Vote for Ravitch: Goal for U.S. Education Renaissance

Last week, I was fortunate to attend a talk “Reign of Error: the Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools” led by Dr. Diane Ravitch, Research Professor of Education at NYU, historian of education, educational policy analyst, and author of best-selling books on #AmericanEducation, #standardizedtesting, #publicschool, #charterschool. Thank you to Professor Iveta Silova who bought tickets to all CIE403 students!

Professor Ravitch was previously a policy maker. Between 1991 and 1993, she served as Assistant Secretary of Education and Counselor to Secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush. Assistant Secretary Ravitch led the federal effort to promote the creation of voluntary state and national academic standards. In 1997-2004, she was a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federal testing program. Today, returned from “dark side” in the policymaking world, Dr. Diane Ravitch criticizes current U.S. education policies, leads an army of educators promoting equality, human rights, racial diversity, cultural diversity, and curriculum diversity, while striving to re-think and turnaround education reforms.

7 PM Lehigh Zoellner Arts Center, Baker Hall was full of school teachers, administrators, professors, scholars, and students. Lehigh College of Education Dean Sasso introduced us to our distinguished guest. Dr. Ravitch organized her lecture as a dialogue between her and Mr. Reformer. We witnessed how solutions to problems of education are found on the surface not in the root: “Low test scores – fire teachers”, “low test scores – pay more for good scores.”

Diane Ravitch concluded her talk with a set of recommendations:

  • Increase funding.
  • Reduce class size to 20 or less students.
  • Offer full curriculum, including Arts and Physical Education.
  • Support highly-prepared and motivated teachers (at least 10 year higher education)
  • Teach more, test less.
  • Fund schools with psychologists, librarians, and nurses.
  • Ban charter schools by law.
  • Reduce segregation.
  • Reduce poverty.
  • Change public perception of the teaching profession, raise quality, and raise standards.

I truly agree and support reforms proposed by Ravitch and I find them universal and applicable to any country. It is not too late to stop, recognize failures and mistakes, it is not late to change, to adopt and implement new reforms. Why do we need standardized mandatory tests? What do test scores prove? This international race should find an end for children are our future.

Reforms proposed by Ravitch sounded like a good platform for an election run. I do not know whether she will decide or not to return to politics, but I have no doubt that Dr. Diane Ravitch will find support in thousands of people who share and support her views and ideas. So, Vote for Ravitch when time comes!

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Which way will education in America go?

As an international student in America, I did not know much about “No Child Left Behind” until reading Ravitch’s book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education.” As a graduate student in a Comparative and International Education program, I have an advantage of gaining a wider perspective on the field. Ravitch started this book by sharing her personal experience of being a supporter and later a critic of the reform. It gave us an insight into how the reform was developed and implemented, and why Ravitch has changed her position in this educational reform.

What a beautiful slogan it is to call it “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB)! After getting to know the context, the reform was no more than just stimulating the growth of standardized tests in the United States. When many educators have been criticizing standardized tests, why did President Bush still push for it?

One of the goals of NCLB was that all students in all schools had to be proficient in reading and mathematics by 2014. Surprisingly, setting this high standard was to compete with Hong Kong and Singapore, which were the targets of America. Growing up within the education system in Hong Kong, I particularly would not support the excessive emphasis on the academic results. One of the weaknesses of students from Asia has been a lack of critical and analytical thinking. Ironically, America would like to learn from us owing to the economic success in some Asian regions. The size of population and areas of America, Hong Kong, and Singapore has varied so much with very different cultures, history, and settings of systems. It also implies that each implementation could be a very different process which may lead to different consequences. Would the academic results and economic growth really have the direct correlation? I doubt it. The United States is famous for its technological invention. To name a few, there has been rising up of reputable companies including Apple Inc, Facebook Inc. Google Inc, and Microsoft Corporation. Will this shift towards standardized tests gradually diminish the strength of “Western education” in innovation?

During her talk at Lehigh University on Feb 10th, Ravitch pointed out that Shanghai has won the rankings of the international assessments. It was verified by the results shown in Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2009, according to CNN news. The world was shocked and overwhelmed by better performance of Shanghai’s teenagers in their mathematics, science, and reading than their peers in the United States, Germany, and Japan, though it was the first time that Shanghai participated in this tri-annual survey of the world’s school systems. Nevertheless, there is a cost for it as cheating commonly occurred among students in China. It not only happens in the national examinations in China, but also in the SAT examinations which Chinese students have to pass for entering universities in America. It is not a secret as these kinds of cases sometimes become visible in international media. It also becomes a widespread issue of underlining standardized test scores that educators in China have to deal with.

