Ravitch, Khan, Bell, and Noguera on Education


On January 15, 2014, Diane Ravitch, one of the four leading scholars interviewed by CPR in 2012 on the state of education reform in America, reviewed the Bloomberg administration's education legacy in The New York Times. We revisit our discussion with Lee Ann Bell, Shamus Khan, Pedro Noguera, and Ms. Ravitch. Columbia Political Review:  Should the achievement gap be a problem worthy of our worry? What is the best way to close the achievement gap?

Lee Ann BellThe Barbara Silver Horowitz Director of Education at Barnard College:  First of all, I think the achievement gap is a misnomer – I think a better term is the opportunity gap. Court cases such as in New York and California have challenged the unequal resources allocated to schools, and this disparity in material resources for learning plays a big role.

A recent, interesting article in the New York Times featured a study of schools on military bases. In the study, the researchers found that the population in the schools on military bases roughly matches the population in the country in terms of race and ethnicity, which in perspective makes sense because the military is one the more effective institutions at achieving racial integration. The military population also mirrored the general population in the number of children whose families get food stamps – somewhat shocking that even military personnel do not make enough money to feed their families without food stamp support. So overall, a good comparison group. What the researchers found was that achievement in base schools was above the average of the rest of the population, and what they speculated in the article as the reason makes good sense to me. All of their [military children’s] parents are employed, since they have a job by virtue of being in the military, and they have healthcare and other basic resources. I think that is a really interesting comparison. I think this study supports the notion that it is unfair to place burden of achievement on kids and children’s teachers and not look at the resource gap that makes it so much harder to meet the needs of kids and teachers in under-resourced schools.

Shamus KhanAssociate Professor of Sociology at Columbia University: I'm not sure which achievement gap we're talking about. There are lots of them. Girls do far better than boys in school. There's a gap between black and white students, Asians perform better than just about any other group. But a lot of these stories (except for the gender one) are about class (race and class position are highly correlated; the average black family made $32,946 in 2009. By comparison white families made $62,545, Asians $64,969, and Hispanics $39,730). The black-white achievement gap was cut in half in the 1970s, as schools desegregated and greater economic opportunities were afforded to black Americans. But economic opportunities have been largely absent for most Americans over the last 30 years (as an example, we have the second-lowest levels of mobility in the industrialized world). And inequality has dramatically risen. Research has shown that inequality is bad for educational performance.

This is a complicated story, but the take-home point is simple: Achievement gaps are often not about what's happening in schools; they are about what's happening outside of them. Before even entering kindergarten, wealthy students perform 60 percent better than poor students on standardized tests. Schools actually do pretty well to close this gap. But it is resilient in part because of out-of-school factors like poverty and inequality and in part because students spend several months every year out of school (where the continued investment of wealthier parents mimics "schooling," helping the achievement gap return). Schools are often the villains in our story about poverty, inequality, and achievement gaps. But we must remember that out-of-school factors often matter more than in-school factors. In short, to close the gap, we need to worry less about schools and worry more about constructing a coherent poverty and inequality policy.

Pedro Noguera, Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University: Keep in mind: achievement gap is not about achievement that can simply be measured by test scores. It is also about access to the school and support at home. It is a multi-achievement issue. If you don’t address all the issues, the achievement gap may not be eliminated. We also have to address the inequities in school and out of school. Within schools, we have an allocation gap – more money to affluent schools and less to poor students. There are a whole set of issues about learning opportunities outside the school. Some parents can provide less support for their children than others. Some don’t have the ability to help with homework, may not have a computer at a home, or can pay for a tutor, or can send their children to summer camp. In addition, you also have poor kids who don’t have access to healthcare or eyeglasses. In school and out of school, there is a whole set of social issues that go into the achievement gap.

Diane RavitchFormer Assistant Secretary of Education: The achievement gap is the systematic disparity in the test scores of students from different racial and ethnic groups, as well as students from different extremes of income. Across every standardized testing program, there are large differences favoring students who are white, Asian, or affluent. The most significant predictor of the achievement gap is family income. Children from affluent homes have higher test scores than students from impoverished homes.

