Mike Kueber's Blog

February 10, 2013

What comes after No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top?

Filed under: Education — Mike Kueber @ 5:11 am
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What is the role of the federal government in education policy?  In a NY Times article, Arne Duncan, the current Secretary of Education, said, “The federal government does not serve as a national school board.”  But, according to an old saying, the sound of his actions is so loud you can’t hear what he is saying.  His actions reveal that, through Obama’s Race to the Top and Duncan’s conditional waivers of No Child Left Behind standards, the federal government has prevailed up 31 states to “require that teacher evaluations be based in part on growth in student achievement on standardized tests.” 

The Times article lists the traditional arguments against such testing and teacher evaluations:

  • It doesn’t cultivate the type of thinking we need.
  • It doesn’t bring in the resources that we need to make students successful.
  • Nineteen states had dummied down standards under the No Child Left Behind law.
  • The law has compelled educators to teach to the tests and set off a spate of cheating scandals.

Texas State Rep. Mike Villarreal recently posted a column in the The Rivard Report describing his legislation to severely curtail the amount of testing done in Texas schools.  Historically, I’ve found Villarreal to be an advocate the local teacher unions, and not so much an advocate for the kids, so I responded to his column as follows:

  • This push to de-emphasize testing reminds me of the football coach, like Jerry Jones, who suggests that keeping score next year will not be a good idea while his team flounders about trying to learn their new 4-3 defensive scheme. We all know coaches (and teachers) who talk a good game, but utterly fail to connect with their players or deliver results.”

Historically, I’ve also opposed the federal government acting like a national school board, but sometimes it is difficult to stick with your principles when states and local government do such a bad job.  Just like the bad job they did in failing to fix our medical-insurance problem, which resulted in ObamaCare.

October 1, 2011

Sunday Book Review #48 – Class Warfare by Steven Brill

No, this book is not about the war that President Obama is waging against Americans who are financially successful.   Rather, it is about the war being waged against America’s dysfunctional public-school system.

I first blogged about problems with America’s public-school system back in April of 2010 when I reviewed Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American  School System.   Ravitch was an acknowledged education guru, and she provided a summary of attempts to reform American public education from Reagan’s landmark report A Nation at Risk to Obama’s Race to the Top program.

In the end, Ravitch concluded that the reform in which she had been engaged for decades was misguided:

  • The most durable way to improve schools is to improve curriculum and instruction and to improve the conditions in which teachers work and children learn, rather than endlessly squabbling over how school systems should be organized, managed, and controlled…. Our schools will not improve if we entrust them to the magical powers of the market…. Our schools cannot improve if charter schools siphon away the most motivated students and their families in the poorest communities from the regular public schools…. If there is one thing all educators know, and that many studies have confirmed for decades, it is that there is no single answer to educational improvement…. But the market, with its great strengths, is not the appropriate mechanism to supply services that should be distributed equally to people….”

In Class Warfare, Steven Brill comes to a different conclusion.  His story begins in 1953, when Albert Shanker began his life-long effort to improve the pay and working  conditions for teachers.  At the time, they were underpaid and overworked.  Over the years, Shanker achieved great things for teachers through his union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).  Not only was the pay of teachers greatly increased, but they were also protected by Collective Bargaining Agreements that would make an auto worker envious.

Shanker was eventually replaced by Randi Weingarten and the AFT was joined by another national teachers union, the National Education Association (NEA).  Together these unions, according to author Brill, prevent the American public-school system from reacting to clear signs that the system is failing the kids.  (I think an analogy would be America’s auto workers and the UAW.)

From Brill’s perspective, real education reform didn’t start with Reagan’s A Nation at Risk in 1983, but rather with Wendy Kopp’s college thesis in 1989.  Kopp’s thesis served as a business plan for starting Teach for America (TFA).  According to Wikipedia:

  • TFA is an American non-profit organization that aims to eliminate educational inequity by enlisting the nation’s most promising future leaders to teach for  two or more years in low-income communities throughout the United States. The organization aspires for these “corps members” to gain the insight  and added commitment to tackle the root causes of America’s achievement gap throughout their lives.”

TFA has been successful beyond Kopp’s dreams, and Brill shows how TFA alumni have played key roles in all aspects of education reform.

What is the education reform?  According to Brill, there are two important components to that reform:

  • Testing.  Measure teacher effectiveness, primarily through testing of students.  Ineffective teachers need to improve or be terminated.  Effective teachers need to be paid more and copied.  And the granting tenure needs to be tied to effectiveness.
  • Charter schools.  Parent choice with more charter schools is invaluable in improving schools.

Resisting these reforms at every turn have been the national teachers’ unions – the AFT and NEA.  Brill argues persuasively that the unions have been concerned about the teachers, not the kids.  He also devotes a few pages to minimalize author Ravitch as a compromised flack for the unions.

