The Debate

Diane Ravitch’s new book has received a great deal of attention lately but there is another book about schools, where we are, where we’re going that it also worth checking out as well:  Paul Peterson’s “Saving Schools.” Peterson traces the history of schooling through the stories of various reformers from Horace Mann to Julie Young with stops for Al Shanker, Bill Bennett, and Martin Luther King, among others.   There is an event in D.C. at Brookings next Tuesday to discuss it.

Both books discuss rises, falls, and ways to resurrection and the juxtaposition is interesting and hard to miss.  So to start some discussion Paul and Diane Ravitch have both offered commentaries here.  This means this will be  a long post but you can join the debate in the comments below.

Paul Peterson:

Since John Dewey, reformers have tried to customize education to the needs of each child.  At the University of Chicago’s Laboratory School, the philosopher  and his wife, Alice Dewey, used the school’s garden and other practical tools as means to connect education to the daily lives of their students.  Dewey’s ideas were applied by child-study enthusiasts, project-learning advocates, and other progressives. Later, civil rights reformers proposed new ways to customize schooling to the needs of each child. Special education laws required that the disabled student’s special circumstances be given particular attention in the drafting of individualized educational plans. Those from non-English speaking backgrounds were told they were entitled to an education appropriate to their linguistic circumstances. Every student’s due process rights were guaranteed by the courts. Customization reached new heights with the passage of No Child Left Behind, as the federal government ordered states and districts to ensure that each and every student reach full proficiency in math, reading and science by the year 2014.

But, as I show in Saving Schools, each attempt to customize education required a big step toward centralization. Progressives shifted power from local politicians to child-centered pedagogues by campaigning for smaller school boards, bigger schools, larger school districts, and state certification laws for teachers. Teacher organizations successfully asserted the right to bargain collectively. Courts set educational funding levels at the state level, thereby reducing district dependence on the local property tax.  With federal dollars came a host of new regulations. A school system that had once been embedded in the small politics of local communities was transformed into a professionalized, bureaucratized, centralized system.

As power was shifted upward, the accountability system changed. When progressives succeeded in persuading administrators that students should be kept with their age cohort, they limited the teachers’ ability to hold students accountable. When districts became increasingly beholden to state directives, court orders, collective bargaining contracts, and federal regulations, local boards were no longer accountable to communities.  Into the vacuum marched state and federal accountability systems.

Unfortunately, this vast centralization of the American educational system produced neither customized education nor educational progress. Once the leader of the world, the United States is now performing below the industrialized world’s international average. High school graduation rates have stagnated.  So has the performance of 17 year olds on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Fewer than 30 percent of students are actually achieving the NAEP proficiency standard.

Fortunately, the potential for a genuine customization of the educational experience is now at hand.   Powerful notebook computers, broadband internet connections, interactive game-playing, 3-dimensional visualization, adaptive learning and testing, and open source curriculum development provide the opportunity to revamp the way in which educational services are delivered.

The best place to learn about the future is at the doorstep of the Magic Kingdom in Orlando, Florida. Working her own form of magic, Julie Young of Florida Virtual School (FLVS) is providing an online virtual learning experience that is now providing 200,000 student-courses each year. The school’s steep upward growth rate has yet to level off.

Students in the state of Florida have a choice of taking a high school course online or in their district high school.  Each course—whether taken online or in a brick-and-mortar school–counts equally towards their high school diploma, and the money is divided between FLVS and the local district according to the number of courses taken at each site.  Worried about losing students to the competition, local districts are beginning to expand their own online offerings.

Many homeschoolers are taking FLVS courses, but one should not be duped into thinking the school is simply a part of socially conservative America.  Guided by a philosophy more progressive than the most devoted of John Dewey’s followers, the school’s motto is “any time, any place, any path, any pace.”

FLFVS is simply a hint of the future.  Just as in 1995 only radical futurists could foretell  Google, Wikipedia,  Facebook,  Iphone,  or Twitter, one needs an extraordinarily transparent crystal ball to predict exactly when and how the stagnant system of today will be transformed.  But we can expect change to come first in the very place where it is most needed—the high school where students today are bored or confused, or both.  Already, one out of five slightly older students in higher education is taking at least one course on line, with a 25 percent growth rate in the number of online courses taken each year. The community and junior colleges, with their flexible teaching forces, are among the early adapters in higher education. What is becoming common place in higher education will work itself downward into the secondary system as well. What works for young people at age 18 is hardly inappropriate for those one year their junior.

Virtual learning has its own issues of accountability. And it needs to ensure that innovation is combined with education’s equal opportunity objectives.  Those with the most resources are usually the first to adopt trendy new products and ideas. The educated and well-to-do were the first to begin to smoke—and they were the first to quit.

