The reform movement is already failing

August 23, 2011

By Diane Ravitch
The opinions expressed are her own.

Reuters invited leading educators to reply to Steven Brill’s op-ed on the school reform deniers. We will be publishing the responses here. Below is Ravitch’s reply. Here are responses from Joel Klein and Deborah Meier as well.

In my nearly four decades as a historian of education, I have analyzed the rise and fall of reform movements. Typically, reforms begin with loud declarations that our education system is in crisis. Throughout the twentieth century, we had a crisis almost every decade. After persuading the public that we are in crisis, the reformers bring forth their favored proposals for radical change. The radical changes are implemented in a few sites, and the results are impressive. As their reforms become widespread, they usually collapse and fail. In time, those who have made a career of educating children are left with the task of cleaning up the mess left by the last bunch of reformers.

We are in the midst of the latest wave of reforms, and Steven Brill has positioned himself as the voice of the new reformers. These reforms are not just flawed, but actually dangerous to the future of American education. They would, if implemented, lead to the privatization of a large number of public schools and to the de-professionalization of education.

As Brill’s book shows, the current group of reformers consists of an odd combination of Wall Street financiers, conservative Republican governors, major foundations, and the Obama administration. The reformers believe that the way to “fix” our schools is to fire more teachers, based on the test scores of their students; to open more privately-managed charter schools; to reduce the qualifications for becoming a teacher; and to remove job protections for senior teachers.

The reformers say that our schools are failing and point to international test scores; they don’t seem to know that American students have never done well on international tests. When the international tests were first launched in the 1960s, our students ranked near the bottom. Obviously these tests do not predict the future economic success of a nation because we as a nation have prospered despite our mediocre performance on international tests over the past half century.

The last international test results were released in December. Our students ranked about average, and our leading policymakers treated the results as a national scandal. But here is a curious fact: low-poverty U.S. schools (where fewer than 10% of the students were poor) had scores that were higher than those of the top nations in the world. In schools where as many as 25% of the students were poor, the scores were equal to those of Finland, Japan and Korea. As the poverty rate of the schools rose, the schools’ performance declined.

An objective observer would conclude that the problem in this society has to do with our shamefully high rates of child poverty, the highest in the developed world. At least 20% of U.S. children live in poverty. Among black children, the poverty rate is 35%.

Reformers like to say — as they did in the film “Waiting for ‘Superman’” — that we spend too much and that poverty doesn’t matter. They say that teacher effectiveness is all that matters. They claim that children who have three “great” or “effective” teachers in a row will close the achievement gap between the races. They say that experience doesn’t matter. They believe that charter schools, staffed by tireless teachers, can close the gap in test scores.

Unfortunately, research does not support any of their claims.

Take the matter of charter schools. The definitive national study of charters was conducted by Stanford University economist Margaret Raymond and financed by the pro-charter Walton Family Foundation and the Dell Foundation. After surveying half the nation’s 5,000 charter schools, the study concluded that only 17% got better test results than a demographically similar traditional public school; 37% got worse results, and the remaining 46% were no different from the matched public school. An eight-state study by the Rand Corporation found no differences in results between charter and regular public schools. On federal tests, students in charter schools and regular public schools perform about the same.

The overwhelming majority of charter schools are non-union. They can hire and fire teachers at will, and teacher attrition at charter schools is higher than in regular public schools. Many studies have shown that charters have a disproportionately small number of students with disabilities or students who don’t speak English. Yet, despite these structural advantages, they don’t get better results. Furthermore, right-to-work states where unions are weak or non-existent don’t lead the nation in academic achievement; most are middling or at the bottom on federal tests. Brill simply refuses to acknowledge these inconvenient facts because the charter movement is a central part of the “reform” claims.

Research provides no support for Brill’s belief that the teacher is the ultimate determinant of student success or failure. Economists overwhelmingly agree that families, and especially family income, have a larger impact on student academic performance than teachers. Typically, economists estimate that teachers account for 10-15% of student performance; non-school factors influence about 60%.

And what about the reformers’ claim that three great teachers in a row close the achievement gap? It is a sound bite, not an actionable policy proposal. The reformers can’t point to a single school or district that has actually made this happen.

The reform movement is already failing. Its remedies don’t work. It ignores poverty, which is the root cause of poor academic performance.

