In recent years, school reform has focused on testing basic skills in reading and math and linking accountability to student test scores with the assumption that this improves education for all students. Reforms have also encouraged school choice by allowing charter schools to compete with regular public schools, while relieving charter schools of having to abide by the same regulations and mandates for serving all students that regular public schools must follow.
Diane Ravitch, in her new book "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education" (New York: Basic Books, 2010) warns of the perils of continuing on the path that was set by No Child Left Behind (NCLB), an education reform law signed by George W. Bush in 2002. The law is due to be reauthorized and amended by Congress this year.
Dianne Ravitch is a former assistant secretary of education under George (the 1st) H. W. Bush, a former cheerleader of charter schools, and former supporter of George (the 2nd) W. Bush's NCLB. She is a historian who has written extensively about school reform movements and has changed her mind about the effects of school reform efforts because the facts don't bear out the claims that they are working.
Ravitch is especially concerned about the punitive nature of NCLB that uses questionable testing of reading and math proficiency to punish or reward teachers, principals, and schools based on the test scores of students. By law, in 2014, all students (actually only 95% of student's test scores will be counted) must be proficient in reading and math or the schools will face dire consequences. The emphasis is on closing public schools that don't perform and encouraging charter schools to replace them or have them run by entities other than local school districts. Closing public schools may sometimes be necessary, but overall, public schools do better than charter schools at educating students when factors such as the difference in how many disadvantaged and disabled children are being served are taken into account. Data-driven reforms do not reflect changes in curriculum that have reduced the time spent on teaching students history, literature, science, and the arts and increased time spent on bolstering skills related to filling in multiple choice questions on standardized tests.
The problem with No Child Left Behind, says Diane Ravitch, is that it "...was bereft of any educational ideas. It was a technocratic approach to school reform that measured 'success' only in relation to standardized test scores in two skill-based subjects [reading and math], with the expectation that this limited training would strengthen our nation's economic competitiveness with other nations. This was misguided, since the nations with the most successful school systems do not impose such a narrow focus on their schools."
A major flaw of NCLB is that states were allowed to come up with their own tests on which their success would be judged. Not surprisingly, the states cheated. If they needed to show more improvement to escape penalties, they lowered the score needed to pass the proficiency tests. If there were too many high school dropouts in New York City, for instance, the city began calling students who left school without a diploma "discharges" and they were not counted in the drop-out rate. In some instances, schools that showed astounding progress in terms of higher test scores, showed little improvement when measured against results on national standardized tests such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress or the SATs.
Charter schools were originally proposed in the 1980's to serve students who were consistently failing in our public schools to help them succeed. These schools were seen as the laboratory for innovation to foster new ideas to help public schools, but they have become the chief competitor with public schools. Although their quality can range from excellent to dismal, they generally are allowed to select students who raise their test scores and to dismiss or discourage students from enrolling who might make them look bad, including students with disabilities.
Promoting charter schools and other unproven reforms is a pet project of well-funded foundations that allow extremely wealthy people to shelter their money from taxes and then use it to promote their own version of school reform. Their version is often not supported by the public and there is little scrutiny of whether their ideas actually work for the benefit of schools and students, but the amount of money flowing from the foundations overwhelms that coming from other sources.
Ravitch does not believe that the emphasis on managing schools as if they were businesses is helpful: "American education has a long history of infatuation with fads and ill-considered ideas. the current obsession with making our schools work like a business may be the worst of them, for it threatens to destroy public education. Who will stand up to the tycoons and politicians and tell them so?"
The author includes her well-considered opinion of what does work for improving schools, but there are no panaceas and nothing that does not take time and perseverance. Whether you agree with her or not, the ideas in Ravitch's book need to be taken into account as the issue of school reform is once again getting national attention.
Here is a link to a C-Span interview with Diane Ravitch about her book.