Whose Children have been left behind? by Diane Ravitch


December 9, 2011

My theme for today: Whose children have been left behind?

Let me tell you a little bit about myself. For many years, I was a strong advocate of testing, accountability, and choice. I worked in three conservative think tanks where these ideas were held sacred. In 1998, I went to Albany, New York, to testify on behalf of charter legislation. At the time I was connected to the conservative Manhattan Institute. I thought that testing would help diagnose the problems that children had and enable teachers to identify their needs. I thought that charters would enroll the kids who had failed in regular public schools or who were not well served by regular public schools. I thought that charters would collaborate with the public schools.

In a book published last year, I said that I was wrong. I was wrong on every count. Testing should be used for diagnostic purposes, to help students and teachers, but it has turned into a blunt instrument that is used to reward and punish teachers and schools. Charters should serve the neediest, but, with some notable exceptions, they have become aggressive and entrepreneurial. Instead of seeking out the neediest students, many of them exclude the neediest students and skim the best. In some states, like Michigan, most of the charters are for-profit, with big dividends to the investors; their profits come right out of the public school budget and into the pockets of shareholders. In some states, like Ohio, Colorado, and Pennsylvania, virtual charter schools are making millions of dollars for their owners, while children sit home alone in front of a computer. These cyber charters get full state tuition, but they have no buildings, no playgrounds, no library, no custodian, no nurse, and few teachers. They often have one teacher to monitor 100 screens. For investors, it’s a great business, but the educational results are awful. In Colorado, for example, only 12% graduate from the Virtual Academy, compared to a statewide graduation rate of 78%.

We have had a full decade of No Child Left Behind, and we now know that the law has been a disaster. True, it has documented the shocking gaps in passing rates between different groups of children, but it has done nothing to change the conditions that cause those gaps. We know the gaps are there; actually, we knew about the gaps long before NCLB was passed. Yet Congress is still patting itself on the back for identifying a problem and doing nothing meaningful to solve it.

Many children are still left behind. We know who they are.

In the year 2000, during the Presidential campaign, candidate George W. Bush told the nation about the Texas miracle. He said that there was a simple way to reduce the gaps: Just test every child every year, he said; reward the teachers and schools where the scores went up; and humiliate the teachers and schools where the scores went down. Texas did this, he said, and the gaps were closing; test scores were rising; graduation rates were going up; dropout rates were going down. He said that we had to end the “soft bigotry of low expectations” and set the same standards for all children, rich and poor, black and white, advantaged and disadvantaged.

After his election, Congress bought this story and passed No Child Left Behind. This law mandated that all children would be proficient by 2014 in grades 3-8. All children without exception. Bear in mind that no nation in the world has ever achieved 100% proficiency.

Now we know the results of this absurd law. More than 80% of our schools have been labeled failing schools. By the year 2014, nearly 100% of our schools will be considered failures. Has any other national legislature in history ever passed a law guaranteed to label every single one of its schools a failure? I don’t know of any.

We now know that NCLB was based on a phony claim. On national tests, Texas does not lead the pack; it’s right in the middle. We now know that the achievement gap did not close in Texas, and that dropout rates went up. But the whole nation is stuck with this testing regime.

Let’s be clear about what NCLB has really accomplished: It has convinced the media and major philanthropies and Wall Street hedge fund managers that American public education is a failure and that radical solutions are required. The philanthropists and Wall Street hedge fund managers and Republicans and the Obama administration and assorted rightwing billionaires have some ideas about how to change American education. They aren’t teachers but they think they know how to fix the schools.

Their ideas boil down to this strategy: NCLB failed because we didn’t use enough carrots and sticks. They say that schools should operate like businesses, because the free market is more efficient than government. So these reformers—I call them corporate reformers—advocate market-based reforms. They say that states must hand public schools over to private management because the private sector will be more successful than the public sector. They say that teachers will work harder if they get bonuses when test scores go up. They say that teachers should have no job protections because workers in the private sector don’t have job protections, not even the right to a hearing. They say that if schools have low scores, they should be closed and replaced by new schools, just like a chain store—a burger franchise or a shoe store–would be closed if it didn’t make a profit; or the entire staff should be fired and replaced by new staff. They say that the quality of teachers should be judged based on whether their students’ scores go up or down.

The Tea Party governors embraced this narrative and took it to the next level. They used their sweeping victories in 2010 to eliminate collective bargaining rights for public workers and to slash spending on public education, even as they demanded more funding for charters and vouchers. The mayor of New York City said a week ago that if he had the power to do it, he would fire half the city’s teachers, double the pay of those that remained, and double class size. He said when he went to school, he was in a large class and he turned out OK. He didn’t mention that his daughters went to schools where the class size was 12. My youngest grandchild attends kindergarten in a Brooklyn public school. He has a class size of 24. Under the mayor’s plan, his teacher would have a class of 48. None of them would get any individual attention. I don’t see this as progress, particularly because the evidence is clear and strong that minority children benefit most when class sizes are reduced below 20 in a classroom.

So which children would be left behind?

