Diane Ravitch has written a new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, in which she condemns testing and choice as ineffective tools of education reform. Having served in both the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton presidential administrations, Ravitch has shown some centrist and even reformer tendencies over the years, and this certainly makes her book and its message noteworthy. The NEA has even awarded Ravitch its “Friend of Education” prize this year .
Peter Cohee, who teaches at the storied Boston Latin School, has reviewed the book for the National Association of Scholars. It got me thinking on the subject, so here are a few of those thoughts:
No Child Left Behind has been problematic from the start. That should have been obvious at the time of its crafting and passage, and was to some. In many education circles, it has become a four letter word as profane as any other. Its strictures that educators so decry, however, are merely the inevitable associated costs of greater central government involvement in what has long been a local or state issue, or even a family or church issue. Odd, that educators would be so slow to learn the old lesson that he who pays the piper calls the tune.
Testing, in and of itself, does not lead to that sort of narrow, static-style learning conjured and forewarned against by phrases like “teaching to the test.” The manner in which testing is conceived and conducted matters. National testing standards for elementary schools, for example, may stifle as they stipulate. However, classroom teachers, school personnel, district boards and even states could all be involved in sensible, productive testing programs to objectively promote, monitor and assess student achievement. The limitations and complications of national testing should not cause us to discard testing, but rather question the federal-level involvement.
Choice was not as much advanced by NCLB as was testing, but made some token gains through the law and of course has otherwise been the topic of great discussion. It’s true that choice can complicate things – that’s usually the way freedom works – but that’s no argument against choice. As Cohee notes, large bureaucracies “require and always tend toward” “centralization control and standardization,” an operating mode that does not well accommodate the freedom and flexibility of choice. Again, this is not an argument against choice, but rather against a system so centralized and bureaucratic that it cannot provide or will not permit choice for the sake of its own expediency.
Cohee offers some good insight, so if you’ve participated or listened to the discussion surrounding the release of Ravitch’s book, you will enjoy the article.