing teacher evaluations linked to student performance on standardized tests.  Do you see any dangers in this policy?

There is no evidence that any state or district has ever successfully implemented a teacher evaluation program linked to student test scores, so Washington is pushing a "reform" that lacks any evidence either as to its real-world effects or its likely problems.  Most teachers do not teach subjects that are tested, and no one has come up with a solution to that problem.  Most studies of value-added assessment warn that it is not ready for prime time, that many teachers will be wrongly labeled effective or ineffective and that the ratings will be unstable from year to year.  The ratings will also vary depending on which test is used.  And there will be perverse consequences.  As the stakes rise, teachers will be incentivized to narrow the curriculum, to teach to the test, even to cheat.  So there are two worrisome possibilities:  Either districts will have less time for the arts, history, geography, civics, foreign languages and other studies, or there will be tests for everything.  Districts that take the latter course will spend more time and money for testing and test preparation.  We may even forget why we educate children, other than to pass tests.

Nearly 50 percent of new teachers leave the profession within five years.  How can this attrition be addressed?

Of those who leave, some are fired, some leave because they don't like the work, and some leave because they are not allowed to exercise professional judgment in this current rule-bound mandate-driven climate.  We need better recruitment with higher standards of entry into the profession.  No one should be admitted as a teacher who has had only a few weeks of training or who obtained their degree online.  Teacher preparation programs should be selective and academically strong, as well as containing a strong element of practice teaching under supervision.  Once teachers begin their work, they should have mentors and support.  More important, the work of teaching should allow teachers professional dignity and autonomy.  I recommend that you read PasiSahlberg's "Finnish Lessons," recently published by Teachers College Press, to see how Finland raised the status of the teaching profession.

The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning has demonstrated that students learn better when content is balanced with development of the skills characteristic of each discipline.  For example, history students should learn not only someone’s version of events, but should develop the skills historians actually use in shaping their versions of those events.  Generic, one-size-fits-all-disciplines approaches to teaching and learning, it follows, are often inherently flawed.  What are your views?

I agree with your description.  Learning how to teach mathematics is not the same as learning to teach science or history.  There is no single method that fits all disciplines.  History teachers should have a solid grounding in history as well as knowledge of how to engage students in thinking about historical issues, reading primary sources, conducting research, and thinking critically as a historian does when examining sources and conflicting accounts.

What factors led you to change your positions from support to opposition on reform demands like charter schools, vouchers, tenure, and others?

The long answer is contained in my recent book.  The short answer is that I supported these ideas when they were wholly speculative.  As they were implemented, I changed my views when I confronted the evidence.  I believe that is historical thinking.  How can one cling to ideas that have so basis in evidence?  I couldn't.

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