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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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One of the things that you argue for in this book is giving money to the schools so that they can build a foundation. You say that the kids who come from disadvantaged backgrounds are the ones that need all the hallmarks of a model school — and then more. You say they need this incredible foundation that has nurses – and now districts are beginning to lay off nurses — that they need music education, they need arts education, they need science, they need all this enrichment that public schools in wealthy areas get — and then even more. What evidence shows you that this works?

When children have low test scores, it’s obvious that there are reasons. So what the government policy right now is, if a school has low test scores, close the school and start over. But that doesn’t really address the source of the problem that causes low test scores. As I said, the biggest causes, if you’re looking at the macro level, is poverty and racial segregation, but if you have a policy of, let’s say, sending in evaluators and they would come out and they’d say the school has a very large population that doesn’t speak English, it needs more teachers of English as a second language or it needs more bilingual teachers – that would be one way to address the needs. Another might be to say, “A lot of the kids are missing school because they’re sick so often, and if we had a school nurse, or if we had regular access to dental care and eye checkups, that would improve the kids’ heath,” and if the kids’ health improves, their academic performance will improve as well. All of those things may be needed.

Getting to the solutions chapters – one of them is class size. The research on class size is overwhelming — kids who are struggling do better in a small class because they get more attention. A teacher can spend more time with the children who are behind and figure out what’s going wrong. One of the big beefs I have with testing right now, with the current model of testing, is that the test is given at the end of the year and the results come back the next summer, and no one gets to see the test questions or answers. That makes no sense because the purpose of testing should be to find out what you don’t know, and to find out where you need more help. If you never get to see the questions or the answers, you can’t even use the tests for diagnostic purposes.

Which creates more tests, right? Because then what the districts try to do is create similar tests where you can see the breakdowns and they spend meetings going through these breakdowns and analyzing the data and that’s what I’ve seen again and again. What happens is they try and re-create an equivalent that teachers can analyze so they can actually address some of the gaps, but it’s all about that test at the end.

I think what we’re seeing nationally is an effort to apply something called “Big Data” to education, and education has always been understood in this country — and every other country, as far as I know — as first and foremost the interaction between teachers, adults and children. It can work well and it can not work well, and if it doesn’t work well, you try and intervene to find out why. But it’s primarily human interactions. What’s happened now is we’re in a moment of Big Data where management consultants like McKinsey and the government and the big thinkers think that everything can be reduced to data and, if you just manipulate the data, you can come up with the answers.