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A heroine to school teachers blames federal mandates for the fall in educational quality

By Christine Donnelly

LAST UPDATED: 1:55 a.m. HST, Jun 30, 2010

States such as Hawaii that want to improve student achievement would be better off developing a cohesive curriculum rather than chasing funding under federal mandates that are dumbing down American schools and weakening democratic ideals, according to an education historian whose bleak assessment of the No Child Left Behind era has made her a heroine of public schoolteachers.

In "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education," New York University research professor Diane Ravitch concludes that the 2001 NCLB Act she initially supported has been a colossal failure, and that the Obama administration's successor—a grant competition among states called Race to the Top—is hardly better.

Under NCLB, public schools face sanctions up to closures if students repeatedly fail to make "adequate yearly progress" in math and reading, and have become obsessed with endless test prep that sometimes degenerates into outright cheating. Resources are drained from the science, history, art, music and civics classes that are equally important elements of a well-rounded education, lest test scores decline in basic math and reading—"the only subjects that count"—and teachers and principals lose their jobs, says Ravitch, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

The "national insanity" is fueled by profiteers—including companies that write and score the multiple-choice tests—and philanthropists (Ravitch calls them the "Billionaire Boys' Club") who claim that the same corporate strategies that made them rich should apply to public institutions charged with educating all children, regardless of intellectual ability or socioeconomic status, says Ravitch, who served as assistant secretary of education in the first Bush administration.

The upshot, she says, is that the federal government has made scapegoats of teachers for all society's ills, promoted charter schools as superior to regular public schools despite mixed evidence, and threatens the democratic principles of neighborhood schools attended by and controlled by their local communities.

The book, a best-seller, has made Ravitch a heroine of teachers. The National Education Association (of which the local Hawaii State Teachers Association is an affiliate) named her its 2010 "Friend of Education."

But critics weighed in, too. She's been accused of being an apologist for teachers' unions, just as a Democratic president is pushing merit pay for educators long shielded by tenure and seniority-based pay scales. Some say she's defending a status quo that serves school employees, not students, and maligning charter schools that have succeeded in communities sorely in need of help.

Ravitch has heard the criticism, but dismisses it as off the mark.

"The thing about my book is when people don't like it, for whatever reason, whether it's testing or choice, then they say I am defending the status quo. But in fact I have probably been the most consistent status quo critic of anyone in American education, over many, many decades," says Ravitch, who has written 10 books, including 2003's "The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn."

She's not opposed to testing and accountability, but to the misuse of tests to punish people and close schools. She does not oppose choice, but dislikes that some charter schools compete with, rather than complement, regular public schools.

"No Child Left Behind has really been very bad for education in America. A lot of people still don't see that, but to me, after eight years, it seems perfectly obvious. Race to the Top continues the same mindset," she said in a telephone interview. "We're heading in a direction that is very hostile to education. Test scores have become a proxy for instruction. I call it the great accountability hoax.

"Look at the high performing nations of the world and you'll see that they're not doing what we're doing. Finland, Japan, Korea—they're not test-obsessed. They're obsessed with good teaching. They're obsessed with preparing the best possible teaching corps and making sure that the people who go into teaching are well educated, and giving them support and mentoring and making sure that they get better every year. We're obsessed with measuring. We're measuring, measuring, measuring, but we're not getting better results."

Ravitch, who served on the board that oversees the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federal testing program, and is a board member of the Core Knowledge Foundation, which promotes a K-12 curriculum of the same name, says vague standards are no substitute for a precise curriculum. "It's got to be specific. For example, an English curriculum lists authors, lists textbooks, lists essay topics. It's not 'student will relate to text' or 'student will infer meaning.' That's not meaningful."

Ravitch said Hawaii, with its unique statewide system, could have a school system that preserves centralized, statewide functions such as funding, testing and curriculum, while leaving the specific operations of individual schools to their local communities and allowing instructors to teach as they see best.

"That to me is the heart of education. If you don't have a curriculum, you don't really have a good education," said Ravitch. "It doesn't mean that everybody has to learn exactly the same thing at every school. Teachers shouldn't have to follow a script."

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