We have now had ten years of No Child Left Behind, and we now know that there has been very little change in the gaps between the children of the rich and the children of the poor, between black children and white children, between Hispanic children and white children. Meanwhile our policymakers say we need higher standards, more rigorous standards, and more testing. How exactly will that help children who are struggling to read and do math? Or, in some cases, struggling to read and speak English? Or in the case of children with disabilities, how are they helped by harder tests? This is like saying, “if these children can’t jump over a four-foot bar, let’s lift the bar to six feet and see how they do.” Do you know how they will do? It seems obvious to me.

Just this week, the federal government released the urban district test results and we could see that the gap remained as large as ever. After ten years of NCLB, the children at the bottom were still at the bottom. Those districts where poverty and racial segregation—such as Detroit and Washington, D.C.–are most concentrated had the lowest scores.

But wait, some of the districts tested by the federal government have been actually implementing the market-based reforms advocated by the corporate reformers: New York City, which has had mayoral control since 2002; Washington, D.C., which has had mayoral control since 2007; Chicago, where Arne Duncan launched market-based reforms in 2001; and Milwaukee, which has had vouchers since 1990.

Since the mayor took charge in 2002, New York City has enthusiastically imposed market-style reforms. It has more choice than any other major city—parents and students get to choose among 400 high schools, as well as more than 100 charter schools. All schools are given letter grades based on test scores. NYC spent $56 million on merit pay, then abandoned the program when it showed zero results. After nine years of market-based reforms, however, the achievement gap between black and white students is unchanged. On the federal tests, math scores are up but no more than in districts without market reforms. Eighth grade reading scores have been flat since 2003.

Which children do you think were left behind?

In Washington, D.C., there have been many claims in the media about sensational test score gains, but that’s not what you see on the latest federal tests. In fourth grade reading, the scores have been rising steadily since 2003, but not for all students. The scores of high-income students have gone up but the scores of black students, Hispanic students, and low-income students remain unchanged for the past four years. In eighth grade reading, scores are down for the past four years for black students, Hispanic students, and low-income students. And most importantly, the District of Columbia public school system has the largest achievement gap of any city in the nation between white and black students, a staggering 64 points in 4th grade, compared to an average of 30 points for all urban districts; and an equally staggering 58 points in eighth grade, compared to 28 points for all urban districts.

So whose children were left behind?

In Chicago, where Secretary Duncan’s reform program led to the closing of 100 neighborhood schools, only 18% of the new schools were judged successful by the state of Illinois. On the NAEP for cities, Chicago continues to be one of the lowest performing in the nation. Since 2003, black and Hispanic students have seen no improvement in their reading scores in fourth grade. In eighth grade reading, there have been no gains whatever for black students or low income students since federal testing began in 2002, and no gains for Hispanic students since 2005. According to the latest research, the black-white achievement gap is larger now in Chicago than when the reforms began.

In Milwaukee, after 21 years of vouchers, black students have among the lowest scores of any city tested, ranked at the bottom along with Detroit, Fresno, and Cleveland. Independent research has shown that the black and low-income students in Milwaukee’s voucher schools have the same low scores as the black students in the public schools. Their scores are about the same as those of poor black kids in the Deep South. Vouchers and competition did nothing for the children of Milwaukee. These children were left behind.

And consider this: Tea-party governors know that vouchers do nothing to improve education, but they are pushing them anyway. The Governor of Indiana, Mitch Daniels, pushed through the first statewide voucher program in the nation. Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin got his conservative legislature to expand the Milwaukee program, to raise the income eligibility cap, so that more children could go to voucher schools, despite the evidence that vouchers don’t improve education. The whole point seems to be to decimate the public sector.

And here is the latest voucher scandal. When Jeb Bush was governor of Florida, he pushed through a voucher program. The state courts struck down one part of the voucher program, the part for students in failing schools. But the courts did not eliminate the McKay Scholarships, which enabled students with disabilities to get vouchers to attend any school. Just this week, the Florida press revealed that some of the deregulated voucher schools are fly-by-night operations, conducted in storefronts, churches, and dingy homes, staffed by administrators and teachers with criminal records. They found students who spent their entire day filling out workbooks or hanging around a gymnasium watching television. One school had a class, described as “business management,” which consisted of shaking cans on street corners. Florida has pumped over $1 billion into this voucher program and Governor Scott wants to expand it to more deregulated schools.

Whose children are left behind by these policies?

From all the developments, experiences, and research of the past decade, here is what I have learned:

First, charter schools have been portrayed as a silver bullet that will raise up every child, especially poor and minority children, but they are not. By their very nature, charters vary. Some are excellent, some get high scores but are boot camps where children are taught to obey without question, some are terrible. On the whole—and study after study shows this—charters don’t get different results from regular public schools. When I was active a decade ago with the Manhattan Institute, which is led by conservative business leaders, it was decided that the best way to market charter schools was to present them as a way to save minority children. This strategy, it was believed, would win liberal support for a very conservative idea. They were right. Liberals could not resist this narrative. 5

So today we see Wall Street hedge funders and billionaires saying that they are leading the civil rights movement of our time. I have trouble imagining Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., walking arm in arm with billionaires in a crusade to privatize control of public education. Dr. King understood that social movements need a mass base, and that they are not based in Wall Street. He knew that the civil rights movement depended on its moral authority as well as its ability to mobilize poor and working people in coalition with labor unions. He had no desire to privatize. He wanted to make private interests bow to the demands of the public interest. As I watch rightwing politicians doing their best to destroy the public sector unions, I recall that Dr. King was assassinated at the very time that he was fighting to organize the sanitation workers of Memphis. How dare they invoke his legacy to attack public education and public sector workers!

