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American Schools in Crisis

In Issue:

If you read the news magazines or watch TV, you might get the impression that American education is deep in a crisis of historic proportions. The media tell you that other nations have higher test scores than ours and that they are shooting past us in the race for global competitiveness. The pundits say it’s because our public schools are overrun with incompetent, lazy teachers who can’t be fired and have a soft job for life.

Don’t believe it. It’s not true.

Critics have been complaining about the public schools for the past 60 years. In the 1950s, they said that the public schools were failing, Johnny couldn’t read, and the schools were in a downward spiral. In the 1960s, we were told there was a “crisis in the classroom.” For at least the past half-century we have heard the same complaints again and again. Yes, our students’ scores on international tests are only average, but when the first such test was given in 1964, we were 12th out of 12. Our students have never been at the top on those tests.

The critics today would have us believe that our future is in peril because other nations have higher test scores. They said the same thing in 1957 when the Soviet Union sent its Sputnik into orbit and “beat us” by being first. At the time, the media were filled with dire predictions and blamed our public schools for losing the space race. But we’re still here, and the Soviet Union is gone.

Maybe those tests are not good predictors of future economic success or decline. Is it possible that we succeeded not because of test scores but because our society encourages something more important than test scores: the freedom to create, innovate, imagine, and think differently?

We should, as President Obama said in his 2011 State of the Union address, ignore the naysayers because “America still has the largest, most prosperous economy in the world. No workers are more productive than ours. No country has more successful companies or grants more patents to inventors and entrepreneurs. We are home to the world’s best colleges and universities where more students come to study than any other place on Earth.”

Norman Rockwell visits a Country School

In the days before standardized tests, teachers had the freedom to tailor their curricula to encourage students to create, innovate, imagine, and think differently. “Norman Rockwell Visits a Country School” (November 2, 1946).(© SEPS)

Since the 1840s, our public schools have been a bulwark of our democratic society. Over time, they have opened their doors to every student in the community regardless of that student’s race, religion, language, disability, economic standing, or origin. No one has to enter a lottery to gain admission.

With this openness, there is a price to be paid: Our public school teachers have one of the most difficult jobs in society. Their classes include children who are recent immigrants, many of whom don’t speak or read English; they include children who have social, emotional, mental, and physical disabilities; they include children who live in desperate poverty.

Let’s be fair to our schools and our teachers. As our society has changed, the schools have had to deal with escalating social problems. Compared to schools today, the schools of the 1950s were tranquil. Teachers were uncontested authorities in their classrooms. They were free of the mandates now regularly issued by Congress, the courts, and state legislatures. If students misbehaved or failed repeatedly, they were likely to be suspended or expelled. Only half of the students who started ninth grade eventually graduated high school, and responsibility for their success or failure was shared equally by family and school.

In the mid-20th century, most children lived in two-parent families; today, single-parent families are the norm in many communities, and many children come home to an empty apartment or house. Our popular culture has changed dramatically, too. Television, cell phones, and the Internet have connected children to the outside world, and the outside world often sends messages that contradict parents’ efforts to create sound values and a work ethic.

In the years after World War II, the American economy grew steadily, and there were plenty of good jobs for people who did not have a high school diploma. Now most of those jobs, whether clerical or in manufacturing, have been replaced by new technologies or by outsourcing. Back then, it was no shame to leave school without a diploma. Today, it is expected that everyone must graduate from high school, and anyone who does not is stigmatized socially and economically.

The good old days were not that good if you were black or disabled. Public schools routinely excluded children with disabilities, and schools in many parts of the nation were racially segregated, either by law or by custom.

Our schools are now expected to educate all children, whatever their condition. In 1975, Congress mandated special education for children with disabilities. It promised to pay 40 percent of the cost but has never followed through. When politicians complain about the high cost of education, they fail to acknowledge that most of the new money spent on the schools has gone to pay for services for children with physical, mental, and emotional problems.

Since the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, which banned racial segregation in the schools, the basic principle of American education has been equality of educational opportunity. Starting in 1965, Congress passed legislation to send extra resources to districts that enrolled the poorest children—resources that benefited children of all races. Meanwhile, as white and black middle-class families moved to the suburbs, urban districts had school systems characterized by heavy concentrations of students who were both racially segregated and impoverished.

In 2001, after the election of President George W. Bush, Congress passed a law called No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which changed the federal role in education. Instead of seeking equitable funding, Congress decided that it would impose a massive program of school reform based on standardized testing. The new law required states to test every child in reading and math from grades three through eight. The theory behind NCLB was that teachers and schools would try harder and see rapid test score gains if their test results were made public. Instead of sending the vast sums of money that schools needed to make a dent in its goal, Congress simply sent testing mandates to every school. It required that every child in every school must reach proficiency by 2014—or the schools would be subject to sanctions. If a school failed to make progress over five years, it might be closed or privatized or handed over to the state authorities or turned into a charter school. There was no evidence for the efficacy of any of these strategies, but that didn’t matter.

