The Ends of Education Reform

By 06/07/2011

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Diane Ravitch’s New York Times op-ed seems to have stuck in the craw of many a reformer, including Arne Duncan himself. What really burned people up was Ravitch’s “straw man” arguments: that reformers say poverty doesn’t matter, or only care about gains in student achievement. “No serious reformer says accountability should just be based on test scores. We all favor multiple measures,” Jon Schnur* complained to Jonathan Alter last week.

Please. Remember the old adage, watch what we do, not what we say? The No Child Left Behind act is still the law of the land, and it most definitely rests on the principle that poverty is “no excuse” for low achievement. And it absolutely punishes schools for bad test scores alone. Diane is on firm ground when she writes:

Educators know that 100 percent proficiency is impossible, given the enormous variation among students and the impact of family income on academic performance. Nevertheless, some politicians believe that the right combination of incentives and punishments will produce dramatic improvement. Anyone who objects to this utopian mandate, they maintain, is just making an excuse for low expectations and bad teachers.

Rather than get defensive at Diane’s defeatism, we reformers should clarify the ends that education reform can achieve. If not 100 percent proficiency,** then what?

Try this exercise. This fall, about 1 million poor children will enroll in Kindergarten in the U.S. The vast majority of them live in single-parent families headed by women in the late teens or early twenties. Most of their mothers dropped out of high school; most of their fathers are nowhere to be seen. Most live in urban or rural communities hit hard by the recession where unemployment, addiction, and violence are commonplace.

Still, not everything is bleak. Almost all of these children participated in some form of pre-school program, though the quality varied dramatically. Many were in Head Start; others in church-based or community-based programs. They generally have access to basic health-care and, thanks to food stamps, basic nutrition.

Now, try to “see like a state” and play policymaker. When designing a school accountability system, what should its objectives be with respect to these 1 million children? On one extreme, you might expect them all to be catapulted into the middle class between the ages of 5 and 22. First, the k-12 system should prepare them for the rigors of a 4-year-college experience, and then higher education should get them across the finish line and to the promised land. No excuses!

On the other extreme, you might merely expect them to do no worse than their own mothers did. You don’t want to see the graduation rate go down, or test scores fall, or teen pregnancy rates climb. But you accept that, as long as poverty remains entrenched, a steady-state on student outcomes is all we can expect.

I would bet that your own views fall somewhere in between. You acknowledge–privately at least–that it’s unrealistic to expect all kids growing up in poverty to be able to “beat the odds” and graduate from college. (That’s why we call them odds.) You recognize that for most middle-class families, the path from poverty to prosperity was a multi-generational journey.

But you also believe in the promise of social mobility, and can point to examples of schools–even mediocre ones–that have helped some kids escape the ghetto or the barrio or the reservation. To accept the status quo is to accept perpetual injustice for decades to come.

So let’s get specific. Assuming that these 1 million kids remain poor over the next 12 years, what outcomes would indicate “success” for education reform? Right now the high school graduation rate in poor districts is generally about 50 percent. What if we moved that to 60 percent? Right now the reading proficiency rate for 12th graders with parents who dropped out of high school is 17 percent. What if we moved that to 25 percent? The same rate for math is 8 percent. What if we moved that to 15 percent?

To my eye, these are stretch goals–challenging but attainable. Yet to adopt them would mean to expect about 400,000 Kindergarteners not to graduate from high school 12 years from now. And of the 600,000 that do graduate, we would expect only 150,000 to reach proficiency in reading (25 percent) and just 90,000 of them to be proficient in math (15 percent).

90,000 out of 1 million doesn’t sound so good, but without improving our graduation or proficiency rates for these children, we’d only be taking about 40,000 kids. So these modest improvements would mean twice as many poor children making it–9 percent instead of 4 percent.

And what about the other 91 percent of our Kindergarteners? We don’t want to write them off, so what goals would be appropriate for them? Getting more of them to the “basic” level on NAEP? Preparing them for decent-paying jobs instead of the lowest-paid jobs? Driving down the teen pregnancy rate? Lowering the incarceration rate?

Is this making you uncomfortable? Good. If we are to get beyond the “100 percent proficiency” or “all students college and career ready” rhetoric, these are the conversations we need to have. And if we’re not willing to do so, don’t complain when Diane Ravitch and her armies of angry teachers complain that we are asking them to perform miracles.

-Mike Petrilli

* Jon emailed me to say that his quote was taken out of context; he was commenting on teacher evaluation, not school accountability. Furthermore, he published a Denver Post op-ed this weekend in response to Diane’s essay that is well worth a read and depicts his full views on the subject.

**Yes, I know, NCLB doesn’t actually require 100 percent of kids to get to proficiency, once you consider the excepts for some special ed students and once you bake in the safe harbor provision. But those are just wonky details; the rhetoric has always been about getting “all” students across the “proficiency” line.

Comment on this article
  • Anthony Cody says:

    First of all, thank you for acknowledging the central truth in Ravitch’s main argument. The defensive reaction from Duncan and others is mindboggling to those of us who work in the schools, and see them being closed down around us, due to low test scores and nothing else.