The best strategies to narrow (and someday to close) the gaps is to reduce their causes: recognize that achievement gaps begin long before the first day of school; make sure that all pregnant women have good medical care so that their babies are born healthy; ensure that all children have high-quality early childhood education so that they arrive in school healthy and ready to learn; make sure that children have access to good medical care as they grow up, so they are healthy and have whatever help they need to stay healthy; require class sizes small enough so that children get the time and attention they need to succeed; insist that all schools have a full, rich, balanced curriculum including the arts, sciences, mathematics, history, civics, literature, foreign languages, physical education (daily), and time to play, as well as experienced teachers and excellent facilities in which to learn; and ensure that the schools have the social workers, guidance counselors, and librarians needed to help students learn.

CPR: Does adding more computers to classrooms help to narrow the achievement gap?

Bell: I think there are too many people looking for magic bullets, and now computers are one of those magic bullets.

Computers can be used very creatively to support teaching and learning. We want our students to use technology effectively. Really what matters is how teachers use those tools and that they know how to apply technology in ways that are effective. We use smart-boards, and we have seen that used effectively. We [the Barnard Education Program] want our student teachers to know how to use them effectively. Smart boards are not in and of themselves necessarily creative. You cannot replace having a thoughtful and engaged person and team of people running a classroom with a computer, and we are not going to find a quick fix. Truthfully, a litmus test is if we are not clamoring for something in the best private schools, it should be suspect for public schools. In private schools that have resources, every kid has a laptop and knows how to use technology well. In private schools, they are not seeking to increase class size and replace teachers by using computers since that is not what parents with resources pay high tuition for.

Khan:  There are no quick fixes for closing achievement gaps – just as there are no quick fixes to poverty and inequality. Technology could help. But it's not going to do much to address things like the huge health disparities between rich and poor people, which negatively influence the development of poor children. And technology can certainly increase the achievement gap for the kinds of reasons I've been talking about. It's important to remember that school districts get a lot of funding from their residential tax bases. So let's take New Jersey: Avalon (one of the richest towns in the US) spent $35,882 per pupil in 2010 – and indeed other rich towns like Asbury Park, Highlands, West Cape May, and Englewood spent about three times more than other school districts. In the face of such differences – where wealthy homes can invest more in their children out of school and live in neighborhoods that spend two to three times as much educating their children in school – how much, really, is having a computer in the classroom going to do? Especially when wealthy schools already have them in their classrooms and their students have them at home as well.

CPR: What is the best method to evaluate teachers? Is there any objective measure by which to quantify teaching ability?

Bell: I don’t think high-stakes standardized testing is the best way to evaluate students and teachers. It creates different incentives and problems that detract from real learning. There are ways to evaluate student learning that are valuable, and there are ways to evaluate teacher performance that can help their supervisors help them become effective teachers. It is a process over time. Why is the teacher profession the one that is getting this focus? Wouldn’t we want medical doctors, for example, to be evaluated in the same way we are proposing for teachers? There are multiple measures to evaluate doctors: doing rounds with senior doctors who help them get better and guide them. There is not just one doctor per intern; this is a collaborative effort.

Teacher evaluation should be the same way – it should be a collective effort. You cannot reduce it down to the individual teacher. The teacher, the librarian, the social worker, various aids who come in, the teacher who taught the year before and the teacher who will come after. Good schools have a community of support to practice. The model used, in South Korea and Finland, is a model that came from the United States, and they are finding a way to make it work while we are not even trying to make it work. I work with Barnard and Columbia undergraduates who want to be teachers, and they are by definition good students, they know their subjects, and they are enthusiastic about learning, but they do not know how to teach when they first start out. They need a lot of guidance and support to be effective teachers, and we only help them get past the first hurdle. They need ongoing support. Others you have talked to might have mentioned that we lose so many teachers in the first three years, and I think that points to the lack of support in their development. Teaching is very hard; it’s not knowing just one thing, but it is knowing your subject, children and how they develop, how to access learning opportunities, how to work with other adults, and how to communicate with other students. They also have to understand cultural factors that can influence and support kids, and they have to know a lot about yourself and how your own upbringing can create either support or barriers, and they also have to manage a classroom and discipline problems. That is a lot to learn. And now you have to handle people in the press saying the worst thing about your procession and saying that the solution to schools is for teachers to promote 24/7 to the classroom.

