By Diane Ravitch, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Diane Ravitch is research professor of education at New York University. Appointed by President Clinton, she served seven years on the National Assessment Governing Board which supervises the NAEP tests. She is the author of the best-selling book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education,” and blogs at dianeravitch.net.
(CNN) - A few days ago, CNN interviewed former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee about American education. Rhee, predictably, said that American education is terrible, that test scores are flat, and that we are way behind other nations on international tests.
I disagree with Rhee. She constantly bashes American education, which is one of the pillars of our democratic society. Our public schools educate 90% of the population, and we should give the public schools some of the credit for our nation’s accomplishments as the largest economy and the greatest engine of technological innovation in the world.
It’s time to set the record straight. The only valid measure of academic performance in our schools is the federal test called the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). NAEP has been testing American students since the early 1970s.
The NAEP test scores of American students are at their highest point in history: for black students, white students, Hispanic students, and Asian students.
They are at their highest point in history in fourth grade and in eighth grade, in reading and math.
As for the international test scores, which Rhee loves to recite to knock our public schools, she is obviously unaware that our nation has never had high scores on those tests. When the first international test was given in 1964, our students ranked 11th out of 12 nations. Yet our nation went on to become the most powerful economy in the world.
In the 50 years since then, we have regularly scored in the bottom quartile on the international tests or at best, at the international average. Clearly, the international scores do not predict our future as we are the dominant economy in the world despite the scores.
Why are our international rankings low? Our test scores are dragged down by poverty. On the latest international test, called PISA, our schools with low poverty had scores higher than those of Japan, Finland, and other high-scoring nations. American schools in which as many as 25% of the students are poor had scores equivalent to the top-scoring nations. As the poverty level in the school rises, the scores fall.
Rhee ignores the one statistic where the United States is number one. We have the highest child poverty rate of any advanced nation in the world. Nearly 25% of our children live in poverty.
This is a scandal. Family poverty is the most reliable predictor of low test scores. How can we compare ourselves to nations like Finland where less than 5% of the children live in poverty?
Rhee and her fellow reformers say that poverty is just an excuse, but it is not. Poverty is a harsh fact of life.
Children who are homeless, who have asthma, who have vision problems or hearing problems will have trouble concentrating on their studies. Children who have a toothache may not do well on testing day. Children who don’t see a doctor when they are sick will not be able to perform well on tests. Children who live in squalor will be distracted from their schoolwork.
Of course, we should have great teachers in every classroom, but the negative rhetoric that now comes from Rhee and every media outlet and movies like “Waiting for ‘Superman’ ” are demoralizing teachers and causing many excellent teachers to leave the profession.
Rhee believes in merit pay but she is unaware that merit pay has been tried again and again for nearly a century. It has never worked. It failed recently in New York City, Chicago, and Nashville. In Nashville, teachers were offered a $15,000 bonus to raise test scores. It didn’t make a difference.
Merit pay fails because teachers are doing the best they can with or without a bonus. Merit pay destroys teamwork and collaboration in the school. Teachers work together; they are not in an individual sport, trying to be first.
Merit pay fails, as does evaluation by test scores, because they both compel teachers to teach to the test and ignore whatever is not tested, like the arts and physical education. Such policies harm the quality of education. No elite school—not Andover or Exeter or Sidwell Friends—evaluates its teachers by the scores of their students on standardized tests. Nor do any of the high-performing nations.
Rhee and the corporate reform movement rely on the outdated behaviorist theories of the early 20th century. Modern cognitive psychology recognizes that intrinsic rewards are far more powerful than extrinsic rewards. People do their best when motivated by idealism and by their freedom to exercise their professional judgment.
The best organizations today recognize the importance of building a strong culture in the workplace—not with carrots and sticks—but with respect and collaboration. Andrea Gabor, the Bloomberg Professor of Business Journalism at Baruch College in New York City, recently wrote on my blog: “As W. Edwards Deming, a leading management expert and critic of merit pay, once put it: ‘The only reason an organization has dead wood is that management either hired dead wood or it hired live wood and killed it. Merit pay, by dividing and demoralizing employees, is a good way to erode initiative and overall quality.’”
Our teachers need our support. Let’s put an end to the war on teachers in general and on experienced teachers in particular. No profession can exist without experienced practitioners. Teachers need tenure so they have academic freedom to teach controversial issues.
Parents must be involved in helping their kids succeed. Research is clear that what parents do matters even more than what teachers do. Parents affect their children’s attitudes, behavior, and willingness to study and learn.
Our students and families and communities need support too. If reformers really cared about children, they would build a health clinic in every school. That would do more to improve test scores than all the teacher evaluation schemes and merit pay plans that the reformers are now imposing, without a shred of evidence.
We can improve our schools. We can improve our society. We must work on both at the same time.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Diane Ravitch.