Mike Kueber's Blog

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….”