Educators knew that the goal of 100 percent of the students reaching proficiency was wildly unrealistic, but no one asked their opinion. So they kept their mouths shut. Over the past decade, districts and states have committed billions of dollars to testing, test preparation materials, and data systems. The results have been meager. Test scores have gone up in some districts and states, but federal audit tests do not reflect the same rate of improvement. That’s because most state tests have lower standards than the federal tests, and some states have since lowered their standards in an effort to show the kind of improvement the federal government has mandated.

NCLB was a radical plan of action, particularly because there was no reason to believe that annual tests—coupled with fear and humiliation—would produce the miraculous goal of 100 percent proficiency, a goal not reached by any nation on earth. The law treats public schools as though they were shoe stores: Make a profit or else. If you don’t, you might be fired, you might get new management, or you might be closed down. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently predicted that more than 80 percent of our public schools would be declared failures by next year based on federal standards.

Setting an impossible goal, providing inadequate resources to pursue that goal, and then firing educators and closing schools for failing to reach it is cruel and unusual punishment.

In 2009, the Obama administration launched its own radical school reform plan called Race to the Top. In some ways, it is worse than NCLB. Like NCLB, it assumes that higher test scores mean better education, even when those scores have been purchased by intensive test-prep activities. (What’s misleading about this kind of gain is that aggressive test-prep activities may lift scores without improving students’ knowledge or skills. In fact, some districts have seen scores and graduation rates rise while college remediation rates remained the same.) More than NCLB, Race to the Top blames teachers if student test scores don’t go up, which has demoralized millions of teachers. The program dangled nearly $5 billion in front of cash-hungry states, which could become eligible only if they agreed to open more privately managed charter schools, to evaluate their teachers by student test scores, to offer bonuses to teachers if their students got higher test scores, and to fire the staff and close schools that didn’t make progress.

Again, not one of these policies—not one—has any consistent body of evidence behind it. The fundamental belief that carrots and sticks will improve education is a leap of faith, an ideology to which its adherents cling despite evidence to the contrary.

Charter schools on average do not produce better academic results than regular public schools. As charters proliferate, regular public schools lose students and funding, and many charters try to avoid the students who are most costly and difficult to educate. Merit pay has failed again and again. Most testing experts agree that it’s wrong to judge teacher quality by students’ test scores. The promise of Race to the Top is that billions more will be spent on more tests, and districts will reduce the time available for subjects (like the arts and foreign languages) that aren’t tested. Piece by piece, our entire public education system is being redesigned in the service of increasing scores on standardized tests of basic skills. That’s not good policy, and it won’t improve education. Twelve years of rewarding children for picking the right answer on multiple-choice tests is bad education. It will penalize the creativity, innovativeness, and imaginativeness that has made this country great.

What the federal efforts of the past decade or more ignore is that the root cause of low academic achievement is poverty, not “bad” teachers. Children who are homeless, in ill health, or living in squalid quarters are more likely to miss school and less likely to have home support for their schoolwork. The most important educators in children’s lives are their families. What families provide in the way of encouragement, experiences, expectations, and security has a decisive effect on a child’s life chances. The most consistent predictor of test scores is family income. Children who grow up in economically secure homes are more likely to arrive in school ready to learn than those who lack the basic necessities of life.

Of course, no school should have any bad teachers. But bear in mind that administrators usually have three to four years to decide whether to grant due process rights (often called “tenure”) to teachers. In the years before a teacher gets due process rights, the teacher may be fired without any reason or cause at all. After a teacher wins due process rights, it doesn’t mean life tenure—it means that teachers have the right to a hearing before they may be fired. Teachers don’t hire themselves, don’t evaluate themselves, and don’t grant themselves due process rights. If there are bad teachers, we should ask why administrators are not doing their jobs, and the district should demand speedy resolution of any charges against teachers.

Most of what is called school reform these days consists of privatization and de-professionalization. The charter industry is growing rapidly and competing with regular public schools; it has ample resources to air television commercials and print ads to attract new “customers.” This competition has not proceeded on a level playing field because the charters frequently have smaller proportions of English-language learners and children with disabilities than the neighboring public schools. In addition, many charters are subsidized by additional millions of dollars in private donations, which enables them to market their wares and provide services that regular public schools cannot afford such as tutoring and mandatory summer school.

Some conservative governors—such as Mitch Daniels in Indiana, Scott Walker in Wisconsin, and Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania—have taken privatization to the next level and are pushing voucher programs, which will send public dollars to private and sectarian schools, possibly even to home-schoolers. This will divert many millions of dollars from the regular public schools.

