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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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Ultimately, you’re dealing with children and each one of them is different and Big Data doesn’t really supply an answer when you’re looking in the face of a child. That’s one person and that one child needs something different from the next one and he or she is not a data point. He or she is a person.

Common Core is the big, new standards revolution in education and it’s already being strongly criticized. What’s your take on it?

I’m not a supporter of Common Core and I’m not an outright opponent, but I’m not a supporter. I don’t like the way that it was developed with very little input from teachers. The early grades – I’ve read the English Language Arts; I wouldn’t presume to judge the math parts, others do that — but in the reading and English Language Arts, the early grades are developmentally inappropriate. They expect things of 5-year-olds and 6-year-olds that are just wrong. It’s very scripted in terms of what teachers are supposed to do and my biggest problem with Common Core is not the fact there are standards, but that these standards have never been tried anywhere.

At different times, I have urged people involved in the standards setting to do a field trial — try them out in a state or two or three states and give us three years of experience. Let’s find out from teachers how they work and what goes wrong. And they resolutely refuse – and this is people in government and out working on the Common Core. They absolutely refuse to have any field assessing. So now we’re beginning to have the tests associated with the Common Core, and their idea of rigor is to make the tests so hard that most kids fail them. That — to me — is sad because I spent seven years on the federal testing board and I know that standards are not science. Standards are a matter of human judgment and human beings decide what’s going to be the passing mark. When a test is put together, the people who put the test together know exactly how every question will perform. They know how hard it is or easy it is, and they typically put together a test that produces a bell curve, where half the kids are above and half the kids are below.

In the case of the Common Core test in New York and apparently in Kentucky, they created a curve where most of the kids failed. They didn’t have to do that. I saw one of the tests in New York – it was a fifth-grade test, which I would say was written for eighth graders. I don’t know what the point of that is, other than to add to this narrative of “our schools are failing, failing, failing — we need more charters,” that people throw up their hands and give up on public education.

Common Core is going to put even more emphasis on technology in the schools. In my district, they’re spending loads of money rebuilding our infrastructure just to support Common Core. So they are laying off teachers and literacy coaches and librarians, but they’re spending all this money building up this digital infrastructure. Los Angeles Unified School District has this big initiative and they are giving iPads to every student. 

What I don’t like about it is that the real goal here is to replace teachers with technology. There’s an assumption that you can somehow get rid of teachers, reduce their numbers and have a hundred kids in every classroom, and they’ll have one teacher and a lot of iPads or a lot of other kinds of technology. That’s a mistake because, ultimately, kids will learn or not learn based on human interactions, not based on technology.