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Diane Ravitch: Testing and Vouchers Hurt Our Schools. Here’s What Works

Education reformers have it all wrong, says Diane Ravitch, and keep pushing policies that make schools worse.

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When you say those things, some people like Michelle Rhee would say you’re making excuses — you’re talking about home culture.  Actually, the state and the government and the schools can’t really intervene in home culture, but what the state can do is intervene to try and reduce poverty, to set a goal of reducing poverty, which we seem to have abandoned. And we can also set goals to reduce racial segregation, which would help considerably. In addition, just having health clinics or school nurses attached to the schools would make a big difference.

There’s a difference between home and school, and home is a place that is not subject to government control, except to the extent that we can lessen the amount of poverty with which people live, which is very debilitating.  But school is a place where kids can be encouraged to learn, where they’re excited about learning, where they find that learning is something that enriches their lives.

Unfortunately, our current approach to schooling – I can’t even call it education – is tests. Tests are not intrinsically motivating.  Tests are motivating in the sense that kids are frightened or worried. They don’t know what’s going to happen to them, and it’s very upsetting when their paper comes back or their score comes back. They never see the questions, these days, but they are just told that they’ve failed. So that’s terrible disincentive to even participate in school – [you] find out it’s a place you’re going to be labeled a failure.

Absolutely. I have a 7-year-old child. I hear about all the stress over constant testing from other parents of first-graders at other schools and what it’s doing to their attitude.  Sunday has become an “I don’t want to go to school tomorrow” day.

There are directives coming from the U.S. Department of Education that have been encouraging the testing of children in pre-kindergarten, so there seems to be no end to the government bureaucrats and politicians who believe that testing is somehow going to raise test scores. Firstly, it doesn’t. Even if it did, these would be scores that were produced by test prep and that would have no real relationship to education or to a love of learning. What matters most in school is not test scores, but, first of all, encouraging a mind-set and attitudes that say, “This is really great – I want to do more of it on my own. I’m going to go to the Internet, I’m going to look this up. I really am interested in this.” We’re killing that sense of enthusiasm by our current approach.

One of the things you talk about in the beginning of this new book is about how all of these revolutionary programs – No Child Left Behind and Common Core – are not based on any evidence that they actually improve learning. Why do you think that people overhaul an entire national system based on hunches and illusions?

Well, it isn’t even hunches – it’s worse than hunches. Most of the policies that are now being imposed across the country have evidence that says they’re wrong and evidence that says they don’t work at all, yet they continue to do it. It’s faith-based policy. If you do something and you know that it doesn’t work and people tell you it didn’t work ever, and yet you continue doing it, how can you explain that other than it’s a matter of ideology and faith?

We know, for example, that vouchers have absolutely no impact on student achievement, just looking at test scores. We now have three cities that have been using vouchers for many years; Milwaukee has had them since 1990, Cleveland since 1995, D.C. since 2003, and the evaluations come out saying there’s no difference in test scores. Lots of kids drop out and the ones that remain, more of them will go to high school, but you’re not looking at the whole cohort as you would in public school. So we know that vouchers don’t work and yet there are states that are adopting vouchers and expanding the vouchers.