At the same time, some states are lowering the standards for entry into teaching, ironically under the banner of improving teacher quality. Some, such as New Jersey, are proposing to remove certification as a requirement for teaching; others, such as Florida, are removing any stipends for experience. In Texas, a person can become a teacher by taking courses online. Still other states seek to make it easier for novices to become not only teachers, but also principals and superintendents.

Two major reports were released in spring 2011 that showed what a risky and foolish path the United States has embarked upon. The National Research Council (NRC) gathered some of the nation’s leading education experts, who concluded that incentives based on tests hadn’t worked.

In other words, the immense investment in testing over recent decades, the NRC commission said, were based on intuition, not on evidence—and faulty intuition, at that. The other report, by the National Center on Education and the Economy, maintained that the approach we are now following—testing every child every year and grading teachers by their students’ scores—is not found in any of the world’s top-performing nations.

It’s important to remember that this is not simply an abstract matter for ivory tower policy wonks to be nattering over. Our present course endangers one of our nation’s most precious institutions: our public schools. Surely they need improvement, but they don’t need a wrecking ball. Our policymakers’ obsession with standardized testing has proven to be wrong; not only does it lack scientific validation, but any parent or teacher could have told the policymakers that a heavy reliance on multiple-choice tests crushes originality, innovation, and creativity. As the federal government ratchets up the stakes attached to the tests, they become an even greater burden on students, teachers, and the quality of education. In addition, the higher the stakes, the less reliable the tests become as measures of learning. When everything rides on test scores, schools will encourage “teaching to the test” and even cheat to avoid being closed.

We are now at a fork in the road. If we continue on our present path of privatization and unproven market reforms, we will witness the explosive growth of a for-profit education industry and of education entrepreneurs receiving high salaries to manage nonprofit enterprises. The free market loves competition, but competition produces winners and losers, not equality of educational opportunity. We will turn teachers into “at will” employees, not professionals, who can be fired at the whim of a principal based on little more than test scores. Their pay and benefits will also depend on the scores. Who will want to teach? Most new teachers already leave the job within five years—and that figure is even higher in low-income districts.

What we will lose, if we move in that direction, is public education. Just as every neighborhood should have a good police station and firehouse, every neighborhood should also have a good public school.

If we are serious about closing the achievement gap, we should make sure that every pregnant woman who is poor has good prenatal care and nutrition and that every child has high-quality early education before arriving in kindergarten. The achievement gap begins before the first day of school. If we mean to provide equality of educational opportunity, we must begin to level the playing field before the start of formal schooling. Otherwise, we will just be playing an eternal game of catch-up—and we cannot win that game.

It is worth remembering that the reason we first established public education was to advance the common good of the community. It began in small towns, where communities agreed that all the children should be educated for the good of all and the sake of the future. Public schools have a civic mission: They are expected to prepare young people to become citizens and to share in the responsibility of maintaining our society. As political forces tear them apart, creating opportunities for entrepreneurs and for profit, it diminishes our commonwealth. That is a price we must not pay.

Diane Ravitch is a historian of education and a professor at NYU. She’s the former U.S. assistant secretary of education. Click here for a comment on this article by our Publisher, Joan SerVaas.

More on education in America:

Online Testing Doesn’t Work
When it comes to exams, this high schooler wants to stick with good old-fashioned pencil and paper. Read more >>

Teaching to the Test Gets an ‘F’
A conversation with Sir Ken Robinson, a leading thinker in the field of education and human potential. Read more >>

The Problem with Testing
Your child is more than a score. Here’s what one parent and researcher learned about the standardized assessments administered to students, teachers, and schools.

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  • Amanda Rezek

    I think the article that Diane Ravitch wrote was accurate. The United States of America has never been academically superior, so I don’t believe there’s a crisis about how to “beat” other nations. However, the crisis with the Unite States’ education is that people are pinning the blame on the school itself and the teachers, who are already pressured enough with the students and low pay. As Ravitch said, children should receive education before reaching kindergarten. I believe putting a child in pre-school, or any other form of early education, would help advance the next generations to come.

    However, an equal oppurunity for all to be able to achieve and be involved in that sort of education is important. Education is to “advance the common good for the community” and it should never be limited to those with a lot more money than those who only make an “average” or “low” amount of pay.

  • Brad

    Excellent article! As a educator for the past 20 years, I have seen the destructive force NCLB has had on our educational system. In my opinion, the generation that was “educated” during the period starting in 2001 until now should ask for their “money” back. Motivation is the key to all learning and NCLB and RTTT do not address this critical element. In fact, both under funded federal mandates seem to totally ignore the important role student motivation has on learning.

    When I first understood the content and ramifications of NCLB, I was deeply concerned. To me it looked like an attempt to reinforce the advancement of charter schools, vouchers and privatization by making all public schools look like “failures” by 2014. The goal of 100% proficiency was clearly Utopian and seemed only to serve the interests of those who wished to politicize education. In the final analysis, while NCLB’s stated mission was to leave no child behind, its actual consequence was a generation left behind.

