Testing times for America’s school system

Leading educationalist Diane Ravitch rightly notes that for all the policy tinkering over how to teach and assess children, the biggest problem is the establishment’s inability to work out what they should be taught.

Alex Standish

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This book is about who controls education and how recent reforms have undermined America’s public school system. It tells the story of two decades of education reform that have shifted control over schooling away from teachers, principals and school districts towards superintendents, mayors, chancellors, business leaders, corporations and political leaders at state and federal levels.

For educational historian Diane Ravitch, this book updates her analysis of American education outlined in Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform (2000). I think of Ravitch as the self-appointed godmother of American education. She has taken it upon herself to watch over the school system and pass judgment upon its progress. Ravitch has dedicated years of her life to following education and she is able to utilise her many connections to get the inside story from those who are driving school reform.

This book is controversial because Ravitch is criticising a reform agenda of standards, accountability, testing and choice which she supported up until a few years ago. Her change of heart has brought her praise from some quarters and attacks from others, but clearly she had to write this book to set the record straight.

The largely right-wing reform agenda which applied market principles and managerialism to education grew out of a period in which schools were highly criticised as society displaced its problems into the classroom. In particular, the influential report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk (1983) shone the political spotlight on schools. Ravitch describes how this report preceded the standards movement and market-based approaches to educational reform, but, being more focused on President George W Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001, she probably underestimates the 1983 report’s wider political significance.

While A Nation at Risk found many faults with the education of American students, its outlook was influenced by ‘a heightened sense of moral crisis and concerns about the ability of society to survive future threats’ (Furedi 2009: 125). In other words, it wasn’t just about education. Rather, society’s problems were being projected onto schools and this marks the starting point of the period of reform outlined in The Death and Life of the Great American School System. Politicians, policy makers and business leaders intervened in K-12 (kindergarten to grade-12) education as a means to fix social, economic and political problems. Such attempts are futile because schools are not the right institution to ‘fix’ the problem.

This is where Ravitch comes into her element. She systematically draws out the flaws and contradictions in each aspect of reform. For instance, choice was promoted from the end of the 1980s through a voucher system and charter schools – deregulated and privately run schools, using public funds, similar to the ‘free schools’ being proposed by the new UK coalition government. With other leading pedagogues – like the former president of the American Federation of Teachers, Albert Shanker – Ravitch admits to being swept along by the initial promise of charter schools. They were to be freed from state regulation, allowed to chart their own course, run by teachers and organisations in the community and seek innovative approaches to teaching, therefore complementing public schooling.

While there are a few examples where this has been the case, such as KIPP schools (Knowledge is Power Program), their success has been mixed, notes Ravitch. Certainly, charter schools are better resourced than their public counterparts. But some of their achievement has come at the expense of public schools as they tend to draw the more motivated teachers and students. Competition rather than cooperation with public schools has been the norm. In some cases, such as in New York City, charter schools have literally taken school-building space and resources away from public schools.

Instead of pedagogical innovation, the charter movement has been mainly driven by entrepreneurs and corporations, suggests Ravitch, who have successfully reformed schools in their business-style mould: testing, accountability, merit pay, sanctions, competition and barring teachers’ unions. Ravitch rightly questions the logic of applying economic rationality to education and points out the negative consequences of doing so: eroding communities as students travel all over town to find the theme schools of their choice, undermining the notion of public service, and the negative effects on those schools and students left behind.

Even more troubling, Ravitch describes how over the past decade the role of philanthropic foundations in education reform has qualitatively and quantitatively transformed. Whereas previous foundations may have wished to further their own agendas through educational grants, the new foundations ‘wanted nothing less than to transform American education’. The new largest contributing philanthropies are the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation (which is run by the Walmart Foundation) and the Broad Foundation. Ravitch calls these the Billionaire Boys Club, who have taken it upon themselves to bring their business experience and ideas to bear upon schools.

For instance, at a 2005 conference Bill Gates lectured to the nation’s governors about the state of America’s high schools and the need to make schooling more ‘relevant’ to the contemporary needs of students. Ravitch questions the validity of the nation’s industrialists pronouncing on education. Yet, these are not empty words: the philanthropies also have a strategy of control. Ravitch lists the numerous organisations, policy institutes, think tanks and advocacy groups who are in the pay of Gates (or other foundations), ‘leaving almost no one willing to criticise its vast power and influence’.

At some length, Ravitch persuasively dissects the No Child Left Behind Act (which mandated that states devise their own tests and systems of accountability, achieve 100 per cent proficiency in reading and mathematics by 2014 and take action against underperforming schools). Not only was this target unlikely to be met, but it led to the narrowing of the curriculum as teachers and principals became focused on the tests to which they would be held accountable.

Ravitch observes that testing is an indirect and therefore poor measure of teacher quality as the performance of pupils on tests is affected by many variables including their own motivation, parental support, the ethos and resources of a school. Since 2001, in some instances, state tests have become the curriculum and many teachers have become apt at teaching to the tests and improving the performance of their pupils. But as Ravitch explains, incremental progress on basic tests is not the same thing as good education. She argues that the best teachers are probably being labelled failures by such narrow accountability measures, which ignore the humanities, the arts, moral education and the creative mind.