Class Warfare is formatted chronologically like a journal to show important battles, with the reformers trying to implement changes and the unions standing in the way.  Although the war is not over, Brill believes that President Obama has been critical for the success of education reform.  President Bush got the process going with No Child Left Behind, but he never had the political clout to get his reforms past the teachers’ union.  By contrast, President Obama was able to prevail with his Race to the Top in a way that Brill compares to “Nixon going to China.”  Fascinating analogy.

There is still a long ways to go, but Race to the Top appears to have jump-started a majority of the states to move toward testing and charter schools.  I am hopeful that the reforms will continue even if the Republicans take over in 2012.  In the latest presidential debate, Rick Perry criticized Mitt Romney, on the basis of federalism, for supporting some of the Race to the Top reforms, but I am confident that Romney will be able to hold his ground.  Although the federal government shouldn’t be dictating to the states, it should be helping.

March 19, 2011

Sunday book review #20 – Decisions Points by George W. Bush

Last December, I suggested that there was so much interesting material in Decision Points that I would break my review into three parts, with the first part reviewing the five pre-9/11 chapters and the second and third parts on the chapters dealing with post-9/11 foreign policy and post-9/11 domestic policy.   After reviewing the first part of Decision Points, I was detoured by a series of books that became available at the SA Public Library.  One of those library books, Because It Is Wrong, critiqued Bush’s post-9/11 handling of surveillance and interrogation issues, which are precisely the issues that Bush discusses in Chapter Six of Decision Points – War Footing.  I review both Because It is Wrong and the War Footing chapter in a subsequent blog entry.   

After reading the library books, as well as a few others that squeezed ahead of it in my reading queue, I finally returned this week to Decision Points and found the remaining chapters to be even better than the early chapters.  The War Footing chapter is followed by separate chapters on Afghanistan and Iraq. 

Chapter Seven is titled “Afghanistan.”  Shortly after 9/11, Bush was briefed on three options for dealing with al Qaeda in Afghanistan – (1) cruise missile strikes, (2) cruise missiles and manned-bomber attacks, and (3) missiles, bombers, and boots on the ground against al Qaeda and the Taliban.  During the briefings, some advisors suggested dealing with Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction at the same time.  Ultimately, Bush decided on option #3 (America would not be, as bin Laden suggested, “paper tigers who would run in less than 24 hours”), but he declined to take action against Iraq – “We would fight the war on terror on the offense, and the first battleground would be Afghanistan….  Unless I received definitive evidence typing Saddam Hussein to the 9/11 plot, I would work to resolve the Iraq problem diplomatically.”

In his 2000 campaign, Bush had said, “I would be very careful about using our troops as nation builders.”  Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and 9/11 changed his opinion.  But America was not prepared for nation-building, and Bush concedes that helping the Afghan people to build a functioning democracy has been more daunting that he anticipated.  He is confident, however, that we will ultimately succeed, especially since President Obama has apparently shares the same objective.

Chapter Eight, titled “Iraq,” describes the drawn-out process of going to war against Iraq.  Bush details (a) the evidence of weapons of mass destruction and (b) the diplomatic efforts to avoid war.  When those efforts failed, General Tommy Franks started war-planning.  He had been impressed by the ability of the military to destroy the Taliban and close al Qaeda camps without using a lot of troops.  The key to this so-called “light footprint” was that America was not viewed as invaders or occupies, and General Franks decided to apply the same strategy in Iraq.  Secretary of State Colin Powell suggested to General Franks that he would be better served applying the so-called Powell Doctrine (deploying massive, decisive force), but Franks chose not to adopt it and Bush decided to defer to his military advisors.  The Iraq chapter ends in 2004 after the successful invasion, but the story of the war will be picked up in a later chapter titled, “Surge.”

In Chapter Nine, titled “Leading,” Bush describes his leadership style.  He describes how he worked with Ted Kennedy to pass the No Child Left Behind law and how a variety of compromises resulted in the flawed Medicare prescription-drug benefit.  But he laments his inability to reform Social Security and immigration laws.  In hindsight, he wishes he had attempted immigration reform early in his second term instead of going first for Social Security reform because the former had more bipartisan support.

Incidentally, I was happy to learn that Bush’s five-part proposed immigration reform was very similar to the proposal on which I ran for Congress: (1) hardened border security, (2) temporary-worker program, (3) enhanced enforcement with employers, (4) improved assimilation by requiring immigrants to learn English, and (5) a path to citizenship for long-term, working residents.

Also incidentally, Bush closed the Leading chapter by urging that Congressional districts be drawn by nonpartisan panels instead of legislatures.  He reasoned that legislatures tend to draw polarized districts, which result in polarized politicians, which result in dysfunctional government.  Although this is an excellent argument, talk is cheap – I don’t remember Bush speaking up on this issue when he was in a position to do something about it.