  • German Uribe

    What if Charter Schools Bring new resources into the current system???

    I sympathize with many of the arguments made in this article, but am still left with a question: Suppose that we can agree that the current system has problems that need to be fixed. And that among these problems are 1) a lack of funding, and 2) a lack of an ability to attract and retain ENOUGH Top Talent that wants to be public school teachers, particularly in Inner Cities. Now assume that the a Charter school comes into existence in an inner city neighborhood. That this charter school, 1) is a non-profit entity, and 2) that it does not cherry pick students, but rather provides free education to a randomly selected sample that mirrors the population in the surrounding neighborhood. Ok now assume that this charter school by its existence is able to attract Money from wealthy philanthropists, and talented, highly motivated teachers, and that neither the money or the talented teachers would have gone to the existing public school system but rather are incremental resources that come into the system as a result of the charter school’s existence. Given this lengthly list of assumptions: Why is the existence of the Charter School bad for Public Education in America? I would love to hear Diane Ravitch’s, and other’s perspective on that.

  • Neva Salser

    What if it’s not the educational system at all?

    Curiosity and the excitement of discovery. It grows from infancy, fed by family members who answer endless questions and endlessly teach correct pronunciation, grammar, thinking and social skills, and spark more curiosity.

    Warehousing children from infancy through their most formative years forces them to abandon curiosity in order to survive the bullying and unhealthy competition of the warehoused mob. To me this seems to be the basis of our education problem. We get them when their curiosity is already broken. Seldom do we get to see the light of discovery dawn from a face.

    The worst of it is that the bigger and better stuff that we get with the money that we earn by shunting the kids off to the lowest bidder, is also broken.

    A child lasts forever. Stuff is just stuff.

  • Mel Hamilton

    I appreciate your article Ms. Ravitch. It seems you are one of many who “get it”. As a veteren school teacher, I am close to throwing in the towel. It is so hard to fight all these pundits who claim to be reforming education when in fact they are destroying it. When oh when will anyone actually ask classroom teachers for the information they need to make any reforms if any are needed? The only reforms I know of are poverty and then child rearing as a true responsibility. Now these are not school teachers’ responsibilities, but they are basic human needs of love and security that if not met, the child cannot learn. Start here and we will see great improvements. Moms and Dads quit paving the roads for your children as this is just as bad as having no input in their education. Hold the learner ultimately responsible.
    Another fix is principals do your jobs and get the loafers out of the classrooms.

    Teachers are teaching and many kids are learning but if we do not recognize that schools need money and attention to the physical plant as well as the academic needs like books, we are all lost. Stop yelling about the money being spent- it is not enough. Invest and there will be returns but a few dollars and expecting great returns is not going to happen. Put your money where your mouths are and stop looking for scapegoats.

    Sign me,
    Sick and tired of not being heard in Tennessee.

  • David Humphries

    The article correctly states that, “When everything rides on test scores, schools will encourage ‘teaching to the test’ and even cheat to avoid being closed.”

    In what industry is it ever acceptable to blame incentives for corruption? If our public school system cannot do the right thing, it has only itself to blame. Those who run the public school system are responsible for the public school system.

    Ethics don’t get much simpler than this.

  • Rod Karp

    Diane Ravitch is a fine educational historian, and was the assistant secretary of education under the George H.W. Bush administration, and was, to some degree, an architect of NCLB. She revisited her research later and found NCLB to be very destructive (more like ECLB). She wrote a book lately, The Death and Life of the Great American Education System, that describes her current thinking. It’s good reading! I hope she can keep on speaking out about her conclusions!
    Privatized systems in other countries (England primarily) can be described in other literature—George Orwell wrote The Clergyman’s Daughter in which a portion describes the dismal educational experiences of children in a private girls’ school and the young teacher’s efforts to do better. (He indicated in the book that the public schools in England were intended for the children of families that “were on the dole” and that any families with any middle class aspirations sent their children to private schools, often run by charlatans, without regard to the quality of the educational program offered).
    Frank McCourt wrote Teacher Man but no one seems to wonder how it was that this great author was an especially bad teacher in some vocational high schools in New York but suddenly became a wonderful teacher in more affluent prep schools after he was more or less accidentally hired in more up-town schools.
    I don’t see any exit from this current condition of thoughtless, market-driven “reform” madness. I would say to any young person that I care about, “DO NOT GET INTO EDUCATION AS A CAREER!” (There may be some hope, though, for the future, if Diane Ravitch is able to express herself and find receptive audiences in the ranks of policy-makers and the general population).
    I know time is tight but it’s good to read. Literature, research, and history can still inform us if we are willing to listen or read. Otherwise, we are left with words to make the gut churn one way or another according to the designs of nefarious ideologues rather than nurturing intelligent discussion and making the mind work.

