Thursday, May 13, 2010

Final Thoughts on Ravitch's "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education"

First off, I enjoyed the book. I think it's appropriate to reveal the biases I had going into it:

** I've felt from the beginning that NCLB was a failed policy- another grand sounding idea that wasn't thought out through implementation
** I don't use the word hate, but if I did I'd say I hate standardized testing. I think it's a terrible way to judge just about anything that is useful in the 21st century and the unintended effects of widely spread testing make my skin crawl- I've had the throw up on my shoes from the 3rd graders and up nervously working on the one test that determines their fate for the year...
** I value people that are advocates of a certain position but keep an open enough mind not to cling to it when new evidence comes up. I don't mind flip-floppers- it shows that they're human, make mistakes, and learn from them

So I was set up to like this book going into it. It made me think, gave me some history I was not aware of, and offered real insight into how this all came about and how decisions about education reform are made. This is good knowledge.

The overall feeling I get after reading this is one of disappointment in the system. My eyes have been opened as to just how ed reform gets driven by those that are not educators. Rather, it's lawyers, politicians, and businessmen that frame the debate and offer their solutions. They are in power so they make policy. It's just that simple, and sad. And not only this, but they are obviously incredibly persuasive- whether it be because of their positions of power or the fact that money talks. They were able to persuade curriculum minded folks like Ravitch with their ideas about reform, after all. And the public was persuaded too (and still are). Throwing out bullet points such as these are simple, powerful, and persuasive: 1) the system is broken, 2) teachers and schools need to be accountable, 3) parents should be able to move their kids out of a failing school and into a better one, 4) all students must be required to be proficient. Who can argue these points? The problem lies in the SHALLOWNESS that this boils ed reform down to. Which is perfect for politicians because it avoids the hard truth- there is nothing simple or shallow about true ed reform. It's hard and blueprints don't work.

So I agreed with much of what Ravitch is saying, although I take issue that it took her this long to realize it. I'd love to see someone with FOREsight instead of just HINDsight here. I mean, how many educators saw NCLB's requirement of every child being proficient by 2014 and started laughing? Getting educators in the discussion and in positions of policy power would have halted a lot of what was wrong with the bill.

Here are a few things I take issue with from the book, however:

  • There is nothing about the impact of 21st century learning, literacy, skills, tools, or anything else. In fact, at one point Ravitch states that we should go back in time 10 1983 and follow the recommendations of the A Nation at Risk report, stating "These recommendations were sound in 1983. They are sound today." This is a huge mistake and oversight. The very meanings of information and literacy have changed immensely since 1983. Students now are growing up in a completely different landscape. The answer to ed reform for this generation is not to dig up relics of the past.
  • There is no mention of Bloom's taxonomy and how the testing movement has undermined higher order thinking skills. That's a huge missed opportunity here.
  • She relied way too heavily on urban reforms. Of course, this seems to fit with the overall theme of education reform- it is driven by what urban areas are doing. I would have liked to see her explore the effects of urban driven reform on the rest of the country's students. It's my opinion that it is a huge mistake to take an urban reform and try to apply it to a rural area. Having worked in both environments, there are simply things you can do in an urban setting that will never work in a rural area. School choice is an obvious one.
  • There seems to be a cultural elephant in the room. All throughout the book she referred to high performing students/areas and low performing students/areas. She speaks about how charter schools siphon off the top students and leave the public schools with the worst of the bunch. Let's be clear here- she's talking about whites and blacks/Hispanics. There are significant cultural differences that she is shirking (and no one really wants to touch, especially in politics)- there are real differences in how some cultures view schooling, learning, being smart, etc. I'd like to see more attention given to some of these real issues instead of skirting around it every time. Let's work on solutions instead of pussyfoot around the problems.
The way forward

So I leave this book thinking about how it affects my thinking and actions. Here are some thoughts:

  • Is it time to incite or encourage student protests of standardized tests? I know my wife doesn't want to hear that (she is an AP and a test administrator, after all!!). Bubble card burning? What can we do to wake the public up to the effects of all of this testing and the time/money wasted on it?
  • Encourage as many teachers to forget the test as possible. Just teach and do what's right for your students.
  • Keep pushing for collaboration, creation, and publication. Focus on high quality learning environments that help students be creative, flexible problem solvers. Because that's what the world needs moving forward.
And, finally, it is really interesting to finish this book and jump into Drive, by Daniel Pink. A great convergence that is really shaping how I think about things. I'm looking forward to starting a project revolving around Drive in the future- a global book club of sorts. Stay tuned!


edtechsteve said...

I totally agree with this comment. Great thoughts.

Maybe? =)

Carol Baldwin said...

Facebooked this blog. Are you not on facebook? I thought you might be. Read your post about SPore too. How about giving a plug for TTS next time you talk about Spore? Looking forward to seeing your book and talking about it in Talking Story.