Education Opinion

Why ‘Washington-Driven Standardization’ Is NOT Best

By Diane Ravitch — October 06, 2009 2 min read
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Dear Deborah,

I am somewhat crazed and stressed-out today because my book is due to the publisher, with no more edits allowed. So, needless to say, I am focused on meeting that deadline. But since the book deals with the same issues that we discuss every week, it is not as if I have to turn my attention to a totally different subject. Readers of this blog know that I have often tried out ideas here and benefited by hearing their reactions.

One issue that we have discussed and should discuss more is the regulations embedded in the Race to the Top fund, that sum of $4.3 billion that the U.S. Department of Education is using to stimulate innovation and reform. It may be daring to say this, but I am weary of reform. I think that our schools have been overrun by too many reforms, to the point where it becomes difficult to say what effect any of them has had. Some of our schools are like archeological sites, with layer after layer of reform, one on top of the other. A teacher once said to me that she had “reform fatigue.” I wonder if any other nation so regularly reorganizes, reshapes, and reforms its schools.

A few days ago, I came across a stunningly articulate response to the Race to the Top Fund, written by California Attorney General Jerry Brown. Jerry Brown is an interesting public official who has been governor of California and mayor of Oakland, among many other things.

I will quote a few lines, as I think Brown’s letter is brilliant. He wrote, “The basic assumption of your draft regulations appears to be that top down, Washington driven standardization is best. This is a ‘one size fits all’ approach that ignores the vast diversity of our federal system and the creativity inherent in local communities. What we have at stake are the impressionable minds of the children of America. You are not collecting data or devising standards for operating machines or establishing a credit score...In the draft you have circulated, I sense a pervasive technocratic bias and an uncritical faith in the power social science [sic].”

He goes on to write, “You assume we know how to ‘turn around all the struggling low performing schools,’ when the real answer may lie outside of school. As Oakland mayor, I directly confronted conditions that hindered education, and that were deeply rooted in the social and economic conditions of the community or were embedded in the particular attitudes and situations of the parents. There is insufficient recognition in the draft regulations that inside and outside of school strategies must be interactive and merged.”

There is growing evidence that Arne Duncan’s “turnaround” strategies have not worked in Chicago. In fact, there is a paucity of evidence that anyone knows how to turn around a school without throwing out low-performing students and replacing them with better-performing students.

Brown is thinking about running for governor, a post that he held in the 1970s and 1980s. If I lived in California, I would sign up to work for him. We need his well-informed voice in the national debate about education.


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