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Tenth-graders in Springfied, Ill., last October. (AP photo)

Do politicians know anything at all about schools and education? Anything?

ASK THIS | February 07, 2012

Diane Ravitch poses a dozen piercing questions on education and school policy. Some of them turn conventional thinking on its ear, and each could be a starting point for reporting on elections, from the presidency on down to local school boards.

By Diane Ravitch

1.     Both Republican candidates and President Obama are enamored of charter schools—that is, schools that are privately managed and deregulated. Are you aware that studies consistently show that charter schools don’t get better results than regular public schools? Are you aware that studies show that, like any deregulated sector, some charter schools get high test scores, many more get low scores, but most are no different from regular public schools? Do you recognize the danger in handing public schools and public monies over to private entities with weak oversight? Didn’t we learn some lessons from the stock collapse of 2008 about the risk of deregulation?
2.    Both Republican candidates and President Obama are enamored of merit pay for teachers based on test scores. Are you aware that merit pay has been tried in the schools again and again since the 1920s and it has never worked? Are you aware of the exhaustive study of merit pay in the Nashville schools, conducted by the National Center for Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt, which found that a bonus of $15,000 per teacher for higher test scores made no difference? 
3.     Are you aware that Milwaukee has had vouchers for low-income students since 1990, and now state scores in Wisconsin show that low-income students in voucher schools get no better test scores than low-income students in the Milwaukee public schools? Are you aware that the federal test (the National Assessment of Educational Progress) shows that—after 21 years of vouchers in Milwaukee—black students in the Milwaukee public schools score on par with black students in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana?
4.     Does it concern you that cyber charters and virtual academies make millions for their sponsors yet get terrible results for their students?
5.     Are you concerned that charters will skim off the best-performing students and weaken our nation’s public education system?
6.     Are you aware that there is a large body of research by testing experts warning that it is wrong to judge teacher quality by student test scores? Are you aware that these measures are considered inaccurate and unstable, that a teacher may be labeled effective one year, then ineffective the next one? Are you aware that these measures may be strongly influenced by the composition of a teacher’s classroom, over which she or he has no control? Do you think there is a long line of excellent teachers waiting to replace those who are (in many cases, wrongly) fired?
7.     Although elected officials like to complain about our standing on international tests, did you know that students in the United States have never done well on those tests? Did you know that when the first international test was given in the mid-1960s, the United States came in 12th out of 12? Did you know that over the past half-century, our students have typically scored no better than average and often in the bottom quartile on international tests? Have you ever wondered how our nation developed the world’s most successful economy when we scored so poorly over the decades on those tests? 
8.     Did you know that American schools where less than 10% of the students were poor scored above those of Finland, Japan and Korea in the last international assessment? Did you know that American schools where 25% of the students were poor scored the same as the international leaders Finland, Japan and Korea? Did you know that the U.S. is #1 among advanced nations in child poverty? Did you know that more than 20% of our children live in poverty and that this is far greater than in the nations to which we compare ourselves?
9.     Did you know that family income is the single most reliable predictor of student test scores? Did you know that every testing program—the SAT, the ACT, the NAEP, state tests and international tests—shows the same tight correlation between family income and test scores? Affluence helps—children in affluent homes have educated parents, more books in the home, more vocabulary spoken around them, better medical care, more access to travel and libraries, more economic security—as compared to students who live in poverty, who are more likely to have poor medical care, poor nutrition, uneducated parents, more instability in their lives. Do you think these things matter?

10. Are you concerned that closing schools in low-income neighborhoods will further weaken fragile communities? 
11. Are you worried that annual firings of teachers will cause demoralization and loss of prestige for teachers? Any ideas about who will replace those fired because they taught too many low-scoring students?
12.  Why is it that politicians don’t pay attention to research and studies?

