Uploaded: Tue, Oct 1, 2013, 10:48 am
At Paly, education scholar blasts testing culture
So-called reformers obsess over accountability when real problem is poverty, Ravitch says
Palo Altans are as lucky as people who live in Dr. Seuss's mythical city of Solla Sollew, "where they never have any troubles, at least very few," education historian Diane Ravitch told an audience at Palo Alto High School Monday.
Ravitch, who was a top education official in the George H.W. Bush administration and advocated school choice and the testing regime of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, radically broke with her past positions in 2010. She's now promoting her newest book, "Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools."
In a talk to about 40 teachers in the Paly library, Ravitch said an "obsession with standardized testing" and the choice-oriented education reforms advocated by Bill Gates and others are contributing to a dangerous trend toward privatization of public education.
Poverty -- not low test scores -- is the real problem, she said.
"We have 23 percent to 25 percent of kids in this country living in poverty," Ravitch said.
"It should be a national scandal, yet we've been distracted with the idea that schools are causing kids to be poor, to not have high test scores, and if we could just get high test scores everyone would have a job, stay in school and we'd have a utopian society."
The testing labels under the No Child Left Behind Act "don't mean anything," she said.
"They're trying to squeeze us into boxes made by people in Congress who literally don't know what they're doing and didn't read the legislation," she said.
"It was stitched together largely by education aides who don't know anything about education... and it's causing many schools to close."
Ravitch called for a nationwide boycott of standardized testing.
Standardized testing and the so-called accountability movement have enriched armies of consultants while kids in low-income school districts go without instruments for their marching bands, she said.
"Everyone who wants to take their wackadoo ideas public is called a reformer today," she said, including conservative Republican governors such as Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Scott Walker of Wisconsin.
"The big myth is that education is failing, national security is at risk, when in fact my graphs show that test scores and graduation rates have never been higher for black, white, Asian and Hispanic kids, and dropout rates have never been lower.
Many so-called reformers, she said, are "corporate leaders who just echo what the Chamber of Commerce has told them. The more you say that schools are failing the more the public is willing to accept any 'cure' you're offering."
Quoting Mario Savio, the student leader of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement in 1964, Ravitch said, "There comes a time when the machine becomes so oppressive that you have to throw your body at the machine, stop the levers and make the machine stop.
"Here I am, 75 years old, and I'm throwing myself on the machine. It's actually making me younger. My body may be aging but inside there's a raging 25-year-old."
Ravitch was introduced by Paly English teacher David Cohen, who said he had invited teachers from throughout the district to the gathering.
She took few questions because she had to leave for her next speaking engagement at Stanford University.
Posted by David Cohen
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 7, 2013 at 12:45 am
David Cohen is a registered user.
I always find it disheartening to see so many anonymous comments here. Is it possible for us to disagree with each other and have a civil conversation?
However, since I'm the one who organized this event at Paly, I will jump in. After this post, I'm glad to engage further with those willing to shed their anonymity here, or post under whatever name you like on my blog (see comments policy there).
Try this post, in which I reviewed Ravitch's book:
1. I hardly see how someone's viewpoints are less valid because they write a book and want people to read it. By that logic, should we mainly trust people who don't write books? And as I point out in my review, this book it is thoroughly researched and annotated, so you may disagree, but she more than backs up everything she says with ample studies, examples, and data. Diverting attention to her age, gender, or tone diminishes only the commenter. Of course, many of Ravitch's current critics thought she was a top-notch scholar - until, as she puts it, she looked at the evidence for the reforms she once supported and found they didn't work.
2. Regarding the state of the teaching profession, I agree that teachers and unions need to do their part in this regard, which is why I've been involved in teacher leadership projects and reform efforts both within and outside the union framework. However, I respectfully disagree when Carlos suggests "it is their problem, not the public's problem to solve." The school system belongs to the public, the voters, the community, parents, students and teachers together, and mutual engagement is the superior strategy. See David Kirp's book "Improbable Scholars" for great examples.
3. Regarding unionism more broadly, the top-performing nations and top-performing states are the most heavily unionized. The states with the weakest labor are also weak in most measures of both economic and educational well-being. The cause/effect analysis is certainly more complicated, but at the very least, the lack of a negative correlation is certainly an indication that union strength is no impediment to educational quality. Union engagement has been vital to successful education reforms in the following examples: NEA Priority Schools, California's QEIA schools, Minnesota's Q-Comp and Denver's Pro-Comp programs, and two highly regarded and thoroughly researched peer evaluation programs in California (San Juan Unified and Poway Unified). In California and in Ohio, there is both qualitative and quantitative evidence that joint HR panels with ≥50% union-appointees actually are tougher on teachers and dismiss more teachers than their districts did prior to these union-based reforms.
4. "Tenure" in K-12 education is not equivalent to tenure in universities. It might need some reforms (and I've helped publish recommendations to reform teacher evaluation and career pathways - again, see my blog site), but it does serve a vital role. Ravitch's comment about evolution was an example, not the entire argument. There is undue external pressure on teachers when dealing with controversial issues or powerful people; due process rights not only provide a healthy counterweight, but they even shield administrators from being pressed in to improper actions on behalf of their higher-ups. I have friends who teach in North Carolina who fear for their jobs if they speak out against the political and education policy malpractice going on there right now.
5. Regarding Ravitch's appearance at Stanford, I was there as well; the summary laid out by Former Paly Parent reveals more frustration than substance. Rather than debate what's incorrect or how distorted those examples are, I'd suggest people read Ravitch's book, or watch for the video of the event (not yet available, but to be posted soon at Web Link ).
6. Regarding spending, poverty - our national poverty level is disgraceful, and mostly the result of politics (see: "Inequality for All"). The problems of poverty are causally related to children's lower performance in school. Finnish education expert Pasi Sahlberg has said repeatedly that he believes a swap between their teachers and ours would produce little if any change in outcomes - because of the poverty. As for comparative costs, it's hard to compare nations that have significantly different approaches to health care, pensions, special education, athletics, transportation, insurance and liability, just to name a few big budget items. Bottom line for me is, whatever is being spent on any given school or district, is it meeting students' needs? If spending is above average and students still have no library, no counselors, insufficient equipment, etc., then spending is insufficient. If it's a matter of moving other money to cover those basics, then specify the cuts and have that debate. Just comparing averages across dissimilar situations isn't helpful.