We know—or we should know—that poor and minority children should not have to depend on the good will and beneficence of the private sector to get a good education. The free market works very well in producing goods and services, but it works through competition. In competition, the weakest fall behind. The market does not produce equity. In the free market, there are a few winners and a lot of losers. Some corporate reformers today advocate that schools should be run like a stock portfolio: Keep the winners and sell the losers. Close schools where the students have low scores and open new ones. But this doesn’t help the students who are struggling. No student learns better because his school was closed; closing schools does not reduce the achievement gap. Poor kids get bounced from school to school. No one wants the ones with low scores because they threaten the reputation and survival of the school.

The goal of our education system should not be competition but equality of educational opportunity. There should not be a Race to the Top. What is the Top? Who will get there first? Will it be poor and minority students? Don’t count on it. The Top is already occupied by the children of the 1%.

To be a healthy society, we must improve our public schools. We must provide better schools in every neighborhood. We must help the children who need help. We must treat our teachers and principals and administrators with respect. If they need support, they should get it.

With all the talk about the achievement gap, it is important for you to know that there are two different achievement gaps. One is the gap between the children of the wealthy and the children of the poor. This gap has doubled in the past half century, as poverty and income inequality have increased. The racial achievement gap was actually cut in half in the 1970s and 1980s. Paul Barton of the Educational Testing Service attributed the shrinking of the racial achievement gap to the creation of federal assistance programs for the neediest children, such as Title I; to desegregation; to reduced class sizes; to early childhood education; and to increased economic opportunities for African-American families. He pointed out, however, that the racial achievement gap has remained almost unchanged since the 1980s.

We now know that none of the current carrot-and-stick policies will shrink the gap. We know it because they have been tried for 10 years and they haven’t worked. Structural changes like charters and vouchers overall will not make a difference. Merit pay makes no difference. Judging teachers by test scores demoralizes teachers and will lead to narrowing of the curriculum—so that the districts where children have the lowest scores will have more time for test preparation and less time for the arts, less time for history or civics, less time for science, less time for physical education. The children who need a great education the most will get the least.

And many more children will be left behind.

The entire current reform movement rests on a fanatical belief in standardized testing. Yet testing experts warn us that the tests should be used for diagnostic purposes, not to fire teachers and close schools. The basic rule of testing is that a test should be used only for the purpose for which it was designed. A test of fifth grade reading tests whether students can read at a fifth grade level; it is not a test of teacher quality. Testing experts warn that tests are subject to statistical error, measurement error, and human error. Sometimes the answer is wrong. Sometimes the question is wrong. Sometimes a thoughtful child will pick the wrong answer because it sounds plausible.

One thing we know for certain about standardized testing. Poor and minority kids consistently get lower test scores than white and privileged kids. So why would we make testing the most important measure of education? Why would we take the technology that is most discouraging to children in the bottom half and then insist that it matters more than anything else? Why would we give more credibility to standardized tests than to teachers’ and parents’ judgments about children’s potential?

In September, I visited Finland and I want to share with you what this tiny nation has accomplished. It regularly scores at the top of international tests in reading, mathematics, and science. It has the least variance from school to school, meaning that almost every school is a good school. Students in Finland never take a standardized test until they complete high school. Teachers in Finland are required to have a master’s degree. Teaching is a highly respected profession. Parents trust teachers. Teachers have autonomy to exercise professionalism.

Every child has regular medical checkups and healthcare, at no cost. Schools have health clinics. Whereas more than 20% of our children live in poverty, less than 4% of Finnish children do. Higher education is tuition-free.

Finland has no charter schools, no vouchers, no merit pay, no standardized testing. Instead, every teacher is trained to take care of the needs of individual children. If children are having learning problems, there are specialists and social workers in every school to take care of them early and provide whatever assistance is needed. Nearly half of all Finnish students get extra attention and services in the early years of schooling. Finland has no tracking. All children get the education and support they need to succeed in school. Finland does not have a longer school day or a longer school year. Finnish schools emphasize creativity, ingenuity, problem-solving, the arts, projects, activities, physical education, and risk-taking.

By the way, Finnish teachers and principals belong to the same union. It doesn’t seem to be a problem.

So what can we do? First, we should speak out when politicians say “there is no more money.” There is money to do what we want to do. There is money to fight wars in the Middle East. There is enough money to give big corporate cuts. There is enough money for 1% of this nation 7

to live lives of splendor. Why is there not enough money to provide the basic public services that every child needs?

 Every pregnant woman should have good pre-natal care and nutrition so that her child is born healthy. One of three children born to women who do not get good prenatal care will have disabilities that are preventable. That will cost society far more than providing these women with prenatal care.