  • Mitch Hettinger

    Awesome! Kudos to Diane Ravitch for speaking the truth about American Public Education! Problem is no one, and I mean no one in the Republican Party cares to listen to one of their own. They see Diane as traitor to the cause of destroying the American education system, which is what NCLB was designed to do. It has northing to do with educating our kids. It was designed to destroy the NEA, and with it public schools to the Republicans could “privatize” our schools. Better yet, maybe outsource our schools to India or Pakistan, where $8 billion went to build their infrastructure. How many schools, and textbooks could that but in the good ‘ole USA? Thank you Diane for speaking not only the truth, but the facts. Interested in running for President?

  • Kim Dailey

    Diane Ravitch said everything! No longer are teachers afforded the time to instill a love of learning. And in a state that was “awarded” Race To The Top Funds, teachers are about to sink to the bottom under the new assessment platform. It’s sad that I spent 8 hours working on a lesson plan for an “announced 15 minute walk-through.” On a scale from 1-5, I’m a “rock-solid” 3! I’ve been teaching 13 years, been Teacher of the Year for my County, have a BS, MS, and an EdS, been a State trained Mentoring teacher, a Curriculum and Instruction Coach, have hosted numerous student teachers, and I’m a 3….feeling a bit deflated. Perhaps I should have spent more time preparing….

  • Keith

    “Is it possible that we succeeded not because of test scores but because our society encourages something more important than test scores: to create, innovate, imagine, and think differently?”

    This is the question future educators need to be constantly asking and reminding ourselves. Teachers need to start departing from the Industrial Age teaching methods, where students memorize random facts, listen to monotonous lectures, and are treated all the same. We currently live in the Age of Technology, where ingenuity, creativity, and individuality thrive. Therefore, our public schools need to promote and foster this within our students.

    Standardized tests with multiple choice questions about selective information hinder this creativity and innovativeness. Public schools need to revolutionize their methods of measuring knowledge in a way that students can critically think and discover more about their world. Teachers should be preparing and equipping students with the skills to survive socially, economically, and physically in the real world. “Teaching to the test” should become “teaching for life.”

    Until public schools not start doing this, then I agree with Ravitch, our American schools are in crisis.

  • Paul E. Brunelle

    Brown v. Board of Education was strictly a desegregation order, aimed at ending the hypocrisy of “separate but equal” schools for blacks and whites, schools which were grossly unequal and which assured discrimination against black children. Brown v Bd of Ed DID NOT establish ” . . . the basic principle . . . of equality of educational opportunity” in American public education as stated by the author.

  • Diane Franken

    “Staying in School” a recent study given in NYC, gives evidence that students that have engaged in arts education classes within the school day have a higher percentage of graduation. Another study, “Critical Evidence”, gives evidence that arts education helps students do better in their other subjects. These are important and our school policy-makers, legislators and teacher preparation schools should make some dramatic changes, including integrating the arts and providing equal access for all students. Arts Education teaching infuses skills everyday in classroom tasks. Among them…collaboration, self-direction, critical problem solving, flexibility, innovation and creativity. Skills needs no matter what career a students selects. Read Sir Kenneth Robinson’s: Out of Our Minds, Learning to be Creative to see how education should be changed to reflect this. Lastly, I want to add my own two cents. After teaching, supervising, reading and writing about arts education for a life-time, in spite of the above evidence; the arts can stand on their own. Read Eliott Eisner. I feel the arts make meaning out of life and give life meaning. They make us human and humane. Tragical, they have not been recognized for what they do to prepare us for life and many students who have the potential for success by studying the arts are forever lost because we have not provided for them in the school day. There should not be a hierachy of importance or place in a school day for what skills our students possess. We need to open worlds for students, not close them. Arts Education is one important answer to an authentic education and it has not been allowed to even begin to flourish. Share these studies with parents, administrators and legislators. The students of today and our country cannot afford the status quo.

  • Mikaela

    As I enter into my senior year education classes, this article seems to be particularly relevant to me and my upcoming future as a teacher. Throughout the course of my professional education, my professors have made a point of lecturing about the details of NCLB and the various aspects that go along with it. Never fail, every class discussion always reverts to the pitfalls of the program: how teaching to a test stifles creativity, how effective teaching is reflected in so many ways other than test scores.

    I believe this article speaks to many of these fears, fears that are plaguing teachers, both future and present. Ravitch makes her greatest point in the article when she states ‘Just as every neighborhood should have a good police station and firehouse, every neighborhood should also have a good public school.”

  • A Concerned Citizen

    The responses to this article saddened me. Ms. Ravitch’s piece, replete with unsupported statements and emotional distraction, denies facts so obvious and pervasive that one would have to have a strong, emotionally-based, personal reason to engage in her delusion. Teachers, please wake up. The system is crumbling. Charters and homeschools are taking over. The emporer is wearing no clothes.