Add end
And another question that came to mind after the initial posting of this article: 
13.  Do you know of any high-performing nation in the world that got that way by privatizing public schools, closing those with low test scores, and firing teachers? The answer: none.
(Photo by Jack Miller)

Posted by Clara Fitzpatrick
02/07/2012, 12:18 PM

We need to put this in the hands of all of the pundits and interviewers of politicians. When they interview they never know the incisive questions to ask the politicians and legislators so they get out-talked. The interviewer ends by saying,"You are doing a great job," particularly when they interview Arne Duncan. He speaks so fast, even I, who consider myself pretty up on issues in education, am left dumbfounded.

Technology Coordinator
Posted by Tim Limbert
02/07/2012, 03:42 PM

Every lawmaker needs a copy of her book:

http://goo.gl/jlj4P ...

Steering Committee, Save Our Schools; National Board Certified Social Studies Teachers
Posted by Ken Bernstein
02/07/2012, 04:57 PM

As Diane knows, some of us have been hammering on many of these points for quite some time, in my case by blogging and in face to face conversations with elected public officials and their staff. Despite that, making progress has been exceedingly difficult. and now even the teachers unions seem in danger of caving in on key issues in order to maintain a place at the table.

One key problem has been the takeover of much of policy by a set of closely related organizations - Broad Foundation, Gates Foundation, Teach for America and its alumni (who are increasingly in key positions in Congressional offices, schools of education, and state departments of education). It has also been exceedingly difficult to get the main stream media to properly cover education - too often they write glowingly and uncritically about charter schools, voucher programs, merit pay, because those writing about education lack the training and understanding to dig into things and properly explain to their readers. We have been fortunate to have voices like Diane Ravitch and Linda Darling-Hammond, yet even they, and they other scholars on the policy brief put out by EPI seem to get ignored, while the pronouncements of Bill Gates - who seems to have little real understanding of education - get repeated over and over.

Real educators are trying to reclaim our profession, but we have to do that on top of our real jobs, we do not get funding from billionaires who are pushing corporatization agendae.

Thanks Diane. I will try to ensure the Congress Critters I know see this piece. Cannot promise it will make a difference, not given the direction of the Department of Education of this administration, which has done more damage to the future of public education in this nation in the past three years than the total done by all the Presidents from Reagan to the 2nd Bush.

Thank you
Posted by Joseph Schwartz
02/07/2012, 10:44 PM

I am a high school teacher in New Jersey. I heard Ms. Ravitch speak at our convention this past November and I always wonder why the likes of John Legend and Oprah get more press for their ideas on improving education than she does. Perhaps it is that she speaks in full truths, which don't ring as loud or entertaining as half-truths.

I also wanted to point out one question that is seldom discussed - out of the top-performing nations mentioned here like Finland, Japan and Korea - how many of those have to deal with multiple cultural differences, ethnic backgrounds and language barriers? A case can be made that the tradeoff for our freedoms and for our position as the immigration capital of the world is that maybe we don't score at the highest levels of academic evaluation - but maybe we don't WANT to.

Perhaps it is just better that we accept students of all languages, ethnic backgrounds, religions, and economic levels. To the politicians looking for a cause to rally around, students and test scores are numbers to be argued and tossed about randomly. To us teachers, they are just kids. We don't care about where they came from - we only care about where they are going. This is NOT the case in these other closed-loop societies.

I've recently co-founded an advocacy group called the Design-ed coalition whose goal it is to provide K-12 teachers with information to infuse their lessons with design education. No new policies, no new radical changes - just tools and information to help them teach better. If everyone involved in policy just did that, we'd be a lot better off.

Thanks again,

Joe Schwartz

author, Teaching: Education and Academics at the Turn of the Century
Posted by Terry Crawford Palardy
02/07/2012, 11:33 PM

Great questions, great focus, and very important! Thank you, Diane, for your thoughtful expressions here.

I read a parallel article tonight hypothesizing on what reactions would be if Medical Doctors were subjected to the same criticism and expectations as Educators are ... it all came down to the supposed response that "my patients don't eat well, are poor, etc. etc.

It is an interesting thought. Two seats opening for school committee in my little town ...

