Ravitch: Duncan deserves an F

Since Arne Duncan supports evaluating educators, Diane Ravitch grades his performance as education secretary:  F.  He fails respecting the federal government’s limited role in education and following the law, which bans the department from establishing a national curriculum.  And there’s more.

Have the policies promulgated by Duncan been good for the children of the United States?

No. Most parents and teachers and even President Obama (and sometimes Duncan himself) agree that “teaching to the test” makes school boring and robs classrooms of time for the imaginative instruction and activities that enliven learning. The standardized tests that are now ubiquitous are inherently boring. As President Obama said in his State of the Union address, teachers should teach with “creativity and passion,” but they can’t do that when tests matter so much. Spending hours preparing to take pick-the-bubble tests depresses student interest and motivation. This is not good for children. Yet Duncan’s policies—which use test scores to evaluate teachers and to decide which schools to close and which teachers to pay bonuses to—intensively promote teaching to the test. This is not good for students. Grade: F.

Do Duncan’s policies encourage teachers and inspire good teaching?

No. Duncan’s policies demean the teaching profession by treating student test scores as a proxy for teacher quality. A test that a student takes on one day of the year cannot possibly measure the quality of a teacher. (Officially, the administration suggests that test scores are supposed to be only one of multiple measures of teacher quality, but invariably the scores outweigh every other component of any evaluation program, as they did in New York City’s recent release of the teacher ratings.) Nor do most teachers want to compete with one another for merit pay.

Ravitch ends by flunking just about everyone. “It is hard to find any leader of either party who stands forthrightly today as a champion of students, teachers, public schools, and good education.”

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  1. bill eccleston says:

    I think the overwhelming majority of our nations teachers, both AFT and NEA members, heartily agree with Ms Ravitch.

    Why then are the leaderships of the two teachers unions defying their membership and sucking up to Obama and Duncan?

    If there comes a centrist party in this country—today what would be the equivalent of the GOP in the fifties, both modern parties having drifted so far to the right—teachers would desert the Democratic party wholesale. Obama, by sticking by Duncan, is betraying us.

  2. SuperSub says:

    Teachers, at least monetarily, will continue to support the Democrats as long as closed shop states remain legal.

  3. I thought this sentence was particularly interesting:

    “A test that a student takes on one day of the year cannot possibly measure the quality of a teacher. ”

    To which my question is, what does measure teacher quality? Or, in Ravitch’s opinion, what ought to be the measure of teacher quality?

    From some of the usual suspects around these parts I can divine an answer that’d probably run along the lines of “you stupid neo-cons, who hate poor children and want them to remain ignorant so all they can do is pick cotton on your plantation, don’t want teachers, who care deeply about each and every one of the little monsters, to get a living wage” but even Ravitch seems to have come to the conclusion that possessing a teaching certificate is no longer bulletproof evidence of competence.

    So, what *is* evidence of competence? What ought to be the measure of skill?

    • Carl Wegner says:

      So, what *is* evidence of competence? What ought to be the measure of skill?

      While not politically feasible….measurement of a teachers skill could ultimately be left between the parent, student and teacher.

      A learning portfolio could also be evidence of student improvement and learning.

      The test is a fallacy as it fails to take into account the baseline of where students begin…an effective teacher may very well help a learner progress significantly and still fall far short of the established testing thresholds….is the teacher a failure?

      It seems to me, any true and useful assessment of student learning and teaching skill will most likely not conform to some statistical reporting to stakeholders that fits nicely in a newspaper column…the process of teaching and learning is entirely to complex for neat reporting which is what is being demanded.

      • Chartermom says:

        Would you agree then that if tests could follow students then they could be included in the overall measurement of teacher performance? Sure there would be some holes with kids who moved into a state or into the public school system from home or private schooling) in a given year but in most cases those would be small numbers compared to the whole (and perhaps measurement of their progress could be tracked based on a baseline assessment given at enrollement).

        I also agree that a more fully-rounded assessment is needed where tests are just one piece of the puzzle.

