You may not remember (if you knew at all) that education historian and activist Diane Ravitch, who as much as anybody else led the movement in recent years against No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, once worked for Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, who now chairs the Senate education committee but was once the U.S. secretary of education.
Alexander ran the Education Department from March 1991 to January 1993 during the administration of President George H.W. Bush, and hired Ravitch as assistant secretary in charge of research and improvement as well as counsel to him. Ravitch later became a supporter of President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind, which he signed into law in 2002, but she changed her view after researching the consequences of NCLB on schools, students and teachers. Her 2010 book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” explained why she changed her mind.
Now Ravitch has written an open letter on her blog to Alexander about his efforts to lead a congressional rewrite of No Child Left Behind. In the letter, she reminds Alexander of something he wrote in his 1998 “Lamar Alexander’s Little Plaid Book: 311 Rules, Reminders, and Lessons About Running for Office and Making a Difference, Whether It’s for President of the United States or President of your senior class.”
Here, with her permission, is Ravitch’s open letter to Alexander about NCLB:
Senator Lamar Alexander
I wish I could be in Washington for the hearings about the reauthorization of NCLB. I can’t make it for two reasons: I wasn’t invited, and I have a date to speak to parents at P.S. 3 in Manhattan who are outraged about all the testing imposed on their children.
I learned a lot about education policy and federalism after you chose me to serve as your Assistant Secretary of Education in charge of research and improvement and as counsel to the Secretary of Education (you). I am imagining that I am still advising you, as I did from 1991 to 1993 (remember that you and every other top administrator in the Department left a day before the inauguration of Bill Clinton, and you told me I was Acting Secretary for the day?).
What I always admired about you was your deliberateness, your thoughtfulness, your ability to listen to discordant voices, and your respect for federalism. You didn’t think you were smarter than everyone else in the country just because you were a member of the President’s Cabinet. You understood federalism. You didn’t think it was your job to impose what you wanted on every school in America. You respected the ability of local communities to govern their schools without your supervision or dictation.
NCLB was not informed by your wisdom. It set impossible goals, then established punishments for schools that could not do the impossible. I remember a panel discussion in early 2002 at the Willard Hotel soon after NCLB was signed. You were on the panel. I was in the audience, and I stood up and asked you whether you truly believed that 100% of all children in grades 3-8 would be “proficient” by 2014. You answered, “No, Diane, but we think it is good to have goals.” Well, based on goals that you knew were out of reach, teachers and principals have been fired, and many schools—beloved in their communities—have been closed.
NCLB has introduced an unprecedented level of turmoil into the nation’s public education system. Wearing my conservative hat, I have to say that it’s wrong to disrupt the lives of communities, schools, families, and children to satisfy an absurd federal mandate, based on a false premise and based too on the non-existent “Texas miracle.” Conservatives are not fire-breathing radicals who seek to destroy community and tradition. Conservatives conserve, conservatives believe in incremental change, not in upheaval and disruption.
I urge you to abandon the annual mandated federal testing in grades 3-8. Little children are sitting for 8-10 hours to take the annual tests in math and reading. As a parent, you surely understand that this is madness. This is why the Opt Out movement is growing across the nation, as parents protest what feels like federally-mandated child abuse.
Do we need to compare the performance of states? NAEP does that already. Anyone who wants to know how Mississippi compares to Massachusetts can look at the NAEP results, which are released every two years. Do we want disaggregated data? NAEP reports scores by race, gender, English language proficiency, and disability status. How will we learn about achievement gaps if we don’t test every child annually? NAEP reports that too. In short, we already have the information that everyone says they want and need.
NCLB has forced teachers to teach to the test; that once was considered unethical and unprofessional, but now it is an accepted practice in schools across the country. NCLB has caused many schools to spend more time and resources on test prep, interim assessments, and testing. That means narrowing the curriculum: when testing matters so much, there is less time for the arts, physical education, foreign languages, civics, and other valuable studies and activities. Over this past dozen years, there have been numerous examples of states gaming the system and educators cheating because the tests determine whether schools will live or die, and whether educators will get a bonus or be fired.
I urge you to enact what you call “option one,” grade span testing, and to abandon annual testing. If you keep annual testing in the law, states and districts will continue to engage in the mis-education that NCLB incentivized. Bad habits die hard, if at all.
Just say no to annual testing. No high-performing nation does it, and neither should we. We are the most over-tested nation in the world, and it’s time to encourage children to sing, dance, play instruments, write poetry, imagine stories, create videos, make science projects, write history papers, and discover the joy of learning.
As I learned from you, the U.S. Department of Education should not act as a National School Board. The Secretary of Education is not the National Superintendent of Schools. The past dozen years of centralizing control of education in Washington, D.C., has not been good for education or for democracy.
The law governing the activities of the U.S. Department of Education states clearly that no federal official should attempt to “exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, [or] administration….of any educational institution.” When I was your Assistant Secretary and Counselor, I was very much aware of that prohibition. For the past dozen years, it seems to have been forgotten. Just a few years ago, the current administration funded tests for the Common Core standards, which will most assuredly exert control over the curriculum and program of instruction. The federal tests will determine what is taught.
The nation has seen a startling expansion of federal power over local community public schools since the passage of NCLB. There is certainly an important role for the federal government in assuring equality of educational opportunity and informing the American people about the progress of education. But the federal role today is taking on responsibilities that belong to states and local districts. The key mechanism for that takeover is annual testing, the results of which are used to dictate other policies of dubious legality and validity, like evaluating teachers and even colleges of education by student test scores.
Sir, please revise the federal law so that it authorizes the federal government to do what it does best: protecting the rights of children, gathering data, sponsoring research, encouraging the improvement of teaching, funding special education, and distributing resources to the neediest districts to help the neediest students (which was the original purpose of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965).
In closing, may I remind you of something you wrote in your book of advice:
No. 84: Read anything Diane Ravitch writes about education.
—Lamar Alexander, Little Plaid Book, page 44
I agree with you.
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