If we are serious about improving education, we would work to improve both schools and society. We would invest in the recruitment and preparation of career teachers and make sure that every child has a curriculum that includes the arts, history, civics, foreign languages and other subjects. We would also invest in prenatal care so that every child is born healthy and invest in high-quality early childhood education, so that children arrive in school ready to learn. We would stop the budget cutting that is now increasing class sizes and reducing needed services to children.

Unfortunately, such research-based strategies are not part of today’s reform movement, which is why it will most assuredly end up in the dustbin of history, like so many others.


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[…] We will be publishing the responses here. Below is Klein’s reply. Here are responses from Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier as […]

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[…] be publishing the responses here. Below is Meier’s reply. Here are responses from Joel Klein and Diane Ravitch as […]

Posted by If only the unions were the problem | The Great Debate | Report as abusive

Okay… lets suppose that teacher fail because students aren’t trying or parents don’t care… That just provides even more reason to fire the teacher. If you are funneling students destined to fail regardless of the quality of the teachers they have then you might was well make teaching a revolving door career that will slowly turn into one where no one expects anything and is therefore paid little more than minimum wage to act as a government sponsored baby sitter…. That would in fact be a better situation than we have now. Why pay for quality teachers if having a quality teacher wont improve the students success… if the students are doomed from the start then why bother with expensive teachers… we could simply get adults capable of keeping the students from revolting and killing each other to guard the daycare centers… which then leads to the ultimate decision to stop state sponsored education altogether. After all if the majority of the students wont learn then why waste money on them at all. Simply cut the taxes that go into funding education, the parents of the few students that are destined to learn because they came from good families that believe in education will foot the bill for their own kids knowing it will give them a better place in society… the other kids will simply flounder around become janitors or perform other menial tasks and life will go on….

Posted by Yirmin | Report as abusive

Why even give the teacher’s union a voice in this discussion? It’s clear to most parents that the average teacher is mediocre or worse, yet their union stands in the way of making positive change. Rather than be a proactive partner in reshaping our education and returning it to best-in-class, the union fights to defend the indefensible. They remind me of the Tea Party – a small and out-of-touch minority that have an outsized impact on our future. Shame on all of us for allowing this to continue.

Posted by JeremyA | Report as abusive

Mr. Brill and Ms. Ravitch each demonstrate the two polarize viewpoints expressed in the reform debate. Who is right? As it is with most debatable topics, it is probably somewhere in the middle.

As a relatively new teacher, I do have a different viewpoint from both these positions. It is important to report that I may be young in experience, but not young in life given my start as a teacher was after thirty years working in private industry. I have a full understanding of how businesses and workers co-exist in union and non-union environments.

To begin, let us dispense with the notion of the overpaid underworked teacher that draw from the trough of public funds to pad their lifestyle and use the union rules to get exorbitant time off or skirt shoddy practices. I was paid 45K a year and if I chose to use the negotiated health care plan, it would have cost me $700 a month to support my family’s health care needs. Fortunately, my wife has a better plan to cover us, so the option of opting-out was workable. Excessive sick time off? Not on your life. During my second year of teaching, I had to have a tumor removed from the pituitary area that kept me out of work for two months. With only two years in the tank, my sick time was good for two weeks and I had to deal with unpaid time. Obviously, the 10-15 days of sick time Mr. Brill exists, but it doesn’t exist everywhere. I think when Mr. Brill assembled his facts, he did the one thing he accused Ms. Ravich of doing – cherry-picking the worst examples and drawing across the board conclusions.

Equally distorting is Ms. Ravitch’s point of view on the effects of student in poverty and compelling these students facing daily challenges to do well in school. As a high school math teacher, I see examples of this daily, but I also see just as many with advantageous backgrounds exhibiting a lack of drive or interest in learning. When there are students that come to the class day-in and day-out sitting in class without purpose, it is hard to propagate a learning environment for the whole class. It does not take many of these students to disrupt the proceedings of an entire class. It isn’t necessarily poverty that creates these challenges. Don’t get me wrong, poverty is a factor; it just isn’t THE factor in student learning.

The last big point I believe is relevant is one that both sides miss: teacher evaluations. I cannot stress highly enough how important and useful this tool is as long as it is not used to bludgeon teachers with the intent of wrecking their careers. The objective is making teachers better, not make them sweat for the privilege of teaching. The traditionalists say they are an obstacle in allowing teachers to function in a manner they see fit and the reformers say they are necessary to weed out the poorer performers. They are both so wrong-headed.

