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Ravitch is Wrong

October 03, 2007 3 min read

Today’s New York Times carries an opinion piece by Diane Ravitch, a longtime Republican academic and an Assistant Secretary of Education for Research in the George “no W” Bush Administration. She’s done some good work on textbook adoption. I’d place her loosely with Checker Finn, with or for whom she has published several school reform publications. For political convenience, pigeonhole her as slightly right of center.

Ravitch argues NCLB I is “fundamentally flawed” for three reasons:

The main goal of the law — that all children in the United States will be proficient in reading and mathematics by 2014 — is simply unattainable. The primary strategy — to test all children in those subjects in grades three through eight every year — has unleashed an unhealthy obsession with standardized testing that has reduced the time available for teaching other important subjects. Furthermore, the law completely fractures the traditional limits on federal interference in the operation of local schools.

She’s wrong on all points:• The fact that some percentage of students may never achieve proficiency would be a more powerful argument if the nation’s schools were already achieving it at the 90 percent level and we were having this discussion in 2010. As we head into the 2008 School Year, the vast majority of schools are far enough from that goal to make the debate academic rather than practical - if not laughable.

Yes, many schools in the suburbs are failing to make AYP today only because one sub-group – often English Language Learners, often Latinos – was neglected (i.e., under-resourced) until NCLB I made that reality clear. More on this below, but even if holding schools accountable for this is somehow unfair, it is very likely that NCLB II will target the remedy for failure narrowly to the students who are not demonstrating proficiency.

• NCLB’s emphasis on demonstrating student proficiency may have exacerbated “an unhealthy obsession with standardized testing;" it hardly “unleashed” it. Teachers have been arguing that they are forced to “teach to the test” at least since the standards and accountability movement began in the states in the 1980s.

More important, there’s enough research out there to strongly suggest that proficiency is gained not by “drill and kill” on the subject matter of the test in an environment like the test, but by engaging students in the use of the skills that will be tested in authentic problem-solving situations, and so by integrating math and reading into every subject. The best way to become proficient in math is wanting to solve a math problem essential to learning more in a subject you love. If students are loosing time for music and art to classes aimed specifically at test taking, the fault is not the test, but district teaching strategies.

• I could argue that NCLB does not “completely fracture the limits of federal interference” in state education policy. The legal principle here is quite clear: Congress can attach conditions to funding programs for the states. States have a choice of whether or not to take the funds. As state educators are quick to say, the feds generally contribute under 10 percent of total k-12 funding.

Regardless of law and tradition under the 10th Amendment, viewed as a civil rights issue, there is no doubt that the federal government can impose laws aimed at equalizing children’s access to educational opportunities. NCLB I is fundamentally a civil rights law to assure that classes of students (the law’s “subgroups”) traditionally shortchanged by their local and state school systems get the resources they need to succeed. It happens that doing this will also create classes of students who add value to the economy rather than draw resources in the form of poor health, welfare and criminal justice. But at core, disadvantaged students who have not been getting the attention they are owed as Americans - because of failures by their local and state governments, need federal protection.

No Child Left Behind I was not fundamentally flawed in conception. It was hardly perfect, but the market-based reform strategy it laid out, tempered by a means of assuring quality through scientifically-based research, offered a way to harness the nation’s powerfully innovative private sector to support the nation’s neediest children. NCLB I was fundamentally flawed in execution - development of the school improvement industry has been the last thing on the mind of the Department of Education - largely because of the George W. Bush Administration’s managerial incompetence, but that’s another posting.

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