Executive Perspective

A Change in Perspective on Public Schools


I’ve known Diane Ravitch for more than a decade. I have known of her for much longer, going back to when I was a superintendent on Long Island, N.Y. Ravitch had been an assistant secretary of education in the early 1990s and became known for her conservative positions as an advocate for choice and merit pay. I served with her in the late ’90s on the National Assessment Governing Board when President Clinton was proposing a voluntary national test. Ravitch had been an early proponent of voluntary national standards.

Dan_DomenechDaniel A. Domenech

This month Ravitch will present at the AASA National Conference on Education in Phoenix, Ariz. Her message has changed considerably from what she espoused several years ago, and her ideas are captured in her forthcoming book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, which is due out next month. (If you want to hear her message firsthand, listen to my interview with Ravitch on AASA radio (accessible on our website), or, better yet, attend the conference to hear her message live.

As she says in a summary for her book, “… I watched what was happening in American education, specifically in response to No Child Left Behind, [and] I began to re-evaluate what I had been advocating. I concluded that I was wrong and that these ideas are wrong … and are leading American education in the wrong direction.”
Don’t believe, however, that she has become a huge Obama supporter. On the contrary, she accuses the current administration of adopting the same policies as the Bush administration. This administration, Ravitch says, “wants to close (low performing) schools and to keep in place the punitive accountability that the Bush administration and NCLB fostered.”

A Moratorium Now
I believe her criticism is due in part to this administration’s attempts to bring about education reform without first eliminating any of what is still in place from No Child Left Behind. We are all anxiously awaiting the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, but we fear it is not going to happen any time soon. Perhaps it is this continuation of NCLB that leads Ravitch to believe the Obama administration is embracing the Republican agenda for education reform.

I have heard the president and the secretary of education criticize the current use of standardized testing and advocate for comprehensive assessments that would measure higher-order thinking skills, including problem-solving and 21st-century skills. That is a direction we all applaud and support.

However, schools throughout America this year still will be required to attain Adequate Yearly Progress using the same assessments and processes that Education Secretary Arne Duncan has labeled as a travesty on the American public. Ravitch agrees. She says in her research on accountability she has found “schools, districts and even states are manipulating accountability systems.” Nevertheless, those test results would be the basis for holding teachers accountable and determining their compensation in a pay-for-performance model.

We all support and want accountability, but if the current system of assessing student performance is broken, then we should declare a moratorium on testing until we fix it. An additional bonus of a moratorium would be the millions of dollars saved by states and school districts not having to test every child every year in grades 3-8 in reading and math.

Duncan’s agenda at the helm of the U.S. Department of Education is bold, exciting and incredibly challenging. We also look forward to his remarks this month at our national conference. As superintendents, we know what it is like to change a flat tire in a car speeding down the highway. Our basic problem is that we cannot continue to add to the agenda without taking some things away.

An Unfair Contest
Our schools are facing an unprecedented economic crisis. Whereas the stimulus dollars were tremendously helpful in allowing districts to save jobs, it was a zero-sum game, with most states hijacking the state stabilization dollars and cutting state aid to schools by a similar amount. What is going to happen next year or the year after when the stimulus funds are spent?

Efforts to change the distribution of federal dollars from formula to competitive grants will greatly penalize the thousands of rural and small suburban school districts in America. In a district where the superintendent is the central-office staff, the requirement to write and submit a competitive grant application is an unfair imposition. These rural districts are already financially penalized by the use of census data for the determination of poverty as opposed to the more accurate free and reduced lunch counts.

Ravitch also rails at the Obama administration’s support for charter schools and choice claiming that, on the whole, they do not produce better results than regular public schools. We have no problem with charters operated by the public school systems, but we do suggest that the 20 percent set aside for supplementary education services and choice be temporarily suspended so school districts can use those dollars to help with budget shortfalls.

It is early in the process, and much work is yet to be done. We are grateful to the secretary of education for involving school system leaders in the discussions. We want to transform our failing schools so our nation remains strong and the leader of the free world. We know how to operate excellent school systems. There are more of them in America than dysfunctional ones. Let’s not judge the performance of the whole by the failures of the few. Ask Diane Ravitch.

Dan Domenech is AASA executive director. E-mail: ddomenech@aasa.org