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Are Teachers Too Easily Caught in Crossfire Over Student Achievement?

June 5, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Part of the American Graduate project addressing the country's high school dropout crisis, Ray Suarez and former Deputy Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch discuss education reform and her approach to teacher accountability.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And next, the second part of our series about teachers, testing, and accountability in public schools.

Last night, we interviewed Melinda Gates, co-founder of the Gates Foundation, who’s been an outspoken advocate for testing and tougher standards.

Tonight, we get a different view on how teachers are and should be evaluated.

Ray Suarez has our story.

CELESTE ADAMS, teacher, Riverview Gardens High School: Classical or traditional education is dead. It’s failing our students.

RAY SUAREZ: Across America, teachers are talking, taking a rare opportunity to discuss their work lives, their joys and frustrations, and trade ideas on how to raise graduation rates and reduce the number of dropouts.

They’re venting and sharing practical tips about what works in their classrooms at a series of teacher town halls hosted by a dozen local PBS stations. It’s part of the American Graduate initiative, sponsored by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, both funders of this program.

MAN: In this country today, what we’re focusing on instead is, can you answer a multiple-choice test, instead of, how do we make you love education? How do we get you to feel that this is something that is meaningful to you? And, if we don’t do that, the rest of this is a waste of time.

RAY SUAREZ: Some topics have cropped up in nearly every city: the increased emphasis on testing, the importance of learning to read at an early age, and teacher evaluations.

Throughout the continuing debate on how to hold teachers accountable for student achievement, some of the most vocal opposition has come from what you might call a former reformer. Diane Ravitch served as a deputy secretary of education during the George H.W. Bush administration. But in recent years, she’s sharply criticized the federal law known as No Child Left Behind, a law signed by President George W. Bush.

She’s also been critical of the Obama administration’s approach and of major changes in school districts in New York City and Washington, D.C., where chancellors have insisted on tougher accountability measures for teachers.

Ravitch is an author and education historian. Tonight, we get her view of the ongoing debate.

Dr. Ravitch, welcome back to the program.

In the recent debates on fixing American schools, a lot of emphasis has been placed on teachers, how to train them, how to pay them, even when and how to fire them. Is putting teachers at the center of reform at least a step in the right direction?

DIANE RAVITCH, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education: Well, certainly, teachers are crucial to schools.

They’re crucial to everything that happens in schools. But there’s been way too negative a discussion. There has been so much demonizing of teachers, as though they’re a great problem. And the overwhelmingly majority of teachers in this country are very hardworking, very dedicated and, for the most part, underpaid.

RAY SUAREZ: Is there a place where an evaluation system that figures out what teachers do well, identifies areas where they need improvement, and then goes on to pay top performers accordingly?

DIANE RAVITCH: Well, there’s two parts to your question.

First of all, should teachers be evaluated? Yes. Should they be evaluated by the test scores of their students, as Race to the Top, the Obama program, requires? Absolutely not. That is an unproven and actually a very harmful way to evaluate teachers.

Should teachers be paid more if the test scores go up? No, they should not be, because that puts too much emphasis on very poor tests. It causes teachers to teach to the test, which everybody agrees is a terrible thing to do. It also leads to narrowing of the curriculum, so that schools will drop the arts. They will drop history. They will drop civics, foreign languages. And they will focus only on what’s tested.

So, it actually is very educationally harmful to pay teachers to get higher test scores in reading and math or in any subject, because it’s just not a good method. And, by the way, I might add that this whole idea of merit pay has been tried again and again since the 1920s. It has never, ever produced results.

RAY SUAREZ: But how do you achieve some form of accountability? If you can’t look at a classroom of 23, 28, 30 kids and say, these kids know how to read when they couldn’t, know how to compute when they couldn’t, we can actually see whether this teacher is doing an effective job?

DIANE RAVITCH: Well, that’s absolutely crucial. That’s the job, first of all, of the principal of the school, the department chair.

And also in systems that are doing this, it’s a job of peer review. The way you measure teacher performance is to observe teachers performing. And then you also look at the work that their students do. You look at where they were when they came in, whether they’re learning or not.