But if the more advantaged are likely to be the first to explore the pluses and minuses of virtual learning, these educational innovations, as they prove successful, can be expected to spread rapidly, as evidenced by the rapid-fire diffusion of cell phones.  In the long run, equal opportunity will be advanced by the separation of education from specific geographical locations.  Regardless of the place in which a family resides, a student will have access to the best education can offer.  And each student can learn at the time and pace he or she prefers.

Director, Program on Education Policy and Governance, Harvard University

Diane Ravitch: I have been a historian of American education since 1975, when I received my doctorate from Columbia. I wrote histories, but I also wrote often about the need to improve students’ knowledge of history, literature, geography, science, and foreign languages. In 1991, when Lamar Alexander and David Kearns invited me to become assistant secretary of education in the administration of George H.W. Bush, I jumped at the chance with the hope that I might promote voluntary state and national standards in these subjects.

By the time I left government service in January 1993, I was an advocate not only for standards, but for school choice. After all, I had worked closely with choice advocates and come to believe that standards and choice could co-exist, as they do in the private sector. So, with my friends Chester Finn, Jr., and Joseph Viteritti, I wrote and edited books and articles making the case for charter schools and accountability.

I became a founding board member of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a founding member of the Koret Task Force at the Hoover Institution, both of which are fervent proponents of choice and accountability. The Koret group includes some of the nation’s best-known conservative scholars of choice, including John Chubb, Terry Moe, Checker Finn, Caroline Hoxby, and Paul Peterson.

Over time, however, I became disillusioned with the ideas that once seemed so promising. As No Child Left Behind’s accountability regime took over the nation’s schools and as more charter schools were launched, more evidence accumulated about the effects of these strategies. I no longer believe that either approach will produce the quantum improvement in American education that we all hope for.

NCLB received overwhelming bipartisan support when it was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2002. It mandated that 100% of students would reach proficiency in reading and math by 2014. Although this target was generally recognized as utopian, schools faced draconian penalties, including closure or privatization, if they did not make adequate yearly progress towards this goal. By 2009, 35% of the nation’s public schools were labeled “failing schools,” and the number is sure to grow each year as the fateful deadline gets closer.

Despite the high hopes of its advocates, NCLB has not produced dramatic improvement in student achievement. Every state was left to choose its own tests and define proficiency for itself, and many announced impressive gains. But the state claims of startling improvement were contradicted by the federally-sponsored National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). NAEP showed that students improved just as much or even more in math before the law was implemented. Eighth grade students showed no improvement at all from 1998 to 2009 on the NAEP examination. The eighth graders are truly NCLB babies; they grew up with the law, they were tested every year, yet showed no gains on the federal measure.

Meanwhile the states responded to NCLB by dumbing down their standards so that they could claim to be making progress. Some states declared that 80-90% of their students were proficient, but on the federal test, only 30% were. Because the law demanded progress only in reading and math, schools were required to show gains only on those subjects, and many hundreds of millions were spent on test-preparation materials. Meanwhile, there was no incentive to teach the arts, science, history, literature, geography, civics, foreign languages, even physical education. Teachers complained that the non-tested subjects were being crowded out by the emphasis on basic skills testing.

Accountability was turning into a nightmare for American schools, promising to produce graduates who had been drilled on basic skills but were ignorant of almost everything else. At the same time, colleges continued to complain about the poor preparation of entering students, who not only had meager knowledge of the world, but still required remediation in basic skills. This was not my vision of good education.

When charter schools started in the early 1990s, their supporters promised that they would unleash a new era of innovation and effectiveness. The competition with charters, it was said, would lead to higher achievement by students in public schools. Now there are some 5,000 charter schools, enrolling about 3% of the nation’s students, and the Obama administration is pushing for many more.

But the promise has not been fulfilled. Most studies of test scores acknowledge that charters vary widely in quality. The only major national evaluation of charter schools was carried out by Stanford economist Margaret Raymond, funded by pro-charter foundations. Her group found that, compared to regular public schools, 17% of charters were better, 46% produced gains no different, and 37% were significantly worse.

Typically, charter schools enroll smaller proportions of students whose English is limited and students with disabilities. The students who are hardest to educate are left to regular public schools, which makes comparisons between the two sectors unfair. The higher graduation rate posted by charters reflects the fact that they are able to “counsel out” the lowest performing students; many charters have very high attrition rates, with 50-60% of those who started falling away. Those who survive do well, but this is not a model for public education.

NAEP compared charter schools and regular public schools in 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2009. Sometimes one sector or the other had a small advantage, but overall, there is very little difference in their performance. The media is fascinated with charters that get outstanding results, and there are many that do. But NAEP shows that charter students do not outperform students in regular public schools; this is the case for black students, Hispanic students, and low-income students.