In addition, Ravitch (2010) also shared the research results documenting that there are not many differences in academic performance among public schools and charter schools. The gap between black and white students has not narrowed either after implementing NCLB. Unfortunately, the policy just further widened the gap of inequality, which was completely opposite to the original aim. At the end of the day, who should take the responsibility for the failure of “No Child Left Behind”? Why are the schools, teachers, and students the “victims” in this experiment, rather than the politicians or policymakers? Sadly, education reform is just like a gamble. Those who are in control would still enjoy obtaining considerable income and not receive any punishments. Instead, schools without good performance have to be shut down. Teachers and students are just “chess pieces” in their hands. This scenario has already illustrated the injustice in execution process, which did not only waste the resources, but also the time.

I totally agree with Ravitch that sustainability could only been achieved by improving curriculum, instruction, as well as working and learning conditions of teachers and students. If data or test score are the only driving forces for the schools leading students to learn about the STEM subjects, we can imagine how linear the society will be in the future. Where is the holistic learning environment that educators should provide for the next generation? How can students adapt when they go to the liberal arts colleges which the United States is well-known for?  Would it lead the decline of liberal arts colleges in the future? It will entirely change the dynamics of higher education in America as well. If these problems will not be taken into consideration and addressed seriously, ripple effects would definitely be created for the whole educational system.

References

Ravitch, D. (2010). The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining                 Education. New York: Basic Books.

Dreaming big: Diane Ravitch can talk educational policy form, but walking it out is a different story

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The audience packed tightly into Lehigh University’s Baker Hall on Tuesday February 10th in anticipation of hearing Diane Ravitch’s controversial approach to stifle our government’s current efforts towards school reform. Ravitch presented her argument through a witty self-debate that vehemently defended the American public school system and fought against any interventions that posed to threaten it such as privatization, choice/voucher systems, and the establishment of charter schools. Her reasoning was compelling: transforming education into a for-profit, business-like industry turns students into commodities, encourages efficiency and money over student innovation, and attempts to, in her eyes, inaccurately quantify the abstract character of intellect through the use of standardized measures. She also argued that permitting school choice through voucher systems would not result in academic competition between schools that would increase quality of education, but rather leave schools’ disparities and children’s education largely unchanged. This would be likely due to the lack of knowledge and/or interest from low socioeconomic families in changing their children’s schools, the inaccessibility of transportation for the students across towns, the lack of seating available in better schools, and the insignificant amount of vouchers available compared to the extensive needs of many districts.

Ravitch also considered charter schools a major threat to the success of the public education system, pointing out that not only do charter schools students not perform any better than regular public school students on assessments, they have also deviated from their original missions of helping the neediest students to becoming specialized academies that are in many cases operating as an industry and luring away the most motivated students through their attractive, creative programs. In this way, charter schools continue to foster segregation among students by collecting money from states for their newly specialized programs for specialized students, leaving public schools to suffer with the most challenging and expensive heterogeneous student body, including the learning disabled and non-native English speaking children- and to do this under increasingly restrictive funds.

While these arguments are neither epiphanous nor unfamiliar to educators, Ravitch was able to make her position unique by the sheer scope of her perspective. While teachers struggle every day in the classroom to find better, more effective ways to improve their students’ education, Ravitch acknowledged that this struggle is futile on the individual level because the issues hindering academic success remain much bigger than the classroom. Zooming out past a classroom, a school building, a district, and even a state, she posited that the real sources of our current academic system’s failure lay in macro-level influences such as self-interested business powers, misled government policy, and major inadequacies in social services contributing to a lack of academic resources, poor mother and child healthcare, and persisting poverty. Ravitch not only challenges, but places blame on these dominating, powerful overhead forces like private corporations and the federal government that she herself once worked for.

The way Ravitch uses language is her most powerful tool. She purposely chose to present her speech with a dramatic, igniting vocabulary, claiming that she wants to ‘destroy’ the current education reform, that we are ‘failing’ to defend our public schools, we are inhumanely using ‘fear’ and ‘punishment’ to incentivize better assessment scores, that business elites have ‘no place’ in public education, and that for-profit charter schools should be ‘banned by law’. It is this fearless, defiant attitude that separates Ravitch from the masses that agree with her, but it is also the quality that has her labeled as a radical.