        • Carl Wegner says:


          It seems to me that your idea has merits in that it could help to show where a student is starting from and therefore perhaps demonstrate their progression towards the standard under the tutelage of a particular teacher.

          From my perpective your idea is an admirable effort to mitigate the worst effects of an untenable testing regime, completely disconnected from reality, and foisted upon public sector workers for purely political and economic reasons. Some of which are obvious and some of which require following the money trail.

          Even if this regime were noble in purpose, it is based on two false assumptions. First that all students are equal and capable of achieving the same results. And secondly, that the teacher or school can be isolated from all other environmental atmospherics and shown to be the proximate cause of a students achievement or non achievement. .

          No oher profession or sphere of economic activity is judged under such conditions. Can you imagine a financial advisor being judged a failure if all her clients did not achieve the same returns regardless of where they started from, or a minister being held accountable if his congregation did not all exhibit the same level of saintliness, or a baseball hitting coach being fired if his whole lineup did not hit 275?

          I know its politically unrealistic, but one of the reasons we have local control of school districts is so that local people can judge the effectiveness of their teachers and schools locally. And the best way to do that is through personal contact with the student and stakeholders using a form of learning portfolio that shows what skills, knowledge, and attributes a student has when measured against rubrics of desired outcomes. Having that portfolio follow a student can show how effective each teacher is with that student over a period of time.

          Ok completely unrealistic, calls for changing the whole system, I know…so if we have to work in this system, knowing it is unrealistic, I totally agree with you that having a students tests follow them can be a useful tool in measuring progress and therefore I suppose a teachers effectiveness. But if that student starts taking drugs, or working, or develops love interests, or has some cataclysmic home life events going on…I’m not convinced the test scores are a legitimate or fair way of assessing teaching performance or skill…

          Thanks for reading, Regards to all…

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      There is no general “teaching competence.” Someone who is good at teaching physics to motivated, prepared eleventh graders may be terrible at teaching reading to second graders from non-academic homes–and vice versa.

      • Michael E. Lopez says:

        Someone get this man a microphone.


        • Peace Corps says:

          Roger is always saying things that I think. But, he says them much better than I can.

      • Even if there is no general teaching competence, and the simple assertion’s hardly compelling, that doesn’t preclude differentiating between someone who’s good at teaching physics to motivated, prepared eleventh graders and someone who’s lousy at at teaching physics to motivated, prepared eleventh graders. Or someone who’s good at teaching physics to unmotivated, unprepared eleventh graders. There’s value in developing the means of telling the one from the other. An apples-to-oranges comparison is inherently suspect. That doesn’t mean an apples-to-apples comparison is suspect as well.

        • Roger Sweeny says:

          Agreed. However, it won’t be easy. For one thing, some independent entity would have to develop some independent assessment of student learning. Grading teachers on how well students do on the teacher’s own tests is a strong incentive to give easy tests.

          It may also turn out that it is simply impossible to teach physics to unmotivated, unprepared eleventh graders. They may be able to memorize enough facts and techniques to do adequately on term tests but then forget 99% of the course by the following September, because they didn’t really understand and didn’t really care.

          That may be a bigger problem than eleventh grade physics, or unmotivated, unprepared students for that matter.

          • Your assumption is of the current system in which testing is irrelevant to the organization.

            Testing has been done for decades. All the various college placement tests have been in use for quite a long time so testing certainly isn’t novel. What is novel is the K-12 establishment taking any notice of the results of testing.

            The purpose of college placement tests was entry to college. Obviously, the quality of the schools, and by extension the quality of the teachers, was a factor in the scores. But, other then at districts dominated by high-income parents the results of those tests were of no interest to the school district and by extension the schools or teachers.

            That disinterest in aggregating and filtering SAT data to determine which schools and which teachers are any good is, largely, a function of the structure of public education. If the structure changes so does the reaction to testing.

            The proper changes to public education make testing a crucial element in the success of schools and thus important to the operators and employees of schools. While development of tests capable of pinpointing lousy teachers, and lousy principals, isn’t in evidence yet the history of testing certainly doesn’t suggest it’ll be impossible to develop such tests.