Chapter Ten is titled “Katrina,” which was the costliest national disaster in America’s history.  Bush does not do a lot of finger pointing (he never mentions the poor performance of the citizenry) and takes responsibility for government letting down its citizens – “Serious mistakes came at all levels, from the failure to order a timely evacuation of New Orleans to the disintegration of local security forces to the dreadful communications and coordination.  As the leader of the federal government, I should have recognized the deficiencies sooner and intervened faster.  I prided myself on my ability to make crisp and effective decisions.  Yet in the days after Katrina, that didn’t happen.  The problem was not that I made the wrong decisions.  It was that I took too long to decide.”  

Bush gives a detailed discussion of four important events:

  1. He pushed hard for Mayor Nagin to order a mandatory evacuation of the city.  The order came less than 24 hours before Katrina landed.
  2. His decision against visiting New Orleans shortly after the flood was correct because he would have interfered with the rescue efforts, but he should have landed in Baton Rouge to meet with the governor and show his concern.
  3. He pushed hard for Governor Blanco to authorize the federal government to take charge of security in New Orleans, but she never agreed.  Eventually, Bush sent in federal troops and General Honore, but because of Blanco’s resistance they had no law-enforcement authority.  Yet they succeeded in bringing order to the city.  “Had I known he could be so effective without the authority I assumed he needed, I would have cut off the legal debate and sent troops in without law enforcement powers several days earlier.”
  4. Although he had encouraged FEMA’s Mike Brown with, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” he eventually replaced Brown because Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff said Brown had frozen under pressure and became insubordinate.

Chapter Eleven, titled “Lazarus Effect,” describes Bush’s fight to secure funding for fighting HIV/AIDS in Africa.  Although Bush’s efforts are commendable, there really wasn’t a lot of opposition to overcome.  Getting Congress to spend money does not require superhuman efforts.

Chapter Twelve, titled “Surge,” brings us back to the war in Iraq.  By 2006, sectarian violence had caused the Iraq situation to deteriorate.  Even Republican whip Mitch McConnell was lobbying Bush to bring the troops home.  After the Democrats took control of both houses of Congress, new Speaker Pelosi declared, “The American people have spoken….  We must begin the responsible redeployment of our troops outside of Iraq.”  But Bush remained committed to prevailing in Iraq, and eventually he concluded that the “light footprint” strategy espoused by Rumsfeld and Generals Casey and Abizaid was the problem.  In its stead, he adopted a “surge” strategy developed by National Security Advisor Steve Hadley and General Petraeus.  At the close of one preliminary meeting with General Petraeus, Bush used the gambling expression that America was “doubling down,” and Petraeus one-upped him by responding that “we were all in.”  

Opposition to the surge was immense, with notable exceptions like Senators McCain, Graham, and Lieberman.  The House passed a nonbinding resolution disapproving the surge.  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid declared, “The war is lost, the surge is not accomplishing anything.”  According to Bush, this declaration “was one of the most irresponsible acts I witnessed in my eight years in Washington.”  I agree that, for a leader in Congress, Reid’s statement was contemptible.        

Eventually, the surge succeeded, and it is enabling President Obama to conduct an orderly withdrawal.

Chapter Thirteen, titled “Freedom Agenda,” describes Bush’s efforts to implement the fourth prong of the Bush Doctrine throughout the world.  For those of you, like Sarah Palin, who aren’t familiar with the Bush Doctrine, it means:

  1. Make no distinction between terrorists and nations that harbor them.  We will hold both to account.
  2. Take the fight against terrorists to the enemy overseas before they can attack us at home.
  3. Confront threats before they fully materialize.
  4. Advance liberty and hope as an alternative to the enemy’s ideology of repression and fear.

The Freedom Agenda was implemented in several ways:

  • Supporting fledgling democracies in the Palestinian Territories, Lebanon, Georgia, and the Ukraine.
  • Encouraging dissidents and democratic reformers in repressive regimes like Iran, Syria, North Korea, and Venezuela.
  • Advocate for freedom while maintaining strategic relations with nations like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Russia, and China.

Bush says that in addition to Iraq and Afghanistan, he placed much focus on the Middle East because “the great tide of freedom that swept much of the world during the second half of the twentieth century had largely bypassed one region: the Middle East.”

After describing successes in his Freedom Agenda, Bush concedes disappointment with Russia, Egypt, and Venezuela – “Still, given what I’d hoped Putin and I could accomplish in moving past the Cold War, Russia stands out as a disappointment in the freedom agenda.  Russia was not the only one.  I was hopeful that Egypt would be a leader for freedom and reform in the Arab world, just as it had been a leader for peace under Anwar Sadat a generation before.  Unfortunately, after a promising presidential election in 2005 that included opposition candidates, the government cracked down during the legislative elections later that year, jailing dissidents and bloggers who advocated a democratic alternative.  Venezuela also slid back from democracy.”

Chapter Fourteen, titled “Financial Crisis,” is the last chapter.  Bush said that Bernanke and Paulson, two of his best appointments, warned him that the crisis could be as bad as the Great Depression.  Bush’s great response – “If we’re really looking at another Great Depression, you can be damn sure I’m going to be Roosevelt, not Hoover.”  His actions reflected that sentiment – he bailed out the banks, AIG, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and two auto manufacturers.

