The Death and Life of the Great American School System (part 2)

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Diane Ravitch has changed from a supporter to a critic of the “market-based” approach to school reform that has been so popular in recent years. She is especially critical of “No Child Left Behind,” the reforms proposed by George W. Bush and enacted into law in 2002. Ravitch calls it “the worst education legislation ever passed by Congress” and claims that “its remaining supporters are few.”

The law set a goal for all students to be “proficient” in reading and math by 2014. This was an ambitious aim, considering that the National Assessment of Educational Progress found only about one-third of students proficient at the time. The law mandated that states test public school students in grades three through eight each year and break down the test scores by race, ethnicity, income, disability status, and English proficiency. Schools and school districts then had to show that they were making “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) toward proficiency for every subgroup. Ravitch describes the consequences of failure:

Any school that did not make adequate progress for every subgroup toward the goal of 100 percent proficiency would be labeled a school in need of improvement (SINI). It would face a series of increasingly onerous sanctions. In the first year of failing to make AYP, the school would be put on notice. In the second year, it would be required to offer all its students the right to transfer to a successful school, with transportation paid from the district’s allotment of federal funds. In the third year, the school would be required to offer free tutoring to low-income students, paid from the district’s federal funds. In the fourth year, the school would be required to undertake “corrective action,” which might mean curriculum changes, staff changes, or a longer school day or year. If a school missed its targets for any subgroup for five consecutive years, it would be required to “restructure.”

Schools that were required to restructure had five options: convert to a charter school; replace the principal and the staff; relinquish control to private management; turn over control of the school to the state; or “any other major restructuring of the school’s governance.” (Most states and districts ended up choosing the last, most ambiguous alternative, hoping to avoid the other prospects.)

Although annual testing was a federal mandate, states were free to set their own standards and design their own tests. Not surprisingly, states varied enormously in their standards of proficiency, and many were able to raise scores on state tests without demonstrating real increases in proficiency on national tests. “Most states reported heartening progress almost every year. Mississippi claimed that 89 percent of its fourth graders were at or above proficiency, but according to NAEP [National Assessment of Educational Progress], only 18 percent were.” The racial gap in achievement narrowed less after No Child Left Behind went into effect than it had been narrowing in previous decades.

In separate chapters, Ravitch points out the weaknesses in key elements of reform: school choice, standardized testing, and teacher accountability. A different school can sometimes be a better school, so being able to choose a new school can be a solution for some children. Whether school choice is a systemic solution, however, depends on whether the schools that start up or gain students are generally superior to the schools that close down or lose students, and there Ravitch doesn’t find the evidence convincing. Early supporters of school choice, such as Milton Friedman and Ronald Reagan, advocated vouchers that children could use in any school; that proposal ran into significant opposition from those who didn’t want public money going to private, often religious schools. Since the 1990s, supporters of choice have campaigned primarily for charter schools, privately managed but nonsectarian schools operating with state resources and authorization. The hope is that they can become models of educational innovation, unencumbered by the constraints of public bureaucracies and teachers’ unions. Making a fair comparison of charter schools and traditional public schools is not easy, because charter schools often have demographic and/or financial advantages. “Charters often get additional financial resources from their corporate sponsors, enabling them to offer smaller classes, after-school enrichment activities, and laptop computers for every student.” Although charters are expected to admit disadvantaged students, students have to apply to get in, often by participating in a lottery, a process that tends to attract more motivated students. Charters may also rid themselves of problem cases more easily, since they are freer to make demands on students (such as longer school hours and stricter discipline) without worrying about the ones who give up and leave. So while some charter schools are very successful, the success is often more attributable to the selectivity of the student body rather than the superiority of private management. The well-regarded charter schools in Boston were found to have fewer students with special needs or English-language deficiencies. At the other end of the spectrum, some charters “were operated by minimally competent providers who collected public money while offering bare-bones education to gullible students.” Several national studies have concluded that on the average, charter schools have not outperformed traditional public schools. Schools with private management and non-union teachers have not been found to do a better job of educating the students at greatest risk of failure. But they have benefited from a blizzard of positive publicity, including the popular movie Waiting for Superman, promoted with a $2 million contribution from Bill Gates. Ravitch says, “The question for the future is whether the continued growth of charter schools in urban districts will leave regular public schools with the most difficult students to educate, thus creating a two-tier system of widening inequality.” If so, No Child Left Behind will be nothing but an empty–albeit highly effective–marketing slogan.