    If we walk back the goals of NCLB to some theoretically achievable “stretch,” would that rescue the project? It would make it a bit more defensible, certainly, because as it stands, it is a school-killing machine. But the other issue that remains is the means by which success is measured, and the results we get when test scores (and now graduation rates) are used as the markers. In the case of test scores, we get a narrowed curriculum, and students in low-scoring schools get a steady diet of test preparation. With graduation rates, we get all sorts of games being played to affect the numbers, often with bad effects for students. The fundamental problem here is we are using punishment as our lever, and this is a very clumsy and indirect means of improving a school.

    Genuine school success is far more likely to come when teachers and administrators are given the support, autonomy and responsibility to improve. Programs that are based on collaboration, where a culture of inquiry and mutual support builds a shared level of expertise — that is what I have seen work in Oakland, where I have worked for twenty-four years. This requires stability and investment, not the churn that comes with school closures and government mandated staff firings. This is what Ravitch, and her legions of supporters in classrooms across America, are looking for. NCLB will not be rescued so easily. The thing stinks from head to toe.

  • Rachel Levy says:

    The idea of making the goals of NCLB more reasonable and realistic is a great one and is much appreciated.

    However, if the goals are bad policy in the first place, if they’re resulting in poor practices and narrow & feeble curricula to begin with, walking them back will only help so much to improve the quality of education US public schools can offer.

  • Katherine Cox says:

    Excellent article and one that offers an interesting solution — to stretch our goals for our children in a reasonable way bit by bit rather than try to reach utopia by the year 2014. And Diane Ravitch is correct — that notion is utopian — just as much so as the original ideals of communism were utopian.

    You also remind us that whether our parents or grandparents came from the American farm or from Italy or elsewhere that “for most middle-class families, the path from poverty to prosperity was a multi-generational journey.” Why does the federal government expect teachers to help children accomplish this feat in 14 to 18 years?

    Anthony Cody brings out some excellent points that only those who work in the trenches would be aware of. I would like to make the point that it’s not only low–scoring schools where teachers are expected to spend the day with test prep. Principals at high scoring schools are often just as guilty. After all, human nature dictates that principals want their school to be “the best” in their district. If schools are publicly labeled with A-F or Excelling, Performing Plus, Performing, Failing — principals want that A or that Excelling label, and it is very common for teachers in these high performing schools to be told to spend their time doing test prep rather than teaching social studies, science, art, p.e. and music. If Congress insists that schools must be labeled, then there should be two choices – “meets” or “does not meet.” That will take care of the kind of principal who does not realize that teachers have one job: to get their students prepared to be successful in the next grade up.

    Thank you for your thought-provoking article.

  • Jesse Turner says:

    Michael, we reformers should clarify the ends that education reform can achieve. “If not 100 percent proficiency, then what? “

    The very nature of 100 proficiency goal sums up the moral dilemma and failure of NCLB. The focus is on data not equity for our children. It sells public schools as factories that operate on a 100% proficiency level. It disregards a 100 years of legal battles for equity in our public schools. It promises choice, but while delivering lotteries. Any claim that choice schools and proficiency testing eliminates poverty and cures special needs is merely the new smoke screen for a return to Plessy vs. Ferguson’s separate but equal. In your proficiency model there is nothing wrong with segregated schools as long as they are proficient.

    The struggle for civil rights for children of color and special needs children is America’s moral battle that will not be won with proficiency model reforms, but with truly desegregated public schools. Fifty-seven years after the Brown decision, blacks and Latinos in American schools are more segregated than they have been in more than four decades. NCLB reforms have ignored the issue of desegregation just like they do with poverty. Race To The Top is just another attempt to take our eye off the prize. This is why Michael I am joining the Freedom Riders leaving from New Orleans this summer, and marching to DC to greet them this July 30 at the Save Our Schools March.
    Children are more than test scores,
    Jesse Turner

  • P.W. Kimball says:

    Accountabilty measurements based on test scores have already led to widespread cheating….jsut ask Rhee.

    In 2009, FORMER Palm Beach County School Superintendent Art Johnson bragged at a school board meeting that one trick he had used to raise graduation rates was getting failing students to pass an on-line test to earn diplomas from PENNSYLVANIA “until the legislature made it illegal.” Gaming the system to improve scores and graduation rates are just two of many the reasons parents united to force him form office.

    As a parent of a straight A 4th grade honor student, I know my daughter will make it. I am in the fight for those children who start without the advantages she has enjoyed, and for the REAL superheroes, our nation’s teachers.

    Until the so-called reformers like Rhee and JonBoy Alter can understand the difference between “looking good” and actually “doing good,” our children’s education is in danger of further decline and our country’s future remains in jeapordy .

  • Amy Valens says:

    We could raise the number of children coming to school ready to learn (and optimistic enough about their future to see a reason to stay in school to graduate) if besides thinking about positive ways for schools to bring more students to proficiency, we were also looking at how we can help families out of poverty. Job creation in the inner city and rural areas, improved social services (parenting support, drug and alcohol treatment, contraception counseling) and decent affordable housing options would greatly change the odds for success.

