Just finished scanning through The Death and Life of the Great American School System by Diane Ravitch. Ravitch was the Assistant Secretary for Education Research and Improvement for the first Bush Administration, a professor at NYU and a distinguished education historian. The book presents a reflective analysis of her own efforts and beliefs around education reform over the past few decades.
It outlines the historical development and impact of the rise of standardized testing, use of test results for evaluating schools and then later teachers, access to funding based on adoption of evaluation systems and the trending towards chartered schools (choice).
The book begins with an overview of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) program charting how good intentions and politics led to disastrous education reforms. I was particularly amazed at how innocuous (and noble) statements like we should aim for 100% child literacy when carried out through to execution could lead to so many unintended consequences. The strict adherence to a goal like this as a line in concrete rather than sand led to decisions that were made out of context.
I was particularly intrigued by the description of the ideological change from education to business driven reforms in the “chartered schools” movement. Ravitch does a good job of enumerating some of the differences in the kind of concepts and lingo used by each philosophical position. I’ve tried to capture them in the chart below:
Return on Investment
Measurement (value-added modeling)
Conditions of learning (eg. Class size)
Conditions of student lives (effect of health, motivation and relations)
Ravitch takes particular exception to the rewards and punishment aspect of a business approach and contrasts this extrinsic motivation approach (hails back to the industrial era of Taylor) to more intrinsic approaches. She argues that the extrinsic approach coupled with data-driven decisions (aka use of single metric – “test scores” as an indicator of success or failure) for school closures and funding has been hugely detrimental to the US Education system. Her studies show a gaming of the system where:
- There is systematic cheating at the school level (to drive up scores)
- Chartered schools kick poor performers out so they are gentrified in the public schools
- Teachers engage in a kind of triage on how they allocate their time and efforts to get score results up, often at the detriment of learning (eg. not spending time with high performers or lowest performers because the high performers are already doing well and the low performers are a lost cause) – Teaching to the test vs. teaching to learn
One of the other themes of the book is how power and money can be used to co-opt decisions at the school level and how media can be bought to spin a good story. I was particularly surprised at how many times Bill Gate’s foundation comes up and how the impact of Gate’s perspective on good teachers and education reform are mentioned. Legislators and other corporate interests have followed lead and began to dabble in education reform despite a lack of experience. The general message I get from the book is that these efforts have been generally negative and that reform needs to begin with those in the system (the education professionals, not business professionals).
Something that really strikes me from the reading is that the education system is a complex ecosystem that is for the most part, closed. One of the difficulties of implementing sustainable change is being able to look at it from an organization development/systems approach. Many of the reforms are over-simplifications, the magic bullet if you will. Benefits realized are either short-term and unsustainable, a change in measuring regime, or a transfer of cost either upstream (eg. Learning deficiencies left to deal with at university level) or across the system (eg. To other schools or districts).
Central to discussion is what is being tested and what are the conditions that testing needs to happen. Numbers are an abstraction. Standardized test scores are insufficient to fully capture the effectiveness of learning transfer. They are one indicator but it is the interpretation of the data that needs to be critically reviewed. Annual testing also assumes that learning follows a uniform timeline for students.
I remember in high school, there were 2 teachers that taught Grade 12 Chemistry. One was known for producing students with very high provincial exam scores. The other was known for being a passionate teacher, that had many students who ended up participating in science research competitions and winning. Who was the better teacher? Well I think this begs the question, “by what measure?”
I have tried to summarize some of my questions in the pictures below.
As an interesting note, after sifting through all the data and stories in this book, you almost get a sense that things are hopelessly out of control and that systemic changes reside at the political and lobbyist level (not within my sphere of influence). I found another interesting book examining some of the same issues entitled “How Children Succeed”, by Paul Tough. The book was featured in an article in Maclean’s magazine and looks at the reforms through the eyes of the student. It was such an interesting article that I also made a vlog (video log). I think this might be a refreshing complement to all the overwhelming data in “Death and Life of the Great American System”. What has been missing for me is “the so-what” of it all.
As I started thinking about the philosophical dimensions of the issues this book brings up, I remembered a video that Milt McClaren put up on the philosophy of curriculum in a previous course I took. It is interesting to review these now in a different context.
(Incidentally, there is also an interesting interview with Diane that you can watch. Was intrigued to find that these is a program called BookTV on C-SPAN)