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Stop the Madness

Illustration: Michael Glenwood

Education’s foremost historian on where NCLB went wrong, ending the testing regime, and why we need neighborhood schools.

By Diane Ravitch

On ‘No Child Left Behind’

I was initially supportive of NCLB. Who could object to ensuring that children mastered the basic skills of reading and mathematics? Who could object to an annual test of those skills? Certainly not I. My support for NCLB remained strong until November 30, 2006. That was the day I went to a conference at the American Enterprise Institute, a well-respected conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.. The conference examined whether the major remedies prescribed by NCLB—especially choice and after-school tutoring—were effective. Was the “NCLB toolkit” working? The various presentations that day demonstrated that state education departments were drowning in new bureaucratic requirements, procedures, and routines, and that none of the prescribed remedies was making a difference.

I started to doubt the entire approach to school reform that NCLB represented. I started to see the danger of the culture of testing that was spreading through every school in every community, town, city and state.

The most toxic flaw in NCLB was its legislative command that all students in every school must be proficient in reading and mathematics by 2014, including students with special needs, students whose native language is not English, students who are homeless and lacking in any societal advantage, and students who have every societal advantage but are not interested in their schoolwork. All will be proficient by 2014. And if they are not, then their schools and teachers will suffer the consequences.

The 2014 goal is a timetable for the demolition of public education in the United States. The goal of 100 percent proficiency has placed thousands of public schools at risk of being privatized, turned into charters, or closed. And indeed, scores of schools in New York City, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and other districts were closed because they were unable to meet the unreasonable demands of NCLB. Superintendents in those districts boasted of how many schools they had closed, as if it were a badge of honor rather than an admission of defeat. As the clock ticks toward 2014, ever larger numbers of public schools will be forced to close or become charter schools, relinquish control to state authorities, become privately managed, or undergo some other major restructuring. Yet, to date, there is no substantial body of evidence that demonstrates that low-performing schools can be turned around by any of the remedies prescribed in the law. Furthermore, [NCLB’s] focus on test scores distorts and degrades the meaning and practice of education. One of the unintended consequences of NCLB was the shrinkage of time available to teach anything other than reading and math. Other subjects, including history, science, the arts, geography, even recess, were curtailed in many schools. Reading and mathematics were the only subjects that counted in calculating a school’s adequate yearly progress, and even in these subjects, instruction gave way to intensive test preparation. Test scores became an obsession. Many school districts invested heavily in test-preparation materials and activities. Test-taking skills and strategies took precedence over knowledge. Teachers used the tests from previous years to prepare their students, and many of the questions appeared in precisely the same format every year; sometimes the exact same questions reappeared on the state tests. In urban schools, where there are many low-performing students, drill and practice became a significant part of the daily routine.

NCLB assumed that shaming schools that were unable to lift test scores every year—and the people who work in them—would lead to higher scores. It assumed that low scores are caused by lazy teachers and lazy principals. Perhaps most naively, it assumed that higher test scores on standardized tests of basic skills are synonymous with good education. Its assumptions were wrong.  On Her Favorite Teacher

My favorite teacher was Mrs. Ruby Ratliff. More than fifty years ago, she was my homeroom teacher at San Jacinto High School in Houston, and I was lucky enough to get into her English class as a senior.

Mrs. Ratliff was gruff and demanding. She did not tolerate foolishness or disruptions. She had a great reputation among students. When it came time each semester to sign up for classes, there was always a long line outside her door. What I remember most about her was what she taught us. We studied the greatest writers of the English language, not their long writings like novels (no time for that), but their poems and essays. I still recall a class discussion of Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” and the close attention that thirty usually rowdy adolescents paid to a poem about a time and place we could barely imagine. Now, many years later, in times of stress or sadness, I still turn to poems that I first read in Mrs. Ratliff’s class.  She had a red pen and she used it freely. Still, she was always sure to make a comment that encouraged us to do a better job. Clearly she had multiple goals for her students, beyond teaching literature and grammar. She was also teaching about character and personal responsibility. These are not the sorts of things that appear on any standardized test.

At our graduation, she made a gift of a line or two of poetry to each of the students in her homeroom. I got these two: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield,” the last line of Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” which we had read in class, and “among them, but not of them,” from Byron’s “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” which we had not read in class. As she did in class, Mrs. Ratliff used the moment to show us how literature connected to our own lives, without condescending into shallow “relevance.” I think these were the best graduation presents I got, because they are the only ones I remember a half century later.

I think of Mrs. Ratliff when I hear the latest proposals to improve the teaching force. I believe Mrs. Ratliff was a great teacher, but I don’t think she would have been considered “great” if she had been judged by the kind of hard data that is used now. How would the experts have measured what we learned? We never took a multiple-choice test. We wrote essays and took written tests in which we had to explain our answers, not check a box or fill in a bubble. If she had been evaluated by the grades she gave, she would have been in deep trouble, because she did not award many A grades. An observer might have concluded that she was a very ineffective teacher.