  • Jen B

    Thank you for this article. I am a post-baccalaureate student seeking my English certification in a university in Pennsylvania. I am excited to get in the classroom and put all of the information I’ve assimilated to use with my future students. That being said, I’m horrified to think that I’ll be expected to teach to some ridiculous test that has no real merit in evaluating knowledge. I’m learning how to teach students to think critically, problem solve, and learn how to collaborate in communities. Blanket testing to measure education is the antithesis to the innovative ideas being embedded in my teaching repertoire. I can only hope that I will be part of the movement to end NCLB.

  • sena waters

    It should also be noted that standardized tests cost taxpayers millions – round after round of printed tests cost states and school districts a fortune! The publishishing companies who make those tests are on the stock market, so anyone who wants to gain from their investment in the stock market should, therefore, sing the praises of public schools’ successes based solely on test scores. You really don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that connection.

  • Corinne

    First off, I loved this article. I am a senior in college and I am so excited to graduate and find a teaching job, but I see the way teachers are struggling against these “teach to the test” programs. It is really hard for me because I sit in my education classes and see how successful students can be when we help them to critically think and innovate and I know that these tests are not supporting either. It makes me sad to see the creativity of our students being squandered.

    I really hope people see that the programs and test are not accurately measuring student success or teacher quality. If not, it scares me to think of what our schools will become.

  • Kate

    I just can’t help but wonder what this means for our future teachers, but more importantly for future students. While we play this “eternal game of catch-up” we’re simply digging ourselves deeper into the hole of the educational gap. We pride ourselves so often on having a place of equal opportunity but how equal is it when those in poverty are entering the school system on a completely different level? Good teaching must be for the benefit of all students. How can teachers expect to teach individual students when everything has become a “standardized test.” We’re teaching to the tests, and where is the learning taking place?

  • cindy

    Schools have been in a “crisis” since the time I began teaching. I know. I’ve read about it in the news, peer-reviewed articles, and seen it publicized daily! I went to school in the 50’s and trust me they were not the pentacle of the “good days of education”. You just did not hear about it daily. I began teaching inner-city in the 70’s and continued there until 2010. I gained multiple degrees and won many awards, some nationally for my teaching. I retired when I realized that I and my students were no longer having any fun (and learning should be fun because it is also hard work). By 2000 I felt that I was being pimped out by the education bureaucracy. I no longer even believed that what I was asked to teach was important to the growth and knowledge of the students. Nor was I allowed to teach in a manner that supported the growth of the students in my school. Everything had been “standardized” but to whom I do not know. Frustration is rampant when you know your job is important, you love your students (warts and all), you understand how your students think and learn and you are prevented from doing what you know works. It is like being a parent but prevented from disciplining or teaching your child. Is the frustration over education still there for me? Yes. To this day I will not work in a school because it breaks my heart to enter them. I now work in community centers with non-English speaking students and in outdoor settings with students.

  • Wayne Porter

    Kudos, kudos, kudos to the Saturday Evening Post, to Joan SerVass for inviting Diane Ravitch to write her article in the September/October 2011 issue, and again to Joan SerVaas for her critical, insightful summary of Diane’s article.
    I hope that Diane Ravitch’s critique of “No Child Left Behind” and Obama’s “Race to the Top” will reach to members of Congress and the White House. In the midst of the “political partisan current culture” of our congregational scene, this important educational issue will undoubtedly take a back seat, but I am confident there are some who will push the envelope (even if doing so may fly-in-the-face of donor funding to help in re-election to a seat in congress).
    Yes, the media has always focused, and still does focus a spotlight on public education for National woes. And, seldom, if ever, is there a spotlight focused on the home (unfortunately an increasingly unstable and scattered home scene) as a large part of the decreasing student success in school.
    I hope your publishing of this educational article will be the start of a balooning National discussion, all the way to the floors of the House and Senate.

  • Karen McGuire

    I cried when I read this article. I have been a public school teacher for 21 years minus 4 years that I taught at a Technical College. Every year breaks my heart. I believe that teaching is a calling that is being compromised by the almighty dollar. Your words so eloquently expressed what I have been feeling for several years. Thank you.

  • John Sanderson

    “The free market loves competition, but competition produces winners and losers, not equality of educational opportunity.”

    That single sentence provides the best counter-argument to those who claim that privatization and competition is necessary to “save” our public schools. Dr. Ravitch is fulfilling a vital function as she tries to educate the public about the seriously flawed “logic” of today’s education critics.

  • Bob Stein

    I taught elementary and junior high school for twenty-seven years. I won some awards and my students generally did well. My Masters degree is in curriculum and instruction, counseling, and adolescent development. I served as a teacher license assessor for the Ohio Department of Education for three years.

    In casual conversation is probably okay to talk generally about “standardized tests.” In the context of serious discussion we should recognize the difference between statistically standardized tests and standardized criterion-referenced tests. Once this line is sufficiently blurred, the electorate can be led to inadvertently destroy its education system in pursuit of an illusion educational value.

