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Rule No. 84: Diane Ravitch's Other Letter to Lamar Alexander

02/02/2015 09:48 am ET | Updated Mar 27, 2015

Education historian and reform critic Diane Ravitch recently sent an open letter to Senator Lamar Alexander with recommendations for rewriting No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the nation's chief law governing elementary and secondary education.

In her letter to Senator Alexander, she argued forcefully against testing and accountability. She also quoted from Alexander's Little Plaid Book of rules. "May I remind you," Ravitch wrote, "of something you wrote in your book of advice: 'No. 84: Read anything Diane Ravitch writes about education'."

Professor Ravitch recently appeared at the very top of a list of the 200 most influential education scholars in America. She carries great sway with policymakers, reporters, advocates, teachers and parents. It is important that both her supporters and critics understand just how far she has moved from her long-held views on testing, accountability and other issues.

To that end, and in keeping with Rule #84, I have compiled an alternative letter of advice from Diane Ravitch to Lamar Alexander about NCLB -- the text of which is composed, word-for-word, from Diane Ravitch's writings about education over the last four decades.

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Dear Lamar,

I wish I could be in Washington for the hearings about the reauthorization of NCLB.

I learned a lot about education policy and federalism after you chose me to serve as your Assistant Secretary of Education in charge of research and improvement and as counsel to the Secretary of Education (you). I am imagining that I am still advising you, as I did from 1991 to 1993.

NATIONAL STANDARDS

During my 18-month stint in the Department of Education, no issue consumed more of my time and energy than the role of standards in improving education. I devoted my energy to advocating the creation of voluntary national standards. Government agencies tend to move slowly, but in a matter of months, OERI [my division at the Department] made awards to major organizations of teachers and scholars to develop national standards in science, history, geography, civics, the arts, English, and foreign languages.

I would say, sorrowfully, that NCLB has failed. It did nothing to raise standards, because it left decisions about standards to the states. So many states have very low standards and yet announce that more and more students are "proficient." The states responded to NCLB by dumbing down their standards. We are producing a generation of drones, not students who are ready for college and the modern workplace.

I have favored common standards for a long time. Content standards--what children are expected to learn--are necessary for educational improvement because they are the starting point for education. When educators fail to agree on what children should learn, it means that they have failed to identify their most fundamental goals.

Absent standards, poor and minority children do not have equal access to challenging courses; absent assessments, no one can know the size of the gap between schools or groups of students or whether that gap is growing larger or smaller. Without valid standards and assessments, there is no way to identify low-performing schools or to determine whether all students are receiving equal educational opportunity.

THE NEXT GENERATION OF ASSESSMENTS

I, too, would like to see national testing, not the current idiotic system written into the No Child Left Behind federal law that permits every state to choose its own test and set its own standards, no matter how low they may be. When a state (or nation) announces standards but continues to use old tests, then of course the new standards will be ignored. The failure of national standards and testing will undermine faith in public education and pave the way for privatization of education.

In the future, many students will be tested by sophisticated computer programs that quickly eliminate questions that are too easy or too hard for a particular student, leaving ample time for students to answer open-ended questions or engage in challenging performance assignments.

Clear measures of "value-added" (that is, improved performance) must be developed, and assessments should measure progress toward meeting the standards.

STANDARDIZED TESTING

No one wants to be tested. But tests and standards are a necessary fact of life. Exams play a constructive role. They tell public officials whether new school programs are making a difference and where new investments are likely to pay off. They tell teachers what their students have learned--and have not. They tell parents how their children are doing compared with others their age.

In the past few years, we have seen the enormous benefits that flow to disadvantaged students because of the information provided by state tests. Those who fall behind are now getting extra instruction in after-school classes and summer programs.

It is reasonable to assess whether students are ready to advance to the next grade or graduate from high school. If students need extra time and help, they should get it, but they won't unless we first carefully assess what they have learned.