Member, Governing Council, Media Arts Collaborative Charter School, New Mexico
Posted by Ted Cloak
02/08/2012, 12:17 PM

Excellent piece, with one caveat: Not all charter schools are private. In fact, in New Mexico, all charter schools are public schools subject to the same standards and oversight as "regular" public schools. For example, they must enroll any student who applies, subject to a lottery if applicants exceed places.

Posted by Jan
02/08/2012, 06:48 PM

Wow, I have read articles stating the exact opposite.Diane might have some bias in her article considering that she works as a professor of education?

instructional technology faculty
Posted by Tim
02/08/2012, 09:50 PM

Jan, you may well have seen articles stating the opposite. What's the evidence? Pay attention to that and you'll have your answer. (Hint: It's not bias in the case of Prof. Ravitch.)

You just showed why not to listen to research. It doesn't help.
Posted by Jay Pfaffman
02/09/2012, 10:29 AM

My response is too long to fit here, see http://iliveinmyvan.com/does-anyone-care-anything- ...

Briefly, I was excited to read this piece. Indeed it addresses lots of problems with various efforts to reform education. I agreed with everything. After I got to the end, though, it seemed that the take-away message was that our schools are fine ("world’s most successful economy"). The only way to make kids do well in school is see that they come from wealthy families.

The piece basically attacks every possible way to make schools better and says that they don't work.

trying again
Posted by Jay Pfaffman
02/09/2012, 10:35 AM

I hadn't intended to hit submit.

I earned a Ph.D. in education from Vanderbilt. I agree with Ravitch's points, but here's how a politician might interpret what she wrote.

1. Don't try to innovate. Schools are fine as they are.

2. Don't try to use economics to improve or attract better teachers. Don't pay them more. It won't help.

3. Don't try to empower students or parents to go to better schools.

4. Don't try to use the tools that everyone outside of uses to learn and be successful.

5. Don't let good students go to the best schools where they can excel (unless they are able to afford to pay for private schools).

6. Don't try to use an objective measure to value teacher effectiveness. We have no accurate or stable way to know whether students are learning anything.

7. Don't worry that our students appear to compare badly to their international peers. We have world’s most successful economy. Schools don't really seem to matter.

8. We have lots of poor kids, but kids who aren't poor are getting great educations.

9. Don't waste money trying to educate the poor. Only people with money can do well in school anyway.

10. It doesn't matter if kids don't learn in schools. We need schools to hold communities together; that's what is important.

11. Don't fire teachers who appear not to be effective. If we create a culture where ineffective teachers cannot expect to keep their jobs, no one will want to become a teacher.

12. Politicians don't pay attention to research and studies because educational research provides no tools for improving education.

You have made the case that if you care about improving schools, educational research is not the tool for it.

I'm moving to the beach.

Posted by Tom Lewis
02/09/2012, 11:13 AM


You have hit the problem directly.

Politicians need to get out of the business of deciding curriculum etc. and worry about funding. That is their job. That is why we have education professionals. What they do is comparable to telling the heart surgeon how to perform open heart surgery. The only difference between the heart surgeon and a teacher is that, when the surgeon looses a patient, that person's pain is over. When a teacher looses a child, that child's pain is just beginning. Too many children are being lost to political interference.

BTW - While comparing test scores with other nations, does your research calculate in the fact that those same nations only test the top 1/3 of their students? Hence, for example, in Japan there is no illiteracy. But the Japanese do have the highest suicide rate among their children of any of the nations you mentioned.

In Charge of Evaluation in the Office of Education ages ago
Posted by Joseph Froomkin
02/09/2012, 05:05 PM

Diane Ravitch was head of research in the Department of Education. During her tenure, or after her replacement, the condition in American schools scarcely changed. New ideas and techniques were tried and discarded without any regard for their effectiveness.

Ravitch is an excellent writer and historian, a champion in describing our education system. But were do we go from there?

The feds and states have failed to lift standards. Some principals did do well and were promoted to better jobs or burnt out or retired. The same could be said about a small proportion
of teachers. Admit that you cannot spread charisma and effectiveness on a mass basis.

What then is to be done? Mass social work programs to promote parental involvement? Much too expensive, unfortunately. Computers? often disliked by teachers and not turning students on.

