By 2010, there were a lot of people who had grown very concerned about the No Child Left Behind Act and the use of annual high-stakes testing to identify so-called “failing” schools. It was a federal education scheme that imposed punishments on public schools serving America’s poorest students instead of providing help. The movement to condemn No Child Left Behind didn’t crystalize, however, until Diane Ravitch, the education historian and former school reformer, published a book about why she had been wrong.
Here is how she confessed her sins on the first page of the first chapter of that book: “In the fall of 2007, I reluctantly decided to have my office repainted… At the very time that I was packing up my books and belongings, I was going through an intellectual crisis. I was aware that I had undergone a wrenching transformation in my perspective on school reform. Where once I had been hopeful, even enthusiastic, about the potential benefits of testing, accountability, choice, and markets, I now found myself experiencing profound doubts about these same ideas. I was trying to sort through the evidence about what was working and what was not. I was trying to understand why I was increasingly skeptical about these reforms, reforms that I had supported enthusiastically. I was trying to see my way through the blinding assumptions of ideology and politics, including my own. I kept asking myself why I was losing confidence in these reforms… Why did I now doubt ideas I once had advocated? The short answer is that my views changed as I saw how these ideas were working out in reality.” (The Death and Life of the Great American School System, pp. 1-2)
Ravitch was not the first person to notice that something had gone terribly wrong, but she provided the first coherent analysis of the mass of factors and ideas that had shaped a new and unfortunate direction for federal policy in public education.
Now Ravitch has done us all another favor. In a short, concise analysis published by The Progressive, Ravitch adds another decade to her 2010 analysis. She shows readers precisely what President Joe Biden’s administration needs to do to turn away from privatization schemes and from public school reform based on punishing the school districts that serve our nation’s neediest children. She urges the Biden Administration to focus intensely helping the nation’s most vulnerable public schools.
She begins: “President Joe Biden will have his work cut out in repairing the damage done to U.S. education caused by Donald Trump and his one-time Secretary of Education, Betsy Devos. But Biden and his Secretary of Education…, Miguel Cardona, must also reverse at least twenty years of federal education policy, starting over with measures that allow teachers to teach and children to learn without fear of federal sanctions.”
Ravitch’s short summary of the history that has brought us to where we are today deftly takes us back to 1983 with the publication of The Nation at Risk. She reminds us about George H.W. Bush’s summit of the nation’s governors, chaired by then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, who later when he was President, paved the way for No Child Left Behind by launching the Education Goals 2000. Ravitch writes: “Goals cost nothing, and they give the illusion of activity. In his ‘Goals 2000’ program, Clinton encouraged every state to write standards and give more tests… George W. Bush topped his predecessors during the 2000 campaign when he claimed that his education plan had produced a ‘miracle’ in Texas. Test every child every year, he said, and honor schools where scores go up and embarrass schools where they don’t… By the end of 2001, Congress had passed his (No Child Left Behind) law, expanded to more than 1,000 pages, and Bush signed it on January 8, 2002.”
The rest is more familiar recent history. When, “By 2014, few U.S. schools were on track to reach the law’s demand for 100 percent proficiency… Arne Duncan offered waivers to states from the law’s requirement.” But he added to the troubles with his Race to the Top, which bribed the states to compete for $4.35 billion in federal funds, “but only if they met certain conditions… increase the number of charter schools… evaluate teachers based on the test scores of their students… adopt common national standards… and take swift punitive action against schools that did not raise their scores.”
Ravitch concludes: “The challenge for Miguel Cardona, Biden’s Secretary of Education, will be to abandon two decades of high-stakes testing and accountability and to remove any federal incentives to create privately managed charter schools… Cardona should begin by offering blanket waivers for the 2021 testing cycle.”
I am certain Ravitch submitted her new article for publication before last week, when a deputy assistant secretary in the Department of Education released guidance insisting that the federally mandated high stakes testing will continue this year despite COVID-19. And I am sure she submitted it before Monday evening, when the U.S. Senate finally confirmed Miguel Cardona to his position as the new U.S. Secretary of Education.
We can hope that perhaps Biden and Cardona will somehow correct the Department’s mistaken new guidance that mandates the continuation of high stakes testing this year during COVID-19. We can hope Secretary Cardona will listen to Ravitch and the huge chorus of parents, deans of colleges of education, teachers unions, the national Superintendents Roundtable and scholarly researchers who study the construction and use of standardized tests.
What is extremely hopeful is that our new President, Joe Biden, has seemed in the past at least to agree with Diane Ravitch’s analysis of what has gone wrong with federal education policy. Biden’s education plan during the campaign emphasized tripling funding for the federal Title I program to support schools serving concentrations of children living in poverty and fulfilling, within the next decade, Congress’s promise, when it passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, that the federal government would pay for 40 percent of the cost of the mandated programming. (Currently Congress is covering less than 15 percent of the cost.) Biden also advocated greater accountability for charter schools and eliminating federal funding flowing to the for-profit education management organizations that run huge chains of charters. And he declared his support for diminishing the role of high-stakes standardized testing.
If you read one education article this week, I urge you to read and re-read Diane Ravitch’s short, pithy piece in The Progressive. Maybe even make yourself a copy and put it on your bulletin board or in your wallet and read it again once a month. I certainly urge Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to do the same thing.
Ravitch concludes “Urban districts don’t need testing, standards, accountability, and competition… Why not try a radically different approach? Why not fully fund the schools where the needs of the students are greatest? Give the schools that enroll students with disabilities the resources that Congress promised but never delivered. Make sure that schools that serve the neediest students have experienced teachers, small classes, and a full curriculum that includes the arts and time for play. Now that would be a revolution!”