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.
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).