 Every child should have the medical attention and nutrition that they need to grow up healthy.

 Every child should have high-quality early childhood education.

 Every school should have experienced teachers who are prepared to help all children learn.

 Every teacher should have at least a masters degree.

 Every principal should be a master teacher, not a recruit from industry, the military, or the sports world.

 Every superintendent should be an experienced educator who understand teaching and learning and the needs of children.

 Every school should have a health clinic.

 Schools should collaborate with parents, the local community, civic leaders, and local business leaders to support the needs of children.

 Every school should have a full and balanced curriculum, with the arts, sciences, history, civics, geography, mathematics, foreign languages, and physical education.

 Every child should have time and space to play.

 We must stop investing in testing, accountability, and consultants and start investing in children.

Do we want to be a decent society or a decadent society? Do we want to nurture, protect and inspire all of our children? Do we want children who are leaders or followers? Do we want to make sure that this generation of young people is prepared to sustain our democracy? Do we want citizens prepared to ask questions or just to answer questions posed by authorities?

We must stop the trash talk about our public schools and dedicate ourselves to making every one of them a school that is just right for all our children. Yes, it will cost more, but ignorance and neglect are much more expensive.

Surely the greatest nation in the world can mobilize the will to do what is right for the children. It won’t be easy, it won’t be cheap, and it won’t be fast. Doing the right thing never is. The only simple part is to recognize that what we are doing now is not working and will never work. What we need is a vision of a good education for every child. We should start now. Today.

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38 Responses to Whose Children have been left behind? by Diane Ravitch

  1. Elaine Hopkins

    Great article. Should be required reading for every politician and educator. And for taxpayers, too.

  2. jcgrim


  3. Anne Pritchett

    Thank you Diane. What an absolutely wonderful speech. Our children are blessed to have you in their corner.

  4. zulma

    The DoE continues to “sell the losers” by closing public schools and opening up charter schools. Sometimes I feel that the educrats at Tweed treat our children like “junk bonds”.

    Diane once again you are the voice for the parents, teachers, students, and the community. Thank you.

  5. Bonnie

    Thank you Diane. As a former school board member, I can tell that it has been a lonely fight locally – and your speech makes all the right points. The trick now is to change the national discourse – and corporate interests are so much better at that. Thank you for your contribution. I hope it is read and distributed widely.

  6. Deborah

    I spoke similarly to this when NCLB came out and was fired as an “avant-garde subversive.”

    Thank you, Diane, for changing your mind and leading the charge for something different!

    It’s all about the money and listening to those who actually know how to teach/and do the research: Colleges. After I graduated and received my first job, one of the first statements from the HS principal was, don’t be using those fancy college ideas b/c those professors live in Ivory Towers and don’t know “real life.” Wrong.

  7. Mary Anne

    I’m glad you mentioned that some charter schools are outstanding. Our local charter school Walton Rural Life Center is exemplary. It is part of our public school system and led by educators. It is not owned by a corporation. It has a high number of at risk students and continues to post high test scores. there is a waiting list for new students. I too hope that this is distributed and read by leaders and educators.

  8. Pamela

    I am so glad to read this commentary! It is absolutely true – and has been obvious for most teachers in the field for years.
    One comment about what children are left behind – The gifted. A focus on “closing the gap” between low and high achievers is misplaced. Instead, we should be concerned about raising the level of achievement for all children, including those at the top of the bell-shaped curve. Cuts in the last two decades have dismantled most programs geared to help students who really need a challenge, who have the greatest potential to be the problem-solvers and leaders of tomorrow. They don’t need “more,” but they do need what is appropriate for them, as do all children. Without challenging programming, many of these children drop out, either literally or figuratively. They learn that school has nothing to offer them and that all they have to do is show up to get by. Their precious gifts become squandered. I do not suggest that these students are better or more worthy than any other students, but they are different, just as special education students are different, and to ignore those differences is short-sighted and damaging.

    • Darrell

      You are so right, Pamela. How can the education system ignore our best and brightest students? These kids are the Steve Jobs’ of the future. They are the ones who have the greatest potential to make a difference in our country.

      • Mom

        @Pamela, @Darrell, yes, I agree whole-heartedly. I will add that gifted kids are found in every demographic, and gifted kids are very much at risk of dropping out.

    • Thelma T. Reyna

      You make excellent points, Pamela. As a California high school teacher and administrator for 34 years, I agree that our gifted children in this world of “standardization” are frequently “left behind.” I taught gifted students as well as remedial-level and non-English-speaking students and can affirm that the needs of these diverse groups are quite distinct from one another in many ways. Gifted students don’t need “more” work; they need to be taught differently because they learn differently; and teachers need to be specially trained in learning these different strategies for challenging our gifted students.

      Also, I am happy to say that, with nurturance and skill, ALL OF THESE GROUPS can achieve at a high level and be proud, happy students in the process. I saw this again and again in many classrooms during my 34 years, as well as my own, and believe that this point cannot be emphasized enough: ALL CHILDREN ARE CAPABLE OF HIGH ACHIEVEMENT, DESPITE THEIR BACKGROUNDS, AND ALL CHILDREN SHOULD BE GIVEN THE VERY BEST EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITIES POSSIBLE UNDER THE SUN.

