Ravitch: Whose Children Are Left Behind?

Otl-summit-bannerI thought testing would help diagnose the problem and help teachers identify kids’ needs and that charters would serve the underserved and collaborate with public schools — I was wrong on all accounts,” Diane Ravitch said in her Friday keynote speech at the Opportunity to Learn Summit, in Washington, D.C.

Ravitch, an education historian and former advocate for charters and standardized testing, examined some of the outcomes of a system that holds up testing and charters as holy grails and allows both to spread indiscriminately:

  • 80 percent of charters in Michigan are for-profit.
  • In Ohio, cyber charters get full funding with no facilities and 100:1 student-teacher ratios.
  • In Colorado, virtual schools have a 25 percent graduation rate.
  • Florida pumps billions of dollars into vouchers that support deregulated schools with terrible conditions.
  • After 21 years of vouchers and competition, black students in Milwaukee have the lowest scores across nation.
  • Under mayoral control since 2002, market reforms and choice have left the achievement gap virtually unchanged in New York City public schools.
  • In Washington, D.C., Hispanic, black, and low-income students have the largest achievement gap (a 65-point difference) of any city in the nation.
  • Chicago closed 100 neighborhood schools but is still one of the lowest districts in the nation. There have been no gains for black students since 2002 and none for Hispanics since 2005.
  • By 2014, all public schools could be labeled failures.

Profits and punishment seem to be the point of current education policies, Ravitch concluded. Although NCLB documents gaps, it does nothing to address the conditions causing these gaps, she added. “Congress is still patting itself on the back for identifying a problem (that we already knew) but doing nothing meaningful to solve it,” she said.

Ravitch attempted to inject some common sense into the education reform agenda:

  • NCLB is based on a phony claim: the “Texas miracle.” In reality, dropouts soared and Texas was in the middle of the pack on assessments.
  • Tests should only be used for diagnostic purposes, such as determining whether a student can read.
  • No achievement gap was ever closed by closing schools.
  • In high-achieving countries like Finland, testing takes a backseat to creativity, innovation, and whole child education.

She also asked some key questions:

  • Why are we racing to the top? (A: The top is occupied by the children of the 1 percent; they’re not going anywhere.)
  • Why would we give more credibility to standardized tests than to the judgment of educators and parents?
  • Why is there not enough money to provide the basic public services that every child needs?

When asking who gets left behind, Ravitch said we must look at the two gaps of race and income and consider what policies directly address disparities between these groups. Simply raising the bar and punishing those who do not clear it will not help kids already struggling to do math or speak English, she said.

“We need to stop investing in consultants and start investing in children!” Ravitch declared. She reminded the audience that the racial achievement gap was cut in half in the ’70s and ’80s, with gains largely attributed to desegration and expanding federal assistance like Head Start, Title 1, and early childhood programs.

“What were we doing then that we need to be doing now? That’s what we need to be talking about,” she said. Ravitch added that change won’t be easy or cheap, but we can make the first step by doing one simple thing: “Realizing that what we’re doing now is not working and never will.”

Do you agree with Ravitch’s critique?

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  1. While talking about the Achievement Gap, Ravitch exposed a Rationality Gap – hers. She says we should close the achievement gap, but not rely on tests. How would we know there was an achievement gap if we didn’t test? She says we should trust educators and parents instead of tests. Then she points out that in places where parents have choice (vouchers) and educators are free to make innovative changes (charters) we have some of the worst achievement in the nation. She says we should stop investing in consultants and start investing in children. She is a consultant who gets paid to speak. I am just flabbergasted that someone with her incredible background and intellect offers such banal arguments. Let’s move on and see if the keynotes get better.

  2. Thanks for the reality check and the ray of hope that not everyone is fooled. Teachers have always been scapegoats, but since RTTT, the rhetoric about teachers in our state has painted them, at best, as lazy drones who lack the ability or willingness to educate students, and who must be controlled… and held accountable. Nearly all our RTTT money is going to outside vendors for cookie cutter trainings and superfluous computers systems, and the only aim is to improve test scores. Districts will be saddled with unwieldy, costly, and ineffective systems that they will need to pay for once RTTT runs out. There is no way that parents want their child to try to learn in this toxic atmosphere.

  3. I find it very interesting that the author of “Left Back” the book Ravitch wrote and the reason Bush called his educational testing program “No Child LEFT BEHIND” is now calling the program a failure. The book called for a return to the good old days….When children with problems were not in the public schools and teachers in the classroom did not have to spend hours on testing instead of teaching.

  4. First, it’s too easy to cherry-pick statistics to prove one’s point. What about the many charters that ARE working and the income-strapped parents scrambling to get vouchers that offer hope for their children? Second, it is NOT Congress’ job to fix the problems that NCLB delineates. We don’t need the feds’ involvement in our local school business (and it’s illegal). Third, if competitive “open enrollments” that allow parents to choose the school for their children were a factor of public schools, there might be a push to have productive school boards, administrators, and teachers. Fourth, Ravitch is right about the need to get rid of consultants. Education is a PROFITABLE multi-billion dollar business comprised of vendors, consultants, and curriculum “specialists” who make a good living off the weaknesses of public schools. You think these folks won’t fight to keep their prestigious positions and income? To heck with the kids’ needs among these “educators.”

  5. Ravitch uses an argument that is far too simple. There are wonderful for profit schools, exceptional charter schools, amazing public schools and outstanding private schools. in some of the toughest urban and rural areas, teachers are doing amazing things each day. It has very lityle to do with charter or voucher. She should stop the simplistic rants. They are tiring.