I have been trying to think about a solution to motivate students rich and poor, something with a true mass appeal. A possibly, but probably, imperfect solutions may be specially designed computer games which require players to master some skills to allow them to progress. Or possibly some cash reward systems for students showing some progress?

The danger is that the education establishment would lack the
courage to mix the major share of excitement for players of these games with well disguised learning goals. Beware of gifted proposal writing and the funding of the educational equivalent of Chinese backyard furnaces.(For old-timers: do remember Title III of ESEA).

Professor Ravitch what would you think of mobilizing the creativity of game makers? Disney perhaps. Welcome, Donald Duck, the leader of deadly robots.

Merit pay won't work
Posted by Leesha Dunkeson, Missouri
02/09/2012, 06:00 PM

Here' why merit pay doesn't work in education: if I come up with a great way to teach a concept, will I share it with you, the teacher across the hall? Not if my job and family's livelihood depend on my students doing better than yours...collaboration is out.

Clayton Burns PhD
Posted by Clayton Burns
02/11/2012, 01:00 PM

The questions are, in the main, well formulated.

Perhaps the best test case is in England, where the deep coverage in The Daily Telegraph over the past two months of the pathology of education (and the indirectly visible pathology of the political response) has gone largely unnoticed in America.

The coverage in England has been equally parochial in that the sometimes useful education analysis in Boston and New York goes unrecognized.

There is no world education reporter or columnist who tracks developments in at least the English speaking world, to begin with. If newspapers initiated a seven cities world education project for 2012, some progress could be made. (I suggest London, Boston, New York, Toronto, Vancouver, Sydney, and Melbourne).

Murdoch is in a good position to show leadership, given the (under-performing) Higher Education section in The Australian, weekend Review in The WSJ, and the Sunday Times of London.

Murdoch is also in a good position for comparative education reporting because he owns the best book for teaching English, the COBUILD English Grammar.

What is striking about the journalism schools is that they remain unable to grasp what is going on with the English language. Long ago, these schools should have made the COBUILD English Grammar official for their operations. Instead, we have silly muttering about usage issues, at Poynter and at the CJR.

Similarly, it is striking that word meaning often emerges as an issue in law, while neither judges nor journalists understand the corpus revolution in linguistics. Each journalism school should make a corpus dictionary official. I like the Oxford Advanced Learner's, but the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English has an excellent CD.

Perhaps the most under-reported story in the world is the nature of English as a virtual predatory corporation larger than Apple or Walmart in revenues. The Economist's so-called intelligence unit should have swarmed this story a decade ago.

English operates as a cartel since the methods are astonishingly similar and inept. Why is TOEFL garbage as compared to tests that could be based on corpus tools?

In Australia's Victoria, the Ombuds, based on absurd reasoning, recommended more IELTS testing. The Australian failed to cover this story. The British failed to realize that this story had implications for Cambridge University Press as a peddler of trash.

In the US and Canada, the enormous sleep of the education reporters continued apace.

Clayton Burns PhD
Posted by Clayton Burns
02/11/2012, 01:29 PM

I have a question:

Do academics in the US know anything about education?

Why do they put up with the SAT and TOEFL?

How is it possible that the state of Massachusetts could need a NCLB education waiver from the President?

How can Harvard be diminishing the high school experience for students with its manifestly ridiculous admissions practices?

How can product development be left in the hands of Janus-faced publishers? Why hasn't Harvard developed English French Fiction courses for determined high school students?

If you search the fiction section in a good bookstore, you will notice the many great translations into English of Balzac, Hugo, Stendhal, Flaubert, and Proust.

French departments may have a clumsy course with indifferent translations. Massachusetts English departments need to stimulate courses in English French Fiction for the schools as part of the admissions process. It would be effective to have 12 novels, including all six by Proust.

Academics in Boston are too lazy to keep on top of bookstore sections and design the courses. If they were capable, they would have realized that routines in International Relations, in Model United Nations, are hopelessly obsolete. History, as its related subject English, is one of the most productive areas for live curricula, so that banks could buy the books students discovered in their weekly analysis of the History sections.

