Diane Ravitch, historian of education and policy analyst, decried what she called the "corporate reform movement" in education when she spoke at SCU Feb. 24 at the invitation of the Ethics Center.
Countering the movement’s chief claim—that schools should be run like businesses—Ravitch took on many of today’s popular reform ideas including evaluating teachers based on test scores, merit pay for teachers, and charter schools. She especially challenged the notion that the problem with the system is bad teaching, and that the schools will improve if they fire bad teachers and principals. These proposals, she argued, are wrong. “They are based on ideology not on evidence, and they are demoralizing millions of teachers.”
As an example, she cited research on merit pay, which she said has never been shown to work. A study by Vanderbilt University’s National Center on Performance Incentives, released in September 2010, found, “Rewarding teachers with bonus pay, in the absence of any other support programs, does not raise student test scores.” Still, Ravitch reported, the US Department of Education has released $1 billion to support merit pay programs.
Ravitch was especially scathing about the recent documentary, “Waiting for Superman,” which holds up charter schools as a solution for problems with the current system. A basic claim of the movie, that 70 percent of eighth graders are reading below grade level, is, according to Ravitch, a complete misreading or misunderstanding of the National Assessment of Education Progress. In that test only 30 percent of students were labeled “proficient,” but that grade, she explained, is the equivalent of an A. The accurate figure is 25 percent of eighth graders reading below basic, a group that includes English language learners and children with disabilities.
Ravitch also strongly disagreed with the movie’s conclusion—that charter schools were the answer to problems in the system. She referred the audience to the Stanford University CREDO study, which found that it found that “17 percent of charter schools reported academic gains that were significantly better than traditional public schools, while 37 percent of charter schools showed gains that were worse than their traditional public school counterparts, with 46 percent of charter schools demonstrating no significant difference.”
Ravitch stressed that she was not a supporter of the status quo in our nation’s schools. “But we need improvement based on proven strategies, not radical strategies developed by non-educators,” she said. Proven strategies she suggested included high quality pre-K programs, parent education programs, easy access to medical treatment, more professionalism, superintendents who are expert educators, better assessments, balanced curriculum in every grade and diagnostics for low-performing schools instead of closing schools.
Ravitch's appearance at SCU was co-sponsored by the Commonwealth Club-Silicon Valley. She was one of the Ethics Center's two 2010-2011 Regan lecturers