Some straight talk on what actually ails education

Today, I was captivated by this address by Diane Ravitch, a professor at NYU and former education official under the first president Bush, speaking to an audience in Chicago.  She is currently a crusader against the pro-testing, anti-teacher, and anti-union ‘reformers’ in education.

How does this relate to Winooski and Burlington?  First, schools in both districts have suffered the consequences of a national vision that sees schools only as a series of test scores.  Second, Ravitch cites poverty as the greatest determinant of school success and maintains that we can’t solve low school performance without solving high poverty.

What makes the Partnership distinct is our embrace of the belief that school people need to work together with community people to be successful.  The Partnership is really about matching community will with best educational practices.  So much of what happens in schools is related to what happens outside of schools – we need to all be in this together.


P.S. The video is a bit long, so here’s a selection of quotations and paraphrasing from her speech.

  • Why don’t we out-achieve other countries?  Unlike other leading countries, we have a high childhood poverty rate, close to 25%
  • For students who attend low-poverty (<10%) schools in the US, we have the highest scores in the world
  • For schools with poverty below 25%, US scores match those of countries like Finland
  • “Low performance is not caused by unions.  Low performance is not caused by teachers.  Low performance is caused by the toxic combination of poverty and segregation.”
  • “Low performance is not cured by closing schools and firing teachers.  That just destabilizes neighborhoods and demoralizes the entire teaching staff.”
  • The current “carrot-and-stick” emphasis on punishing schools for low achievement “is rooted in the belief that teachers, principals, administrators, and students need to be threatened and rewarded in order to raise test scores… part of this philosophy are things like merit pay, threats to fire teachers, to close schools, using test scores to evaluate teacher quality, making the test scores the be all and end all of education. This approach has failed. Merit pay has been tried for 100 years and it has never worked.”
  • “The carrot and stick people like to say that poverty doesn’t matter. But they’re wrong; poverty does matter.  Family income is the single most reliable predictor of test scores.”
  • “Instead of addressing the root causes of low academic achievement, Chicago has adopted reforms that give the illusion of change, and when those reforms fail, the easy response and the wrong response is ‘blame the teachers.’  Another easy and wrong response is ‘privatize the schools.'”
  • “Tests are not the purpose of education.  Developing children’s character is the purpose of education.”
  • “I’ve come to believe what we are seeing… is not a reform movement, it’s a privatization movement.”
  • “Public education is an essential democratic institution.  We cannot allow it to be handed over to entrepreneurs.  If we want to improve academic achievement, we cannot afford to ignore the effects of poverty on children.”
  • “If people were really concerned about reform, they would make sure children had access to regular medical care.  That would do more to raise test scores than all the merit pay schemes in the world.”
  • “In schools for the rich, children get taught.  In schools for the poor, children get tested.  This is wrong.”

2 Responses to “Some straight talk on what actually ails education”

  1. nkeller2012

    From Diane Ravitch’s book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System (2010)

    “…Tests are necessary and helpful. But tests must be supplemented by human judgment. When we define what matters in education only by what we can measure, we are in serious trouble. When that happens, we tend to forget that schools are responsible for shaping character, developing sound minds in healthy bodies (mens sana in corpore sano), and forming citizens for our democracy, not just for teaching basic skills. We even forget to reflect on what we mean when we speak of a good education. Surely we have more in mind than just bare literacy and numeracy. And when we use the results of tests, with all their limitations, as a routine means to fire educators, hand out bonuses, and close schools, then we distort the purpose of schooling altogether…” (p. 166).

    “…If there is one thing that all educators know, and that many studies have confirmed for decades, it is that there is no single answer to educational improvement. There is no silver bullet, no magic feather, no panacea that will miraculously improve student achievement…” (p.229).

    Hence, the partnership for change which is not a silver bullet, but a multi-faceted approach for school improvement.

    Thanks, Matt, for posting.


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