Also in this chapter, Bush responded to a couple of common criticisms relating to his role in causing the financial crisis:

  1. He failed to ask Americans to sacrifice while we were fighting two wars.  Bush counters that this wasn’t like World War Two where we had to convert to a war-based economy.  “I’ve always believed that the critics who alleged I wasn’t asking people to sacrifice were really complaining that I hadn’t raised taxes….  I am convinced that raising taxes after the devastation of 9/11 would have hurt our economy.”
  2. He squandered the massive surplus that he inherited.  “Much of the surplus was an illusion, based on the mistaken assumption that the 1990s boom would continue.  Once the recession and 9/11 hit, there was little surplus left.

Decision Points concludes with a short Epilogue, in which Bush reveals complete serenity about his presidency.  He believes that the central challenge of his presidency was to keep America safe and that mission was accomplished.  He “pursued his convictions without wavering, but changed course when necessary…trusted individuals to make choices in their lives… used America’s influence to advance freedom.”

I remember back in the 80s when I would defend Reagan against those who thought he was a dunce or a Neanderthal.  In my mind, Reagan was a national asset, and that’s how I’ve felt about George W. Bush.  After reading Decision Points, I believe that America was fortunate to have him as president from 2001-2009.

January 30, 2011

More fixing on San Antonio’s schools

An article in Sunday’s San Antonio Express-News reported that a local state representative had introduced a bill that authorizes the mayor to appoint three of the seven school-board members in any district that has been deemed academically unacceptable by the State Board of Education.  The author of the bill, Rep. Mike Villarreal, claims that he has been working on the bill for over a year, but his announcement follows by only a week the announcement by San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro that he planned to interject himself into school governance of San Antonio’s failing urban school districts, including behemoth San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD).  I don’t think it is coincidence that Villarreal’s wife, Jeanne Russell, is an education advisor to Mayor Castro and a former education reporter for the Express-News.  Talk about a tangled web.

Personally, I think the idea has merit, but is too timid.  If a district is failing, I think the entire board should be held accountable and be replaced.  That is a concept endorsed by Bush-43’s No Child Left Behind program.  It’s unfortunate that the voters won’t, on their own volition, replace the board in an election, but down-ballot elections simply don’t receive the requisite attention from the voters.  One can hope that the voters would pay more attention to a board election after this recall-type provision was triggered.

July 10, 2010

Managing to metrics is not a good thing

Filed under: Business — Mike Kueber @ 4:03 am
Tags: , , , ,

A metric is any type of measurement used to gauge some quantifiable component of a company’s performance.  My previous employer, insurer USAA, was always a big supporter of metrics management.  In fact, I was shocked to learn from my first insurance-claims boss more than 20 years ago (a) that the company was keeping track of the number of minutes that I was on the phone and (b) that more minutes indicated to USAA more productivity.  Not surprisingly, the people in my unit spent a lot of time chatting unnecessarily with our customers.     

Metrics management has become more sophisticated through the years.  Companies devote valuable resources to design systems that collect relevant information, but there is still a huge problem in corporate America with knowing how to use the information.  Management experts at Performance-Management.net have provided the following diagnosis and prescription:

  • “Decades of focus on tactical measures, short term goals and an emphasis on business intelligence tools for extracting and reporting those measures have led many organizations to implement tactical key performance indicator (KPI) scorecards….  With KPI scorecards, users are scoring buckets of metrics, rather than measuring the strategy. Individual measures are not necessarily indicative of the overall corporate strategy. A Strategy-Focused Organization is concerned with the quality, not quantity of its measures. Rather than monitoring volumes of measures, it is more beneficial to measure what matters.”

During my later years with USAA, the CEO was Bob Davis, the company’s first CEO who was not a career military man.  Davis believed strongly in managing with strategic information, but was critical of front-line managers who managed their employees by metrics.  Davis wanted front-line employees to focus on doing a good job, not on contributing to good metrics.

Managing to Metrics is analogous to one of the principal criticisms of the Bush education program titled No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  Under the NCLB, evaluations of teachers and principals rely heavily on the results of student’s math and reading tests, and opponents argue that this reliance causes teachers to focus on teaching the tests instead of providing balanced teaching that doesn’t necessarily show up in the tests.  We need to design the tests with this in mind and then be sure to guard against relying exclusively on test results.     

My favorite example of misused metrics concerns voting participation.  Our strategic objective is to have a large percentage of informed voters, but voter-participation metrics can be misleading if we change procedures that make it easier to vote.  Not all votes are good votes, especially those by uninformed voters who are amenable to pressure and manipulation by partisans.  

USAA CEO Bob Davis loved numbers and statistics, but he also preached that they couldn’t replace good judgment and common sense.  That makes sense.