  • Caroline Grannan says:

    So-called “reformers” implicitly but unmistakably say that poverty doesn’t matter every time they repeat the claim that “teachers are the most important factor in student success” — and conveniently leave out the adjective “in-school” before “factor.”

    This happens regularly.

    So just based on that one statement — and it’s certainly not the only one — the advocates of corporate reform clearly tell us repeatedly that poverty doesn’t matter.

    And as to “multiple measures”: The Los Angeles Times is the most prominent symbol of the push to evaluate teachers based on student test scores.

    Publishing the test scores of teachers’ students would be subject to debate but would be one thing.

    But publishing them with a colored graphic showing where the teacher falls on a continuum from “Most Effective” to “Least Effective” tells us loud and clear that test scores are THE gauge that tells us how effective the teacher is.

    Disclaiming that in little footnotes and hollow complaints about straw men is way too little too late. You’ve made yourselves clear.

  • Ceresta Smith says:

    Can we begin by getting rid of the following reform measures that have and will continue to fail the state of Florida’s so called” low-performing” students and schools?

    •ridiculous and worthless mandates for specified curricula and textual materials
    •common blackboards that list benchmarks and standards and leave little room for instructional use
    • benchmark calendars that drive instruction via isolated benchmarks that disregard how long and short term memory function
    •over the top testing requirements – baseline, fall interims, winter interims, monthly, and spring testing followed by end of the year testing
    •annually labeling schools with letter grades
    •annual veteran teaching staff replacements in which many of the replacements are TFAs that do not last until Christmas
    •changing administrative staff yearly, often after the school year has started
    •holding teachers/administrators as the fault for unrealized success after they have been set up for failure with the above listed reform measures
    •all of Rick Scott’s Students Success Act

    Let’s start there!

  • Ceresta Smith says:

    Note the number of Florida districts in this list of 25. This is after 12 years of Jeb Bush style education reform – that which Jeb insists is the model for the rest of the nation.

    Twenty-five individual school systems account
    for one in every five nongraduates nationwide
    for the class of 2011.


    39,669 NEW YORK CITY
    35,568 LOS ANGELES
    16,114 CLARK COUNTY, NEV.
    10,469 CHICAGO
    8,039 DETROIT
    7,852 HOUSTON
    6,990 DALLAS
    5,550 DUVAL COUNTY, FLA.
    5,044 SAN DIEGO
    4,880 DEKALB COUNTY, GA.
    4,315 MILWAUKEE
    4,313 KERN UNION, CALIF.
    4,109 MEMPHIS, TENN.
    3,963 ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.

  • Mary MacKinnon says:

    So we turn NCLB around and let it evaluate our legislators. Their salaries and job will rely on how successful the schools in the districts they represent do. It could be based solely on graduation rates. If they are not improving, bounce the leader and have a new election. Change laws so benefits do not follow. They will get pay increases for increased graduation rates and bonuses for increases in college graduations. Vacations would be allowed when college graduates getting good paying jobs with benefits increase. This would make them responsible for the big picture. Then, perhaps, they would work with society instead of feeling above. Perhaps they would want to offer scholarships to the brightest and a pay scale to attract them to teaching?? We would publish their pay and they statistic for meeting goals monthly… daily at election time.

  • Diane Hanfmann says:

    Of particular relevance to this conversation is this release from Chiefs for Change.>

  • Matthew Ladner says:


    I began to write a comment as a response, but it turned into a blog post:

  • Jaime says:

    How do we get these poor kids to succeed at a better rate? EDUCATE FAMILIES! We need to pump money into family planning to stop young girls/women from becoming pregnant and becoming mothers. We need to educate the young women and men who are young parents on the importance of education. We need to educate the young parents in how to best parent their children. We need to educate young parents in proper exercise and nutrition. We need to educate young parents to read to their kids from day 1. We need to educate young parents how to set limits for their children, how to make their children do their homework, go to bed at a decent hour, and not spend hours in front of a tv/compter/video game.

    I have my student (6th grade) for 45 min, five days a week. I may be able to get that kid to read and write for those 45 minute a day for 180 days (this is assuming he comes to school every day!), but if he then goes home and watches 6 hours of tv, drinks 3 sodas, eat a bag of potato chips, stays up till 2am, only gets 5 hours of sleep, and doesn’t eat breakfast, is that 45 min really going to do a whole lot of that kid??

    Be realistic here! Teachers are not miracle workers! We do the best we possibly can, but what happens home far outweighs what we can do in our short time with them!

  • Ms. L says:

    Mr. Petrilli…this is the most sensible article I have read about education in a very long time. You know the facts and share both sides of the coin!!! Thank you and please keep posting this all over the internet because there are way too many people bashing education. Have all these people that bash education attend private schools or are these the people that were the thugs of the schools that chose not to maximize the priveledge of free equal education in the USA?

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