The one thing I regret is that I will never have time to read all the books I want to read.
--Francoise Sagan

Sunday, August 1, 2010

"Lessons Learned"

I just finished The Death and Life of the Great American School System...It was a truly fascinating read. In the final chapter, "Lessons Learned", Ravitch outlines her ideas for reform.

First, she makes the important point that schools are not responsible for all of society's problems...and while public education is an extremely important component of our democratic society, it alone can't save us. Ravitch writes, "Our schools cannot be improved if we use them as society's all-purpose punching bag, blaming them for the ills of the economy, the burdens imposed on children by poverty, the dysfunction of families, and the erosion of civility." She believes children from disadvantaged homes need preschool programs, medical care, and other social services to help them succeed...schools can't close the achievement gap on their own...rather they should be "part of a web of public and private agencies that buttress families." I couldn't agree more!

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell cites research showing that the standardized test scores of children from disadvantaged homes without a lot of direct parental involvement drop significantly over the summer, while the test scores of children from more advantaged homes tend to rise. That's a huge testament to the importance of the home environment. And another reason why teachers' jobs and salaries shouldn't be tied to standardized test scores. It takes a village...

That said, Ravitch does believe there are things we can do to improve education. Namely, we should focus on the development of a rich, rigorous curriculum in the liberal arts and sciences...ideally at the national level. She notes that those nations that tend to outrank us on international measures (Japan and Finland to name a couple) have national standards that spell out what students are supposed to learn in a wide variety of subjects. Massachusetts, one of the only states to have a strong curriculum in every subject, also has the highest scores in the nation on the NAEP and ranks near the top when compared to other countries. In addition, the 1,000 or so schools across the U.S. that follow the Core Knowledge curriculum regularly out-perform others on standardized tests. Ravitch says, "Having a curriculum is not a silver bullet. It does not solve all our educational problems. But not having a curriculum indicates our unwillingness or inability to define what we are trying to accomplish...if you don't know where you are going, any road will get you there." In other words, without a curriculum, all else is moot.

Ravitch also believes accountability must include more than the data we get from standardized tests. She proposes that every state establish inspection teams to evaluate its schools; and, according to Ravitch, any school that's struggling should receive extra support...professional development for teachers, smaller classes, after-school activities, additional tutoring, parent education classes, etc. She writes, "When schools are struggling, the authorities should do whatever is necessary to improve them." (italics mine)

Finally, Ravitch believes teachers should be subject-area experts and experts in pedagogy. Prospective teachers should be tested on their knowledge of what they will teach, and all teachers should be regularly observed and evaluated by their peers and supervisors. Ravitch also says schools will have to offer adequate compensation to attract and retain highly qualified teachers...but she doesn't elaborate much on that point.

That's it. Those are her suggestions. So...again...I'm left wondering...what needs to happen to make this vision a reality?

I'm also wondering what Ravitch's critics have to say. What's the other side of this argument? What am I missing?

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