This is not sustainable to the profession, and it is grossly unfair. Teachers need lots of support and opportunities for collaboration and for being observed and getting feedback for their performance – not about judging and helping them grow. For me, one of the things about teaching that makes it a career worth entering – it never gets boring, there is always so much to learn. In good circumstances, you grow for the rest of your life. I fear we are creating a system that takes that benefit of teaching as a career and trying to micromanage and control teaching in way that some people call dumbing down teaching or the term making education “teacher-proof.”   Teachers have to be good at creating a curriculum. So yes, I think the model that is being implemented in other countries is a good one since it is heavily supported by teacher development and treats them with respect.

Noguera: Basically, you have to look and want to look at student test scores, grades, etc. You have to look at what is happening in the classroom to measure teacher effectiveness. If you have over-populated the classroom with high-need students and another with no classroom disturbances, comparing the two is not an effective way to measure teacher effectiveness. You need to have a classroom observer that accounts for and understands teaching ability and content in teaching.

Ravitch: The best method to evaluate teachers is by experienced professionals who observe their practice and performance in the classroom, their interactions with students and colleagues, and the quality of student work produced in their classroom (such as essays, projects, and other demonstrations of student learning).Test scores are the least valuable way to evaluate teacher quality because test scores reflect demography and because they may be changed by rote drilling, by cheating, and by the composition of the class.

CPR: Is high-stakes testing a necessary tool, or do you think there is a better way to evaluate students from one another?

Bell: I think high-stakes testing is a failure in improving the educational system and it has led to the narrowing of curriculum. It is really a travesty. Kids who find their way to literacy and find excitement in learning through social studies, the arts, physical education, and other subjects that are pushed to the wayside do not get to have the same opportunity as more privileged kids. It is a travesty. Focus on standardized tests also teaches kids that learning is filling in the right answer in the bubble. Learning should be about gaining knowledge, to think about big questions. Further, if individual teacher evaluation is tied to student test scores, it becomes a real disincentive to teach kids who are struggling learners.

Noguera:  There should be testing – it is still a tool we should use. Through testing, you want to measure what students are exposed to. In addition, you want to use testing to give teachers feedback of what they need more of. In addition to using tests, we should be looking at other evidence of learning such as student work – can they write well, read at grade level, etc. We see students that pass tests but still cannot do college level work. We need more evidence to understand their skills and content knowledge.

Ravitch: High stakes testing promotes teaching to the test, cheating, narrowing the curriculum, and gaming the system. In order to spend more time preparing for standardized testing, many school districts have eliminated or reduced time for the arts, history, foreign languages, even physical education. Cheating scandals occurred in some districts (Atlanta and the District of Columbia). States (e.g. NY) have gamed the system by lowering the passing scores on their tests to give the illusion of progress. A nine-year study by a commission of the National Research Council concluded last May that test-based incentives had negative effects on learning.

CPR: What is No Child Left Behind (NCLB) lacking? What could be done to modify NCLB to better evaluate the effectiveness of schools?

Bell:  The positive intention of No Child Left Behind was that it was going to make accountable how we treat kids based on race and class. By collecting data on how kids from different groups were doing we would be able to separate out and look at what is happening, for example, to English-language learners and to ensure that they are getting the resources and attention they need to achieve. Paying attention to low-income communities is important and that is why many civil rights groups originally supported No Child Left Behind. Yet it metastasized into something completely different.  I don’t know if now it can or should be saved. I do think paying attention to the inputs and ensuring that kids get fair inputs into their educational programs is important so that they are not differentiated by zip code, class, language, or color. Looking at achievement patterns for different groups helps target where more intervention or resources may be needed and holds schools accountable for all kids.