April 18, 2010

American education policy

During my Congressional campaign, I was sometimes asked to discuss my position regarding primary and secondary education in America.  Unfortunately, I hadn’t followed the matter closely, although I had heard complaints in past years about excessive testing and more recently I had heard that Rick Perry and Texas had refused to apply for a large sum of federal education money because the money came with pre-conditions.  When responding to questions on the campaign trail, I would speak in favor of vouchers, some type of testing, and more free-market principles, but I didn’t understand the concept of charter schools or the components of No Child Left Behind.  

Following the campaign, I decided to rectify this deficiency in my background on education policy, and by fortuitous timing, Diane Ravitch authored a new book that served as a perfect primer.  A detailed summary of the book can be found below, but first I will describe five conclusions that I took from the book:

  1. Improper federal role in education.  The federal government isn’t responsible for education in America, so it shouldn’t borrow money to give to the states as bribery for education policies dictated by the federal government.  Ravitch noted that conservative Bush-43 expanded the role of the federal government in education, and liberal Obama completed the federal takeover, but these were mere incidental comments, and it was clear that she wasn’t interested in constitutional correctness.
  2. Proper federal role in education.  The federal government has a role in helping the states develop sound education policies.  For example, the federal government has facilitated the states in developing uniform standards.  Math and reading standards developed by 48 states (sans Texas and Alaska) were announced earlier this year.  Also, national testing enables states to compare the effectiveness of different practices.  But there should be no coercion or bribery, as currently included in Race to the Top (R2T) and Obama’s update of No Child Left Behind (NCLB).
  3. Charter schools (and choice).  Ravitch usually bases her conclusions on objective research/studies, but her opposition to charter schools seems subjective, almost political.  She concedes that charter schools are effective for their students, but she worries about the deterioration of the public schools that are left behind.  (I think a good analogy is an aging neighborhood that people eventually abandon.  Gov’t. would prefer that residents stay in place and maintain their neighborhood, but gov’t. allows residents to vote with their feet and leave for better neighborhoods.)  As a political matter, I think Americans will insist on choice and competition, albeit with winners and losers.  It’s unfortunate that there will be losers, but America has to be about equality of opportunity, not equality of results.  Charter schools clearly improve opportunity for everybody.
  4. Testing (and accountability).  Ravitch concludes that making high-stakes decisions (such as firing principals and closing schools) based on test results will cause teachers and districts to “teach the test.”  I agree with that conclusion.  As Bob Davis used to say at USAA, weak managers will tend to manage to the metrics on which they are evaluated.  That is why we need to carefully design tests and then carefully use the results.  Small numbers (such as one teacher for one year) should have limited usability, whereas large numbers (a large school over several years) should be difficult to explain away if they are consistently bad.  Also, testing should not be limited to math and reading because other subjects are essential to a balance education – e.g., science and history.
  5. No Child Left Behind.  NCLB is a work in progress.  Although Obama campaigned against NCLB, I think he acted correctly when he recommended mending it, not ending it.  There are problems with testing and charter schools, but education in America would be hurt with their elimination.


The following is a lengthy summary of the book: 

The Death and Life of the Great American School System

How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education

By Diane Ravitch, published by Basic Books – 2010

This is a story of American school system from the perspective of an educator who has been studying education policy since 1968.  In her introductory chapter, Ravitch asserts that she has been guided through the years by two constants:

  •  “One constant has been my skepticism about pedagogical fads, enthusiasms, and movements.  The other has been a deep belief in the value of a rich, coherent school curriculum, especially in history and literature, both of which are so frequently ignored, trivialized, or politicized.”   

Despite her assertion of skepticism, Ravitch appears to have been co-opted by the Bush-41 administration in 1991 to become “hopeful, even enthusiastic about the potential benefits of testing, accountability, choice, and markets.”  Now in 2010 she has changed her mind because, “I saw how these ideas are working out in reality.”  In a sense, Ravitch has come full circle to find wisdom in a landmark educational report that has been ignored in recent times.   

A Nation at Risk

Ravitch provides an excellent history of the education-reform movement, starting with a major report in 1983 titled A Nation at Risk (ANAR).  ANAR, which was drafted by a Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education, suggested that American education was falling apart because of the liberal, permissive, no-values school reforms in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.  According to ANAR, the erosion of academic performance could be reversed (a) by developing a solid curriculum (four years of English, three years of math, science, and social studies, and one-half year of computer science) and (b) by developing teachers with an aptitude for teaching and a competence in their academic discipline.  ANAR was a report, not a law, and states and schools were free to ignore the report and its recommendations. 

While working in the Bush-41 administration, Ravitch tried to facilitate the creation of voluntary national standards in history, English language arts, science, civics, economics, the arts, foreign languages, geography, and physical education, but the project fell apart in 1994 when the proposed history standards where attacked by Lynne Cheney for their political bias.  Because of the controversy, the Clinton administration’s Goals 2000 declared that curriculum standards should be left to each state.  According to Ravitch, many states responded by publishing vague documents and called them standards. 

