Diane Ravitch: SB 6 is 'profoundly disrespectful toward the education profession'
Influential education historian Diane Ravitch does not like SB 6, as she makes clear in the following letter to members of the Florida Legislature. Her position is significant, given that for decades she has been identified as a "conservative" on education because she strongly supported things like charter schools and has strong ties to right-leaning think tanks like the Hoover Institution and Fordham Foundation.
(Of course, it's kind of goofy to tag many of the changes at the heart of SB 6 "conservative," isn't it? That's not to say the specifics in SB 6 are good or bad, but liberal groups like the Center for American Progress and the Brookings Institute are pushing tenure reform and performance pay, and it's President Obama who has said most forcefully that we should stop making excuses for bad teachers. So they're all part of the right-wing-nut conspiracy?)
One other note: In her letter, Ravitch slams gains on state standardized tests as being an illusion because scores on national tests have not risen: "The reason for the discrepancy is that students are learning test-taking skills, but they are unable to understand complex materials or to demonstrate their progress on a test that is not the state test." But Florida students are making big gains on the national test she's referring to.
Read on for the full letter. (Image from newtalk.org)
To: The Honorable Members of the Florida Legislature
From: Diane Ravitch
I wish that I could be in Tallahassee to address you personally but prior commitments make it impossible to do so.
I am a historian of American education at New York University. I served as Assistant Secretary of Research and Improvement in the administration of President George H.W. Bush. I was a founding member of the Koret Task Force of the Hoover Institution. I was also a founding trustee of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. I have been studying and writing about American education for 40 years.
I write to oppose SB 6/HB 7189.
I understand that this bill would prohibit districts from paying teachers in relation to their experience and education, but would base teachers' salaries mainly on student gains on standardized tests. I further understand that it is the law's intent to develop new tests for every subject area, paid for by reducing operating expenses by 5 percent in the schools.
I strongly believe that this bill will have very negative consequences for the children of the state of Florida. I believe that it will dumb down their education. I believe that it will cause many of your best teachers to leave the profession or the state because this legislation is so profoundly disrespectful toward the education profession.
I urge you not to pass this bill.
My new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, demonstrates that pay-for-scores schemes don't work. The main reason they don't work is that the measures were not intended for that purpose. Standardized tests are intended to evaluate whether students have learned what they were taught. They are not designed to assess teacher effectiveness or teacher quality. The more that teachers focus on these measures, the more they rob children of time for instruction and for the activities that engage children in their education and promote comprehension.
Teachers are not solely the cause of student progress. If students fail to make progress in their studies, there are many reasons for their failure. The causes of academic success or failure include the students' own effort; the students' regular attendance or lack thereof; the family's support or lack thereof; the family's poverty and its effects on the student's health and well-being; the school's resources; the district's oversight or lack thereof; and the quality of the test itself, which may be subject to random variation. It makes no sense to hold the teacher alone accountable when student performance is affected by so many different influences.
Should the teacher get a bad evaluation if students have a poor attendance record? Should the teacher be harshly judged if her students don't speak English or move frequently from school to school? Should the teacher get an F if the student has poor eyesight or suffers from other undiagnosed health problems? Should the teacher be considered a failure if the student's family offers no support for his learning?
Since the 1920s, American schools have experimented with merit pay plans. None has ever demonstrated success. Teachers will bend their efforts to raise test scores, but achievement nonetheless lags. The reason for this is that teaching-to-the-test does not yield good education. The students may learn test-taking skills, but they don't learn how to generalize what they have learned to new situations. Thus, even when state reading scores go up, in response to intensive coaching, national test scores remain flat. As the national tests become more demanding—in 8th grade—the scores don't rise at all.
Our nation has now had eight consecutive years of rising reading scores at the state level, yet the national scores for 8th grade students have not budged from 1998-2009. The reason for the discrepancy is that students are learning test-taking skills, but they are unable to understand complex materials or to demonstrate their progress on a test that is not the state test.
Test scores do not identify the most effective teachers. A teacher who produces big score gains one year may produce none the next year, depending on which students happen to be in his or her class.
The legislation now under consideration will not improve education in Florida. It will harm kids and their teachers.
I urge you to stop and reflect. The research on teacher effectiveness does not support the policies of SB 6/HB 7189. Please defeat this legislation.