At district and city levels, others have taken it upon themselves to demonstrate educational ‘progress’ through raising test scores. Ravitch shows how, under the guidance of superintendent Anthony Alvaredo, District 2 in New York City achieved impressive gains on standardised tests in the early 1990s. This was achieved through a top-down system of teaching and reform. For the entire district, Alvaredo imposed a reading program called Balanced Literacy (supposedly a cross between phonics and whole language) and utilised constructivist mathematics (whereby the child builds their own knowledge). Teachers were given no choice in how they would teach reading and mathematics; they had to accept the new system or leave, notes Ravitch. She calls this approach Left/Right because it utilises pedagogy associated with the left (whole language and constructivism) and a system of reform in concert with the right (testing and accountability).

However, Ravitch questions how far the improvement in tests scores was the outcome of its new system of teaching versus the gentrification and changing socio-economic make-up of District 2 over the same time period.

Such questions did not halt the reformers and in 1998 Alvaredo moved on to San Diego, California where he was paired with city superintendent Alan Bersin to introduce the District 2 reading and mathematics package. Their Blueprint for Student Success in a Standards Based System was again imposed without tolerance for dissent. Over a seven-year period, some 90 per cent of principals were replaced (in some instances being marched out of the school gates) and thousands of teachers either retired or moved on, reports Ravitch. She tells a similar story about city-wide school reform in New York City under the Bloomberg/Klein dynasty.

What Ravitch finds most troubling about such authoritarian control of teaching is that relationships of trust between administrators, principals, teachers and children have been destroyed. So even when Bloomberg pulled back from his literacy and mathematics programmes in 2007, allowing principals the freedom to determine their own approach to raising test scores, schools were in a weakened state to respond. Further, she recounts that the focus of these reform was always on how to teach without consideration of what to teach.

Something else stands out in The Death and Life of the Great American Schools System and that is the complete absence of any coherent vision directing education today, or at least one that values education on its own terms. That politicians, business leaders, corporations or others with little or no pedagogical experience are being allowed to determine the course of K-12 schooling is indicative of the moral vacuum at the heart of education. Whether it is micro-management, deregulation, evidence-based programmes or market-based reforms, nobody has a clear idea of the principles upon which education should be based, which is why the door has been opened to those outside the profession.

The charter school movement is a product of this lack of vision, enabling the state to wash its hands of some schools in poor, urban areas. President Obama and his education chief, Arne Duncan, have only offered more of the same. Ravitch tells of how the Obama administration published its list of 19 best ideas for education: ‘It is as if a bunch of do-gooders sat together at the New Schools Venture Fund summit and brainstormed a list of popular reform ideas, and are now going to force them upon the states. (Wait. I think that is how this list got developed.)’ Obama is now using Race to the Top grants to hand out wads of stimulus cash to states which sign-up to open more charter schools, introduce performance-related pay and show clear plans for improving test scores. Those that don’t, get squat.

The strength of Ravitch’s book is that the author knows what a sound education looks like and hence can unpick initiatives that are damaging the teaching profession and the education of children. If it has a weakness, it is that educational reform often needs to be understood in political as well as educational terms. Frequently, reforms are not about education, but something else that is going on in society. Intervening in the workings of schools becomes a way for political and business leaders to be seen to be doing something, even when the results make education worse. This may be the reason why Ravitch supported the standards and accountability movement in the first place. While Ravitch admits that in the past she was wrapped in policy considerations and lacked distance from the issues. But the current discussion might also have something to do with the shrinking credibility of right-wing ideas.

Ravitch concludes that the current obsession with testing and the business model of schooling is threatening to destroy public education (if it has not already done so). She asks, ‘Who will stand up to the tycoons and politicians and tell them so?’ It is about time teachers, principals and others in the profession reclaimed that which they are trained to do: teaching. Yet, to be successful Ravitch asserts that schools need a clear vision of what a good education looks like. Her vision is for students who can think for themselves, have good character and make sound decisions about their life, are kind and compassionate, understand our nation and our world, have a sense of fairness and justice and are responsible citizens. Such personal qualities are best achieved through ‘the study and practice of the liberal arts and sciences: history, literature, geography, the sciences, civics, mathematics, the arts, and foreign languages, as well as health and physical education.’

Ravitch recognises that implementing such a common curriculum would mean moving past some of the culture wars fought in recent decades and replacing the lifeless and formulaic textbooks that pervade America’s classrooms. Hers is broad a vision of education, but one that hopefully will kick-start a conversation about how to breathe some life back into the not-so-great American school system.

Alex Standish is an assistant professor of Geography and teacher-trainer at Western Connecticut State University. His book, Global Perspectives in the Geography Curriculum, is published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

The Death and Life of Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education, by Diane Ravitch, is published by Basic Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)


Wasted: Why Education is Not Educating, by Frank Furedi, Continuum, 2009

Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform, by Diane Ravtich, Simon and Schuster, 2000

A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform, National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983. (A Report to the Nation and the Secretary of Education, United States Department of Education.)

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