As most schools require by contract, I was evaluated twice a year, but they were so differently handled, it was hard to believe it was in the same school. The first year was handled expertly – a time was set, lesson plans given to the evaluator, and a follow-up meeting on the observation points. The evaluator was a vice-principal that was also a seasoned math teacher capable of giving back invaluable feedback and suggestions to improve my teaching skills. As a first year teacher at the time, I was thankful! In fact, if there was money in the budget, I would have appreciated other teachers coming in and evaluating me as well. There wasn’t. The second year (last year), it wasn’t handled nearly as well. These became “drop-in” evaluations – little ten minute reviews and quickie follow ups without the detail or path to pedagogy improvement. It was the same person, but a recent principal change also changed the rules of evaluations. It did not offer much in the way of improvement.

Evaluations, when used correctly, can produce marvelous results. In my book, there weren’t enough of them. One of the most instructive learning experiences during my education to become a credentialed teacher was a required visit to a school for a week to observe classes in the content area we were expecting to teach. I learned so much in how teachers effectively teach. This could still be an effective tool if it were available now if the school could pay for a substitute to teach while I rotated with teachers in my own school. Or, they could visit my class, observe my teaching, and give me tips in improving my techniques. However, it may seem we teachers are in the building collaborating all the time, but the fact is we see so little of each other except for the precious few minutes between classes or before and after school. In fact, teachers are quite the island without much for support.

Teaching is a great craft, but it isn’t an easy one. The Great Reform Debate tends to dehumanize the functions of the teacher and doesn’t show how exposed teachers are to reform minded methods that could oust the teacher from classrooms permanently. If a teacher leaves a school because the school doesn’t want them teaching their classes, it effectively blackballs them from the teaching profession. No one wants a blemished teacher in this scrutinized environment without tolerance and without the desire to fund education properly. I predict in the next 3-5 years, there will be a large teacher shortage as teachers are sent packing, others retire early to avoid the bull crap, and new teachers reduced to fill the void stunted because the cost of education and demand to perform expertly right away detours all but the intensely dedicated. There are many other, less stressful ways to make a living.

Posted by rgod8855 | Report as abusive

I have never heard of Mr. Brills and I read a lot of material by the giants of schooling. I started to teach my first primary class in May,1946 and I have followed a lot of issues in the interim. I’ve been around even longer than Diane; and have seen some disturbing attacks on teachers and the accompanying sterile comments over the years….the Back to Basics debate, The Minimal Competency Movement,I could go on; that just seem to come out of the blue every now and then.
Blanket-test merchants are presently in control of schooling; and they are punishing children as they have never been punished before for no justifiable reason. They have removed the freedom to learn, the joy of learning and a child’s yearning for high achievement by the creation of fear driven, profit-based schooling. It’s the worst assault on schooling in my lifetime. Mr. Brill’s version of the 1975 Black Papers, then written by non-school academics who just wanted to make a noise at the time is another sad comment.
One wonders if Brill and Klein have ever been in a public school where children almost break a leg to get to school…arriving at or before 7.30 a.m.; and having to be chased home at dark, because they wanted to learn from and in the resource-rich environment; where the worst form of punishment was being forbidden to enter the classroom before the ‘first bell’. a school where every child disliked the long midsummer vacation because they would not be able to go to school for a while. I have. I’ll wager that none of Klein’s chosen schools can create that sort of joyful, learning-based, achievemnt-seeking atmosphere.
Go Diane and Deborah. I do hope your optimism will be realised. School chilren, as vulnerable as they are seen to be, deserve a better life.

Posted by Treehorn | Report as abusive

After all if the majority of the students wont learn then why waste money on them at all.

Posted by rudraksha | Report as abusive

The majority do learn. It’s just that we have a one size fits all school system. It serves the motivated dedicated smart kids above all. How many people in life know what they want to be at 10, or 12, or even 25? How many of our best and brightest people in history didn’t do anything of value to society till age 40 or 50?

Anyone who expects to create a factory to turn out motivated, dedicated highly focused, educated children at the 100 percent mark is a failure at the study of humanity. Humans are a messy disorganized bunch and primary and secondary school is just a foundation. Some will succeed some won’t and the demand that we meet an arbitrary number is the same kind of thinking that almost ran IBM into the ground.
Yes by test scores other countries beat us. How many of those countries have a better quality of life, the flexibility to try and fail, or the ability to criticize thier government or even lobby publicly against it?