    Theoretically, any test that is given and graded in a carefully controlled manner could be called a standardized test. However, this is an overgeneralization. Someone may want to correct Wikipedia. There are different types of tests used for different educational purposes.

    Statistically standardized tests are designed using a “sample” population that is itself selected to be representative of the population the test will be used to evaluate. The test questions, the question order, vocabulary, and other features of these tests are then controlled to be representative. The designers also statistically force the results into a “normal” or bell- shaped curve based on the performance of the “sample” population and the desired features of the test. These tests provide reliable, usually national, percentile rank, and other indexed scores for the tested individuals as well as classrooms and schools that use the test. Statistically standardized tests are designed to provide basic information about both the students’ educational ability and their performance. Because this kind of test is designed to show placement on a normal curve, it is impossible for everyone, or every school, who takes a well-designed statistically standardized test to be “above average.” This kind of test is very difficult to use politically because in order to raise educational standards you would have to increase the difficulty of each of the individual grade level tests every year. For every jurisdiction that improves, or maintains the rising standard, there would also be one that falls behind. To put it another way, for every district that is exceeding expectations, one that a politician could take credit for, there would be another one for which the politician could be criticized for not meeting the educational needs of the community’s students. There is little political capital to be gained unless politicians in general are truly committed to improving the value students receive from their education. This takes time to understand the role of education in the social infrastructure, money they don’t want to invest (spend?), and professional skills that they would have difficulty pretending to have.

    Criterion-referenced tests are similar to most of the tests and quizzes given in school and tests that grant professional designations. Criterion-referenced questions are designed to test the students’ mastery of particular educational objectives. Solve this math problem, list fifteen characteristics that mammals share with lizards, write a computer program that balances a checkbook, write an essay that compares your mother to Isaac Newton etc. Since there are specific objectives, every student can be successful. While grading such a test, a skilled teacher can draw at least as much information from the incorrect answers than from the correct ones. This information is used to set intermediate objectives, pace future lessons for the class, and design remediation lessons for small groups and individual students. Used correctly, information from criterion-referenced tests can assure that students achieve everything of which they are capable. Criterion-referenced tests are individually designed to focus on specific objectives. There is significant educational information in the results of such a test. Of the hundreds of teachers I have professionally observed, all but perhaps one potential licensee had mastered these skills in their subject area. Every teacher could use more time to do this better. Criterion-referenced tests are best used at the classroom level. Their collective results can be used by groups of teachers to design curriculum at the school level. Criterion-referenced tests could also be used to objectively assign students to grade levels at the beginning of a school year. This is the basic idea behind SAT and other college entrance testing. While this practice could be a key to improved K – 12 education, I know of no K – 12 schools that do entrance testing to assign grade levels.

    Most politically mandated testing programs focus on state-designed criterion-referenced tests. The use of criterion-referenced tests at the state level is almost universally abused. When politicians need to see “progress” or an “educational miracle” the tests are simply changed. Texas comes to my mind – but Texas was perhaps not the beginning and was certainly not the end. Such programs see tests times and testing increased. Objectives are simplified, replaced by less stringent versions, or dropped while “modernizing” the test (that was designed maybe two years ago). Entire subject areas are often eliminated from the standard. The classroom schedule is further adjusted by administrative mandate to make time available to teach “Test taking skills.” Students must correctly identify a number two pencil. The instructional time and materials budget comes from art, music, history, and often core subject areas like science, math, and reading. During testing weeks, and we are truly talking about entire weeks of school, many classrooms are focused almost entirely on either testing, teaching test taking skills, or familiarizing students with upcoming tests using purchased copies of previous years tests. The goal is to get the student to fill in the correct bubbles.
    None of the above considers that when politicians set the objectives their political bias is institutionalized in the classroom. Having educational consultants and politically appointed operatives design the tests does not improve the situation. People do what they are paid to do.

    Not addressed here is the low quality of many of the state-designed tests – particularly the earlier ones. An unacceptable percentage of questions don’t accurately evaluate their target objective. This is probably a combination of objectives that are not clearly written and lack of funds to test the validity of individual questions in subpopulations in various parts of a state. Question order is yet another concern.

    What are the educational effects of where the tests are scheduled during the school year? What are the effects on students’ education when they observe the compounding incentives for schools to cheat – even if their school doesn’t cheat? It might also be entertaining to discuss the feedback loops between corporate campaign contributions and the awarding of testing contracts and educational materials purchases.