If the tests are thoughtful and thought-provoking, then teaching to the test makes sense, because the teacher is helping students prepare for the test. If the test does not test what was taught by the teacher, what does it test? Educators have an inordinate fear of "teaching to the test," but the best tests gauge whether students learned what they were taught. "Teaching to the test" is not nearly so dangerous to education as the spread of cultural illiteracy.

To say that tests create cheating is wrong. What creates cheating is people who cheat. I grew up in Houston, Texas, where I went to the public schools. We had tests and grades every six weeks, and no one ever dreamed of organizing a revolt against tests.

ACHIEVEMENT GAPS/POVERTY

There truly is a crisis--not in American education as a whole, but in a specific sector of American education. The crisis is to be found in our inner cities, and among African American and Hispanic children in particular. There is a four-year gap in achievement in every subject area between white high school seniors and minority high school seniors--that is, the scores of the average black of Hispanic senior are about the same as those of the average white eighth-grader. This constitutes nothing less than a national emergency.

We must take care not to build into public policy a sense of resignation that children's socioeconomic status determines their destiny. No one is so naive as to believe that efforts to improve academic achievement would counteract deleterious social trends, such as the weakening of the family, the spread of drugs and violence, and the persistence of poverty. Public policy must relentlessly seek to replicate schools that demonstrate the ability to educate children from impoverished backgrounds instead of perpetuating (and rewarding) those that use the pupil's circumstances as a rationale for failure.

CLOSING SCHOOLS/TEACHER TENURE AND QUALITY

It is unjust to compel poor children to attend bad schools. It is unjust that there is no realistic way to force the closure of schools that students and parents would abandon if they could. They should not be expected to wait patiently for the transformation of the failing institutions where their children are required to go each day. We surely would not be willing to make the same sacrifice of our own children. Why should they? Very bad schools should be closed and replaced by new schools, with a new principal, new faculty, and new mission.

It is possible, but not easy, to fire a probationary teacher (who has taught for less than three years); it is nearly impossible to oust a tenured teacher.

The quality of teachers in the nation's schools matters very much. For some children, the quality of their teacher is the difference between success and failure. A nation with the goal of "no child left behind" will have to find effective strategies to ensure that every child has good teachers.

ACCOUNTABILITY/COMPETITION

Every school should have a performance contract that clearly defines its goals for student achievement. Each school's performance goals would be based on its pupils' progress from year to year. Every school should be rigorously audited for educational and fiscal performance. The system we have serves adults, not children. Let's reverse that formula.

Education has been notorious for its aversion to incentives, accountability, competition, and choice.
Policymakers' pressure for accountability has not run into a brick wall of resistance. It would be more accurate to say that it has plunged into a bowl of Jell-O, in which demands for accountability are eventually but inevitably transformed into demands for more resources.

THE FEDERAL ROLE--AND THE ROLES OF THE ACADEMIC AND ADVOCATE

The future of the next generation relies on improving the system, not on tinkering around the edges. Yes, there is a federal role in education. The federal government must continue to be concerned about both the quality and equality of educational opportunity. Properly conceived, the federal role is to inspire, prod, and assist localities to improve the quality of education available to all children.

In my nearly four decades as a historian of education, I have analyzed the rise and fall of reform movements. Over the past half-century, I have met with many governors, state superintendents, congressmen, senators, Cabinet members, and every president since Lyndon B. Johnson.

I never lose sight of the fact that I am neither a school teacher nor an administrator, and that I am therefore in a precarious position as an outsider. I have never believed that a ship can be navigated by someone who stays on shore.

I despair of the spirit of meanness that now permeates so much of our public discourse. I don't want to be part of that spirit.

Yours truly,

Diane Ravitch

***

If today's Diane Ravitch could meet yesterday's Diane Ravitch somewhere in the middle, I'd be the first to remind Senator Alexander of Rule #84 in his Little Plaid Book.

Peter Cunningham is Executive Director of Education Post, a non-partisan communications organization dedicated to building support for student-focused improvements in public education from preschool to high school graduation. He is a former Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of Education. He served in the Obama administration.