20 years ago I remember being told Indians would take over our Engineering departments because they were turning out more engineering students than we are. The simple fact is they are taking over the low end jobs but they usually fail at the high end jobs because they were never trained to make decisions or consider anything outsider thier flowcharts. But more of them have degrees than us?

America leads in innovation and hard work. In spite of what the average american thinks we work about 1 month more a year than workers did in 1970, we have the highest productivity of any nation on earth, we produce a little over 40 percent of the worlds manufactured goods in spite of having less than 5 percent of the population. We let everyone pull us down into focusing on the details of problems that we have and we forget that we still do almost everything better than the rest of the world.

We’ve got problems they are real they need to be addressed but screaming the sky is falling never fixed anything. All it does is freak everyone out and take thier focus off any real solution. Like addressing poverty that keeps parents so focused on surviving day to day that they don’t or can’t help thier children with preparing for the future.

Posted by samuel_c | Report as abusive

[…] around a long article by Steven Brill (from here and here). The other articles up so far are by Diane Ravitch, Deborah Meier, Jennifer Jennings, Margaret Honey, Alex Kotlowitz, and Joel […]

Posted by School reform « Petunias | Report as abusive

What Diane Ravitch is talking about is a cult movement that has taken control of education and can best be understood in the context of Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness.”
Truthiness is a “truth” based on gut-feelings without regard for evidence, logic, or facts. Diane Ravitch began the deconstruction of reforminess with her book,
The Death and Life of the Great American School System.

Ravitch was present for the “big bang” of recent “school reform,” traceable back
to A Nation at Risk, when she was part of the conservative think tank
cabal. Their “truths” were based on fantasies of market-based
concepts of competition and choice, with pragmatic programs including
test based accountability, charter schools, and vouchers. Much of
this became the basis for NCLB and the unholy alliance of neo-liberal
and conservative school reform efforts: that is to say, reforminess.

Ravitch’s epiphany came at a think tank meeting when, one after
another, the testing gurus, the charter school proponents, and the
voucher propagandists stood up to report on a decade’s worth of
“progress.” But there wasn’t any. One research group at the
conservative, pro-charter Hoover Institution, CREDO, did a massive
study on charters and found only one in five outperformed regular
public schools, while two in five did worse, and the remainder were no
different than local public schools.

Ravitch realized that the fundamentals of neo-liberal/conservative
reform were reforminess—based on gut-feelings, intuition, and with no
basis in evidence, logic, or facts. She engaged in empirical research
and all the beliefs were found wanting. Ravitch concluded that
reforminess was not just resulting in little to no improved
achievement; it was actually narrowing, damaging, and corrupting
public education.

Enter the Obama Administration, which inexplicably appointed Arne
Duncan, experienced in neo-liberal private sector foundations but not
a day as a teacher or school administrator, as Secretary of Education.
He comes up with Race to the Top. If the fundamentals of NCLB were
utter failures than the only solution was to double down with even
more draconian reforminess: “turn-around” proposals, shutting down
schools, firing teachers and principals, turning public school
management over to private sector charter operators—all based on his
gut, but absolutely no empirical research.

Mr. Brill, like others of his ilk, has no idea of what he is talking about.

Posted by garyravani | Report as abusive

[…] – This Was Well Written! by educationclearinghouse on August 25, 2011 I came across Diane Ravitch writing about the “reformers.”  Diane has been studying education in this country for over 40 years and she knows what […]

Posted by Diane Ravitch – This Was Well Written! « educationclearinghouse | Report as abusive

[…] us all of what we’re really up against. “Yirmin” left this comment on a recent op-ed by Dr. Diane Ravitch: Okay… lets suppose that teacher fail because students aren’t trying or […]

Posted by “If the students are doomed from the start…” :: Sabrina Stevens Shupe | Report as abusive

[…] how many kids will be harmed before the reformers move on to a new pet project? The last sentence of her recent writing says it all “Unfortunately, such research-based strategies are not part of today’s reform […]

Posted by Class Warfare: Fact Checking Pages 301 to 350 | Gary Rubinstein's TFA Blog | Report as abusive