Khan: The school reform movement, of which No Child Left Behind has been an integral part, has been a failure. Let's take charter schools – often at the heart of the "no excuses" attitude NCLB has been promoting. Stanford economist Margaret Raymond was funded by pro-charter-school foundations to explore how these schools did in comparison to public schools. What she found led the charter school people to start coming up with lots of excuses. That's because 17 percent of charter schools did better than their public school counterparts, but 46 percent were no different. And most important, 37 percent of charter school students do significantly worse than their public school counterparts. That's hardly a success – in fact, it's a pretty big failure. But while it might give liberals on the left who oppose charter schools some small joy to mock them, it misses the point and is counterproductive.

The story of American schooling is not that our schools are failing us. It's that we're failing each other. We live in economic enclaves (rich near rich, poor near poor). We fund our schools from within residential neighborhoods, reinforcing economic inequalities in our schools, and perpetuating them from generation to generation. And over the last 30 years, economic inequalities have been increasing, aggravating these problems. The problem with schools is part of a greater problem in American life, where all kinds of gaps are increasing: the wealth gap, the income gap, health gaps, the imprisonment gap. If schools exist in a world of increasing inequality and decreasing mobility, isn't it a little too much to expect that they'll somehow be exempt from these processes? Schools need to be part of the solution. But they're one small part. NCLB might have worked, but not in the face of other policies which worked to increase, not combat inequality.

Noguera:  It is lacking, yes. It calls for a monitoring of achievement to hold students and teachers accountable based on test scores. It does not give guidance to schools to address disparities. School needs help, and No Child Left Behind does not give clear guidance. It places more emphasis on assessment and not on instruction. We are giving testing to rank and monitor. What should teachers do? None of that is in the policy. We need a shift in policy on learning opportunities and clarity on what constitutes good teaching for all populations.

Ravitch: NCLB is the worst federal education legislation ever passed. It set a utopian goal that no nation has ever reached (100 percent proficiency). It has created a punitive atmosphere and perspective in education, in which schools are closed and teachers fired, rather than given support to improve. It has elevated standardized testing as the sole measure of learning, and of students, teachers, and schools. This advantages those who are already advantaged. Such tests narrow the meaning of education, reducing it to a bubble-guessing game. It punishes schools that enroll large numbers of students who are poor and have disabilities or don't speak English. Its sanctions have no basis in research or experience. Its twin, the Race to the Top, is NCLB 2.0, has unleashed an era of teacher-bashing, more teaching to the test, more school closings, privatization, and deprofessionalization. 

CPR: What do you think is and should be the role of teaches' unions in teacher evaluations?

Bell: The main role of unions is to protect due process in terms of teaching and to fight for decent wages and working conditions. I think the unions play a role along with other groups in helping to craft ways of supporting and evaluating teachers that are fair and effective, they don’t play the only role.  I would like to see more common sense applied to the questions that are being posed in education policy, and I want to see teachers involved more in the discussions on education reform. Educators, teachers, and parents are not involved in the discussion at the policy level where anyone with connections who thinks they have a solution gets to have their two cents. Right now, teachers are not part of the conversation. I don’t know how schools can change for the better when teachers and parents have been left out of the discussion. Schools in supportive communities are the ones that thrive.

Noguera: I might be naive here, but ideally it would be great if unions could be a part of [teacher evaluations]. Why should unions be trying to prevent teachers from being evaluated? It would seem that unions would have an interest in being involved in the process. Yet, they are protecting rights of teachers regardless of if they are effective in what they do. In some districts we are seeing that peer-evaluation is a very effective way in ensuring that teachers are getting feedback and it is constructive – not simply punitive, and that is important. If you have teachers involved in the process, then it is not simply punitive. That requires a positive partnership with senior administration and with the union, and that is what we’ve been striving to do.

Ravitch:  I don't think that unions per se should have any role in teacher evaluation other than to protect their members from the uninformed schemes of ignorant, headline-hungry politicians. Evaluations should be conducted by experienced, expert educators. As you may have deduced, I don't believe that teachers are the cause of achievement gaps. Poverty is. So long as we continue to rely so heavily on standardized tests, there will always be a bottom 50 percent, and it will consist overwhelmingly of those who have the greatest needs and the least access to opportunity.