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Ravitch is Wrong


Today’s New York Times carries an opinion piece by Diane Ravitch, a longtime Republican academic and an Assistant Secretary of Education for Research in the George “no W” Bush Administration. She's done some good work on textbook adoption. I’d place her loosely with Checker Finn, with or for whom she has published several school reform publications. For political convenience, pigeonhole her as slightly right of center.

Ravitch argues NCLB I is “fundamentally flawed” for three reasons:

The main goal of the law — that all children in the United States will be proficient in reading and mathematics by 2014 — is simply unattainable. The primary strategy — to test all children in those subjects in grades three through eight every year — has unleashed an unhealthy obsession with standardized testing that has reduced the time available for teaching other important subjects. Furthermore, the law completely fractures the traditional limits on federal interference in the operation of local schools.

She’s wrong on all points:

• The fact that some percentage of students may never achieve proficiency would be a more powerful argument if the nation’s schools were already achieving it at the 90 percent level and we were having this discussion in 2010. As we head into the 2008 School Year, the vast majority of schools are far enough from that goal to make the debate academic rather than practical - if not laughable.

Yes, many schools in the suburbs are failing to make AYP today only because one sub-group – often English Language Learners, often Latinos – was neglected (i.e., under-resourced) until NCLB I made that reality clear. More on this below, but even if holding schools accountable for this is somehow unfair, it is very likely that NCLB II will target the remedy for failure narrowly to the students who are not demonstrating proficiency.

• NCLB’s emphasis on demonstrating student proficiency may have exacerbated "an unhealthy obsession with standardized testing;" it hardly "unleashed" it. Teachers have been arguing that they are forced to "teach to the test" at least since the standards and accountability movement began in the states in the 1980s.

More important, there’s enough research out there to strongly suggest that proficiency is gained not by "drill and kill" on the subject matter of the test in an environment like the test, but by engaging students in the use of the skills that will be tested in authentic problem-solving situations, and so by integrating math and reading into every subject. The best way to become proficient in math is wanting to solve a math problem essential to learning more in a subject you love. If students are loosing time for music and art to classes aimed specifically at test taking, the fault is not the test, but district teaching strategies.

• I could argue that NCLB does not “completely fracture the limits of federal interference” in state education policy. The legal principle here is quite clear: Congress can attach conditions to funding programs for the states. States have a choice of whether or not to take the funds. As state educators are quick to say, the feds generally contribute under 10 percent of total k-12 funding.

Regardless of law and tradition under the 10th Amendment, viewed as a civil rights issue, there is no doubt that the federal government can impose laws aimed at equalizing children’s access to educational opportunities. NCLB I is fundamentally a civil rights law to assure that classes of students (the law's "subgroups") traditionally shortchanged by their local and state school systems get the resources they need to succeed. It happens that doing this will also create classes of students who add value to the economy rather than draw resources in the form of poor health, welfare and criminal justice. But at core, disadvantaged students who have not been getting the attention they are owed as Americans - because of failures by their local and state governments, need federal protection.

No Child Left Behind I was not fundamentally flawed in conception. It was hardly perfect, but the market-based reform strategy it laid out, tempered by a means of assuring quality through scientifically-based research, offered a way to harness the nation's powerfully innovative private sector to support the nation’s neediest children. NCLB I was fundamentally flawed in execution - development of the school improvement industry has been the last thing on the mind of the Department of Education - largely because of the George W. Bush Administration’s managerial incompetence, but that’s another posting.


I would have liked to see you address the main policy recommendation of her op-ed -- that the federal and state governments switch roles, with the federal govt. doing the testing and the state governments doing the school improvement.

I think your points are reasonable except for one: You say "If students are loosing (sic) time for music and art to classes aimed specifically at test taking, the fault is not the test, but district teaching strategies."

Let's assume for a second that the only reason students aren't succeeding in a certain school or district is because of poor "teaching strategies" (a rather dubious assumption, but we'll ignore that for now). In order to make up for their pedagogical shortcomings they then cut art and music so that kids have more time for reading and math test prep.

By your logic, this is the fault of the school or district because their poor teaching meant that they had to spend twice as much time teaching a subject in order for the kids to pass the tests.

That logic is not without merit but, even assuming that poor teaching is the only cause of the low test scores, it fails to take into account the motivation of the school/district for changing their policies. If they were not compelled by the federal govt. to reach certain goals based on test scores, would they ever have cut art and music regardless of how poorly their kids were performing in reading and math?

In short, poor teaching strategies almost never would have led schools to cut art and music before NCLB and, therefore, poor teaching strategies cannot receive sole blame for these cuts now.


I came across Dean Millot's comment on my opinion piece in "The New York Times," in which I argue that NCLB is fundamentally flawed. First of all, contrary to his assertion, I am not a Republican; I am a registered independent.
Second, he does not disagree with me that the goal of 100% proficiency is unattainable.
Third, he seems to be saying that NCLB is somehow not responsible for the frenzy of test prep going on in many schools today; I disagree. NCLB demands that teachers focus relentlessly on test scores in reading and math. While some may have done this in the past, the stakes have been significantly increased by NCLB for the past four-five years.
Fourth, he defends the intrusion into classroom practices that I find objectionable. Note that I did not argue that the federal government has no responsibility for helping fund education, especially the education of targeted groups (poor and special education). What I did argue was that Congress lacks the capacity to mandate specific sanctions and reforms that have no basis in research or experience. Why does NCLB say, for example, that persistently failing schools might be turned over to state control when there are no examples of failing schools that have been improved by a state takeover?
Tweaking NCLB will not make it more effective. As I pointed out in my article in the New York Times, the test score gains for American kids on NAEP were higher between 2000-2003 than in the years since NCLB was implemented.
Evidence of benefit should be required before laws impose mandates and regulations.

Diane Ravitch

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