Achievement gaps start before school starts

Diane Ravitch / The Saturday Evening Post /

If you read news magazines or watch TV, you might think that American education is in a crisis of historic proportions. The media claim that our future is in peril because our students have low test scores caused by incompetent, lazy teachers.

Don’t believe it. It’s not true.

Yes, our students’ scores on international tests are only average, but our students have never been at the top on those tests; when the first such test was given in 1964, we ranked 12th out of 12. And, yet, the United States continued to prosper.

So maybe standardized tests are not good predictors of future economic success or decline. Perhaps our country has succeeded not because of test scores but because we encouraged something more important than test scores —the freedom to create, innovate, and imagine. Unfortunately, recent educational reforms throw aside that philosophy in favor of an even greater emphasis on test scores.

In 2001 Congress passed No Child Left Behind, which imposed a massive program of school reform based on standardized testing. The theory behind the plan was that teachers and schools would try harder — and see rapid test score gains — if their test results were made public. Instead of sending the vast sums of money that schools needed to make a dent in this goal, Congress simply sent testing mandates that required every child in every school to reach proficiency by 2014 — or the schools would be subject to sanctions. If a school failed to make progress over five years, it might be closed, privatized, handed over to the state authorities, or turned into a charter school.

The Obama administration launched its own school reform plan in 2009 called Race to the Top. The program dangled nearly $5 billion in front of cash-hungry states, which could become eligible only if they agreed to open more privately managed charter schools, to evaluate their teachers by student test scores, to offer bonuses to teachers if their students got higher test scores, and to fire the staff and close schools that didn’t make progress.

None of these policies has any consistent body of evidence behind it. The fundamental belief that carrots and sticks will improve education is a leap of faith, an ideology to which its adherents cling despite evidence to the contrary.

Two major reports released in spring 2011 showed what a risky and foolish path the United States has embarked upon.

The National Research Council gathered some of the nation’s leading education experts who concluded that incentives based on tests hadn’t worked. In other words, the immense investment in testing over recent decades was based on intuition, not on evidence — and faulty intuition, at that. The second report, by the National Center on Education and the Economy, maintained that the approach we are now following — testing every child every year and grading teachers by their students’ scores — is not found in any of the world’s top-performing nations.

Piece by piece, our entire public education system is being redesigned in the service of increasing scores on standardized tests at the expense of the creativity, innovation, and imagination that helped this country succeed.

We are now at a fork in the road. If we continue on our present path of privatization and unproven reforms, we will witness the explosive growth of a for-profit education industry and of education entrepreneurs receiving high salaries to manage nonprofit enterprises. The free market loves competition, but competition produces winners and losers, not equality of educational opportunity. We will turn teachers into “at will” employees who can be fired at the whim of a principal based on little more than test scores. Their pay and benefits will also depend on the scores. Who will want to teach? Most new teachers already leave the job within five years.

What the federal efforts of the past decade ignore is that the most consistent predictor of test scores is family income. Children who are homeless or living in squalid quarters are more likely to miss school and less likely to have home support for their schoolwork. Children who grow up in economically secure homes are more likely to arrive in school ready to learn than those who lack the basic necessities of life.

If we are serious about closing the achievement gap, we should make sure that every pregnant woman has good prenatal care and nutrition and that every child has high-quality early education. The achievement gap begins before the first day of school. If we mean to provide equality of educational opportunity, we must level the playing field before the start of formal schooling. Otherwise, we’ll just be playing an eternal game of catch-up — and that’s a game we cannot win.