  • Steve

    As you mentioned on several occasions, “teaching the test” does not help students because not every student learns the same way. I am currently a Freshman in College, and I now see a huge difference in the way we were taught in high school.
    Our school encouraged every Junior and Senior and even some Sophomores to take at least one Advanced Placement course. At first I thought this was to encourage students to challenge themselves, but as I was in class with some students new to AP, I saw that this was extremely difficult for them and that they could not keep up with others. It seems that the only reason my school wanted these students to take AP tests is to say that we have a higher percentage enrolled in such classes. This is appalling in my opinion because the true purpose of education is to help students learn in their best interest not so the school could get more money.
    It is very similar to how Vocational Schools have become an outlet for college-prep students who do not want to attend their town’s public school. This is unfair because the Vocational schools were founded for non college-prep students who wanted to learn a trade and start working out of high school. We need to stop assuming that every child is the same because we are killing the creativity that has made us successful in this society.

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  • David H.

    I think we need to seriously reconsider how we are measuring the accountability of public schools in our school districts. NCLB only takes into account the scores received on standardized test. Using only that type of tool gears teachers to direct their major efforts of teaching to produce higher marks on tests. Does that really measure how successful a school actually is? Where are the programs of education to actually help students with skills and knowledge(cosmetology, nursing,chefs, welding,mechanics, car repair, etc.) to be employable once they graduate? A different measurement of success for schools could be the data that includes how many students actually become employed after they graduate. Attaining a college education is truly a very desirable goal but not to the extent that we cheat our students of developing skills that can allow them the ability to be a marketable person in an environment that needs skilled labor .

  • Angeline

    This article raises a very important point on our children’s education system. My daughter, despite being a straight A student, hates school and homework. If children do not like learning they will not retain any information of the things they have learned. Another important point raised is the problem of standardized testing. My daughter has told me that the many problems listed are in fact true. The teachers at her school seldom, if never, teach anything not on the standardized tests. I definitely think that we should start changing our children’s education, so that they’ll actually like it! We don’t want a nation full of zombies, do we?

  • Matt Repetto

    This is a very powerful article. The facts are all right there for you. It amazes me that the Presidents of our country have done nothing effective to help America. Yes we are still a country that is great in GDP but where is the happiness? Kids are becoming zombies now with all the technology and standardized tests. I see so many young kids that have iphones in 4th grade. Whats the point? It kills me because there are fewer and fewer kids that are able to think on their own. I was in 3rd grade when NCLB came out and I look back and see how little it did for me and my classmates; kids who should have repeated a year, stayed moving and over time they just stopped trying and relied on TA’s to help them. This is a crisis, I have no way of stopping it but I hope someone does. And fast.

  • Sarah

    I agree totally that we can’t blame everything on educators, who have an incredibly challenging job. However, I disagree with you that our education system is not in crisis. The very fact that it isn’t serving kids the way it should or used to is a problem, and I would rather people recognize a problem and look for ways to solve it rather than think there is no problem. If people (society at large) thinks there is no problem, how will anything – your ideas or those of others – get accomplished to improve it?

  • Terry

    Thank you, Diane. Excellent take on what is really happening in American schools. I just retired after 30 years as a special education and general classroom teacher in a public school system. What always troubled me is that schools were labeled as wasteful, when a large portion of every town’s school budget covers special education. Many of our students had physical as well as emotional disabilities. Yet schools received not a dollar from health insurance agencies. Why is that the school department’s expense? Where is the health insurance company’s contribution?

  • Emily Markey

    I am a freshman in college and my professor assigned reading this article and the comments as our first assignment. I felt compelled to comment on my own because I noticed that none of the comments were from students.

    In high school, my teachers were forced to teach the material that was on the standardized tests because there was no time nor concern by the administration for anything else. For example, we were not required to take history every year because the subject was not (and still is not) on the tests. As a result, myself and my fellow students barely know anything about our own nation’s past, let alone that of other countries.

    I had numerous outstanding teachers, but no matter how good a teacher was, I never felt inspired to learn the material because I knew that it was only for the sake of raising the school’s test scores. I have always been a straight-A student, but I remember when learning used to be fun before NCLB. Those who say that learning does not need to be fun are wrong. Although I was able to learn the material regardless, without the passion for learning that I used to have, I did not retain the knowledge. Caring about your learning makes the difference between learning for the sake of a standardized test and learning in order to become wiser. Knowing that your studies have importance beyond just making your school look good automatically creates a better learning environment.

    My father is a high school English teacher and my mother is an elementary Special-Ed teacher. Both are faced with the task of making their students perform well on the standardized tests despite their own beliefs of what the students should actually be learning.

    I am currently studying to become a teacher, despite my parents’ sensible reasoning that teachers are underpaid and vastly under appreciated. I want to teach because I truly love children and want to make the same impact on their lives that some of my teachers have made on mine. Unfortunately, the current public and political perspective on education is making me question my decision and even causing me to investigate other majors.

    I hope that everyone will gain some common sense in seeing that teachers and students are not at fault if a school’s test scores are “insufficient”. Standardized tests limit the knowledge that your children are actually gaining and discouraging them from learning altogether. Please, for the sake of your children, take the time to educate the people around you who blame us and our teachers for a “failing” educational system. Way to go Ravitch!