Perhaps the most common complaint about No Child Left Behind is that it has placed standardized testing at the center of public education and forced teachers to “teach to the test.” According to Ravitch, “The intense pressure generated by demands for accountability leads many educators and school officials to boost the scores in ways that have nothing to do with learning.” Research studies have called into question the dramatic improvements in scores reported in New York City under Mayor Bloomberg, in Texas under Governor Bush, and in Chicago under Arne Duncan, who became President Obama’s Secretary of Education. As noted earlier, differences in scores can easily reflect differences in the testing and scoring process, or differences in the population of students taking the test. At best, reading scores differentiate good and poor readers, but not necessarily good and poor teachers, or good and poor schools. Even if standardized tests were adequate indicators of the quality of instruction, how No Child Left Behind uses them would still be troubling. One issue raised by sociologist Donald T. Campbell is that concentrating on narrow measures of performance tends to skew behavior away from other organizational goals. If reading and math scores are the sine qua non of pedagogical success, than everything else gets shortchanged. Ravitch is particularly distressed by the narrowing of the curriculum, as No Child Left Behind “ignored such important studies as history, civics, literature, science, the arts, and geography.” She also accuses the reformers of encouraging “‘punitive accountability’, where low scores provide a reason to fire the staff and close the school,” instead of “‘positive accountability’, where low scores trigger an effort to help the school.” This strikes me as being in the American tradition of “Social Darwinism,” where the losers are left to fend for themselves without help from the winners. That’s rather ironic, considering that No Child Left Behind was supposed to embody a new, “compassionate conservative” regard for poor children. Apparently no such compassion need apply to their hard-pressed teachers.

Teachers should, of course, be accountable for doing their jobs well, as should all employees. However, a system of external rewards and penalties, such as merit pay based on test scores, may not be as helpful as its advocates think. The National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University conducted an experimental study comparing teachers who were offered a bonus for raising test scores with a control group who weren’t, and found no overall difference between the groups. Maybe most teachers do their best for reasons other than external rewards. “Modern motivational theory recognizes the primacy of intrinsic motivation, not rewards and punishments. Those who are motivated by idealism, autonomy, and a sense of purpose actually perform better and work harder than those who hope for a bonus or fear being fired. Relying on extrinsic motivation…may actually hinder improvement, because people will work to make the target yet will lose sight of their goals as professionals.” Ravitch is more sympathetic to reformers who want to strengthen the teaching profession by setting high professional standards, attracting talented people, educating them in the pedagogical skills and subject content they need, and instilling in them a love of teaching. Unionization has contributed to professionalization by improving pay and working conditions and protecting teachers against firing for reasons unrelated to the quality of their work. (In the past, teachers have been terminated for such things as getting married, becoming pregnant, or supporting civil rights.) Advocates of privatization see unions as an obstacle to management-led reform, including the freedom to replace uncooperative or underperforming teachers. “After the passage of NCLB, efforts to improve teacher professionalism were swept away by the law’s singular focus on raising test scores.” Reformers began to question whether teacher certification, advanced degrees, or even teaching experience mattered, since they weren’t always good predictors of student test scores. Why not let a lot of people try teaching, and keep the ones who get the best results? Just rank the teachers, let the “best” ones teach as many students as possible, and the scores will go up across the board.

There are at least two problems with this reasoning. First is the measurement problem, the difficulty of isolating the quality of teaching from a multitude of factors affecting student performance. If this isn’t done, teachers who are doing as well as they can with the classes they’ve been assigned may rank low and lose their jobs. Statistical methods exist for “value-added assessment,” (measuring the value added by the individual teacher), but they require sophisticated analysis of multiple years of data. An even more fundamental problem is the logical fallacy of attributing systemic problems entirely to individual differences. No matter how challenging the job and how difficult the working conditions, some workers will manage to do better than others. Put soldiers into a losing war, and some individuals and units will fight better than others. It doesn’t follow that replacing some soldiers with others or giving out more medals to some than to others will win the war, as if training, equipment, weaponry, strategy, tactics and logistics don’t matter. One can always rank teachers on the basis of test scores, do a mental experiment in which everyone performs at the top quintile, and then declare that “teachers are everything,” as did Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the Washington, D.C. school system. Ravitch says, “This line of reasoning appealed to conservatives and liberals alike; liberals liked the prospect of closing the achievement gap, and conservatives liked the possibility that it would be accomplished with little or no attention to poverty, housing, unemployment, health needs, or other social and economic problems.” Ravitch knows of no actual school that has closed the racial achievement gap simply by taking teachers whose students have high average scores and assigning them to teach students with low average scores.


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