  6. Interesting that you are the first comment. I see Ravitch’s commentary in general as right on. I have seen her and read other comments by her and they always have the ‘ring of truth’ to them. She is not a consultant, although at one time she was. She now says that her thoughts and advice while being a consultant were wrong. You clearly are attacking her for reasons of your own. What is your agenda?
    Your comments on vouchers and charters are also misleading. They both have had plenty of time to prove that they are better than public schools and they both have failed miserably. In the process they have devastated local school districts and neighborhood schools.

  7. @EducatorGuy-
    DR is asking questions that no one is asking. There is no “data” (a word that those who attack education love) that shows that charters are anything more than a shell game. There are great ones, and there are pathetic ones- just like traditional schools. DR is stating that standardized testing is being “misused” (the data/feedback is invalid; compares 2011 to 2010, is inefficient/clumsy, doesn’t merit the cost/time, etc) and cannot be used to reform. The military has down-sized, standardized testing should too.
    Creativity and innovation in schools is not a “charter school” impetus, but rather comes from a conversation, community involvement, and a culture that allows experimentation (something academia should foster). Creativity and innovation is being reigned in by excessive, invalid testing and misdirected accountability.
    Shore up the bottom end of American Education and improve a huge part of our national education crisis. Poverty and it’s affects are a huge issue (see that data, a decade of NCLB=minimal gains).
    DR may be a “consultant”, but unlike politicians (who are opportunistic,only appear in schools for photo-ops) and “unbiased”, agenda driven think-tanks like Michigan’s Mackinac Center, she is an experienced expert. Dialog is needed rather than finger pointing and antagonistic attacks, which is the present culture and will not improve anything.

  8. @EducationGuy
    To improve teaching and learning, for the “measuring device” (assessment) to be effective/affective/efficient and yield the desired quality gains, the teacher needs:
    1. Insure quality learning culture/community; dialog is needed to to reestablish this- involved parents/teacher/admin is a triangle for potential success.
    2. valid information which steers teaching- (tied to standards, but not driven by standards). Comparing Flint PS students to a wealthy group accomplishes nothing that we already do not know, at this point.
    3. Foster collegial problem solving- the competition mantra of the business model is misguided and myopic.
    4. Student/Parent accountability (and yes, teachers too). Parents need to be a part of the accountability discussion. Drop-out rates (parent/student responsibilities); reward those who stay in school, rather than use punitive measures.
    5. Effective/Affective leadership which focuses on team building, collegial problem solving,
    Listen. Teaching the top 10%ers and bottom 10%ers are two different endeavors. When we accept this, and focus on changing the culture, improving teaching and learning, rather than add more standardized testing (corporate driven- i.e. College Board yields 137% more “profit” than other “non-profits”, etc.).
    Attacking professional educators will not attract quality people to the profession. If a business cannot attract quality people, and is managed through antagonism and myopic mandates, it will fail. Period.

  9. I am not sure what the answers are to address disparities in educational outcomes but I good first step is to admit previous solutions are not working so we do not use limited resources to reap minimal outcomes. Perhaps addressing the issues of poverty (i.e. Harlem Children’s Zone) on a national level will provide the strong, stable communities necessary to educate children. According to research conducted by ETS, there is a strong correlation between zip code and test scores, which I interpret to mean communities have a tremendous influence on educational outcomes. Perhaps collaboratively seeking solutions and replicating proven success will result in providing a quality education for all, if we are willing to pay for it.

  10. How would YOU spend the money that’s spent on testing and meaningless professional development that doesn’t actually count as professional development?
    My choices: Smaller class sizes. Paraeducators in every class. More interventions, like Reading Recovery and the politically incorrect “tracking.” Fewer tests.
    And everyone who has known me for more than five minutes knows that I think we need to abolish Social Promotion and go to a system of flexible grouping for Skills Mastery. You go to the next Skill when you’ve mastered one. Provide whole group instruction, but also allow students to proceed at their own pace.

  11. Diane,
    The public is generally unaware that there are private charter schools and public charter schools. Does your assessment apply to public charters (specifically public charters, set up as instumentalities of the district…)? thank you

  12. At an in-service a week ago, I was told that our 10th graders tested at an 85% pass rate. Then I was told that since this happened two years in a row, we are ‘plateauing’ and must improve. I think this is an example of DR’s point. Even when the data shows schools improving, the spin is ‘you are failing’. Sad.

  13. Merely politically incorrect-tracking? Call it what it really is. A convenience for some teachers, overwhelming classist and racist. It provides virtually no opportunity for student to rise to the next track, thus dooming a student throughout his educational career , “dummy”. Yes, that’s how they all to often describe themselves.

  14. And so the story goes. One thing is true, not all students learn or want to learn at the same time nor will they ever be able to. In time all students will take the responsibility serious as will their parents and start doing something positive about learning. Testing, pointing the finger or calling it by another name will not change anything except cause some people to be upset with others.

  15. Balance is crucial. The formal assessments (e.g., PALS, PPVT, EVT) that we use in our Pre-K program provide snapshots of where our students are. Many of our students come from low-come families and are Hispanic. Throughout the year, we use informal assessment results and teacher observations to let us know how students are progressing; with this information, we also better prepared in grouping our students for small learning circles and differentiating instruction. At the end of the year, students take the formal assessments again. Teachers and students celebrate the results! Our Kindergarten program runs a little differently. The gains that children make in Pre-K seem to flat line by the end of either Kindergarten or first grade. Data is not good or bad; it’s a tool that educators can use to help guide their teaching. All students deserve the best instruction educators can provide.

  16. You cannot be an “Educator Guy” if you do not see the truth in Ravitch’s words. You can not have administered and corrected many state tests if you do not recognize the number of them that give no real information about the child or learning. I am flabbergasted that you would have education anything in your title and not see that she offers the only real answers out there that I have heard. Get yourself into some real classrooms and then you will see the truth of her statements.


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