Education: Achievement Gap Starts Before School StartsDiane RavitchDiane Ravitch represents an unusual example of an education expert whopublically admitted a complete reversal of viewpoint. In the early 1990’s,during the George H.W. Bush administration, she was the assistant ofeducation who actively supported school reform through testing, punitiveaccountability, market principles, and charter schools. President Clintonappointed her to the National Assessment Governing Board to overseefederal testing. By 2007, however, she concluded that all of these ideasfor school reform had remained only theories that had not worked out inpractice or reality. This reversal led to her 2010 book The Death and Life ofthe Great American School System How Testing and Choice are UnderminingEducation. Dr. Ravitch is presently Research Professor of Education at NewYork University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.The following article was published in the San Antonio Express onOctober 13, 2011.If you read news magazines or watch TV, you might think thatAmerican education is in a crisis of historic proportions. The media claimthat that our future is in peril because our students have low test scorescaused by incompetent, lazy teachers.Don’t believe it. It’s not true.Yes, our students’ scores on international tests are only average, butour students have never been at the top on those tests; when the firstsuch test was given in 1964, we ranked 12th out of 12. And, yet, theUnited States continued to prosper.So maybe standardized tests are not good predictors of futureeconomic success or decline. Perhaps our country has succeeded notbecause of test scores but because we encouraged something moreimportant than test scores—the freedom to create, innovate, and imagine.Unfortunately, recent educational reforms throw aside that philosophy infavor of an even greater emphasis on test scores.In 2001 Congress passed No Child Left Behind, which imposed amassive program of school reform based on standardized testing. Thetheory behind the plan was that teachers and schools would try harder—and see rapid test score gains—if their test results were made public.Instead of sending the vast sums of money that schools needed tomake a dent in this goal, Congress simply sent testing mandates thatrequired every child in every school to reach proficiency by 2014—or theschools would be subject to sanctions. If a school failed to make progressover five years, it might be closed, privatized, handed over to the stateauthorities, or turned into a charter school. The Obama administration launched its own school reform plan in2009 called Race to the Top. The program dangled nearly $5 billion in frontof cash-hungry states, which could become eligible only if they agreed toopen more privately managed charter schools, to evaluate their teachers bystudent test scores, to offer bonuses to teachers if their students got highertest scores, and to fire the staff and close schools that didn’t make progress.None of these policies has any consistent body of evidence behind it.The fundamental belief that carrots and sticks will improve education is aleap of faith, an ideology to which its adherents cling despite evidence tothe contrary.Two major reports released in spring 2011 showed what a risky andfoolish path the United States has embarked upon.The National Research Council gathered some of the nation’s leadingeducation experts who concluded that incentives based on tests hadn’tworked. In other words, the immense investment in testing over recentdecades was based on intuition, not on evidence—and faulty intuition, at that.The second report, by the National Center on Education and theEconomy, maintained that the approach we are now following—testingevery child every year and grading teachers by their students’ scores—isnot found in any of the world’s top-performing nations.Piece by piece, our entire public education system is being redesignedin the service of increasing scores on standardized tests at the expense ofthe creativity, innovation and imagination that helped this country succeed.We are now at a fork in the road. If we continue on our present pathof privatization and unproven reforms, we will witness the explosivegrowth of a for-profit education industry and of education entrepreneursreceiving high salaries to manage nonprofit enterprises.The free market loves competition, but competition produces winnersand losers, not equality of educational opportunity. We will turn teachersinto “at will” employees who can be fired at the whim of a principal basedon little more than test scores. Their pay and benefits will also depend onthe scores. Who will want to teach? Most new teachers already leave thejob within five years.What the federal efforts of the past decade ignore is that the mostconsistent predictor of test scores is family income. Children who arehomeless or living in squalid quarters are more likely to miss school andless likely to have home support for their schoolwork. Children who growup in economically secure homes are more likely to arrive in school readyto learn than those who lack the basic necessities of life.If we are serious about closing the achievement gap, we should makesure that every pregnant woman has good prenatal care and nutrition andthat every child has high-quality early education.The achievement gap begins before the first day of school. If we meanto provide equality of educational opportunity, we must level the playing field before the start of formal schooling. Otherwise, we’ll just be playingan eternal game of catch-up—and that’s a game we cannot win.Study/Writing/Discussion Questions1. Why do you think it is rare for a public figure to profess to a completechange of viewpoint?2. Make an outline of the argument she presents in this essay. Begin bystating the opening claim she is refuting. Then list the reasons shegives to support her assertion that this claim is not true.3. In conclusion, what does she say is the most significant predictor ofstudent test scores?4. What recommendations does she make to remedy this problem?5. Explain why you agree or disagree with her conclusion.
CITYU 309 – Education, Achievement Gap Starts Before School
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