In 2001, Bush-43 came into office with his Texas program of accountability, high-stakes testing, data-driven decision making, choice, charter schools, privatization, deregulation, merit pay, and competition among schools.  The program was called No Child Left Behind and was supported by Republicans and Democrats.  The program focused its testing exclusively on English and Math and declined to set any nationwide standards.  Instead each state was free to establish its own standards.

 Experiments in education

Chapters 3-5 in Ravitch’s book describe three famous, influential experiments by local-education districts that have been conducted since A Nation at Risk:   

  1. The Transformation of District 2.  District 2 was one of New York City’s 32 school districts, and in 1987 Anthony Alvarado was named superintendent.  Alvarado attempted to bridge the difference between two competing pedagogical techniques for English – phonics and whole language.  “Phonics” consisted of explicit instruction in phonics, spelling, grammar, and punctuation, whereas “whole language” emphasized student-centered activities, figuring out words in context, and reading experiences.  Alvarado’s new methodology was called Balanced Literacy, which integrated phonics and whole language by focusing mainly on reading strategies and teaching children to identify them by name and practice them.  All principals and teachers were taught on Balanced Literacy and required to teach it.  District 2 also adopted the Constructivist method for teaching math.  Following the adopting of Balanced Literacy and Constructivist Math, District 2 test scores on these subjects increased significantly, and many researchers attributed these improvements solely to the pedagogical reforms.  Ravitch suggests, however, that demographic and economic transformation in the District may have been the main cause of the improvement.
  2. Lessons from San Diego.  In 1998, San Diego attempted to reform its schools by hiring a hard-nosed, non-educator U.S. Attorney Alan Bersin, who hired District 2’s Tony Alvarado as chancellor for instruction.  Bersin/Alvarado developed a Blueprint for Student Success in a Standards-Based System, which borrowed heavily from District 2’s Balanced Literacy and Constructivist Math.  Ravitch points out that these reforms were successfully adopted because they employed a Left-Right strategy – i.e., the pedagogical left loved all of the money spent on professional development contracts and the business right loved the accountability applied to schools and teachers.  Ravitch concluded that Bersin’s get-tough policy failed in San Diego because it sapped educators of their initiative and enthusiasm.
  3. The Business Model in NYC.  Between 1969 and 2002, control of NYC schools was decentralized.  In 2001, Michael Bloomberg was elected mayor and in 2002 he persuaded the state legislature to give him ultimate power and responsibility for the city’s schools.  Bloomberg hired U.S. Attorney Joel Klein to run the city’s Department of Education, and Klein adopted the same Left-Right strategy that Bersin had in San Diego – i.e., “he selected instructional programs (including Balanced Literacy and Constructivist Math) that pleased the pedagogical left, awarded large contracts to vendors of these programs, and created a large number of jobs for consultants and coaches (Princeton Review and Kaplan Learning) who were knowledgeable about progressive approaches.  And he satisfied the business community by vigorously promoting choice and accountability.”  The Bloomberg-Klein program was called Children First and it embodied the same ideas as the federal No Child Left Behind program – i.e., accountability and choice.  Ravitch concedes that she was initially in support of the Mayor’s takeover, but eventually concluded that mayoral control is not necessarily a good thing.    

No Child Left Behind (NCLB)

Chapter Six discusses the federal experiment regarding education policy – No Child Left Behind.  The four principles of NCLB, as initially described by George W. Bush in a 28-page document, were – (1) annual testing of every student in grades 3-8 using a state test, not a national test, (2) decisions on how to reform schools would be made by states, not Washington, (3) low-performing schools would get help to improve, and (4) students in persistently bad schools would be able to transfer.  These four principles were expanded into the 1,100-page NCLB bill, which was approved by huge bi-partisan majorities.

The major focus of NCLB is accountability, including the following features:

States would develop their own tests to identify performance levels – basic, proficient, and advanced.

  • All students (by race, ethnicity, income, and disability) would be tested for math and reading annually in grades 3-8 and once in high school.
  • All states must have timelines for achieving 100% proficiency by 2013-2014.  (Thus, the title, No Child Left Behind.)
  • All schools and districts must make “adequate yearly progress” toward 100% proficiency.
  • Any school that didn’t make adequate yearly progress would be labeled as “school in need of improvement” (SINI) and would face a series of onerous sanctions (year one – put on notice; year two – offer students the right to transfer to a successful school; year three – free tutoring to low-income students; year four – corrective action of curriculum changes, staff changes, or longer school day or year; and year five – restructure.
  • Restructuring options were to convert to a charter school, replace principle and staff, relinquish control to private management, turnover control to the state, or “any other major restructuring of the school’s governance.
  • Mandatory participation every other year in National Assessment and Educational Progress (NAEP) testing for math and reading in grades four and eight.