      Teaching under the immense, stifling constraints of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) testing requirements kills the prospects of using different strategies to best enlighten and nurture our kids. As a university teacher of teachers now, I hear this concern expressed by almost 100% of teachers, year after year. I have yet to meet one teacher who liked NCLB and felt it was good for kids.

  9. Carol White

    This is a great article. You are right about everything you said. NCLB is a great concept, but no way will it ever work. Promotes dumbing down curriculum and cheating to get good test scores. My husband and I are both former educators and we’ve seen what NCLB has done to school districts. Thanks for writing such a great article.

  10. Lindsey

    What research are you referring to here?: “I don’t see this as progress, particularly because the evidence is clear and strong that minority children benefit most when class sizes are reduced below 20 in a classroom.”

  11. dormand

    If we do not implement effective and prompt improvements in the governance of our public schools, this nation is destined to fall to second or even third tier status in our incredibly competitive global trade.

    US world class companies cannot secure either the quality nor the quantity of talent they need, particularly in the sciences to sustain their competitive position.

    Thus they are forces to either a ) import talent, or b ) export jobs.

    Our young are not gaining the exposure to learning that is essential to develop their talent. Staffers with George Lucas’ Edutopia who have taught in both Asian public schools and domestic public school find the difference in levels of learning to be compelling, as the US students are simply not learning anywhere near the level of their Asian equivalents.

    When we need to buy a new consumer durable, we go to Consumer Reports to find the most recommended product. Inevitably, the top product is from South Korea, Finland, or another country with superior educational effectiveness.

    We have here pockets of exceptional effectiveness. In the most poverty stricken section of Los Angeles you will find Rafe Esquith’s Hobart Shakespeareans, which has for two decades transformed fifth graders from the worst possible homes into exceptionally productive members of society.

    We need to study those best practice programs which are performing successfully and emulate their protocols, or we will find our country both deeply in debt from Boomer flawed judgement, as well as inable to compete as our young were not developed adequately.

    Diane Ravitch both sees the problems clearly and has solutions. We should follow her guidance to get education in this country back on track before it is too late.

  12. Shulamit

    It is a well-written article. And I understand that when posting such an article to this kind of publishing venue, that citations are neither necessary, nor useful, if they will put the general public off of reading it, due to the visual sense that it is “academic” rather than directly applicable.

    Nonetheless, Diane, I’d love to see a link to this same article *with* citations. Or if not, then exactly which of your books I can find the citations in.

    Thank you,

  13. Joyce

    She has some good points, but dont you think that parents have to take some responsibility?

    • Emily

      Yes, parenting or lack thereof is a significant factor in educational success. My husband grew up in a low income family, who insisted on him doing well in school, and yes, they spanked him if he didn’t. He is now an educator who has students who sleep in class because they’ve been awake all night playing computer games, or they’ve been working late to make car payments and insurance because they don’t want to take advantage of the public transportation provided to them, or because their parents want them to CART YOUNGER SIBLINGS TO ACTIVITIES. This situation is definitely a parenting problem…children our school system are not being failed by the education system, their parents are failing them. The problems in education have a lot to do with a breakdown in the moral fiber of our nation. I’m leary of comparisons to countries like Finland. Do mothers in Finland work 2nd and 3rd shift jobs? Do competitive sports in the schools exist there? There are bright minds graduating from colleges today that have no job prospects because corporate America went to foreign countries. Ravitch must compare more than the educational systems, her approach is far too simplistic…

  14. Thelma T. Reyna

    In one of my university classes that I teach, I used a textbook that is an eye-opener regarding the corporate involvement in charter schools. It’s scary, to say the least. The book is by a research psychologist trained in Stanford University, Gerald W. Bracey, titled WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT THE WAR AGAINST AMERICA’S PUBLIC SCHOOLS (Allyn & Bacon, 2003). Half of the book is devoted to “The Invasion of the Privatizers,” and he doesn’t hold back.

    As Bracey says, education in the US is a $700 BILLION INDUSTRY, something Wall Streeters and venture capitalists have been lusting after for quite a while. The for-profit EMO’s (“educational management organizations”) that have taken over about 70% of America’s charter schools have not improved schools, according to statistics, and in many cases have hurt education more than the “bad public schools” they replaced. Teachers are fired in the middle of the school year, in some cases; classes are held in storage rooms; special needs children are kicked out or totally excluded, etc. The focus in these corporate-run, for-profit schools is almost always on profits for the shareholders and the executives running the school, not on the children.

    Being aware of what’s happening in education is vital. Diane Ravitch opens our eyes, but we the people must open our own eyes wider and spread the truth.

  15. Peter Smyth

    Connect this amazing essay by Dr. Ravitch with today’s NYT article exploring for-profit online schools and the refusal of the DOE and the Obama administration to rein in for-profit colleges and you have the trifecta.

  16. Martha Martin

    This was a great article. I would like to see or hear more about the special education end. My students make gains, but they will not pass the state assessment.

