Diane Ravitch, 2010

When someone chastised John Maynard Keynes for reversing himself about a particular economic policy he had previously endorssed, he replied, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do sir?”

What should we think of someone who never admits error, never entertains doubt but adheres to the same ideas all his life, regardless of new evidence? Doubt and skepticism are signs of rationality. When we are too certain of our opinions, we run the ris of ignoring any evidence that conflicts with our views. It is doubt that shows we are still thinking, still willing to reexamine hardened beliefs when confronted with new facts and new evidence.

In education, there are no shortcuts, no utopias and no silver bullets. For certain, there are no magic feathers that enable elephants to fly.

Schools are the primary mechanism through which a democratic society gives its citizens the opportunity to attain literacy and social mobility. Opportunity leaves much to individual; it is not a guarantee of certain success. The schools cannot solve all our social problems, not at they perfect. But in a democratic society, they are necessary and valuable for individuals and the commonweal.

The lure of the market is the idea that freedom from government regulation is a solution all by itself.

As I increasingly disaffected from both the choice movement and the accountability movement. I was beginning to see the downside of both and to understand that they both were not solutions to our educational dilemmas. As a I watched both movement gain momentum across the nation, I concluded that curriculum and instruction were far more important than choice and accountability. Testing had become a central preoccupation in the schools and was not just a measure but an end in itself. I came to believe that accountability as written into federal law, was not raising standards but dumbing down the schools as states and districts strived to meet unrealistic targets.

We must make sure that our schools have a strong, coherent, explicit curriculum that is grounded in the liberal arts and sciences, with plenty of opportunity for children to engage in activities and projects that make learning lively. We must ensure that students gain the knowledge they need to understand political debates, scientific phenomena, and the world they live in. We must be sure they are prepared for the responsibilities of democratic citizenship in a complex society. We must take care that our teachers are well educated, not just well trained. We must be sure the schools have the authority to maintain both standards of learning and standards of behavior.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) changed the nature of public schooling across the nation by making standardized test scores the primary measure of school quality. Missing from NCLB was any reference to what students should learn; this was left to each state to determine. It ignored such important studies as history, civics, literature, science, the arts, and geography. I saw my hopes for better education turn into a measurement strategy that had no underlying educational vision at all. What once was the standards movement was replaced by the accountability movement. Measure, then punish and reward. 

Tests should follow curriculum. They should be based on the curriculum. They should not replace it or precede it. Students need a coherent foundation of knowledge and skills that grows stronger each year. Knowledge and skills are both important, as is learning to think, debate, and question. A well-educated person has a well-furnished mind, shaped by reading and thinking about history, science, literature, the arts, and politics. The well-educated person has learned how to explain ideas and listen respectfully to others.

Students should certainly think about what they read, both they should read something worth thinking about.

Under the terms of NCLB, schools that did not demonstrate adequate progress toward the goal of making every student proficient in math and English by 2014 would be subject to increasingly onerous sanctions. But it was left to each state to decide what “proficiency” meant. So the states, most of which had vague and meaningless standards, were left free to determine what children should learn and how well they should learn it. In effect, they were asked to grade themselves by creating tests that almost all children could eventually pass. NCLB was all sticks and no carrots.

Where did education go wrong? All roads lead back to a major report released in 1983 call A Nation at Risk. ANAR was notable for what id did not say. It did not refer to market-based competition and choice among schools. Instead, it addressed problems that were intrinsic to schooling, such as curriculum, graduation requirements, teacher preparation, and the quality of textbooks; it said nothing about the governance or organization of school districts, because these were no seen as causes of low performance. The report recommended stronger high school graduation requirements; higher standards for academic performance and student conduct; more time devoted to instruction and homework; and higher standards for entry into the teaching profession and better salaries for teachers.

NCLB had no vision other than improving test scores in reading and math…The goal of testing was higher scores, without regard to whether students acquired any knowledge of history, science, literature, geography, the arts, and other subjects that were not important for accountability purposes.

The Business Model in NYC: In the first decade of the new century, NYC became the national testing ground for market-based reforms. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his chancellor, Joel Klein, applied business principles to overhaul the nation’s largest school system. THe reorganization was a corporate model of tightly centralized, hierarchical, top-down control, with all decisions made centrally. The general perception was that the mayor planned to run the schools system like a business, with standard operating procedures across the system.

The Bloomberg-Klein reforms were part of the national zeitgeist. They embodied the same ideas as the federal No Child Left Behind legislation. The principles behind them-test-based accountability and choice-were exactly the same. Children First was the NEYC version of NCLB, in spirit and in practice. The basic idea shared by Mayor Bloomberg in NYC and George W. Bush administration and Congress was that a relentless focus on testing and accountability would improve the schools.

Mayoral control of NYC had a mixed record. State scores went up, and spending went up even faster. From 2002 to 2009, the overall budget for public education grew from $12.7 billion annually to $21.8 billion. Mayoral control is not a guaranteed path to school improvement. The the 2007 NAEP, the cities with the highest test scores were Charlotte, NC and Austin, TX, neither of which had mayoral control. And two of the three lowest performing cities, Chicago and Cleveland—had had mayoral control for more than a decade. Clearly many factors affect educational performance other than the governance structure. Governance structure alone will not solve all the problems of schools.

School reform without public oversight or review is contrary to basic democratic principles. In a democracy, every public agency is subject to scrutiny. Removing checks and balances may promote speed, but it undermines the credibility and legitimacy of decisions, and it eliminates the kind of review that catches major mistakes before it is too late.