High-stakes testing: David Brooks vs. Diane Ravitch
New York Times invites public to debate school reform
July 11, 2011Published: July 11, 2011
By Steven T. Corneliussen
It's true, wrote David Brooks in his June 30 New York Times column, that "the schools that best represent the reform movement ... put tremendous emphasis on testing." But they are also, he believes, where students are most likely to "argue about philosophy and physics."
Brooks was both praising and criticizing the education historian Diane Ravitch, whose formerly pro-high-stakes-testing views have evolved. This week—just when, coincidentally, a Times headline reported "Systematic Cheating Is Found in Atlanta's School System" concerning testing—Ravitch has answered Brooks in a letter to the editor, and the Times has invited the world to participate too:
We invite readers to respond to this letter, as part of our new Sunday Dialogue feature. We plan to publish a sampling of responses in the Sunday Review, and Diane Ravitch will be given an opportunity to reply.
Brooks's column accused Ravitch of having "come to adopt the party-line view of the most change-averse elements of the teachers’ unions: There is no education crisis. Poverty is the real issue, not bad schools. We don’t need fundamental reform; we mainly need to give teachers more money and job security."
But he also wrote that "she is right that teaching is a humane art built upon loving relationships between teachers and students" and that if "you orient the system exclusively around a series of multiple choice accountability assessments, you distort it."
Brooks advocated charter schools and charged that Ravitch "thinks the solution is to get rid of the tests" even though the "real answer is to keep the tests and the accountability but make sure every school has a clear sense of mission, an outstanding principal and an invigorating moral culture that hits you when you walk in the door."
Ravitch answered fast. Her letter began:
Mr. Brooks has misrepresented my views. While I have criticized charter schools, I am always careful to point out that they vary widely. The overwhelming majority of high-quality research studies on charters shows that some are excellent, some are abysmal and most are no better than regular public schools.
She doesn't "want to get rid of testing," she wrote, but believes "tests should be used for information and diagnostics to improve teaching and learning, not to hand out bonuses, fire teachers and close schools." Without citing the turmoil in Atlanta, she added: "High-stakes testing incentivizes narrowing of the curriculum, gaming the system, teaching to bad tests and cheating."
Her closing reflected her own definition of fundamental reform:
Top-performing nations like Finland and Japan have taken the time to build a strong public school system, one with a rich curriculum and well-educated, respected teachers. Our desire for fast solutions gets in the way of the long-term thinking and the carefully designed changes that are needed to truly transform our schools.
A few days later the New York Times has not only followed through on its promise to build some public discussion on the education-reform exchange between Brooks and Ravitch, but added a closely related commentary in its Sunday magazine. For the debate overall, the upshot appears to be strong support in the Times for thinking harder about engaging pupils’ economic and social distractions than about high reliance on high-stakes testing.
The Times blurbs the opinion discussion “Sunday Dialogue: What to Do to Make Our Schools Better” this way: “A lively debate about charter schools, high-stakes testing and impoverished students arose as David Brooks criticized Diane Ravitch, she answered back and readers joined the fray.”
The first of the five reader responses begins by criticizing Ravitch’s tardiness in becoming disenchanted with testing:
I’m writing from the perspective of a teacher of 36 years who retired in 2008 in large part because of the cognitive dissonance I faced every day as the creative and higher-level thinking goals of my classroom were chipped away by the reductive requirements of No Child Left Behind.
Diane Ravitch strongly supported No Child Left Behind for five years. I’m sorry it took Ms. Ravitch, an education historian, so long to see its flaws. We teachers quickly saw how the focus on testing would drastically change the substance of our teaching.
Another contributor cited a Stanford study that, she wrote, “found that students in charter schools over all do not fare as well as students in traditional public schools.” Another accused Ravitch of being against much, but standing for little.
Ravitch answered the commenters by reiterating that social and economic context matters the most, by advocating early intervention with very young children, and by repeating her charge that the “vast majority of charter schools are no better or worse than comparable regular public schools.”
Her closing warrants quoting:
If we expect to recruit and retain good principals and teachers in hard-to-staff schools, stop judging them inappropriately by test scores and start listening to educators. Most oppose the current test-based accountability thrust of American education policy. Educators want safe working environments, reasonable class sizes and adequate resources.
Schools alone cannot solve persistent social and economic inequalities. If we fail to change the conditions in which students and their families live, even our best educational efforts will fall short of our hopes of creating both equity and excellence.
This “Sunday dialogue” doesn’t mention the related commentary by Paul Tough, a contributing writer for the Times’s Sunday magazine. But the commentary specifically engages Ravitch’s views. Its conclusion echoes Ravitch’s:
Reformers ... need to take concrete steps to address the whole range of factors that hold poor students back. That doesn’t mean sitting around hoping for utopian social change. It means supplementing classroom strategies with targeted, evidence-based interventions outside the classroom: working intensively with the most disadvantaged families to improve home environments for young children; providing high-quality early-childhood education to children from the neediest families; and, once school begins, providing low-income students with a robust system of emotional and psychological support, as well as academic support.
School reformers often portray these efforts as a distraction from their agenda—something for someone else to take care of while they do the real work of wrestling with the teachers’ unions. But in fact, these strategies are essential to the success of the school-reform movement. Pretending they are not is just another kind of excuse.