Certainly, we all want our education system to be better. Politicians should be careful not to enact short-sided policies that have negative unintended consequences. Everyone in society has a responsibility to contribute to the education of the next generation because we all bear the costs as a society of poorly educated individuals who are more likely to be costly to society later in life. One-size-fits-all approaches enacted by politicians with little input from experienced educators are not likely to be successful. For more information:  /search/label/merit%20pay

Posted by AmSocietyToday | Report as abusive

Hear, hear “rgod8855″! I hope your experience teaching math is as wonderful as mine was (35 years math/science, physics, calculus, oceanography…). I was getting tired of listening to reformers trying to get rid of teachers. The job is tough enough today to weed out anyone who is lazy. Focus on getting rid of teachers who: a) don’t know what they are talking about or: b) can’t get along with kids.
Those two factors are the most important for a teacher to be successful. Most kids are so good they will put forth effort they did not know they possessed for a teacher they trust and respect. Kids appreciate the effort a teacher puts into being prepared and interesting. They will forgive an occasional clunker (that great idea you knew would work, but didn’t). They know you are human.
Kids respond to the person they know is really happy to see them every day and can’t wait to teach them something.

Posted by joemac53 | Report as abusive

It kind of makes me sick to see how many of you are so ardently opposed to teachers. Many teachers that I know are very hard working, good young people who really care about the kids and are underpaid and granted too few resources. It may be hard to improve childrens’ home lives when so many live in poverty, especially when you have conservative Christian fascists who ironically believe that helping the poor is akin to mortal sin, but we can improve our schools.

Pay teachers better. Give them more resources like computers and good technology. Stop making them buy things out of pocket. Stop deriding these people who take your little brats and put up with the scars of their crappy home lives and try to teach turn them into functional citizens. It’s nauseating how anti-intellectual, anti-education so many of you supposed fiscal conservatives are. You’d rather invest tax dollars in oil companies and fight wars in the Middle East than try to improve the teaching environment of your own kids.

Your children are your future, not the aged failures who are hoarding all of your money and slashing your wages and benefits to leave you fighting over scraps. Do not abuse teachers; without them your kids would be even more screwed up and befuddled.

Posted by viskarenvisla | Report as abusive

I have taught kindergarten for thirty years and primary for six. I have seen ideas and policies come and go and they are never good for children. If we make the changes that are being proposed in Florida, we are opening up a can of worms. There are many ways we could get poor teachers out, ways we can teach teachers how to teach better and to evaluate them. Everything is always blamed on teachers for the inability of the teacher to bring up test scores. Of course then it is the union who protects us. Nothing in education or in life is ever as simple as it sounds. It is never just one thing. It is complicated. We have to take it apart and work on each separate issue but the government wants a quick fix so we put all the blame on the teachers. I’m not saying that their aren’t teachers that shouldn’t be there. There has to be a way of working them out. My county has a program that works with the teacher having problems. It just seems to me that everything has come down to the tests. They wonder why they are seeing people cheating on them due to becoming disparate. I have lost respect for our school board and the educational people in Washington. We as a nation still refusing to look at the main issue here.. When children are successful, it comes from administration, teaching and parents. There are lots of things that could be changed but people don’t even look at what is good for the child. Dedicated teachers are angry because many things go against child development. No one looks at that any more. Now we are taking away play time in kindergartens because it is a waste of time. We need to push them as much as possible so that their scores go up. One of the things I noticed before I retired was that many children taking the FCAT test in third grade that I had taught were making poorer scores then I thought they should have gotten. I tutored one of them and realized that they had come with poor language skills and word recognition. It takes children many years to catch up and you are asking them to perform on tests where language is crucial. We need to close up that loop hole. No one ever looks at that. There are lots of things we can do to help children love school and use our creative techniques but that will not happen as long as we continue the way we are. Children are so vulnerable. The children of America have been in crisis for ten years. The government chooses to ignore this and turns their back on them and now they think the answer is in education so let’s blame the teachers. They need to do their homework. Many of the things people have said in this blog are true. I only wish there was a way we could prove to the American government how all of us feel about our jobs and our dedication to education. Maybe it’s time for a “march”. Something drastic needs to be done to get the country’s attention.

Posted by breathingfire | Report as abusive

[…] reforms actually improve student performance? I hope you can take the time to read a response to a new education reform book reviewed by Dianne Ravitch at this Reuters link.  I believe she does a great job of pointing out that the reformers are fixing the wrong […]

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