Federal Policies Are ‘Wrecking American Education,' Critic Says

Speaking at Duke, Diane Ravitch denounces 'dreadful' emphasis on school testing

October 4, 2011
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Jan Riggsbee of Duke’s Program in Education, left, and David Malone, right, were among the faculty members who held a lunch meeting with education expert Diane Ravitch prior to her evening speech at Page Auditorium. Photo by Megan Morr/Duke University Photography

Durham, NC - A misplaced emphasis on standardized school testing by education "reformers" is "wrecking American education as never before in American history," an early advocate of those reforms who has since changed her mind told an enthusiastic audience at Duke Monday evening.

"I stand before you tonight as an ex-conservative," Diane Ravitch told a packed audience in Page Auditorium. "I was part of that large chorus that warned that the sky was falling."

Reliance on standardized testing has led to widespread cheating and other problems for American schools while failing to improve their performance, according to Ravitch, who said "the Bad News Industry is very loud and it is very powerful. [Its] policies are very dangerous for future education."

"No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is the single worst piece of federal education legislation ever passed," said Ravitch, and its successor -- Race to the Top -- is based on the same misguided principles. "I am very sorry that your state won Race to the Top, [which] is NCLB rebranded," she said.

Federal policies have caused large numbers of public schools to be labeled as failures, an approach Ravitch described as "literally insane and certainly irresponsible." The "dreadful" federal approach focuses on measuring and punishing, leading to "fear and intimidation," she said, adding "it's no wonder so many educators are demoralized."

Research Professor of Education at New York University and the author of 10 books on education reform, Ravitch blogs for Education Week, Politico and the Huffington Post, and has written for many prominent publications. She held senior education posts in the administrations of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

Instead of relying on a private-sector model that emphasizes winners and losers, she said, American education should seek to "help every student" and create "a decent society where everyone has an equal chance to reach his or her potential."

"I do not mean to say that testing is bad. The problem is that tests today are way, way overemphasized," said Ravitch, who noted that schools have cut back on the arts and other subjects not included in standardized tests. She praised Teach for America as "a very worthy program" but said it has "sucked all of the air" out of efforts to improve teacher performance.

"We can improve our schools," Ravitch concluded, if the nation stops obsessing about testing and instead commits to helping teachers and addressing underlying problems such as poverty. "History will judge us by what we do today to make that vision real for every child in this nation," she said.

Her visit was sponsored jointly by Duke's Program in Education and Durham Public Schools (DPS). Earlier in the day, she met privately with 20 faculty and other members of the Duke community who are "committed to the central importance of strong public education," said Jan Riggsbee, who directs the Duke program and helped arrange Ravitch's visit.

The lunch conversation "reaffirmed a lot of what we're trying to do at Duke," said David Malone, director of Trinity College's Service Learning Program, which is housed in the education program. "We've been working hard at Duke to provide opportunities for our undergraduates to address one of the most important issues facing American society, which is public education."

Prior to her speech, Ravitch also met with DPS teachers, principals, administrators and board members, leading to what DPS spokesman Jeff Nash described as "inspired conversations" among the approximately 30 participants.