Ravitch supported NCLB until 2006, at which time she concluded that the “NCLB toolkit” for failing schools (free after-school tutoring and charter schools) was not working.  Only a small percentage of the kids offered tutoring or a move to a better school accepted the offer.  Ravitch suggested that the feds and local educators should reverse role – i.e., the feds should collect data/information and local educators should design and implement improvements.

Ravitch argued that the major conceptual flaw with NCLB is that it mandated that 100% of the students achieve proficiency by 2013-2014.  She compared that to a goal of eliminating pollution or crime.  The critical flaw is that when schools fail to achieve their goal of 100% proficiency, they are subjected to the draconian sanction of restructuring.  Thus, virtually all schools, even the best, would eventually be forced to restructure because 100% proficiency is virtually unachievable.  As Ravitch said, “It makes little sense to impose remedies that have never been effective and to assume that they will produce better than reasonably good results.”  Many states attempted to avoid the draconian remedies by dumbing-down their tests and defining proficiency in a more generous way.  In their effort to increase their scores, many states all spent more time teaching math and reading and spent less time on history, science, and the arts.  This led their scores to go up even though the national NEAP test failed to reflect any gains.  

Choice (Vouchers and Charter Schools)

Chapters Seven examined Choice and Chapter Eight examined Accountability.  According to Ravitch, the progenitor of educational choice was Milton Friedman, who wrote in essay in 1955 suggesting that the government should fund schooling, but should not run the schools.  Instead it should give a voucher to each student, who would then select a school to attend.  Vouchers failed to achieve success because (1) the courts questioned whether vouchers could be used at religious schools, and (2) the left and media questioned whether vouchers would be used to evade desegregation requirements. 

In the 1990’s, Milwaukee and Cleveland established voucher programs and the U.S. Supreme Court finally ruled in 2002 that vouchers did not violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, but by then charter schools were the reform de jour.  Charter schools were developed by Ray Budde in Massachusetts in 1988.  His idea was to give an organization (perhaps a group of teachers) to receive a 5-year charter to meet some performance goals in return for increased autonomy.  The concept had Left-Right appeal because the Left saw charter schools as a firewall against vouchers and the Right saw them as a means to deregulate education and create competition.  An unfortunate side effect to the growing popularity of charter schools was that they not only pulled kids away from public schools, but also away from Catholic  schools, which had been doing yeomen’s work for many years educating poor kids without the benefit of public financing. 

By 2010, 30,000 students were going to school on vouchers while 1.4 million were attending charter schools.  According to Ravitch, the achievements of charter schools are spotty, with some exceptional and other horrible.  One of the best is KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program), a culture-changing program.  “The theory of the charter movement is that competition with the regular public schools will lead to improvements in both sectors….  But in reality, the regular public schools are at a huge disadvantage …. because charter schools may attract the most motivated students, may discharge laggards, and may enforce a tough disciplinary code, but also because the charters often get additional financial resources from their corporate sponsors….

Although the Obama administration is clear in its opposition to vouchers, it strongly favors the expansion of charter schools.  Obama’s Race to the Top program specifically requires all states to eliminate any legal limits on the expansion of charter schools.  Ravitch concludes, “In barely twenty years, the idea of school choice rapidly advanced in the public arena and captivated elite opinion.  Given the accumulating evidence of uneven results, this was surprising.”      


Bush-41 had six education goals and Clinton had eight.  Bush-43 and NCLB had only one goal – 100% proficiency in math and reading by 2014.  Ravitch points out that the problem with the NCLB isn’t the testing, but rather the misuse of testing for high-stakes decisions. 

“The problem with using tests to make important decisions about people’s lives is that standardized tests are not precise instruments.”

  • “Testing experts frequently remind school officials that standardized tests scores should not be used in isolation to make consequential decisions about students, but only in conjunction with other measures of student performance, such as grades, class participation, homework, and teachers’ recommendations.
  • “Given the importance of test scores, it is not surprising that teachers and school officials have devised various ways of gaming the testing system.
  • “Of all the ways of gaming the system, the most common is test preparation.
  • “Campbell’s Law: ‘The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intending to monitor.’
  • “The pressure to increase test scores is likely to produce high scores, whether by coaching or cheating or manipulating the pool of test takers.
  • “The starkest display of score inflation is the contrast between the state-reported test scores, which have been steadily (and sometimes sharply) rising since the passage of NCLB, and the scores registered by states on NAEP, the federal assessment program.”

Prior to NCLB, federal education policy was concerned with improving the quality of teachers.  NCLB shifted to a singular focus of raising test scores in reading and math.  One of the criticisms of NCLB was that it failed to incorporate an emerging concept called “value-added assessment,” which means that all teachers would be evaluated on their ability to increase the test scores of their students from beginning-of-year to end-of-year.  Ravitch questions the utility of value-added assessments because there is often insufficient information to reach any solid conclusion about a specific teacher.  Ravitch also questions whether Teach for America (TFA) is helping students because experience is one of the most important factors found in successful teachers and TFA teachers typically quit just as they are getting the requisite experience to be effective.