Given the weight of studies, evaluations, and federal test data, I concluded that deregulation and privately managed charter schools were not the answer to the deep-seated problems of American education. If anything, they represent tinkering around the edges of the system, affecting the lives of tiny numbers of students and doing nothing to improve the system that enrolls the other 97%.

The current emphasis on accountability has created a punitive atmosphere in the schools. The Obama administration seems to think that schools will improve if we fire teachers and close schools. They do not recognize that schools are often the anchor of their communities, representing values, traditions, and ideals that have persevered across the decades. They also fail to recognize that the best predictor of low academic performance is poverty, not bad teachers.

If we continue down this road, we will turn education into a vast marketplace of choices, all judged by scores on multiple-choice tests. The marketplace is an inappropriate metaphor for education. Markets have winners and losers, but American education’s central ideal is equal educational opportunity, not a “race to the top” for the nimble few.

It is not a marketplace that we need, but a commitment to provide a good school in every neighborhood in the nation, just as we strive to provide a good fire company in every neighborhood.

On our present course, we are disrupting communities, dumbing down our schools, giving students false reports of their progress, and creating a private sector that will undermine public education without improving it. At the same time, we are failing to make fundamental changes to strengthen the system that will continue to enroll the vast majority of students for the foreseeable future.

Our current obsession with accountability and choice is not improving American education. We are not producing a generation of students who are better educated, better read, more knowledgeable about science and history, and better prepared for the responsibilities of citizenship in our society. And that is why I changed my mind about school reform.

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

13 Replies to “The Debate”

  1. One thing we can all agree on is the need for accountability in education. We need to know if students are learning.

    When my sons were little, my husband and I spent hours each day with them. My spouse, a math professor, monitored math homework and taught the boys about astronomy and computers. As an elementary teacher with an interest in reading and literature, I read to the boys each day. Both my husband and I engaged our sons in daily conversation. We were rewarded for our efforts when our sons were admitted to Harvard and Stanford. Today they are successful professionals.

    Our sons’ teachers supported our efforts and we were grateful for it. Since almost all their students came from affluent homes where most parents were professionals, these teachers were judged “excellent.” Average test scores were extremely high and most students made outstanding progress. Today my sons’ classmates are scientists, engineers, physicians, lawyers, teachers and businessmen. They would compare nicely with anyone in the world.

    So if teachers want to be judged fairly they need to make certain they teach in schools where parents, the primary educators, are full partners.

  2. I agree with Diane Ravitch that: “The current emphasis on accountability has created a punitive atmosphere in the schools. The Obama administration seems to think that schools will improve if we fire teachers and close schools…. They also fail to recognize that the best predictor of low academic performance is poverty, not bad teachers.”

    The current emphasis on firing “bad” teachers (based mostly on student test scores) seems to me to be entirely misplaced. The discussion of firing poor teachers is almost always focused on teachers at “low-performing schools,” which usually enroll low-income and minority students, including ELL students.

    In my experience as a former teacher, the teachers were only one factor (and a small one at that) on overall student performance. The biggest factor impacting academic performance, as Ravitch refererenced, is the SES levels of the students’ families. Low-SES students usually (although not always) perform worse in school than high-SES students. Parental education, involvement in the schools, and cultural attitudes toward education all play a part. The administration is completely off-base in holding teachers of low-income, low-performing students accountable for the students’ academic performance, while ignoring all the other factors at play. This will simply create an impetus for teachers to avoid teaching hard-to-reach students. What we need instead is an inquiry into how best to reach these low-performing students, including what, to me, is an oft-ignored elephant in the room: student behavior and school discipline.

  3. Diane says a market is not needed, when in fact we need a better market, one that will allow students choose between taking a course in their brick-and-mortar school and from a virtual provider. Imagine MIT–and other colleges and universities– being compensated for every high school student who chooses to take its computer science or math course on line instead of taking it from an under-qualified, ineffective teacher at the local district school. Districts would lose students, colleges would discover the advantages of building relationships to high schools, and students would gravitate to the place where they could learn the most.

  4. Maybe Diane does this in her book but I wish she would lay out her proposal on how to correct a broken system. I like the fact that Paul lays out ideas on what is working and could work elsewhere.

    Linda/Retired Teacher — thank you!! Very well said!

  5. “One thing we can all agree on is the need for accountability in education.”

    Sorry, we can’t all agree on that. I know, I know, it seems obvious and foolish to not agree. Somehow, the USA got to be where it is with schools and teachers who never mentioned the a-word. To use the word is to utter really, a non-sequitur. What does accountability really mean? I’ll bet there are at least a hundred different meanings if you interview folks who use it.

    “We need to know if students are learning.” Now, this seems to be an easy, well, ‘of course.’ Again, it is devoid of meaning–it’s just a really short sentence but quite able to hold truckloads of different interpretations of what learning means. So maybe devoid isn’t as good as saying that the sentence is morbidly obese of meaning. And what’s up with, we “need” to know. Why? Why this need to know?

