I urge you to read Solving the Mystery of the Schools, Diane Ravitch’s fine article in the March 24 issue of the New York Review of Books. Ravitch reviews two important books, Dale Russakoff’s The Prize—the story of the plot hatched by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to charterize Newark’s schools—and Kristina Rizga’s Mission High: One School, How Experts Tried to Fail It, and the Students and Teachers Who Made It Triumph, but the most interesting part is Ravitch’s accurate, succinct, and devastating summary of public education policy in America during the Bush and Obama years. This is Diane Ravitch the education historian summarizing the meaning of more than fifteen years of misguided policy.
Ravitch begins: “In recent years, American public education has been swamped by bad ideas and policies. Our national leaders, most of whom were educated at elite universities and should know better, have turned our most important domestic duty into a quest for higher scores on standardized tests.”
The Bush era, marked by the passage and implementation of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, is, of course, over. Here is Ravitch’s summary: “The punishments for not achieving higher test scores every year were increasingly onerous. A school that fell behind in the first year would be required to hire tutors. In the second year, it would have to offer its students the choice to move to a different school. By the end of five years, if it was not on track to achieve 100 percent proficiency, the school might be handed over to a private manager, turned into a charter school, taken over by the state, or closed. In fact, there was no evidence that any of these sanctions would lead to better schools or higher test scores, but no matter.”
Ravitch also summarizes the major education initiatives of the Obama era, even though a few months are left before President Obama’s term ends. She explains: “After Bush left office and was replaced by Barack Obama, the obsession with testing grew even more intense. Congress gave Secretary of Education Arne Duncan $5 billion in economic stimulus funds to encourage education reforms. Duncan released a plan in 2009 called Race to the Top…. In order to be eligible to compete for a share of that money at a time of deep economic distress, states had to adopt Duncan’s strategies. They had to expand the number of privately managed charter schools in the state; they had to agree to adopt ‘college-and-career-ready standards’ (which were the not-yet-completed Common Core State Standards). They had to agree, moreover, to evaluate teachers in relation to the rise or fall of the test scores of their students; and they had to agree to ‘turn around’ schools with low test scores by firing the principal, or firing all or half of the staff, or doing something equally drastic. The standardized tests immediately became more important than ever.”
In December, Congress rebuked Arne Duncan (who was by then leaving his position) by reauthorizing a version of the federal education law that significantly limits the power of the U.S. Secretary of Education. But Ravitch is not optimistic there will be a change in the overall direction of federal education policy: “Like NCLB, the new law requires annual testing of students in grades three to eight in reading and mathematics, but it turns this responsibility over to the states. ESSA (the Every Student Succeeds Act) prohibits future secretaries of education from meddling in states’ decisions and contracts the federal role in education. It also eliminates federal punishments for schools and teachers with low test scores, leaving those decisions to the states. What is not abandoned is the core belief that standardized testing and accountability are the right levers to improve education.”
Both of the books Ravitch reviews are written by reporters who embedded themselves for four years in the places where they wanted to study education—Russakoff in Newark and Rizga at Mission High School in San Francisco. Both authors came to question the education orthodoxy of the Bush-Obama era. Russakoff exposes the ideologically driven politics of the Christie-Booker effort to charterize Newark’s schools, and Rizga “realized that standardized test scores are not the best way to measure and promote learning. Typically, what they measure is the demographic profile of schools. Thus, schools in affluent white suburbs tend to be called ‘good’ schools. Schools that enroll children who are learning English and children who ware struggling in their personal lives have lower scores and are labeled ‘failing’ schools.” San Francisco’s Mission High School serves 950 students from forty countries.
Ravitch concludes: “The authors of these two books demonstrate that grand ideas cannot be imposed on people without their assent. Money and power are not sufficient to improve schools… But a further lesson matters even more: improving education is not sufficient to ‘save’ all children from lives of poverty and violence. As a society, we should be ashamed that so many children are immersed in poverty… every day of their lives.”