She insists that the problems that current education reforms are designed to attack, such as low test scores, are not the true problems at all, but rather the negative consequences of much larger underlying causes such as under-resourced schools, under-trained teachers, poor social services, poverty, and poor health. And while I absolutely agree that these struggles inhibit student’s performance as well as their wellbeing, Ravitch’s suggestion to address these great forces are just as grand as their scale. Ravitch is absolutely correct that a poor, malnourished child attending an under-resourced school is going to face overwhelming barriers to academic success and benefit little from privatization, voucher systems, or charter schools. However, how exactly she plans to eradicate global crises such as poverty and hunger and persuade the federal government to significantly increase funding to public education and improve social services, I have no idea. The importance of addressing these crises is immense, and I do not think anyone is willing to dispute that. However, I would like to ask Diane Ravitch how she plans to practically overcome these barriers to educational equality and success, and if stifling current governmental reforms is just the place to start.

Vietnam’s stunning PISA results: What they don’t know and what they do know

Only more than two months ago when PISA 2012 scores were officially released, the world once again experienced “the PISA shock.” It is the first time Vietnam has ever participated in this international assessment implemented by the OECD. Worried. Anxious. No high expectations. Then… stunned! Vietnam was among top twenty! Its overall 17th-place ranking out of 65 countries outstripped many more developed economies. A kind of shock!

Many government officials and education experts, both regional and international, generously praised Vietnam for its unexpectedly high scores at the PISA 2012. In the region, some countries such as Australia, Thailand, and Indonesia even suggested emulating Vietnam to improve their PISA performance.

Meanwhile, responses from most local media and social networks seemed more discreet. Coupled with happiness and pride, many people responded to the high scores with great skepticism. They became puzzled over the performance that was beyond their expectations.

It was indeed happy to have such incredible scores at an international competition for the first time. Vietnamese people  should be much proud of their high performing 15 year olds, given that the students are educated in one of the poorest countries in the world, with a per capita GDP of less than $USD 1,800!

And let’s imagine this scenario – on a beautiful day, teacher delegations from other lower performing countries paid a visit to Vietnam. They wanted to understand “the Vietnam myth.” They would interview a number of key education stakeholders about the reasons for such impressive PISA results. And their interviews would reveal the following answers.

Vietnamese 15 year olds: Oh, we don’t know why. What we did was simply trying our best!

Teachers of 15 year olds: No, it is unlikely our efforts. The recent comprehensive study by Madam Nguyen Thi Binh (former Vice President of Vietnam) shows that teacher quality is alarmingly worrisome. Admittedly, many of us need to seek ways to supplement our low salaries. Yes, we are moonlighting; we are doing other extra jobs. We aren’t committed and dedicated enough to teaching at school. We don’t know why our students got such high results!

Parents of 15 year olds: We were taken aback by the high scores. Our children are attending public schools, which have been long criticized for failing. Schools everywhere are notoriously plagued with many evils: “achievement disease,” extra classes, corruption, degraded moral, low teacher quality… As parents, we constantly set high expectations for our children while finding alternatives to equipping them with knowledge and skills we believe are necessary. We don’t know. Maybe, not sure, the high scores are the result of extra classes!

For many people, the high PISA scores, while adding to the glorious collections of gold medals and prizes of Vietnamese students in international mathematical or physics Olympiads, leave them with more unanswered questions. Why are there many (poor, disadvantaged) students who drop out? Why are students often complained for not being creative, critical, and lacking important soft skills? Why are there many young graduates who fail to get jobs? Why aren’t there many articles written by Vietnamese researchers in international peer-reviewed journals? Why does the economy rely much more on cheap labor than innovations? And why is Vietnam still so poor?

While not providing satisfactory answers to the international teacher delegations regarding the reasons for the high performance in PISA, Vietnam is certain about what it wants for the time ahead. If continuing to join this international competition club, Vietnamese teachers and parents do not want the nation’s education policy to be directed in ways that further promote ‘bad practices’ (exam-driven curriculum, private tutoring, standardized testing, corruption, and others). They will not want to train the children to become test-taking machines without the ability of communication and teamwork. They do not want to sacrifice “cultural and community values” (Rizvi, F., & Lingard, B., 2013, p.116)  and other human development concerns for the meaningless global ranking.

Undeniably, it is hard to avoid competing for rank in a “race,” especially when it is an international competition. It is for the national pride. It is much harder to avoid the backwash effect of the tests. But Vietnamese teachers and parents do hope that “the tail will not wag the dog” and that PISA will not pose negative impacts on the country’s curriculum and teaching. This only takes place when both people and educational leaders acknowledge that PISA is not a perfect indicator. It is not at all a comprehensive measure either. More importantly, when the policy makers are not complacent with the country laurels, it is capable of capitalizing on its strong PISA performance with practical reforms. So whether or not to take PISA again, it does not matter. The most pivotal thing for Vietnam is to concentrate on what really matters to the students.