Monday, February 09, 2015

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

An absolutely BRILLIANT article by Peter Cunningham, in which he crafts a hypothetical letter from Ravitch about the reauthorization of NCLB and various reform topics, the text of which is composed, word-for-word, from her own (albeit older) writings. What a reminder of how sensible she used to be! She made incredibly powerful arguments that are just as timely and accurate today. Here are extended excerpts:

…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.


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.

…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.

…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.


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.


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.

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

Former Assistant Secretary for Communications and Outreach, U.S. Department of Education

Posted: 02/02/2015 9:48 am EST Updated: 02/02/2015 9:59 am EST

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