School & District Management Opinion

Interview with Diane Ravitch: California’s Rejection of NCLB Waivers Sends a Message

By Anthony Cody — November 29, 2011 4 min read
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California, with more public school students than any other state, has surprised many by declining to apply for waivers to No Child Left Behind. The implications of this decision are far-reaching, and so in the coming weeks I am going to be asking a variety of educational leaders for their thoughts. Today, I am sharing the thoughts of education historian Diane Ravitch.

What do you think of the decision by elected leaders in California to forgo the opportunity to apply for waivers to NCLB?

I was very pleased when California decided to turn down the waivers for California. I think it took a lot of courage by Governor Brown and Superintendent Torlakson.

What do you think the down side of applying for these waivers would have been?

One of the many problems with NCLB is that it came packaged with unrealistic, expensive and heavy-handed federal mandates. It put too much emphasis on testing and punishment for failure to reach impossible goals. The waivers now offered by the US Department of Education require the states to comply with other mandates, still tied to the NCLB-style accountability framework. The emphasis on testing under the waiver plan is as heavy-handed as it has been under NCLB. Many schools with high numbers of low-scoring students will be subject to firings and closings. They need help, not punishment. One of the lessons of NCLB is that the federal government does not know how to improve schools.

What do you think will be the result of this decision? How will schools in the state cope with NCLB if it remains in effect?

NCLB is a terrible, punitive, ineffective law. The law mandates that 100% of all students must be proficient in math and reading by 2014. No state is even close to that goal. More than 80% of public schools in the United States are currently “failing,” by the law’s requirements. Congress should scrap the accountability provisions and start over. The waivers ease the pressure for change. Every citizen in every community, town, and citizen should be calling their Congressman and Senators and urging them to get rid of this crazy law. No other nation in the world ever created a system that was guaranteed to label almost every school in the nation a failure.

Many states and districts made big promises to get Race to the Top grants. How is that working out for them?

To get Race to the Top money, states had to promise to open more privately managed charter schools and to tie teacher evaluation to student test scores, among other things. Research consistently shows that charters vary widely in quality; some are very good, some are mediocre, some are bad. Teacher evaluation by test scores is very controversial, and there is no evidence as yet that it leads to higher test scores. For sure, it will raise the stakes on testing. Since most teachers don’t teach tested subjects, some states are creating more tests, and others are still trying to figure out how to evaluate those teachers without standardized scores. In New York, several hundred principals signed a petition against the state’s new evaluation system, on grounds that it was untried and would demoralize their staff.

Assuming California now charts a new path for school reform, what do you think that should look like?

California is in the midst of the worst fiscal situation in modern times. The state must change the way it finances schools and universities, so that resources are available to restore what was once of the best education systems in the nation. The leadership for school reform should come from Sacramento and from local communities, from people who understand local problems. Washington should send federal dollars to help educate the students with the greatest needs--those with disabilities, those who are poor, and those who are English language learners. That is the proper role of the federal government.

How do you think this stance might influence other states across the country?

If California could send a message to other states, it should be this: There are no easy answers, no quick fixes, no solutions that can be supplied by Washington. We are all involved in the job of school improvement--parents, students, teachers, administrators, the local community. We must work together to raise up the next generation, to make sure they are healthy and prepared for good lives as citizens of our society. Our public schools are and will continue to be a vital part of our democratic society. We must improve the schools by making sure that every child in every community has a full and balanced curriculum. We must require that every school has an arts program and physical education. Our future as a state and nation depends on the education we provide today.

On January 20, the Sacramento Coalition to Save Public Education is sponsoring An Evening with Diane Ravitch, who will be joined onstage by Superintendent Tom Torlakson, Linda Darling-Hammond and myself. Please join us!

What do you think of Diane Ravitch’s viewpoint? Should other states follow California’s lead and leave the NCLB waivers behind?

Follow me on Twitter at @AnthonyCody
image of Diane Ravitch used by permission.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.