Thursday, July 21, 2011

Diane Ravitch’s Alternate Universe

Charles Barone is exactly right when he writes: "if Ravitch speaks the exceptional truth now and then, at a conference here or there, that does not disguise the fact that in general she is incredibly, and as a rule, intellectually dishonest and disrespectful, both in public and private." 


I'll go one step further than "intellectually dishonest" and say it plainly: she lies (or else makes huge factual mistakes), not occasionally, but often.  The latest example is a whopper: in the NYT (responding to Brooks's column), at the recent Aspen event ( and elsewhere, both verbally and in writing, Ravitch has been making the following claim:

"No high-performing nation tests its students every year or uses student test scores to evaluate teacher quality."

It turns out that this is completely wrong.  I emailed Charles Barone, Bob Compton, who's done a documentary on Finland's educational system, The Finland Phenomenon (, plus Amanda Ripley sent me a rebuttal she published on her blog.  First, here's Charles:


It's hard to compare. In Finland, for example, you are dealing with an incredibly homogeneous population, without the extreme wealth disparities, national standards, and a top-notch (top-third of all secondary students according to McKinsey), well-paid, teaching force. 


If we had all that, we would not need as much testing. We have testing because we don't trust teachers and school systems to hold kids to high standards and let us know who is and is not meeting them. Same with school systems vis a vis teachers (i.e., TNTP's report, The Widget Effect []: 99% are good teachers, according to the system. 90+ percent deserve jobs for life. etc.).


Not to mention Finland has what amounts to national high school exit exam which, as I understand it, essentially determines - for life - who goes on to higher ed and who doesn't. That's arguably higher stakes than any one test we have here.


Japan I do not know as well. But note that on international achievement exams, they often don't do significantly better than the U.S.


I agree we need less testing ideally, but until we can trust the system like Finland can, especially its human capital, we need it as a check on everything else.


PS-- I always find it amusing when anti-testing people accept tests (like PISA) as a measure of which countries are high-achieving - and which aren't - then try to use those test-driven determinations as an argument against education policies that employ testing.


Here's Bob:


Yes, all three countries [Singapore, South Korea and China] test very heavily.


IMPORTANTLY: the testing is "high stakes" only for the students. There is very little use of tests to evaluate teachers.


All three countries however, are working to scale back their testing. There is a perception in those countries that they have gone too far and that they need to give their kids more time to think and more space to create.


BUT old habits are hard to break!


Of course in all three countries - and in Finland & India - one must have a bachelors and a masters in the subject being taught, plus pedagogical training, to teach at the middle or high school level. Teaching is a VERY highly respected profession in those countries, drawing from the top of the class.


In the U.S., teaching is held in low regard, is a highly criticized profession, draws from the bottom 20% of college students and is not a profession I would encourage my daughters to pursue. It looks like a truly horrible career to me.


I want my girls to be Hedge Fund managers ;-)


Finally, here's Amanda:

Diane Ravitch's Alternate Universe

posted by Amanda Ripley in Education

July 10, 2011 at 4:17 PM | 3 comments

In today's New York Times, Diane Ravitch responds to David Brooks and other critics by hoisting well-worn foreign flags.

"No high-performing nation tests its students every year or uses student test scores to evaluate teacher quality."

This is a point Ravitch makes again and again. I usually just glide right by it, since it comes wedged between so many other questionable claims and also some valid points. But since I just got back from visiting these high-performing nations, I must note that Ravitch's version of reality does not match what I saw.

Everywhere I went, testing was absolutely embedded in the system. It took different forms, and in some places it was done more intelligently and more subtly than we do it, but it was always there. In South Korea, kids are tested in elementary, middle and high school. How do I know? Teachers, principals, students and the Education Minister told me so. It was not a secret.

Just to be clear: Korean kids, who score at the top of the world in international tests, take standardized tests administered by the Korean government to measure what students know--and identify which students and schools need more help. Yes, they do!

And guess what? The results of these tests are used to evaluate principal and school quality. Yes, they are!

What about teachers? Teachers are evaluated, too, using criteria that do not currently include test data--but do include surveys of students, parents and other teachers about the effectiveness of the teacher. (And by the way, everywhere I went, I could find teachers and principal who complained about these evaluations, calling them unfair, just like teachers do here. It's a small world after all.)

Now bear with me for a second: Ravitch is careful to use the caveat "every year." And it's true that Korean kids do not take standardized tests every year. Neither do American kids! Under federal law, our kids must be tested in grades 3-8 and at least once between 10th and 12th grade. That's seven years out of 13. Is that too much? Probably. Should our tests be smarter? Definitely.

But to imply that tests are irrelevant in high-performing countries is misleading.

Even in Finland, which has the best schools in the world by multiple measures, tests are part of life. Are they annual, standardized tests, the results of which are made public? No, they are not, and teachers in Finland thank God for that. But make no mistake©: the Finnish national government routinely and systematically tests samples of students around Finland to make sure that schools are meeting high standards.

And Finnish teachers told me that of course they test their students regularly--and they compare their students' results with the results of their colleague's students to see what they need to work on. Of course they do. Why wouldn't they? You don't get to be high-performing without actually performing.

In reality, Korean high-schoolers--and Finnish high schoolers--obsess over one test in particular far more than most American kids ever will. In both countries, kids graduating from upper secondary schools must take an all-important, standardized, end-of-the-year test before they graduate. So tests are not only present; they are truly high-stakes in a way that they are not in most U.S. schools (where most tests are only high-stakes for the people who work there.)

I believe in learning from high-performing nations. That's why I am writing a book about it. In fact, I am convinced that these comparisons are a matter of economic and even moral urgency. And that's why we have to do this work with great care and humility--as if we want our schools to be better more than we want to be right.

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