Accountability Opinion

A Letter to Lawmakers

By Diane Ravitch — April 06, 2010 4 min read
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Dear Deborah,

Today I am going to cheat. Well, not really cheat, but just deal with the fact that I am hard pressed to find time to do much more than breathe and sleep (I do not include “eat” because I have been skipping meals, and I should not include “sleep” because I don’t do much of that either.) I have been lecturing, writing, and traveling nonstop. I am getting, on average, about 100 emails daily from readers of my book, mainly teachers who either say “thank you” or “help.” My book appears at #16 on The New York Times best-seller list for next Sunday.

So many people, especially teachers, feel powerless in the face of an onslaught against their professionalism. Last week, I wrote about the awful legislation in Florida, which will strip teachers of tenure and judge them by student test scores. Teachers in that state asked me to come to Tallahassee and testify, but I couldn’t be there because I was lecturing in Boston on the day of the hearing. So, I wrote a letter to the legislature, and I am going to post it here.

To: The Honorable Members of the Florida Legislature

From: Diane Ravitch

Dear Members,

I wish that I could be in Tallahassee to address you personally but prior commitments make it impossible to do so.

I am a historian of American education at New York University. I served as Assistant Secretary of Research and Improvement in the administration of President George H.W. Bush. I was a founding member of the Koret Task Force of the Hoover Institution. I was also a founding trustee of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. I have been studying and writing about American education for 40 years.

I write to oppose SB 6/HB 7189.

I understand that this bill would prohibit districts from paying teachers in relation to their experience and education, but would base teachers’ salaries mainly on student gains on standardized tests. I further understand that it is the law’s intent to develop new tests for every subject area, paid for by reducing operating expenses by 5 percent in the schools.

I strongly believe that this bill will have very negative consequences for the children of the state of Florida. I believe that it will dumb down their education. I believe that it will cause many of your best teachers to leave the profession or the state because this legislation is so profoundly disrespectful towards the education profession.

I urge you not to pass this bill.

My new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, demonstrates that pay-for-scores schemes don’t work. The main reason they don’t work is that the measures were not intended for that purpose. Standardized tests are intended to evaluate whether students have learned what they were taught. They are not designed to assess teacher effectiveness or teacher quality. The more that teachers focus on these measures, the more they rob children of time for instruction and for the activities that engage children in their education and promote comprehension.

Teachers are not solely the cause of student progress. If students fail to make progress in their studies, there are many reasons for their failure. The causes of academic success or failure include the students’ own effort; the students’ regular attendance or lack thereof; the family’s support or lack thereof; the family’s poverty and its effects on the student’s health and well-being; the school’s resources; the district’s oversight or lack thereof; and the quality of the test itself, which may be subject to random variation. It makes no sense to hold the teacher alone accountable when student performance is affected by so many different influences.

Should the teacher get a bad evaluation if students have a poor attendance record? Should the teacher be harshly judged if her students don’t speak English or move frequently from school to school? Should the teacher get an F if the student has poor eyesight or suffers from other undiagnosed health problems? Should the teacher be considered a failure if the student’s family offers no support for his learning?

Since the 1920s, American schools have experimented with merit pay plans. None has ever demonstrated success. Teachers will bend their efforts to raise test scores, but achievement nonetheless lags. The reason for this is that teaching-to-the-test does not yield good education. The students may learn test-taking skills, but they don’t learn how to generalize what they have learned to new situations. Thus, even when state reading scores go up, in response to intensive coaching, national test scores remain flat. As the national tests become more demanding—in 8th grade—the scores don’t rise at all.

Our nation has now had eight consecutive years of rising reading scores at the state level, yet the national scores for 8th grade students have not budged from 1998-2009. The reason for the discrepancy is that students are learning test-taking skills, but they are unable to understand complex materials or to demonstrate their progress on a test that is not the state test.

Test scores do not identify the most effective teachers. A teacher who produces big score gains one year may produce none the next year, depending on which students happen to be in his or her class.

The legislation now under consideration will not improve education in Florida. It will harm kids and their teachers.

I urge you to stop and reflect. The research on teacher effectiveness does not support the policies of SB 6/HB 7189. Please defeat this legislation.

Yours truly,

Diane Ravitch

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