  17. Pingback: Whose Children have been left behind? by Diane Ravitch « Parents Across America « Truth and Traditions Party

  18. Dan Gladish, PhD

    In 2001 John Boehner (our district’s congressional representative and NCLB co-author) watched G. W. Bush sign the bill into law at our local high school. I have been teaching college introductory-level plant biology and ecology courses at a nearby university for the past 17 years. Many of my students over the years were students from that high school. I have observed no discernable improvement in their abilities to read, write, or think critically over that 17-year span. The only difference the NCLB seems to have made on my students became noticeable 2-3 years after its imposition, and that difference was and continues to be a decreased interest in learning (compared to before NCLB) and a passionate conviction that nothing matters but getting a high score on tests.

    Ever since NCLB began affecting college student attitudes, I have been routinely criticized by many of my students for refusing to narrow the information I present strictly to what will be tested and refusing to tell them in advance exactly what the answers would be to the questions that would appear on my tests. These attitudes were not deterred by my telling them that they had voluntarily signed up for a comprehensive course of study to enrich their knowledge, therefore they would be expected to learn ALL the material, and that real life will not tell them what they will need to know to succeed. That is something that Diane Ravitch did not include in her insightful article: NCLB has resulted in unrealistic and unconstructive attitudes among our young people about what is important for them to get from their education, which is just that – an education, one that will benefit them when they confront the challenges that adult life is likely to present.

  19. Henry

    Ugh. “[T]he evidence is clear and strong that minority children benefit most when class sizes are reduced below 20 in a classroom.” What evidence? Why do smart people like Diane repeat this without citing the studies they’re talking about? Is it the Tennessee/STAR study from eons ago? If it’s something more recent that’s not a state secret, please let the rest of us know.

    Whenever I see an expert repeat a line like this (far too often) I look to see if a new study has come out to back up the claim that class size matters. But consistently, research is inconclusive or shows the opposite. I know many people would be happy if the research existed to support policies aimed at lowering class sizes, but just willing the evidence to be there doesn’t make it so, and reinforcing the meme without empirical support is irresponsible.

    Diane does a good (and fair) job of pointing to specific numbers on cyber schools, etc., but she should apply the same scrutiny to all reforms and ed policies, even where the data might ultimately be unhelpful or inconvenient.

    This issue matters to me, and should matter to all of you, because the resources devoted to reducing class size are enormous, and could be much better directed to interventions that actually make a difference.

    • Val Edmiston

      Henry – Ask ANY teacher if class size matters.

  20. Emily

    While the article is very compelling, there are some major factors that Ms. Ravitch is failing to address. If parents are unhappy with the lack of success of their children to succeed, they need to look in the mirror. Ms. Ravitch suggests better collaboration with parents. She might be surprised to know that collaboration takes wllingness on the part of parents to actively collaborate with teachers. The general attitude teachers encounter is “I don’t have time to be bothered with talking with you about my child’s education.”. Ms. Ravitch offers Finland as an example. How many mothers in Finland work 2nd and 3rd shift jobs? Do competitive sports exist in public schools? When Finland’s bright minds finish their educations, do they have jobs available that reward their abilities? Not all children in our nation are academically gifted, but they are excellent in craftmanship. Children who are gifted at working with their hands are often labeled as ‘left behind’ when in reality they are quite gifted at what they do outside of the classroom. If any improvements in education need to be made, it is in the area of adequately assessing the strengths each individual and tailoring the education to fit their interests and abilities.

  21. Louise

    What can I do now?

    • Tom Paine

      Run for your local school board. Win the election. Make a difference.

  22. George

    Thanks you Diane. I have been in public education for all of my life and I have witnessed this first-hand. Testing and the profits being made by test developers has become what education is all about. The result is a failing education system where we no longer care about educating the whole child, we only value the test taker. We have sold the future of our youth in order to develop a nation of test takers. What becomes of innovation and creativity when all that matters is test results? Well, I guess we are reaping those results now. Thank you for your honesty.

  23. Anne

    There is only one person above who asks “What can I do now?” The rhetoric is great, but things only change when something is actually done. I ask the same question – what can we do as individuals (I am not a teacher, not in the educational field, but I do care).

  24. Robert C. Rendo

    No wonder the rich are so passionate about education; they stand to change the way young brains get wired, schools get financed, and who we become as a society. Moreover, who can ignore their capture and reinventing the vast public realm of American schools into an even vaster capitalist empire of goods and services?

    One such byproduct of the reform movement is the fixation on standardized testing, which is one of many ways of assessing students’ strengths and weaknesses. Left alone to stand by itself or used as the dominant mode of assessment, it quickly gains the accurate status of “efficient, relatively cost effective, and weakly empirical”.

