Friday, August 5, 2011

Reading Diane Ravitch

Cover of The Death and Life of the Great American School SystemI've been following education historian Diane Ravitch on Twitter for a while now, seen her on the Daily Show, read a range of her short writings, and have always been impressed with her depth of knowledge and no-nonsense approach to education. So I finally read her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, and I'm even more impressed.

She does a great job of showing how the current school reform movement -- based on annual tests in reading and math, with penalties for schools and teachers who don't post increased scores each year -- is a schoolhouse of cards. No Child Left Behind, particularly, is full of penalties that involve reformulating schools as charters or giving children vouchers, when there is no research that shows kids do any better in those new situations.

In case after case, schools, districts and whole states that post impressive gains on the high-stakes NCLB tests often have flat test scores on the NAEP tests -- indicating that students are being taught to take one specific test, rather than general knowledge that's transferable. Or worse, that the state tests are being cooked one way or another (from decreasing the scores needed to pass to active cheating, as was seen recently in Atlanta). Tests in Texas in 2007, for example, showed that over 85 percent of fourth and eighth graders were proficient readers; the NAEP test showed that under 29 percent were proficient.

All too often, Ravitch shows, when individual schools appear to have made progress with test scores, they've actually just managed to dump low-scoring students out of their populations. This shell game moves those students from one low-performing school to another; it's unclear to me where they're going to end up, aside from as drop-outs, eventually.

Diane Ravitch speakingRavitch outlines how some charter schools manage their student populations to improve their chances of higher test scores before they ever teach the kids anything. "They may do it by requiring an interview with parents of applicants, knowing that the parents of the lowest-performing students are not as likely to show up as the parents of more successful students. They may do it by requiring that students write an essay explaining why they want to attend the school. They may ask for letters of recommendation from the students' teachers" (page 155). All of those requirements would seem completely neutral on their face, but they're not, and regular public schools are not allowed to use those techniques (rightly so).

No Child Left Behind will reach its end point in 2014, when all American public school students -- no matter what their income level, ELL-status, or learning disabilities -- are supposed to be testing as "proficient" in reading and math. According to Ravitch, there's not a school in the country that will meet that standard, and in trying to reach it, schools have dumped parts of their curricula to concentrate on drill and kill for the tests. I know this was true for Daughter Number Three-Point-One during her freshman year, which she spent at a large urban high school. They spent over three months drilling every spare minute on how to write a five-paragraph essay. And while 3.1 passed the test, her final score was lower than the one on the first practice test she took. It was a stultifying three months.

Ravitch summarizes her argument about No Child Left Behind like this:

NCLB was a punitive law based on erroneous assumptions about how to improve schools. It assumed that reporting test scores to the public would be an effective lever for school reform. It assumed that changes in governance would lead to school improvement. It assumed that shaming schools that were unable to lift test scores every year...would lead to higher scores. It assumed that low scores were caused by lazy teachers and lazy principals, who needed to be threatened with the loss of their jobs. Perhaps most naively, it assumed that higher test scores on standardized tests of basic skills are synonymous with good education (pages 110-111).
Ravitch is very clear that she is not against all testing, but "When the purpose of testing is informational and diagnostic, there is no reason for teachers and administrators to alter the results except through improved instruction" (page 154). As shown in the Freakonomics books, it's all about the incentives that are built into the system.

Another name for all of this is Campbell's Law: "The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor."

The book makes it clear what Ravitch is against, but what is she for? She writes,
The most durable way to improve schools is to improve curriculum and instruction and to improve the conditions in which teachers work and children learn, rather than endlessly squabbling over how school systems should be organized, managed and controlled (page 225).
It's also clear to me, at least, that children in poverty and near-poverty need early childhood education, low teacher-to-student ratios, longer school days, and a longer school year if anyone is serious about closing the "achievement gap." All of those things cost money, and new ways of staffing longer days in order to prevent burnout. And getting those things from experienced teachers, rather than recent college graduates who've had a month or two of Teach for America training, sounds like a good idea, too.

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