            Also keep in mind that the technology for administering tests, gathering, collating and distributing the resulting data is vastly improved. Information technology not only provides a means of quickly and cheaply administering tests, it also provides a means of improving the tests themselves.

  4. “It is hard to find any leader of either party who stands forthrightly today as a champion of students, teachers, public schools, and good education.”

    Why should only public schools be championed? I’ve said it too many times to count: Universal public education is sacred, public schools are not.

    • Carl Wegner says:

      I think maybe that’s the point. It seems there are plenty of politicians who stand forthrightly as a champion of privatizing public education. Lots of money to be made and saved by doing that….but who will speak out for the tax supported public school?

      For profit private schools funded by tax dollars even better yet….

      Remains to be seen what happens to students, teachers, and what good education looks like when there is a bottom line to watch….

      There are plenty of champions pushing to find out…and only the apoligists trying to save the public school….

      At least that’s my take on that statement…


  5. Christina Lordeman says:

    Am I the only one who thinks Dr. Ravitch might also be deserving of an F?

  6. bill eccleston says:

    Among teachers, Christiana, yes. You would be pretty much alone. With the just released MetLife survey of teacher morale. It has taken an unprecedented nosedive since Mr. Duncan has been in office. Much of the malaise, as the survey testifies, is the result of economic factors. The impact of the Duncan “Race for the Top” reform, or any wider reform impact was not queried, but acquaintance with thousands of teacher interviews and school-centered stories on reform across the spectrum of recent journalism convincingly adds that perspective of how reform efforts have added to the psychological burdens of teaching. That leads to this question for you snarky critics who continue to pound away at the Duncan meme, “The Teachers are the Problem”: How on earth do you expect our school system
    to get better when the classroom teaching staff of that system is so demoralized?

    And Ravitch, she is an historian. Read her book, “Left Back”, a history of educational reform since the 1890’s, and you’ll understand a lot better two critical things: where school reform has been and where the writer herself is coming from. And yes, of course, read the other histories available. No one, absolutely no one on earth understands Santayana’s quip about those ignorant of history being doomed to repeat it better than the American public school teacher of today.

    Sorry for being snarky myself, but I’m being honest. We teachers are mad as hell.

  7. I have little respect for Ravitch, her main focus is supporting the NEA , defeating charters and any other form of school choice.

  8. Sec. of Education Arne Duncan will have his job until at least 2016. So will President Obama. How do I know this? Because you can rig a Diebold voting machine for about $30!


    Imagine the havoc they will have wrought by then… All for-profit colleges and charter/private K-12 schools will be out of business by then. Food Inc. and Big Pharma will use our nations’ K-12 students for profit (“all drugs not banned are mandatory”), and when there are only 1/2 as many colleges in 2016 as there are now, those that can’t get into those elite Universities will have to go check into ‘Sancutary Districts’ to do whatever work the federal government gives them to do. Won’t it be fun?


  9. Ponderosa says:

    Duncan is living proof of E.D. Hirsch’s philosophy that content-knowledge –not just generic “smarts” (which Duncan doesn’t seem to possess anyway) –is critical for the best kind of thinking to occur. The content-knowledge that Duncan lacks is the knowledge of the history of education and the day-to-day realities of work in a public school –exactly the kind of knowledge that Diane Ravitch possesses. That’s why teachers respect her and disrespect Duncan.

  10. bill eccleston says:

    Read “Left Back” LK. None of us can get out of this situation without an understanding of its history. You don’t have endorse Ravitch’s skewering of Duncan, but you do need the background information she provides in her role as an historian.
    Otherwise you become just a bomb-thrower.

    And, where’s your support for your charge that she’s an NEA cheerleader? If you knew Ravitch’s body of work, you’d understand that the NEA is as far from her ideal of a responsible union as possible. She is much more positive toward the educational approaches advocated by the AFT. You’d know that if you read her work and had an understanding of the differences between the two unions.

    But… We must throw bombs, mustn’t we?