    There is no metric out there that is sensitive enough to truly measure everything a student knows. Our so called language proficiency tests for English language learners, for example, are a prime example in which students are taught hundreds of elements and aspects of English, but are only tested on a few, randomly designed array of those elements. It’s hit or miss when students perform on such tests, unless, of course, the students have had substantial amounts of test preparation, most often at the hideous cost of crowding out other types of knowledge. For example, when a student’s augmented lexicon contains 3000 items, but the tests look for literacy skills such as decoding “wr” and “ch”, then the child’s true linguistic acumen is not only measured inaccurately, but is mischaracterized. Literacy and reading skills, while ultimately critical, are learned and tested at the dire expense of children’s true rich oral language, which develops saliently through experiences and the five senses. It makes sense to lower the stakes on standardized testing, therefore, so that the tests can serve their main purpose: to inform the teacher and drive future instruction. The test should only function as a data tool and not as a politicized castigative whipping post.

    Oral language development has not become a substantive standard in and of itself, and this absence reflects the egregious incompetence and disconnect of policy makers. In the United States, we sacrifice language acquisition for rigid, inflexible and perniciously dominating tests.

    Equally worse and unjust is the evaluation of teachers; if the child is to be assessed holistically, so must the teacher’s tutelage and custodianship. The two are inextricably linked. It leads one to easily infer that part of the “education crisis” is indeed manufactured, and the “manufacturing process” has very thickly coated the product with politics.

    The rich and their tentacles in education have brought us to the astonishing realization that those who create and enforce educational policy are far removed from the educational process and have succeeded in swaying the commercial media and its audience into buying the “product”. Such policy makers vacuum up the humanism in teaching and learning.

    Which, really, is why the FIRST thing we educators must do is to remove people like Randi Weingarten, Bill and Melinda Gates, Arne Duncan, Barack Obama, Steve Brill, and Michael Bloomberg, just to name a very few from the educational scene. And the aftermath of such a purging should also involve the cabinet installation of true cognitive scientists and researchers who observe and empirically prove what learning really is all about. . . . people like Steven Krashen, Linda Darling Hammond, Noam Chomsky, Jim Cummins, Pedro Noguera, etc. We would also add to this mixture actual veteran teachers who are Nationally Board Certified and some who have taught diverse student populations. If we were to systemize and institutionalize this, we would nearly eliminate achievement gaps and substandard levels of literacy, math, and science. We would also be fostering a more well balanced and well adjusted youth who would exude productivity in the workplace and in civic life. That very balance would propel and protect democracy. It would probably begin to ravage poverty. I think that this trajectory, seen by connecting all these obvious dots, scares not the ninety-nine percenters, but rather, the one percent.

    Until we really convince and educate the public about what it means to learn, to teach, and to be educated, we will be absorbed into this cyborg-like plutonomy, all to have but a distant memory of what it was to be like to be creative, innovative, highly verbal, and critically thinking. And that, however subtly accomplished over a generation, would relegate the great populist masses into accepting a crime against humanity that no one should ever have to think of.

    -Robert Rendo, New York

    The commentator is a veteran Nationally Board Certified teacher in the public schools and teaches low income students. He is also a nationally award winning editorial illustator with works in the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune.

    Read more: http://ideas.time.com/2011/12/09/why-are-the-rich-so-interested-in-public-school-reform/#ixzz1gl8fVzlX

  25. Susan

    I believe that parents should attend school separate from their children for at least 2 weeks, then they can be graded on their parenting skills. How much involvement in their children’s lives creates an environment for proper learning. It should not be the sole responsibility of the schools to teach their children!!! I would like to see a study on the home life of the children in Finland. There is a sense of entitlement in this country. Parents need to take a part in the future of their children, take responsibility for their successes and failures. I am a Dental Hygienist and an educator for oral health. So many parents just “expect” their children to brush their teeth properly, “expect” them to never get a cavity. Where is the guidance? Parents are the first and most influential teachers of their children and the teaching needs to begin at home.
    When I received the “list” of materials needed for my kindergarten child, I went to the store with my child and we shopped for the items together. He helped to read the list and select items. I purchased everything on that list, just as it was written. I was showing him to follow directions, just as he would be asked to follow in school. How many parents just blow that off? I could go on and on with examples, I’ve made my point.

  26. Peter Lydon

    No shortage of common sense around these here parts unfortunately education is in the hands of the Marketeers. It would be easy to say nothing and just plod along. WEll done to Diane for saying what needs to be said.
    Unfortunately in Ireland we are about to embark on a ‘reform’ programme that other countries have tried and ruined their education systems on. I have to repost this article.

  27. Tom Paine

    Albany, New York is a poster child for what happens when charters run amok.

  28. D4designs

    Diane is right on target as usual. This country is full of great minds like Diane; we have close to 100K NBCTs who know how to educate children. SO, I must ask the question…why dont we (as a nation ) want to educate all of our children? Why do poor & minority children get an education of lesser quality than rich majority children. Why are teachers of the most academically needy children often the least prepared and most poorly compensated. Have we written off an entire generation of young people?

    History tells us that education in this country has alway been to keep the economic machine turning. Now we dont need this generation to harvest crops, build cars or work in the factories? So we dont educate them?…What we are forgeting is that the next Henry Ford or Bill Gates might be sitting in a classroom in one of those underperforming schools we close. The young person with the cure for cancer or that develops the next energy source may be in the schools we are under staffing and under funding. The young person with the solution to our fresh water shortage or to solutions to our economic problems that we dont even know are problems yet are sitting in our schools right now and we dont know who they are. So we must come together as a nation, The President, Arne Duncan, Business Leaders, Govt Officials, Parents and Teachers to prepare our students for a world with many challenges that they will be leading. And lets give the people who know how to educate children the a system with the training and resources necessary to get the job done.

