Accountability Opinion

Data-Driven Nonsense

By Diane Ravitch — May 19, 2009 4 min read

Dear Deborah,

You seem to believe that I was chastising “the poor” for their lack of manners. Not at all! We live in an age when manners, self-discipline, respect for others, civility, and courtesy are in short supply in all parts of society. Like you, I have encountered many children from comfortable, middle-class, and affluent backgrounds who were spoiled, undisciplined, selfish, and disrespectful of others. I agree that no social class has a monopoly on manners and behavior.

The subject came up in the context of David Brooks’ column about “The Harlem Miracle.” Brooks made the point that the results of this school “vindicate an emerging model for low-income students.” He went on to laud the “no excuses” schools where lower-class children are taught in schools with a “disciplined, orderly, and demanding counterculture” that teaches “middle-class values.” In distinction to Brooks, I said that all children—not just the children of the poor—should learn the values of self-discipline, respect for others, courtesy, civility, etc.

It is amazing to me that this idea should come as some sort of revelation, or as a prescription for the children of the poor. I went to public schools in Houston and all my teachers insisted on good behavior and other civic virtues. It would not have been possible to run an orderly school without everyone paying attention and behaving in a civil manner.

You are right to take issue with Brooks for treating the “miracle school” as a vindication of Joel Klein and Al Sharpton’s Education Equality Project. EEP insists that schools alone—with no support from other institutions—can close the achievement gap. This is claptrap. The Broader Bolder Agenda (which we both signed) has steadfastly maintained that the gap won’t close without addressing the need of children for improvements in health care and the well-being of their families. The Harlem Children’s Zone was created to address these needs, and to place schooling in the context of families and communities.

Geoffrey Canada has vindicated not the cramped prescriptions of the Rev. Al Sharpton and Chancellor Klein, but rather the vision of BBA.

Regarding accountability, I am on board with your suspicion about the use and mis-use of high-stakes testing. One of the virtues of NAEP is that it is low stakes. I would even say that it is no-stakes. No child, student, or teacher has ever suffered the consequences of doing poorly because of NAEP because the assessment does not identify individual students, teachers, or schools. It gives results for the nation, states, and some cities (that volunteered).

I think our society is in dangerous territory on this subject of accountability. The so-called “reformers,” the guys (yes, guys) who call themselves the Education Equality Project, would have the world believe that accountability is the key to improving American education. They think it can be done fast, not incrementally. They think the key to improvement is punishing the bad students, the bad teachers, and the bad schools. Their latest formula, as enunciated by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, is to close down 5,000 schools and re-open them. I wonder where he plans to find 5,000 new principals and thousands of new teachers, or does he just intend to reshuffle the deck?

This approach rests squarely on the high-stakes use of testing. One only wishes that the proponents of this mean-spirited approach might themselves be subjected to a high-stakes test about their understanding of children and education! I predict that every one of them would fail and be severely punished.

We agree that a better approach is needed to assess how well students are learning what they are taught. We agree that current standardized tests are not adequate to the task of determining the fate—whether they should be rewarded or punished—of children, teachers, and their schools.

I think that testing is important and can be valuable, as it helps to spotlight problems and individuals in need of help. But the determinative word here is “help.” The so-called reformers want to use accountability to find people in need of termination and schools in need of closure. Let’s hope this punishment-obsessed crowd is never put in charge of hospitals!

Unfortunately, events are not breaking in the direction we both prefer. The stimulus bill includes millions so that every state can create a data system. This system will track the test scores of every student, from pre-K to college, and attribute their test score gains (or lack thereof) to their teachers. When the information is available, it will be used and misused. Every teacher (at least those who teach the tested subjects) will have a public record detailing whether his or her students made gains or not. This information will be used to establish calibrated merit pay schemes, so that each teacher will get more or fewer dollars depending on the scores of the year. Is this piecework?

The federal government seems ready to impose a Dr. Strangelove approach on our schools to turn them into “data-driven systems.” Not, as you suggest, “data-informed” systems, but data-driven systems. Teachers will certainly teach to the tests, since nothing else matters. The only missing ingredient from this grand data-driven scheme will be education.

Remember when we used to debate “what knowledge is of most worth?” Those were the days.


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