The Cold War board game "Twilight Struggle" would also be valuable for learning English and History.

Academics are frozen in their obsolete routines. That is why the linkage between schools and universities is so atrocious in Massachusetts.

Reporters in America should set out to define the Janus-faced nature of education publishers. Pearson's "Cognition" by Mark Ashcraft is one of the very best books for study of English, in that the writing is so advanced (yet clear) that high school students can do the book. Pearson also has LDOCE, an exceptional corpus dictionary.

Nonetheless, the worst offender in England's education crisis is Pearson's Edexcel. The New York Times has also reported on the depredations of Pearson.

Pearson is also failing in product development. Norton has some good critical editions. Penguin should initiate a series, to begin with the new Freud's "Dora" and James's "The Turn of the Screw," texts and a comparative casebook in hysteria.

Every paper should have full time education columnists. The NYT has the nonsensical Choice.

The big elephant in the classroom
Posted by Don Greenwood
02/13/2012, 02:46 PM

I'm not an educator by profession (I'm an architect).

While Professor Ravitch does not offer concrete solutions, two of her assertions point very clearly to economics and attendant poverty (along with the complication of diversity) as a major contributor to our so-called failing educational system.

As the previous posters probably realize, the income disparity has only gotten worse over the last three decades, with middle class incomes remaining essentially flat, while the upper one percent is thriving and grabbing an ever larger share of private wealth. The lowest income Americans are the biggest losers. Since the 1950s, tax rates have fallen significantly.

The necessity that American secondary education must teach all students, regardless of economic status, quality of home life, and native or immigrant status, translates to students who come to school unprepared to learn. A teacher in a low performing school may actually be a better educator than one in a high performing school.

Until our elected politicians can abandon their winner take all attitudes and come together to begin to solve the economic problems of this country by adopting sane proposals such as those of the Simpson-Bowles Commission, our schools will not improve.

Perhaps more emphasis on early childhood development, more assistance for low income working parents, and a general mind shift toward saving our children prior to reaching school age would be more effective than after the fact band aid ideas.

Unfortunately, my confidence level in the ability of politicians to think out of the box and act like adults is almost nil.

A New School System
Posted by Laura Froemling
02/15/2012, 10:37 AM

The last 26 years of my 32 years in the public school system were spent working individually with kindergarten through 12th-grade students in an attempt to advance their reading to grade level. That rarely, if ever, happened.

Placing children at levels with no regard for their actual achievement dooms those who are placed over their heads and disillusions those who are unchallenged. Almost 30 years of unsuccessful reforms since “A Nation at Risk” should be proof enough that the structure of the current school system is designed for failure and needs to be replaced.

The one spectacular goal of our education system must become the elevation of students’ reading comprehension to the college reading level. Leaving school with a college reading level makes available all the information contained in books as well as the loftiest of career options.

I've written a book that presents a new school system designed to enable all children to reach the potential they possessed at birth. My website is www.howtomakekidssmart.com. ...

A Citizen
Posted by Jack
02/20/2012, 05:50 PM

There is no magic bullet to the target of improving education in this or any other country. Reduce poverty and learning amongst children will improve. Make certain that their teachers are educated and well trained in the activity of teaching. Test scores are the end result of the process and cannot legitimately be used to determine how to imitiate and carry on that process. I repeat, reducing posverty is first and foremost when looking for the antecendents to better learning.

Oh, one more important factor, spend enough money on the educational process. Look at the best educational results and low and behold you find a well funded educational system.

Director of Assessment and School Improvement
Posted by Susan Johnston
02/25/2012, 11:59 AM

Thank you once again Dr. Ravitch. Important point-- the quality of the teacher is the number one factor in making a difference for students, regardless of their level of income. We must control what we can, and not make excuses for the things we cannot control.

Retired teacher
Posted by Steve Wicker
03/05/2012, 04:46 PM

Those who bewail the state of U.S. education are singing the song they've sung for decades: They all purport to be for good education, but none of them are willing to pay for it. They search continually for the "Easy" button that will give them good results for no money, and label as subversive anyone who points out that the "Easy" button just doesn't exist.

