Diane Ravitch Has Questions for the Cuomo Commission

The New York Times
Jan. 6, 2012, 7:53 a.m.

By Diane Ravitch

Governor Cuomo’s commission on education has an opportunity to change the direction of school reform.

Right now, the state’s school system is in trouble. Federal tests show that achievement in reading and mathematics in fourth and eighth grades has been flat across the state for most of the past decade.

In the one tested area that looked promising — fourth-grade mathematics — New York was the only state in the nation in which scores declined in 2011.

The commission needs to ask some tough questions.

First, where is the money going? How much goes directly to the classroom and how much is spent on expensive outside consultants and unnecessary state and local bureaucracy? How much is squandered on costly technology contracts that are poorly supervised and of dubious value?

Second, how can New York raise standards for entry into teaching? The state should require every new teacher to have at least a bachelor’s degree and an additional year of study and practice-teaching under the supervision of a mentor teacher. No one should be allowed to teach without a thorough preparation.

Third, how can the state redirect funding to provide high-quality early childhood education for 3- and 4-year-olds and to reduce class size, especially in the early grades?

The research supporting these policies is very strong. Many children arrive in school ready to learn, but many others do not.

Only the state can devise a comprehensive plan to ensure that all children arrive in school with the vocabulary and social skills needed for school success. Students today have a broad range of developmental and social issues, and large classes make it impossible for them to get the individual attention they require to be academically successful.

Fourth, how can the state fairly evaluate teachers and principals? The New York State Education Department’s proposed educator evaluation program is deeply flawed. More than 1,100 principals have signed a statement protesting the state’s plan because it is untried and threatens to demoralize teachers and divide staffs.

Tests measure student performance, not teacher performance. As in any other profession, judgments about teacher quality should be rendered by experienced supervisors, not by dubious data like New York’s inconsistent test scores.

Fifth, how can the state recruit and promote the best possible school leaders? If the burden of teacher evaluation rests with the principal, as it should, then it stands to reason that principals should themselves be master teachers.

The commission should consider how to raise standards for principals, such as requiring that they have no less than seven years of teaching experience, plus at least three years of administrative experience as an assistant principal or department chair or in a similar position.

Sixth, how can New York strengthen its public education system? The proliferation of charter schools in poor neighborhoods — and increasingly, in middle-class neighborhoods — threatens to draw away the most capable students from the regular public schools.

If this trend continues, the public schools that enroll the overwhelming majority of students will inevitably be weakened.

Any new charter schools should be created specifically to enroll the state’s neediest students — students with disabilities, students who are English language learners, and dropouts — and to provide extra attention for them.

Seventh, how can state tests be used diagnostically, to help students and teachers, rather than to label, rank, punish and stigmatize them?

New York has devoted the past two decades to a regime of high-stakes testing. How many hundreds of millions or billions of dollars have been spent on testing during this era? The results are disappointing, to say the least. Why double down on a failed strategy?

It’s time to admit that the state’s heavy investment in testing and accountability has not succeeded. Students are not learning more, achievement gaps are not closing, and resources are squandered on assessment rather than instruction.

It’s time to acknowledge that New York State, like the nation, is leaving many children behind. It’s time for new thinking.

Diane Ravitch is Research Professor of Education at New York University and a historian of American education.

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