And you don’t make that judgment just based on test scores, because these standardized tests are way too narrow and really not a very useful instrument for that.

RAY SUAREZ: You made the point they’re being asked to take the lion’s share of the blame. But there, in fact, ineffective teachers, and are they — can they be fired in places where collective bargaining agreements have historically made it difficult to do it?

DIANE RAVITCH: Well, are there ineffective teachers? I’m sure there must be. I’ve heard stories of ineffective teachers. And I certainly don’t think there should be even one ineffective teacher in any school.

And it’s the job of the administration, the job of the principal primarily, to make sure that no ineffective teacher ever gets tenure. Once they get tenure, all that means is — it doesn’t mean they have a lifetime job. It doesn’t mean they get paid for breathing. It means that they have a right to due process. If, after getting tenure, the principal says, I want to fire you, they have to have evidence. They have to have a hearing before an impartial administrator.

That really is not such a burdensome thing. But it’s very clear that this is not the key problem in American education, because the lowest performance is not in union districts. The highest performance in America is Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey. These are three states that are all union states.

They have very strong collective bargaining agreements and the highest-performing states. The weakest performance is in the states that have no collective bargaining and where there’s a lot of poverty. I think it’s really important in your discussions about education that you recognize that the most — the biggest single correlate and, very likely, I would say the cause of low performance is not teachers or union contracts. It’s poverty and racial isolation.

In every district where there is very low academic achievement, there is poverty and racial isolation. And yet we are now trapped in this national conversation where there’s almost an agreement we will not talk about poverty. We will not talk about racial isolation. We will just talk about teachers. We are talking about the wrong problem.

RAY SUAREZ: You got a lot of attention when you wrote an article reassessing some of the educational policies you had supported before, like No Child Left Behind’s emphasis on testing, using competition, using charters. What changed your mind?

DIANE RAVITCH: Well, it wasn’t just an article. It was a book.

I wrote a book called “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” explaining why I turned against testing, accountability, competition, choice, the accumulation of evidence saying that these are not only just ineffective policies; they’re actually harmful to education. They undermine education.

The accumulation of evidence was such that I found I could no longer support No Child Left Behind or any of these programs that say that teachers should compete with one another, because they don’t. Teachers want to work together. They know that they’re on the same team. They want to collaborate. The essence of every good school is collaboration and teamwork, not competition.

RAY SUAREZ: Another big change in the years you have been talking about has seen foundations become big players in proposing and advocating new educational policies, including privatization, parental control, increased use of charter schools.

Have the foundations been a worthwhile addition to the debate over the future of education?

DIANE RAVITCH: Well, I have a chapter in my book about — I call them the billionaire boys club. The billionaires boys club is led by the three biggest foundations in America, the Gates Foundation, the Walton Foundation, the Broad Foundation.

These are the three billionaire foundations that give a lot of money to American education. And it has been given to push the privatization movement forward, as well as to put a very heavy emphasis on testing and test scores as part of teacher evaluation. I think that — you know, I’m a historian. So, I look back and I say, there has never been a time in our national life where foundations, which are accountable to no one, make decisions about what our education policy should be.

Sometimes, they make the wrong bet. And the Gates Foundation is a very good example of this. They put $2 billion into breaking up large high schools into small high schools. And after doing that for almost a decade, they said, whoops, that didn’t work. We’re not going to do that anymore. Now we’re going to put the focus on teacher evaluation.

And so the immense amount of money, the hundreds of millions of dollars that the Gates Foundation and now these other big foundations are pouring in, they are directing the national conversation. And I think that’s not — it strikes me that that’s in some ways not democratic.

Our conversations about what to do about our schools should be held at the local level and at the state level. The federal government is there to level the playing field. They’re not there to steer the boat.

RAY SUAREZ: Diane Ravitch, great to talk with you. Thanks for joining us.

DIANE RAVITCH: Thank you so much, Ray.

GWEN IFILL: In our next report, we hear from teachers speaking out at a panel in New York that Ray moderated.

Online, you can find all of our reports and a link to the American Graduate website on our home page. American Graduate is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.