Ravitch: Wrenching Reversal

 Published April 26, 2010 in The Argus, Bay Area News Group    

     "The evidence suggests that the path we've been on for the past ten years is not working," says Diane Ravitch. And she makes that case poignantly in her recently published book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.
     Of course, Ravitch is not the first educational pundit to decry No Child Left Behind (NCLB), Charter Schools, Vouchers, High Stakes Testing, Merit Pay, and even Obama's Race to the Top.
     Why, then, when Ravitch speaks does everyone suddenly listen? Why did the publication of her book merit articles in The New York Times and on the front page of Education Week? Why was she the toast of the Bay Area two weeks ago, appearing at Stanford, U.C. Berkeley, and on KQED's Forum?
     It's not Ravitch's message that is new or the evidence she bases it upon. What's new--no, what's jaw-dropping, eye-popping, and game-changing--is that it is Ravitch who is saying it.
     Diane Ravitch used to be one of the most outspoken and respected advocates for market-based education reform. A professor at New York University, she's a preeminent educational historian. She served as Assistant Secretary of Education in the first Bush Administration, and later on the National Assessment Governing Board. She co-founded the conservative Koret Task Force and joined The Fordham Institute--both advocating get-tough approaches to fixing America's schools.
     But then Ravitch went through a "wrenching transformation" because she--gasp!--looked at the data. (Can she ever be forgiven?)
     "NCLB is close to a complete failure," Ravitch claims, citing, for example, the embarrassing fact that national reading scores haven't improved since 1998. She shakes her head at Milwaukee, the city with the oldest and most extensive voucher program. According to the most recent study, the city has seen no academic gains at all. Meanwhile, high-stakes testing and merit pay have "dumbed-down education" and "created a frenzy of teaching to the test" and even cheating. Merit pay "destroys the most fundamental ethic of education, which is collaboration."
     Ravitch's old allies are wringing their hands in disbelief and dismay. "She's really smart, and she has this incredible experience," laments Mark Schneider, a former commissioner of the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics. "That's why this book is so depressing. It hits on so many of the big themes of the day and picks them all apart."
     So, why don't Schneider and other conservative educational "reformers" acknowledge the data Ravitch highlights in her book?
For some, it's just too easy to dismiss her because she's gone over to the Dark Side, and now supports everyone's favorite educational scapegoat, teachers' unions. (No, she can never be forgiven for that!)
     But, there Ravitch goes again, citing the evidence: Massachusetts and Finland, the state and country with the highest student achievement are nearly 100% union, while those with no or weak unions post the lowest.
     Ravitch harks back to John Adams, our nation's second president, who quipped, "Facts are stubborn things." Even so, many individuals and organizations strive to suppress them: "There is a very-well financed effort to dismantle public education," Ravitch warns.
     She is not all doom and gloom, however. To a recent convention of school superintendents she proffered an alternative vision: "Nations like Finland and Japan seek out the best college graduates for teaching positions, prepare them well, pay them well and treat them with respect. They make sure that all their students study the arts, history, literature, geography, civics, foreign languages, the sciences and other subjects.... We're on the wrong track."
     The superintendents gave Ravitch a standing ovation. So should we all.

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