Want to know why our politicians think this way?
Posted by Read Think Learn
03/08/2012, 08:35 PM

Thanks Diane for your questions. To understand why this is so and how we might better engage the public in figuring out how to preserve public schools and why we most definitely need to do so, read "Preserving the Public in Public Schools" by Phil Boyle and Del Burns.

High School Physics Teacher
Posted by Jim Keelty
03/14/2012, 09:31 PM

My name is Jim Keelty and I am a physics teacher at Tappan Zee HS in Orangeburg NY. I received my undergrad at Manhattan College in Electrical Engineering. I loved your article and would love to implement more High end, in-depth, problem solving lab work in my course. I have always been a "tinkerer" and have built boat motors, decks, kitchens and a total car rebuild or two. Your plan will never happen in NYS. If, as you state in your article “the quality of current laboratory experiences is poor.” IT IS ONLY GOING TO GET WORSE BECAUSE OF GOV. CUOMO AND OTHER POLITICIANS. If, in order to keep my job, I must make my students pass their exam, do you think I am going to continue my labs where we build speakers, motors, lasers that carry music from their ipod on a light beam and then play it when the bean hits a photoelectric cell connected to a speaker? Hell no, I'm going to be giving them book work and drilling them on multiple choice questions. Because politicians feel they are better suited to dictate education than the educators who have been certified by these politicians standards, I will be producing robots, repeaters, students that will do well on their assessments but are poor problem solvers, non-critical thinkers. I have always been proud of the students I have produced. Better problem solvers. Proud that I always challenge them with tough, conceptual problems to solve. Sometimes it takes 60-80 minutes of class time for them to figure out how to apply what we learned in class to the problem but it is worth it. America needs problem solvers. Because this is hard some students fail. Maybe they just don't have what it takes. Maybe they just didn't put in the effort. For those kids, failing may be the best lesson I teach them. They learn, maybe for the first time, that if they don't work hard for it, they won't pass. Better find this out with me in high school than in college where it's going to cost mom and pop thirty grand! If this is the way public schools are going than maybe it isn't for me any more. I hope not because I really love what I do now.

Jim Keelty

ps: Looking for any physics teachers at Cornell?

Posted by Jim Keelty
03/14/2012, 09:33 PM

OOPS! Commented on the wrong article

Posted by David Evans
03/16/2012, 04:56 PM

One of the factors that needs consideration is that everybody has been in a school and in a classroom, hence they "know" all about a school. Few have had the responsibility to teach with all the work that means. Consequently, the average person has an unwarranted belief that they have a degree of expertise about schools and education. They also believe that teachers don't have to work as hard as they do for they have only an 8 to 3 day and get off for a 3 month paid vacation every year. Those of us that have been teachers know that this is sheer unadulterated nonsense, but it is none the less a widespread perception.
Will those that attack the unions never learn that teachers, like all people, have a legitimate vested self-interest in guarantees of income and stability for their work. None on the critics seem to believe that teachers understand anything about their subjects and how to teach that subject. There is a tendency to act as if teachers are stupid (and sometimes individual teachers and the educational bureaucracy do a good job of being stupid thus making us look foolish).
We as teachers must continue to strive to teach each and all the students from where they are and to raise their knowledge as far a possible. We must also push back vigorously against the ignorance of the political types that seek to "reform" education, a system that they do not really understand.

Retired Social Studies Teacher
Posted by David Evans
06/05/2012, 06:47 PM

I believe that a major part of the problem is that everybody has been a student in various classrooms and schools. They generalize and believe that they understand schools and teaching. Therefore, they have ideas based on ideology and a very imperfect understanding of schools that they wish to impose on the public schools. They are not interested in input from teachers for they are considered selfserving and really incompetent.
We who believe in public schools must do a better job of supporting the concept and practice of public education. For at least 60 years I have been reading selfserving attacks on the public schools. How many of those who attack the public schools have another concealed agenda?

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