A new agenda for school reform
I used to be a strong supporter of school accountability and choice. But in recent years, it became clear to me that these strategies were not working. The federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) program enacted in 2002 did not produce large gains in reading and math. The gains in math were larger before the law was implemented, and the most recent national tests showed that eighth-grade students have made no improvement in reading since 1998. By mandating a utopian goal of 100 percent proficiency, the law encouraged states to lower their standards and make false claims of progress. Worse, the law stigmatized schools that could not meet its unrealistic expectation.
Choice, too, has been disappointing. We now know that choice is no panacea. The districts with the most choice for the longest period -- Cleveland and Milwaukee -- have seen no improvement in their public schools nor in their choice schools. Charter schools have been compared to regular public schools on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2009, and have never outperformed them. Nationally, only 3 percent of public school students are enrolled in charters, and no one is giving much thought to improving the system that enrolls the other 97 percent.
It is time to change course.
To begin with, let's agree that a good education encompasses far more than just basic skills. A good education involves learning history, geography, civics, the arts, science, literature and foreign language. Schools should be expected to teach these subjects even if students are not tested on them.
Everyone agrees that good education requires good teachers. To get good teachers, states should insist -- and the federal government should demand -- that all new teachers have a major in the subject they expect to teach or preferably a strong educational background in two subjects, such as mathematics and music or history and literature. Every state should expect teachers to pass a rigorous examination in the subjects they will teach, as well as a general examination to demonstrate their literacy and numeracy.
We need principals who are master teachers, not inexperienced teachers who took a course called "How to Be a Leader." The principal is expected to evaluate teachers, to decide who deserves tenure and to help those who are struggling and trying to improve. If the principal is not a master teacher, he or she will not be able to perform the most crucial functions of the job.
We need superintendents who are experienced educators because their decisions about personnel, curriculum and instruction affect the entire school system. If they lack experience, they will not be qualified to select the best principals or the best curricula for their districts.
We need assessments that gauge students' understanding and require them to demonstrate what they know, not tests that allow students to rely solely on guessing and picking one among four canned answers.
We should stop using the term "failing schools" to describe schools where test scores are low. Usually, a school has low test scores because it enrolls a disproportionately large number of low-performing students. Among its students may be many who do not speak or read English, who live in poverty, who miss school frequently because they must baby-sit while their parents look for work, or who have disabilities that interfere with their learning. These are not excuses for their low scores but facts about their lives.
Instead of closing such schools and firing their staffs, every state should have inspection teams that spend time in every low-performing school and diagnose its problems. Some may be mitigated with extra teachers, extra bilingual staff, an after-school program or other resources. The inspection team may find that the school was turned into a dumping ground by district officials to make other schools look better. It may find a heroic staff that is doing well under adverse circumstances and needs help. Whatever the cause of low performance, the inspection team should create a plan to improve the school.
Only in rare circumstances should a school be closed. In many poor communities, schools are the most stable institution. Closing them destroys the fabric of the community.
We must break free of the NCLB mind-set that makes accountability synonymous with punishment. As we seek to rebuild our education system, we must improve the schools where performance is poor, not punish them.
If we are serious about school reform, we will look for long-term solutions, not quick fixes.
We wasted eight years with the "measure and punish" strategy of NCLB. Let's not waste the next eight years.
Diane Ravitch is a historian of education. Her most recent book is "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education."