Assessment Opinion

Back to School with Trepidation

By Diane Ravitch — September 05, 2007 6 min read

Dear Deb,

Yup, back-to-school time. I too get that funny feeling in the pit of my stomach, especially when I find myself wandering the aisles of a stationery store, looking at spiral notebooks, pens, and the other accoutrements of starting school and hearing the voice in my head saying that it is time to get ready.

This was not a great summer. I spent most of it trying to get a diagnosis and appropriate care for my beloved 10-year-old dog Molly, who became sick in early July. One vet said she has congestive heart failure and has six months to live; another said she has lymphoma and was hopeless; I am now working with a homeopathic vet who is giving her herbal capsules, and she is looking very well. So I begin the fall with hope.

I am sorry to say that education henceforth will be on the agenda in Congress for a long time to come. Having worked in the federal government in the early ‘90s and lived in D.C. for four years, where I watched the federal education agenda grow, I see nothing hopeful about this. When it comes to reforming the nation’s schools, Congress is possibly the worst qualified institution to do it. First, they are very far from the schools, in every possible definition of the word “far,” and second, they don’t have a clue about how to reform schools. But typically they think that if they pass a law and give it the right name, they have solved a problem. As we can see from the travails of NCLB, our well-intentioned but out-of-touch Congress has only created new problems.

Now the presidential campaign has begun in earnest, and we will hear more glib promises about fixing the schools by passing the “right” program. The candidates, and the leaders of Congress (in both parties), think that the way to fix the schools is to micromanage them from Washington. They want more regulations, more mandates, more obstacle courses for principals and teachers. If you remember, the report by the Gates-funded bipartisan commission on NCLB offered dozens of recommendations for such things. It seems that we should change the name of the federal program from No Child Left Behind (NCLB) to No Adult Left Unregulated (NALU).

I think you are quite right that we must be suspicious of any school district or state that makes extravagant claims about the results of its tests. One thing that I learned while serving on the NAEP governing board was that changes in scores—whether up or down—occur slowly and incrementally. Occasionally a student may make extraordinary progress, perhaps because he or she decided to study harder and more consistently, or a student may see a dramatic decline, probably because of personal problems, but it should ring an alarm bell for parents, the public, and the media when test scores for a district or state show huge changes in a year or two.

Unlike you, I am not opposed to testing. But I don’t support testing as the primary means of educating kids, which seems to be the new business-style way to “reform” education. Testing is not a substitute for curriculum, and testing is not a substitute for instruction. Test prep may help raise test scores, but a cohort of students who have had little more than a steady diet of test prep have been cheated of a real education. In medicine, a thermometer is a valuable tool. But anyone who thinks that they can cure illness by constantly inserting a thermometer and preparing to have one’s temperature read is...ill-informed at best and should really go into a different line of work.

Thanks for sending me the Pring letter. Too bad The New York Times did not see fit to print it. I expect that a lot of parents and teachers would want to know that there is another side to Sir Michael Barber’s account of his grand successes in Britain (subscription or fee required). It is unfortunate when our newspaper of record prints a puff piece about a controversial figure without permitting the contrary voices to be heard. (I am appending a copy below of the Pring letter, which is now akin to samizdat, the underground publications in the Soviet Union that circulated from hand to hand.)

My guess is that the business leaders who think they have the cure for the schools are likely to emerge from this era of faux-reform looking like Enron educators. They may get the scores, and they may pull the wool over the eyes of the press. But eventually the day of reckoning will arrive when their incredible test score gains will prove to be ephemeral, indeed in-credible, as in not credible; when the students discover that they never got an education; when educators find their collective voice and say loud and clear: “Enough.”

May that day come soon.


The following is Richard Pring’s letter to The New York Times, reprinted with his permission.

New York Times

Dear Editor,

I have read with interest the report of Sir Michael Barber’s address to New York Principals on the lessons to be learnt from Britain on how to improve schools. (New York Times, 15 Aug., 2007) However, may I along with so many in England who have seen the consequences of the innovations led by Sir Michael, urge caution. Not everyone agrees with his analysis, and
indeed the £1 million Nuffield Review of 14-19 Education and Training in for England and Wales, which I lead, is not, in the light of evidence, presenting such a rosy picture.

It is not surprising that Sir Michael, having been Director of Standards and Effectiveness at the Department of Education and Skills and then head of delivery in the Prime Minister’s Office at No. 10, should have finally moved to McKinsey’s, which believes that what is real can be measured and what can be measured can be controlled. In the last few years, England has created the most tested school population in the world from age 5 to age 18. School improvement lies in scoring even higher in the national tests, irrespective of whether these tests bear any relation to the quality of learning, and schools which see the poverty of the testing regime suffer the penalty of going down the very public league tables.

The results of the ‘high stakes testing’ are that teachers increasingly teach to the test, young people are disillusioned and disengaged, higher education complains that those matriculating (despite higher scores) are ill prepared for university studies, and intelligent and creative teachers incleasingly feel dissatisfied with their professional work. I believe it is no coincidence that, according to the recent UNICEF Report, children in England are at the bottom of the league of rich countries in terms of happiness and feelings of well-being, or that England now criminalises 230,000 children between 11 and 17 each year (the highest in absolute and relative terms in the whole of Europe), or that nearly 10 percent of 16-18-year-olds belong to the Not in Education, Training and Employment group, despite the massive investment in that group over the last 10 years.

And why should one expect anything else as most of their day light hours consists of preparing for tests, totally disconnected from their interests and concerns, present or future?

The Nuffield Review is starting from the basic question, never asked by Government during Sir Michael’s turn in high office, namely, ‘What counts as an educated 19-year-old in this day and age?’. The answers which we are receiving from teachers, universities, employers, and the community would point to a system very different from the one which Sir Michael nurtured and is now selling to the United States.

Yours sincerely,
Professor Richard Pring

Richard is now Lead Director Nuffield Review of 14-19 Education and Training for England and Wales and Former Director: Oxford University Department of Education Studies

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