Misguided Foundations

In Chapter Ten, Ravitch skewers the Billionaire Boys’ Club – i.e., foundations that attempt to improve education in America.  In 1998, the Big Four foundations involved in education were Annenberg, Lilly, Packard, and Kellog.  By 2002, they were replaced by the Big Three of Gates, Walton, and Broad.  The problem, according to Ravitch, is that the new foundations were based on wealth that had been created through competition, choice, deregulation, incentives, and other market-based approaches.  Naturally, these foundations thought these same principles could be applied to improve education in America.  Using so-called venture philanthropy, these “foundations came to exercise vast influence over American education because of their strategic investment in school reform.”  The Walton Foundation has focused on school choice through vouchers and charters.  The Gates Foundation has spent millions in an unsuccessful attempt to show that smaller schools would be more effective.  It has now shifted to study performance-based pay for teachers, which necessarily involves finding ways to measure effectiveness and also firing ineffective teachers.  The Broad Foundation is involved in teaching management skills to educators and has supported non-educators such as Bersin in San Diego and Klein in NYC in management positions for districts.

Race to the Top (R2T)

Race to the Top was part of Obama’s stimulus program in 2009.  It creates a financial reward for states that most quickly adopt as many of Obama’s list of 19 best practices for education.

  • Great Teachers and Leaders (138 total points)
    • Improving teacher and principal effectiveness based on performance (58 points)
    • Ensuring equitable distribution of effective teachers and principals (25 points)
    • Providing high-quality pathways for aspiring teachers and principals (21 points)
    • Providing effective support to teachers and principals (20 points)
    • Improving the effectiveness of teacher and principal preparation programs (14 points)
  • State Success Factors (125 total points)
    • Articulating State’s education reform agenda and ELAs’ participation in it (65 points)
    • Building strong statewide capacity to implement, scale up, and sustain proposed plans (30 points)
    • Demonstrating significant progress in raising achievement and closing gaps (30 points)
  • Standards and Assessments (70 total points)
    • Developing and adopting common standards (40 points)
    • Supporting the transition to enhanced standards and high-quality assessments (20 points)
    • Developing and implementing common, high-quality assessments (10 points)
  • General Selection Criteria (55 total points)
    • Ensuring successful conditions for high-performing charters and other innovative schools (40 points)
    • Making education funding a priority (10 points)
    • Demonstrating other significant reform conditions (5 points)
  • Turning Around the Lowest-Achieving Schools (50 total points)
    • Turning around the lowest-achieving schools (40 points)
    • Intervening in the lowest-achieving schools and LEAs (10 points)
  • Data Systems to Support Instruction (47 total points)
    • Fully implementing a statewide longitudinal data system (24 points)
    • Using data to improve instruction (18 points)
    • Accessing and using State data (5 points)

At the end of Chapter Ten, Ravitch noted that R2T marks the death federalism in education because the feds are taking over.  That may be an exaggeration, however, because states aren’t required to participate in this competition, and several states (like Texas) have declined to submit applications. 

R2T does not replace No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  In March 2010, Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan presented Congress with a 41-page blueprint to update NCLB.  The three major proposed changes are:

  1.  Instead of mandating that failing schools offer free tutoring or transfers, the proposal will make these remedies optional.
  2. Schools will be placed in three categories – the best 10% will receive additional benefits, the middle 75% will be left alone, and the worst 15% will face radical intervention (including dismissal of principals in the worst 5%).
  3. The $29 billion will be allocated to states based on competition (like R2T) instead of traditional spending formulas that spread it evenly throughout the states. 

The Obama/Duncan proposal fails to address whether the NCLB requirement for 100% proficiency by 2014 should be continued, so Congress will be forced to make that decision.  The proposal does, however, create a new requirement that all high school graduates be “college- and career-ready” by 2020.  This would seem to address Ravitch’s suggestion that testing needs to go beyond math and reading and into other areas of study.   The program also incorporates Ravitch’s suggestion for testing accountability that focuses on yearly improvement, not the absolute testing result.  

Back to the Basics

Ravitch concludes with a chapter on Lessons Learned.  She points out that a democratic society needs educated citizens who know the country’s history, its government, and the working of its economy.  They must be more than proficient in math and reading.  The successful education system will have:

  • A strong curriculum;
  • Experienced teachers;
  • Effective instruction;
  • Willing students;
  • Adequate resources; and
  • A Community that values education.

 “The most durable way to improve schools is to improve curriculum and instruction and to improve the conditions in which teachers work and children learn, rather than endlessly squabbling over how school systems should be organized, managed, and controlled….  Our schools will not improve if we entrust them to the magical powers of the market….  Our schools cannot improve if charter schools siphon away the most motivated students and their families in the poorest communities from the regular public schools….  If there is one thing all educators know, and that many studies have confirmed for decades, it is that there is no single answer to educational improvement….  But the market, with its great strengths, is not the appropriate mechanism to supply services that should be distributed equally to people….”