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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

How bad are our schools really failing?

From the Daily

by Diane Ravitch

If you follow the news in Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Indiana and other states where conservative governors are proposing sweeping changes in education, you probably think our public schools are terrible. These states are adopting “reforms” that include more testing, more privately managed charter schools, more voucher programs and systems that evaluate teachers based on their students’ test scores.

These are policies championed by the leaders of the current school reform movement, many of whom hail from Wall Street and the high-tech sector, as well as billionaire philanthropists like Bill Gates and Eli Broad. The central claim of the movement is that American schools are falling behind those of other nations, and that woeful test scores predict future economic decline. Thus it is a national priority to get test scores up.

President Obama and his secretary of education, Arne Duncan, reacted with alarm to the results of the latest international assessment of student performance in December. Duncan said they were a “wake-up call” to the nation.

To counter what it thinks is educational decline, the Obama administration launched a program called “Race to the Top,” which promotes more privately managed schools, evaluates teachers based on student test scores, encourages merit pay, and includes a variety of other unproven strategies intended to boost test scores.

But are our public schools really in free-fall? It is a fact that American students recently scored in the middle among 65 nations that participated in tests of reading, mathematics and science.

What the president doesn’t seem to know is that our students have taken part in these international assessments since the 1960s, and we have typically been in the bottom quartile.

When the first international math test was administered to students in eighth grade and 12th grade in 1964, our eighth-graders came in next to last and our seniors were dead last. In the first international test of science in the early 1970s, our seniors scored last. In additional tests of mathematics and science in the 1980s and ’90s, American students seldom surpassed the international average.

Using the logic of today’s reformers, American education has “failed” consistently for the past 50 years. But wait — Obama said in his State of the Union address this year that we should ignore the “naysayers” because “America still has the largest, most prosperous economy in the world. No workers are more productive than ours. No country has more successful companies, or grants more patents to inventors and entrepreneurs. We’re the home to the world’s best colleges and universities, where more students come to study than any place on earth.”

As the China-born, China-educated scholar Yong Zhao, now at the University of Oregon, has pointed out, there is no logical connection between international test scores and the success of our economy. Our scores have been poor to middling for 50 years, yet we have the greatest economy in the world.

Obama rightly said that we must encourage innovation, creativity and imagination in our schools. But the course his administration is pushing — and pushing hard — is to emphasize testing even more than George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law. As more states evaluate teachers by their students’ scores, teachers will feel pressure to teach to the tests, to devote more time to preparing for the tests, and to decrease the time spent on non-tested subjects. Some teachers and administrators will cheat. And some states will lower their standards to raise scores.

This is great news for the testing industry, but not for our nation’s students and teachers.

Instead of promoting innovation, creativity and imagination, the current obsession with raising test scores discourages these things. Students are learning to pick the right answer and being penalized for thinking differently. Subjects that spark students’ imagination, like the arts, are being squeezed out of the school week. And some districts plan to develop standardized tests for all subjects, which are guaranteed to do damage to students’ ability to think creatively.

All this in the name of beating other nations on scores—which has little bearing on our success as a nation.

Yes, our schools need to improve. But they should pursue proven strategies, under which schools, families and communities work together to make sure that children arrive in school ready to learn. Our schools need experienced teachers and a curriculum with more time for in-depth study of history, science, civics and other subjects that prepare students for the duties of citizenship. After all, that’s the primary purpose of public education: to sustain our democracy.

Diane Ravitch is the author of "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education."

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