  29. RKC

    While I think it is great that DR had this epiphany so late in her career and apologizes for being so wrong for so long I am getting a little bored with her constant criticisms and lack of concrete solutions. Everything she mentions in her article we have known for a long time. We knew 5 years ago that NCLB was a “disaster” – there are great charters (some in Milwaukee) and there are awful ones (just like there are awful public schools) – some use assessments for learning and some just test…

    I understand she has to set up her argument by stating the “knowns”. The problem I have is with her generic solutions – it’s like she has never been in a school or spent time in a district. I think we all agree with the generic solutions, but without any practical suggestions on “how” or “where to start” I just don’t see how her criticisms move the ball forward.

    I would like to see DR spending her time, energy, and connections working on finding out how we can get “every school to have experienced teachers who are prepared to help all children learn… Every superintendent should be an experienced educator…Every school should have a health clinic… etc”.

    Book sales were great – speaking engagements well attended – the right people are listening… now there needs to be a shift to practical solutions. My mom used to say if you aren’t a part of the solution you are a part of the problem. We need people that want to work to solve the problem not just criticize what has already been done.

    Only time will tell if DR can back up her words.

  30. Chris Stampolis

    I appreciate much of what Dr. Ravitch wrote, but we all would benefit from more practical solutions in the essay. As an elected Community College Trustee, I am concerned about the big gap between what is needed to earn a high school diploma and readiness to enroll in college-credit courses that are transferable to four-year institutions. Community Colleges cannot reasonably continue to provide all basic skills/remedial education and also to offer transferable general education comparable to the first two years of any top-notch university. Too easy for the K-12 system to say “Well, they’re 18. Now it’s your turn, Community Colleges. And, oh, by the way, we’re all fighting for the same limited pot of pennies.”

    While NCLB’s 100 percent proficiency goal is impractical, tracking proficiency rates by school has merit. The data allows community members to identify which Title I schools achieve high proficiency rates among Socio-Economically Disadvantaged and/or English Language Learner students. What rarely occurs in public dialogue is to focus on best practices of high-performance neighborhood public schools that serve low-wealth, high-diversity communities.

    I oppose vouchers. I support collective bargaining. And, I also am frustrated this discussion about student success has become so “he said/she said” that we neglect to highlight the replicable achievements of some neighborhood public schools.

    Not every neighborhood public school is the same. Some foster cultures of achievement. Some suffer with cultures of exhaustion. And although every neighborhood public school has successes and joyful celebrations, professional educators must be inspired to want to learn about and appropriately emulate the successes of other schools.

    Also, we need a public school administrative culture that does not allow “good enough” to be “good enough.”

    I’m a Dad of two elementary public school students. I serve on our School Site Council and I appreciate reviewing testing data so parents and teachers can engage in collegial dialogue about how to spend categorical funding. The school has achieved very high proficiencies in a high SED/ELL environment through a blend of direct instruction, frequent school-run testing for student assessment, a culture of structure and data-sharing between teachers. At this diverse K-5 school, the achievement gaps significantly have narrowed. A year ago, the school achieved one hundred percent proficiency in fourth-grade math.

    Unfortunately, many educators at other schools feel defensive about the whole concept of proficiency tracking and resist the use of data to study successes.

    The charter debate is important, but it’s a red herring if we don’t harvest the raw data NCLB has provided. The program needs reform, but so do the proficiency levels of many schools. By looking at the data dispassionately and studying the success stories, we can identify and replicate approaches that work. There are high SED/ELL schools that consistently foster strong testing results. Publicizing those successes acknowledges that not every school is thriving. Public school advocates must become the loudest voices demanding to replicate successes of well-performing neighborhood public schools.

    Chris Stampolis
    Trustee, West Valley-Mission Community College District

  31. Tamr

    It’s not just the poor families who have children left behind. I raised my son in Naperville, Il. At age 2 he was diagnosed with learning disabilities. All through his school years, I had to constantly FIGHT for him to get the help he needed. Many special ed classes consisted of him “babysitting” more disabled children and or him sitting and coloring for hours. The schools came up with a pass/fail grade system. This made it easy for them to show he was doing ok when in fact, their standard for PASS was a laugh. One year, he actiually spent the first whole week of school just sitting in a classroom doing NOTHING. When I went to the school to ask about it I was told they were short on funding and there was no teacher available yet! I now have a 28 year old adult son who stills reads at 4th grade level. He has a private tutor which is costly. My child was left behind and we are not POOR or MINORITY. Please stop saying its only the poor and minority children who are left behind. People think my son just doesn’t “try” but I wish they could live his life just one day to see how his problems with reading and writing impact EVERY area of his life. I am totally NOT impressed with public education in this country!

  32. John Kenedy

    Of course and by design, the poor will always be left behind. The Koch Bros are smiling somewhere.