Assessment Opinion

Is More Testing the New Civil Rights Agenda?

By Diane Ravitch — June 17, 2008 4 min read
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Dear Deborah,

To answer your question, “How come, since there are more teachers than policymakers,” the policymakers get to run the show? Easy. Public education is controlled by laymen, not professionals. Decision-making power is placed by law in the hands of the local board of education, the state board of education, and the federal department of education. Lots of others influence policy, including teachers’ unions, business groups, and foundations.

I find myself getting really annoyed when people rage against the teachers’ unions, because they are the organized voice of most of the people who work in schools. The same people who vilify the teachers’ unions never complain about the influence of businesses or foundations, both of which try to steer the public schools by the power of the purse.

Just last week, we saw a conflict of visions over who should run the show and which vision should prevail.

First came the release of the statement of a group calling for a “broader, bolder” reform agenda. You and I both signed a public statement that said, in brief, that schools alone cannot eliminate the achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged children, and that government should not only improve schools, but invest more in early-childhood programs, health services, and out-of-school programs.

Only a day or so later came a press conference from a group that included the Reverend Al Sharpton, Chancellor Joel Klein of New York City, Chancellor Michelle Rhee of Washington, Superintendent Arne Duncan of Chicago, and various others. This group said that it was pursuing a “civil rights” agenda (it calls itself the Education Equality Project). But in its statements, as represented in news reports [e.g. USA Today], the spokespersons placed the blame for the achievement gap at the door of the teachers’ unions. Although it was not entirely clear what their specific proposals are, they did call for more testing and more charter schools, the sort of things that Chancellor Rhee likes to say serve the interests of children, not adults.

Columnist David Brooks of The New York Times said that the statement we signed represented “the status quo camp,” while the Sharpton-Klein-Rhee group is “the reformist camp.” This is simply bizarre. Brooks is often an insightful and thoughtful commentator on current events, but in this case he is simply spouting hokum, in my judgment.

How testing and charter schools and hostility to teachers’ unions translate into a “civil rights” program that will close the achievement gap is beyond my meager understanding. If testing were the answer to closing the achievement gap, why haven’t we seen it closing over the past five years? Apparently we are not testing enough! As for charter schools, I am waiting for persuasive evidence that achievement rises if schools are turned over to private governance boards; in some cases, it does; in other cases, it doesn’t.

As for blaming the teachers’ unions for the lower than average performance of children of color, that is nutty. The gap is there in non-union states, as well as in unionized states, and is probably even larger in non-union states. As the “broader, bolder” group says, the causes of the gap are to be found in social and economic disadvantage and should be addressed by reducing the disadvantages, to the greatest extent possible.

Of course, school improvement and school effectiveness are important for low-performing kids, but you and I probably agree that those goals are unlikely to be reached by the strategies described by this new organization. Rev. Sharpton and Chancellor Klein plan to launch a national campaign for their testing and charter schools agenda, they say.

It seems to be nothing more than a ploy to win reauthorization for No Child Left Behind, which already uses the same approaches. Since their agenda tracks so closely with NCLB, it must be that NCLB does not require enough testing to satisfy Rev. Sharpton and Chancellor Klein.


PS to readers: If you saw the first-posted version of this piece, you may have noticed that I changed a word: I replaced “reduce” to “eliminate” in paragraph 4. An observant reader asked me whether I really meant to say that school improvement cannot “reduce” the gap, and I said she was absolutely right. Good schools, small classes, great teachers can obviously improve the achievement of all students (though, it should be noted, when the achievement of ALL students improve, the “gap” from top to bottom is not narrowed). School improvement can indeed improve the academic performance of poor and minority students. I believe that, and I also believe that the root cause of the gap itself is demographic, rooted in persistent poverty and disadvantage. We should do all we can to improve schools while also doing all we can to reduce poverty and disadvantage. Anyone disagree?

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences 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.