Would any school today recognize her ability to inspire her students to love literature? Would she get a bonus for expecting her students to use good grammar, accurate spelling, and good syntax? Would she win extra dollars for insisting that her students write long essays and for grading them promptly? I don’t think so. And let’s face it: She would be stifled not only by the data mania of her supervisors, but by the jargon, the indifference to classical literature, and the hostility to her manner of teaching that now prevail in our schools.

On Teacher Unions

Data-driven education leaders say that academic performance lags because we don’t have enough “effective” teachers. The major obstacle to getting enough effective teachers and getting rid of ineffective teachers, they say, is the teachers’ unions.

Critics of teacher unions seem to be more plentiful now than ever before. Supporters of choice and vouchers see the unions as the major obstacle to their reforms. One would think, by reading the critics, that the nation’s schools are overrun by incompetent teachers who hold their jobs only because of union protections, that unions are directly responsible for poor student performance, and that academic achievement would soar if the unions were to disappear.

This is unfair. No one, to my knowledge, has demonstrated a clear, indisputable correlation between teacher unionism and academic achievement, either negative or positive. The Southern states, where teachers’ unions have historically been either weak or nonexistent, have always had the poorest student performance on national examinations. Massachusetts, the state with the highest academic performance, has long had strong teacher unions. The difference in performance is probably due to economics, not to unionization. Where there are affluent communities, student performance tends to be higher, whether or not their teachers belong to unions. Critics say the union contract makes it impossible for administrators to get rid of bad teachers. The union says it protects teachers against arbitrary dismissals. To be sure, it is not easy to fire a tenured teacher, but it can be done so long as there is due process in hearing the teacher’s side of the story. It is not in the interest of their members to have incompetent teachers in their midst, district officials should collaborate with unions to develop a fair and expeditious process for removing incompetent teachers, rather than using the union as a scapegoat.

On “The Billionaire Boys’ Club”

In 2002, the top two [education] philanthropies were the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation; these two foundations alone were responsible for 25 percent of all funds contributed by the top fifty donors in that year.

The new titans of the foundation world were billionaire entrepreneurs and corporate leaders. They were soon joined in education philanthropy by another billionaire, Eli Broad, who made his fortune in home building and the insurance industry; he launched the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation in 1999. Unlike the older established foundations, such as Ford, Rockefeller, and Carnegie, which reviewed proposals submitted to them, the new foundations decided what they wanted to accomplish, how they wanted to accomplish it, and which organizations were appropriate recipients of their largesse.

Gates, Walton, and Broad came to be called venture philanthropies, organizations that made targeted investments in education reform

[They] began with different emphases, but over time they converged in support of reform strategies that mirrored their own experience in acquiring huge fortunes, such as competition, choice, deregulation, incentives, and other market-based approaches. These were not familiar concepts in the world of education, where high value is placed on collaboration. The venture philanthropies used their funds assertively to promote their goals. Not many school districts could resist their offers. School districts seldom have much discretionary money. The money expended by a foundation—even one that spends $100 million annually—may seem small in comparison to the hundreds of millions or billions spent by public school districts. But the offer of a multimillion-dollar grant by a foundation is enough to cause most superintendents and school boards to drop everything and reorder their priorities.

And so it happened that the Gates, Walton, and Broad foundations came to exercise vast influence over American education. These foundations set the policy agenda not only for school districts, but also for states and even the U.S. Department of Education.

There is something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society’s wealthiest people. These foundations, no matter how worthy and high-minded, are not subject to public oversight or review, as a public agency would be. They have taken it upon themselves to reform public education, perhaps in ways that would never survive the scrutiny of voters in any district or state. If voters don’t like the foundations’ reform agenda, they can’t vote them out of office. The foundations demand that public schools and teachers be held accountable for performance, but they themselves are accountable to no one. If their plans fail, no sanctions are levied against them. The foundations justify their assertive agenda by pointing to the persistently low performance of public schools in urban districts. Having seen so little progress over recent years, they now seem determined to privatize public education to the greatest extent possible. They are allocating millions of dollars to increase the number of charter schools. They assume that if children are attending privately managed schools, and if teachers and principals are recruited from nontraditional backgrounds, then student achievement will improve dramatically. They base this conclusion on the success of a handful of high-visibility charter schools (including KIPP, Achievement First, and Uncommon Schools) that in 2009 accounted for about 300 of the nation’s approximately 4,600 charter schools.

If we continue on the present course, with big foundations and the federal government investing heavily in opening more charter schools, the result is predictable. Charter schools in urban centers will enroll the motivated children of the poor, while the regular public schools will become schools of last resort for those who never applied or were rejected. The regular public schools will enroll a disproportionate share of students with learning disabilities and students who are classified as English-language learners; they will enroll the kids from the most troubled home circumstances, the ones with the worst attendance records and the lowest grades and test scores.

