Here are questions that education historian Diane Ravitch posed to politicans who make education policy. Ravitch, a research professor at New York University, is the author of numerous books including the bestselling “ The Death and Life of the Great American School System ,” a critique of the modern school reform movement. These questions first appeared on the Nieman Watchdog website.
By Diane Ravitch
1. Both Republican candidates and President Obama are enamored of charter schools — that is, schools that are privately managed and deregulated. Are you aware that studies consistently show that charter schools don’t get better results than regular public schools? Are you aware that studies show that, like any deregulated sector, some charter schools get high test scores, many more get low scores, but most are no different from regular public schools? Do you recognize the danger in handing public schools and public monies over to private entities with weak oversight? Didn’t we learn some lessons from the stock collapse of 2008 about the risk of deregulation?
2. Both Republican candidates and President Obama are enamored of merit pay for teachers based on test scores. Are you aware that merit pay has been tried in the schools again and again since the 1920s and it has never worked? Are you aware of the exhaustive study of merit pay in the Nashville schools, conducted by the National Center for Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt, which found that a bonus of $15,000 per teacher for higher test scores made no difference?
3. Are you aware that Milwaukee has had vouchers for low-income students since 1990, and now state scores in Wisconsin show that low-income students in voucher schools get no better test scores than low-income students in the Milwaukee public schools? Are you aware that the federal test (the National Assessment of Educational Progress) shows that—after 21 years of vouchers in Milwaukee—black students in the Milwaukee public schools score on par with black students in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana?
4. Does it concern you that cyber charters and virtual academies make millions for their sponsors yet get terrible results for their students?
5. Are you concerned that charters will skim off the best-performing students and weaken our nation’s public education system?
6. Are you aware that there is a large body of research by testing experts warning that it is wrong to judge teacher quality by student test scores? Are you aware that these measures are considered inaccurate and unstable, that a teacher may be labeled effective one year, then ineffective the next one? Are you aware that these measures may be strongly influenced by the composition of a teacher’s classroom, over which she or he has no control? Do you think there is a long line of excellent teachers waiting to replace those who are (in many cases, wrongly) fired?
7. Although elected officials like to complain about our standing on international tests , did you know that students in the United States have never done well on those tests? Did you know that when the first international test was given in the mid-1960s, the United States came in 12th out of 12? Did you know that over the past half-century, our students have typically scored no better than average and often in the bottom quartile on international tests? Have you ever wondered how our nation developed the world’s most successful economy when we scored so poorly over the decades on those tests?
8. Did you know that American schools where less than 10% of the students were poor scored above those of Finland, Japan and Korea in the last international assessment? Did you know that American schools where 25% of the students were poor scored the same as the international leaders Finland, Japan and Korea? Did you know that the U.S. is #1 among advanced nations in child poverty? Did you know that more than 20% of our children live in poverty and that this is far greater than in the nations to which we compare ourselves?
9. Did you know that family income is the single most reliable predictor of student test scores? Did you know that every testing program — the SAT, the ACT, the NAEP, state tests and international tests — shows the same tight correlation between family income and test scores? Affluence helps — children in affluent homes have educated parents, more books in the home, more vocabulary spoken around them, better medical care, more access to travel and libraries, more economic security — as compared to students who live in poverty, who are more likely to have poor medical care, poor nutrition, uneducated parents, more instability in their lives. Do you think these things matter?
10. Are you concerned that closing schools in low-income neighborhoods will further weaken fragile communities?
11. Are you worried that annual firings of teachers will cause demoralization and loss of prestige for teachers? Any ideas about who will replace those fired because they taught too many low-scoring students?
12. Why is it that politicians don’t pay attention to research and studies?
13. Do you know of any high-performing nation in the world that got that way by privatizing public schools, closing those with low test scores, and firing teachers? The answer: none.
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