Many people will not have heard the name Diane Ravitch before, despite the fact that she once held the lofty position of Assistant Secretary of Education for the United States. But anyone who is interested in the future of public education in America should become familiar with this renowned expert on the subject. In her audio book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education”, Ravitch uses her vast knowledge of the historical progression of the education system (which she has monitored over the course of her 40-year career in the field) to discuss the advances and failures that have brought our nation to a point where the educational system is practically unraveling before our eyes. And while some of what she has to say will come as no surprise to concerned parties (from parents and educators to policy-makers and politicians), the truth is that we should all be taking a long, hard look at the ways in which relatively recent educational reforms have negatively impacted the system.
Although the No Child Left Behind policy may have seemed like a good idea in theory, providing every child with a standardized education in which progress could easily be tracked through testing, the inception has been less than thrilling, to say the least. For one thing, not every child learns at the same rate or in the same way. Take special education students, for example. They are held to the same standards as other students in their grade, expected to master the same coursework and take the same tests, thanks to the current educational system. Now, this might not sound so bad, except that school funding is partially based on the successful education of students (as measured via testing). So schools that have a high number of developmentally disabled children could be penalized financially. And that’s only one problem with the current system of education in this country.
This is not to say that standardized testing has no merit or that it cannot be used as an overall gauge of what a vast student body is learning. But treating schools like corporations by expecting a quantifiable output has done nothing more than turn students into robots, capable of regurgitating information but not necessarily thinking for themselves. Although Ravitch doesn’t claim to have all the answers when it comes to education reform, she is not alone in speaking up for change. And she provides several useful suggestions for action to be taken, such as letting educators take the reins rather than politicians, placing the focus on curriculum rather than testing, and using charter schools in a supplemental capacity that supports public education instead of fighting it.
So here’s a problem solving test for the educational community. Since the tactics employed over the last several years haven’t had the intended effect of improving our nation’s schools, what can be done to stop the situation from spinning further out of control and return our once-great system to a place where every child is given the best education possible? Until we can answer that question, American public education will continue its march towards oblivion.