Do we need neighborhood public schools? I believe we do. The neighborhood school is the place where parents meet to share concerns about their children and the place where they learn the practice of democracy. They create a sense of community among strangers. As we lose neighborhood public schools, we lose the one local institution where people congregate and mobilize to solve local problems, where individuals learn to speak up and debate and engage in democratic give-and-take with their neighbors.

The market is not the best way to deliver public services. Just as every neighborhood should have a reliable fire station, every neighborhood should have a good public school. Privatizing our public schools makes as much sense as privatizing the fire department or the police department. American education has a long history of infatuation with fads. The current obsession with making our schools work like a business may be the worst of them, for it threatens to destroy public education. Who will stand up to the tycoons and politicians and tell them so?

On How To Improve Our Schools

What, then, can we do to improve schools and education? Plenty. We must first of all have a vision of what good education is. We should have goals that are worth striving for. Everyone involved in educating children should ask themselves why we educate. What is a well-educated person? What knowledge is of most worth? What do we hope for when we send our children to school? What do we want them to learn and accomplish by the time they graduate from school?

Certainly we want them to be able to read and write and be numerate. But that is not enough. We want to prepare them for a useful life. We want them to be able to think for themselves when they are out in the world on their own. We want them to have good character and to make sound decisions about their life, their work, and their health. We want them to face life’s joys and travails with courage and humor. We hope that they will be kind and compassionate in their dealings with others. We want them to have a sense of justice and fairness. We want them to understand our nation and our world and the challenges we face. We want them to be active, responsible citizens, prepared to think issues through carefully, to listen to differing views, and to reach decisions rationally. We want them to learn science and mathematics so they understand the problems of modern life and participate in finding solutions. We want them to enjoy the rich artistic and cultural heritage of our society and other societies.

If these are our goals, the current narrow, utilitarian focus of our national testing regime is not sufficient to reach any of them. Indeed, to the extent that we make the testing regime our master, we may see our true goals recede farther and farther into the distance. By our current methods, we may be training (not educating) a generation of children who are repelled by learning, thinking that it means only drudgery, worksheets, test preparation, and test-taking.

Our nation’s commitment to provide universal, free public education has been a crucial element in the successful assimilation of millions of immigrants and in the ability of generations of Americans to improve their lives. As we seek to reform our schools, we must take care to do no harm. In fact, we must take care to make our public schools once again the pride of our nation. To the extent that we strengthen them, we strengthen our democracy.

Write on, Ravitch! What do you think about what you’ve read here? Agree or not?

 Join the discussion at If you’re hankering to read more, including interviews with the author and articles written by her, check out Diane Ravitch’s own Web site at, or read her blog, which she writes jointly with education reformer Deborah Meier, at


My First Job Wiped Away My Exciting Ideas

Educators respond to Diane Ravitch’s book

As a special education teacher, I have watched the endless rounds of testing shortchange and demean my students, wasting valuable time that I could have used to educate the WHOLE child.

My own son has never been a good test taker. By NCLB standards, he was a failure. But his excellent teachers taught him that life is more than a good test score. He is now almost 30 years old and works as an emergency room technician and part-time fire and rescue worker. He also runs a free karate program for kids. Thank goodness he was educated in the pre-NCLB era. He received a well-rounded education that helped him develop into a fine man.

Mary Modder
Kenosha, Wisconsin

While shopping last Christmas, I bought something that cost $4.73. I gave the girl behind the counter $10.03. When she punched the cash register, the exact change calculation didn’t work. The girl working next to her couldn’t help. The manager was called. She at least had the knowledge to get out an adding machine and subtract to figure out the change. I asked the girls whether they had passed the [Texas state] test. They all had.

Dardon Ann Hayter
Part-time ESP
Pasadena, Texas

I am a new educator. In college, I learned to use hands-on approaches, plan elaborate thematic units, and never ever teach to the test. I came out fresh and ready with my big, fun, exciting ideas to get kids learning. Right away, my first job wiped away my exciting ideas. My school was on “continuous improvement,” so the state was watching. I was forced to teach to the test with the principal breathing down my neck. I remember my stomach twisting in knots as students took their tests, thinking, “This isn’t what teaching is supposed to be about!”

One of my top fears is that many of our students will drop out because they hate school.

Sara Kurtz
Bowling Green, Ohio

Even way back in the early 60s when I was a youngster, my teachers did all kinds of hands-on learning activities and elaborate thematic units. We even dissected a friend’s kitten to determine the cause of death! I don’t know when learning by test-taking got the gold seal of instruction. With all the research on children’s physical, social, emotional, and psychological development—even brain research—we continue to be forced to teach in ways that are at best ineffective, at worst destructive and criminal. I hope some of us retired teachers can make the time to fight on behalf of kids and teachers everywhere!

Dorothy Petrie
Retired Music Teacher
Greece, New York

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