The big news in the world of education reform is the stunning reversal in ideology of Diane Ravitch, former assistant secretary of education under President George W. Bush and one of the biggest supporters of the No Child Left Behind act. Last month, Ravitch renounced the same program that she had advocated so persuasively. In her new book, “The Death and Life of the American School System," Ravitch calls No Child Left Behind a strategy of “measuring and punishing" which led to “cheating and gaming the system.”
Speaking on National Public Radio, Ravitch said, “Instead of raising standards, it [has] actually lowered standards because many states have ‘dumbed-down’ their tests or changed the scoring of their tests to say that more kids are passing than actually are." Moreover, Ravitch claims that the excessive time on testing and test preparation today has forced schools to de-prioritize important subjects like history, music, and art. “The kids are getting a worse education as a result of No Child Left Behind.”
Ravitch is a woman of integrity who admits that the very school improvement strategy that she made appear credible to the public has actually failed. Unfortunately, President Obama, like George W. Bush, still hasn’t seen the light. Obama supported the firing of the entire teaching staff in Central Falls, Rhode Island last month – a move which was justified and made possible by the No Child Left Behind act for which Ravitch used to advocate. In a recent article about the dismissal of teachers in Central Falls, Ravitch wrote that "[Obama's] own education reform plans are built right on top of the shaky foundation of President Bush's No Child Left Behind program. The fundamental principle of school reform, in the Age of Bush and Obama, is measure and punish. If students don't get high enough scores, then someone must be punished! If the graduation rate hovers around 50%, then someone must be punished. This is known as 'accountability'."
So what is wrong with insisting on accountability? Nothing, as long as you know who is accountable. No Child Left Behind has failed because it is based on an unproven premise – that the educational failures in many communities are due to failing schools rather than a myriad of other socioeconomic factors. Yet No Child Left Behind was an easy ‘sell’ precisely because it placed the onus of educational improvement on the teachers and required nothing of parents, families, or whole communities except their support of the simplistic ‘get tough with teachers’ policy.
But are teachers really responsible? If a fireman saves a few people from a burning building but is unable to save those caught in a raging inferno three floors above, do we still call him a hero or a failure for not doing the impossible? In the educational world, many people blame the teachers for not doing the impossible instead of offering praise for making the most out of a very difficult situation. Is it possible in the most difficult school districts -- beset with problems of poverty, violence, absentee parents, aberrant student behavior, ESL, and inadequate special needs resources -- that teachers are actually heroes for demonstrating unrelenting commitment to students and accomplishing what they can in suboptimal learning environments?
The irony about No Child Left Behind is that the very strategy designed to promote clear analytical thinking in American youths was based on shallow, superficial, non-analytical thinking. And a lot of American adults supported it without thinking.
- Note: This is the second in a three-part series on education:
- Part 1, "Let's fire the teachers,"
- Part 3, "5 Steps to better education in America (and why all of them will be rejected)."