    And Paul, I’m actually one of those new breed of teachers with almost everything online and I save my science class time for experiments and even conduct field trips on weekends because you cannot learn science from textbooks or software alone. However, technological access is a thorny issue, is it not? And what’s to say that within 20 years you get your technoeducational powerhouse institutions but at the end of the digital day, they are still “institutions” delivering only the chimera of choice?

    Who will be the guarantor of truly individualized instruction? If it is the market, I didn’t see it performing all that well lately when some seriously educated people got hoodwinked by their own financial greed.

    What is school even all about? Why do we do it? Seriously, why? Grades, citizenship, jobs, economic growth, competitiveness…why? And children don’t really have a choice–education will be done to them, whether they like it or not. Don’t we all know this, deep down, and we get so used to playing this game we just act like it’s all a given?

    Oh, and students will still not choose their K-12 education in a digital world, their parents will still have legal custody and control but why parents would still be the choice makers might be found here: “We were rewarded for our efforts when our sons were admitted to Harvard and Stanford.” Sorry Linda, I just call ’em as I see ’em.

  6. With all due respect to Ravitch and Peterson, I’ve actually found Robert Manwaring’s recent report on Markham Middle School the most evocative read in education in awhile. Of the three pieces, it is the one I would prefer to have in front of Sec. Duncan’s eyes. Only outrage– real disgust– evoked from reports like Manwaring’s are going to move usl forward.

  7. “What is school all about?”

    Its about jobs, brother. Keepin em’ and makin em’.

  8. Paul E. Peterson, vouchers have not had the desired effect, charter schools have not had the desired effect, so your new magic bullet is virtual schools?

    Virtual schools will work very well for students who have the technology and motivation to participate, but as Diane points out, “the students who are hardest to educate [will still be] left to the regular public schools”.

    The problem is, on the whole it’s the students who are hardest to educate who are the problem.

  9. Paul–how will we know the person taking the on-line course is really the person who says they are. Anyone could pay someone to take an on-line course. Will we require finger scanners? And then cant one simply scan a finger and then let the other person sit down and complete the course? I don’t see any accountability in on-line course taking. I see a lot of people making a profit, but no accountability.

  10. Let’s clarify some of the evidence.

    I would like to point out that the FLVS student body is not a representative cross section of the population. One of the most popular offerings is fitness and the students who take classes are very often high achievers. Some schools have eliminated courses like Latin and German because they have no budget for basic skills AND elective teachers. Of course they are growing. The funding for education is very low in Florida and everybody is getting rid of elective positions. So yes, FLVS is growing. Duh. Community colleges are doubling the number of courses on offer without increasing the number of faculty by putting them online. Actually most of our universities have cut staff while having to deal with a rising flood of applications.

    FLVS is big because it is in Florida where my own district employs 30,000 teachers and there are 68 districts. We are only second largest. 😉 There are over 260,000 students in this one district. Of course FLVS is big and of course everybody is teaching online – not following by any means.

    I teach a blended or hybrid online course. I have since 2001. PLEASE understand that using a computer is NOT progressive education. Today, people who don’t have them are underprivileged. Get out of the house.

    So is this a result of love? No. As much as I like to think my students love my online offerings, no. It is messy necessity.

    For some reason FLVS is today’s darling of conservative education bloggers who don’t live in Florida and have little idea of the scale involved. FLVS is Florida’s version of a New York charter that has a population of self-selected success driven students taking challenging courses not on offer at their schools and another population of desperate students who are in danger of not graduating because they missed something like fitness/health.

    It serves a purpose and does a fine job, but you can’t use it as an example of anything save teaching online. Whatever that ends up meaning, it surely doesn’t mean what Peterson thinks it does.

    What does he have to say about Minnesota’s number two in the world math ranking? They decided that prescriptive NCLB style reform was unlikely to do anything. They mandated subject area professional development and modeled their math program on Singapore. Period. Ask Patrick Gonzales from NCES about it.

    I would like to point out that it is time people expanded their vocabularies about the history of schooling. Globalization means we are joining the rest of the world. Korea had 234 counties with public schools appearing about 1398 with the express purpose of teaching literacy. I might add, their public service has been nearly continuous.

    One of the principles the Enlightenment brought us is the understanding that we learn over time. We know more today than we did yesterday. For instance, today we know that New York charters perform well because they keep kids with low grades out. Now the debate is over, we know that nobody can seriously pretend unions ruin public schools. Those guys can go stand on the corner with the guys that claim the founders were Christians. We know the supporters of “debate the controversy” are Christian Reconstructionists who want to replace our legal system with a biblical system. We know these things. Some have been litigated, some have yet to be litigated, but there is little doubt.

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