REFERENCES FOR DIANE RAVITCH'S ALTERNATIVE LETTER TO LAMAR ALEXANDER

Introduction: Diane Ravitch, "An Open Letter to Lamar Alexander: Don't Forget Rule #84 in 'The Little Plaid Book'", Huffington Post, January 20, 2015.

National Standards: Diane Ravitch, National Standards in American Education: A Citizen's Guide (Brookings Institution, 1995), pp. xi-xxi, 4, 22, 24-25; Diane Ravitch, "Somebody's Children: Educational Opportunity for All Children," in Diane Ravitch and Joseph P. Viteritti, eds., New Schools for a New Century (Yale University Press, 1997), p. 259; "Privatization Will Not Help Us Achieve Our Goals: An Interview with Diane Ravitch," Learning Matters, August 4, 2009; Diane Ravitch, "Why I Changed My Mind About School Reform," Wall Street Journal, March 9, 2010; "Obama's education speech: a newer version of Bush," The Arena, Politico, March 11, 2009.

The Next Generation of Assessments: Diane Ravitch, "Why Lou Gerstner is Wrong," Forbes, December 2, 2008; National Standards in American Education, pp. 25, 21; Diane Ravitch, National Standards in American Education, p. 184.

Standardized Testing: Diane Ravitch, "In Defense of Testing," TIME, September 11, 2000; National Standards in American Education, p.21; Diane Ravitch and Joseph P. Viteritti, "Introduction," in Diane Ravitch and Joseph. P Viteritti eds., City Schools: Lessons From New York (John Hopkins University Press, 2000), p.6; Diane Ravitch, The Schools We Deserve (Basic Books, 1985), p.314; Diane Ravitch quoted on cheating in Anemona Hartocollis, "Ideas and Trends: Crossed Fingers; Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire," New York Times, December 12, 1999; Diane Ravitch, "The Scars and Trophies of a Reformer," Keynote address to the 11th general conference of the National Association of Scholars in New York City, May 21, 2004, reprinted in Academic Questions, Vol. 18, Issue 2, (Houston, TX school experience with testing referenced at p.8).

Achievement Gaps/Poverty: Diane Ravitch, "The Right Thing: Why liberals should be pro-choice," The New Republic, October 8, 2001, pp. 37-38; Diane Ravitch, "Somebody's Children: Educational Opportunity for All Children," p. 254.

Closing Schools/Teacher Tenure and Quality: Diane Ravitch, "Somebody's Children: Educational Opportunity for All Children," pp. 253, 257, 270; Diane Ravitch, The Schools We Deserve, p.290; Diane Ravitch, "Introduction," in Diane Ravitch, ed., Brookings Papers on Education Policy: 2004, (Brookings Institution Press, 2004), p.5.

Accountability/Competition: Diane Ravitch, "Let Our Schools Hire and Fire Teachers," New York Times, July 1, 1995; Diane Ravitch, "First, Save the Schools," New York Times, June 27, 1994; Diane Ravitch, "Testing and Accountability, Historically Considered," in Williamson M. Evers and Herbert J. Walberg, eds., School Accountability (Hoover Institution Press, 2002), p. 18.

The Federal Role--and the Roles of the Academic and Advocate: Diane Ravitch, "Is Education on the Wrong Track?", A TNR Symposium, The New Republic, March 21, 2010; Diane Ravitch, The Schools We Deserve, pp. 153-155; Diane Ravitch, "The reform movement is already failing," Reuters, August 23, 2011; Diane Ravitch May 10, 2011 email to the Providence Journal, reprinted in Jay. P Greene, "Diane Ravitch's Credibility in Dispute," National Review Online, May 26, 2011; Diane Ravitch, The Schools We Deserve, p.19; Diane Ravitch, "What I Learned at Siena", Bridging Differences blog, Education Week, May 24, 2011.