Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Daring a public change of heart

Often, elected officials vote yea in committee and nay on final passage of a bill so they can have it both ways. How many officials, elected or appointed, can you name who have done a complete, authentic 180 on an important issue and been better off for it? I’m thinking Tip O’Neill on the Vietnam War, or Colin Powell on "don’t ask/don’t tell." Usually, a politician who changes his or her mind is mocked. “I was for it before I was against it” became then-presidential nominee John Kerry’s middle name.

Now Diane Ravitch, Assistant Secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush, a giant in the field of public education, has done such a 180. She has done it with intelligence, grace and maximum impact. Full disclosure, Ravitch is a longtime friend. She is searingly intelligent. Her contributions to the field of education are immeasurable.

Under Bush 41, Diane led the fight for the establishment of national standards. In the next administration, President Clinton appointed her to the NAEP (National Assessment of Education Progress) board, charged with developing and measuring national standards. Educators who did not want to be judged by their students’ test performance saw her as the enemy. Under Bush 43, she became a big supporter of No Child Left Behind, which increased the emphasis on standardized testing to measure classes against national standards. And she enthusiastically embraced the charter school movement as a way of providing choice.  But that was then, and this is now.

In her latest book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Ravitch says the over-reliance on standardized testing has proven wrong. Today, after studying the experience with No Child, Ravitch is taking a second look at standardized testing (and judging teachers by how their kids perform), among other things.

She frowns on Obama’s Race to the Top program, which she calls “No Child Left Behind on steroids.” She is especially critical of its incentivizing the creation of new charter schools, which she now finds to be a mixed bag at best. Citing a Stanford economist’s study, she says that 17 percent of charter schools are superior to a matched traditional public school, 37 percent performed worse than public schools, and 46 percent had gains no better than public schools.

Ravitch said that the teaching force will only be improved when we improve principals and supervisors. Not surprisingly, she has little zest for the fad of hiring business people to be principals. She warns that only highly experienced teachers should become head teachers (or principals). She has taken on Bill Gates and other corporate leaders, saying,

"I don't hear any of the corporate reformers expressing concern about the way standardized testing narrows the curriculum, the way it rewards convergent thinking and punishes divergent thinking, the way it stamps out creativity and originality. I don't hear any of them worried that a generation will grow up ignorant of history and the workings of government. I don't hear any of them putting up $100 million to make sure that every child has the chance to learn to play a musical instrument. All I hear from them is a demand for higher test scores and a demand to tie teachers' evaluations to those test scores. That is not going to improve education."

And, she reminds us, we’ll only produce better educated young people when we understand the impact of poverty, parental education, peer groups and other aspects of students’ social environment.

The point of Ravitch’ turn-around on these major education issues is that testing is important but should not be dispositive in measuring the effectiveness of the educational process. Charter schools can be a positive opportunity but are not a panacea. There are no easy answers.

Diane Ravitch was just selected as the 2011 recipient of the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Prize, created by the American Academy of Political and Social Science to honor those individuals whose careers in the academic or public arena have been dedicated to the use of social science research to improve public policy. That means learning the facts, understanding the data, appreciating the real-life experience and refusing to be swayed by fads and ideology. Such an approach doesn’t grab the public’s attention or easily reduce to media headlines and banter, but it is surely a breath of fresh air in the public policy arena.

Years ago John Maynard Keynes, when challenged for changing his position on some economic policy, said “when the facts the change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” Would that more public leaders today were unafraid to reverse themselves when changing reality so demands.

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