Friday, May 07, 2010



May 5, 2010 -- NEW YORK — We’ve been trying to figure out why Johnny can’t read in this country for decades, centuries even, and the cures for the problem have always drawn a mixture of adulation and contempt. A century ago, the superintendent of schools in New York, William Henry Maxwell, heaped scorn on one theorist who proclaimed “vertical penmanship” to be the solution to all ills.

Well, at least there’s a certain discipline and seriousness implied in holding the pen upright, ridiculous as it might seem as a cure for every problem. In any case, according to Diane Ravitch, who is probably America’s leading historian of education, vertical penmanship probably wasn’t any worse than a lot of other panaceas offered since — particularly panaceas offered in recent times.

We’ve seen progressive education — students designing their own curriculum, deciding for themselves what they want to learn. In the past couple of decades, as test scores drop and the United States falls farther behind other countries in math and science, the idea that schools should follow a business model has been dominant, stressing competition, choice and accountability, raising teacher pay for higher test scores, closing schools that fail.

So, how are we doing?

Ms. Ravitch says very badly, maybe even worse than before, and her view, elaborated in a new book — “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education” — has been getting a good deal of attention, including from Congress, which she was off to visit this week.

“The response has been kind of overwhelming,” Ms. Ravitch said in a phone conversation. “I’ve been fielding requests from all over the country to speak.” She has 24 appearances on her calendar for the immediate future and another 20 or so looming.

“My analysis of the situation is that all these decisions have been made by a small coterie of elite, very wealthy people who have the answers to everything but haven’t actually spent much time in a classroom,” she said. “The response I’m getting is from parents and teachers who don’t have much contact with them.”

Ms. Ravitch’s basic idea is that the education bureaucrats, the politicians, and the heads of a group of fabulously wealthy foundations have cleaved to the latest fads and theories, most of which can be subsumed under the business model of public education.

The belief has been that smaller, specialized schools — known generally as charter schools — whose principals are given a great deal of autonomy, will give parents and children a great deal of choice and that they should replace the large, amorphous, all-purpose public schools that, in any case, haven’t been doing a good job.

It’s a general approach that, Ms. Ravitch acknowledges, once aroused her own enthusiasm. It holds principals and teachers and schools accountable for their students’ performance — performance to be measured especially in the elementary and middle schools by standardized tests.

Indeed, accountability is one of the mantras of the new orthodoxy, along with choice.

This has been invented and implemented by politicians, educational bureaucrats and wealthy foundations with the greatest of good wills and the most ardent and even the most altruistic of intentions. The problem is that, like most orthodoxies, when it hasn’t worked, its advocates continue to advocate it. In Ms. Ravitch’s opinion, it hasn’t worked.

This is, she believes, the case with what is probably the most important and far-reaching national policy initiative ever taken, and one that she herself had high hopes for: the No Child Left Behind law, enacted in the administration of President George W. Bush, which essentially forced school systems across the country to teach to standardized tests in grades three through eight. And the obsession with tests and test results, in Ms. Ravitch’s view, is antithetical to the spirit and purpose of education.

“I came to believe that accountability, as written into federal law, was not raising standards but dumbing down the schools as states and districts strived to meet unrealistic targets,” she writes.

Ms. Ravitch devotes a devastating chapter to New York City, where the administration of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has made claims, soberly dismantled in Ms. Ravitch’s book, that under his care public administration has continued to make steady improvement, largely through the creation of charter schools that give parents and students ever more choice.

Ms. Ravitch shows that claims of improving scores on state tests have actually been produced mainly by ever-lower test score requirements, so low in one instance that many students could get to an acceptable level by random guessing.

Another devastating chapter is on what Ms. Ravitch calls “The Billionaire Boys’ Club,” meaning the wealthy foundations, like the Walton Family Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, that have bought in to the business model and are pouring billions into it.

These unelected and (to turn the current mantra against them) unaccountable foundations “exercise vast influence over American education because of their strategic investments in school reform.” But by looking one by one at the programs they have favored, Ms. Ravitch found that they have produced little in the way of measurable results. Often, as in the case of the Gates Foundation’s creation of small high schools to replace large, big-city high schools, they have brought about the opposite of what they intended.

“The most durable way to improve schools,” Ms. Ravitch writes, is the one thing that is actually discouraged by the stress on tests: It is “to improve curriculum and instruction and to improve the conditions in which teachers work and children learn.”

In other words, for students to be introduced, say, to the moral choices facing Abraham Lincoln in the Civil War isn’t the sort of thing that can be measured on tests of basic skills in reading and math. So much for test scores as the dominant measure of educational success.

Meanwhile, choice has had the effect of producing many competing schools while destroying what ought to be the bedrock of early education, the solid, well-run neighborhood public school with its coherent and clear ideas of what children need to know to be responsible citizens in a democracy.

“Ten years from now,” Ms. Ravitch warns, “a kid will have to apply for admission to the school across the street, and he might be turned down.”

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