Diane Ravitch: The importance of evidence-based data in education reform

diane-ravitch-acceptance.480.319.sThank you so much, Dan, and thank you to the members of the Academy.  I want to thank my family, who is here, and also the Moynihan family – wonderful to see you again.  I do want to say at the outset that I have divided my prize money amongst three organizations that I care a lot about.  One is called the Save Our Schools March, it is being organized by national board-certified teachers.  They will be marching on Washington on July 30th, I will be speaking to them—they are getting half my prize.  The other two organizations, and their representative is here tonight, is a group called Parents Across America, and those are parents who are very unhappy with the direction of things that I am unhappy with, and Leonie Haimson is here to represent Parents Across America and also the third group, which is called Class Size Matters – Class Size Matters being the most outspoken and rigorous and dedicated group of parents in the city, constantly arguing that class size does matter, the budgets should not be cut, teachers should not be laid off, that there are other kinds of economies that can be made rather than laying off six thousand teachers.  So, that is where my money is going.

I want to tell a story about Dan Rose, and he is a little bit afraid of this because I saw Dan Monday night at a dinner at the New York Public Library and I said, “I have a story that ties us all together, you, me, and Pat Moynihan, and my ex-husband Dick Ravitch,” who is here.  And the story goes like this:  I was one of those families that Andrew Cherlin described from the 1950s, although we were married in 1960, I was a good wife and my husband said to me one day, “Pat Moynihan and I are going to go fishing.  We’re going to go to Montauk and you’re driving us there at five o’clock in the morning and Pat is staying with Dan and Joanna Rose, who have a house on Lily Pond Lane in East Hampton, so you get in the car and you drive us.”  So, of course, that is what I did and we get to their house; Pat is supposed to be standing outside waiting for us and there is no Pat.  So my husband says to me, “Get out and find him” – isn’t that what a husband says to a wife in 1960-whatever it was?  So I go into the Rose household, where everyone is asleep, and I am terrified, I am walking up and down the corridors, everyone is asleep, and I am thinking, “Oh my God, what if they wake up and kill me?  I’m an intruder in their household.”  Well, I finally found Senator Moynihan and got him outside and got them to their fishing event, but I must say it has been many years, probably since 1982 or so, and all these years I have harbored this terrible feeling of creeping around your house and you never knew it.

Another thought that came to me as I listened to the discussion of Russell Sage – and I discussed with Maura Moynihan whether I should even mention this – was in my research for my first book, which was a history of the New York City public schools, I came across the story of Russell Sage.  Turns out he was one of the worst curmudgeons in the history of New York City.  He was a really mean man and because he was so rich people were always asking him for money and he was always turning them down.  And the story that stuck with me was that one day he got a letter from a little girl and she said, “Dear Mr. Sage, I lost my eye and could you send me four dollars to get a glass eye?”  And he turned to his wife and he says, “What does she take me for, a sucker?”  That is Russell Sage.  So when he died his wife created the Russell Sage Foundation to do good works to make up for what an awful man he was.

Well, I am so honored to be here and to receive the Moynihan Award.  I told Liz earlier when I saw her that while I had met Pat on a number of occasions I never had what we would consider a fruitful conversation among equals because I never considered myself his equal.  I was, frankly, in awe of his intellect and his brilliance, certainly his courage, but I just thought, “I can’t talk to him because he has such a massive brain,” and now I think, “I think I’m ready,” and he is not here so that makes me sad because there are so many things I would like to talk to him about.  I would like to talk to him about the loss of public space.  I would like to talk to him about what it means when so many things are being privatized, when hospitals are privatized and jails are privatized and libraries are being privatized.  And now there is a big move on to privatize our public schools.  I think we could have a very fruitful conversation and then we could talk about data.  I know that Pat cared a lot about data, but Pat understood that data is not evidence and that data can easily be falsified.  And if you read the New York Times yesterday you saw my report on how easily it is falsified to make ridiculous claims about miracle schools, because there are no evidence of miracle schools.  Education is hard work.  It takes place one day at a time, children’s lives never are turned around overnight.  I think we could have had a great conversation because we know from Wall Street that data is far more easy to manipulate than people.  Pat Moynihan would have insisted not just on data but on evidence.

So what I have been doing this past year – my book came out in March of 2010, the latest book – and I have been talking a lot about it.  I have gone around the country and I have spoke this past, I don’t know fourteen months or so, over a hundred times to – I did a count one time – over a hundred thousand people, most of them teachers.  And Jonathan Chait in The New Republic accused me of speaking to teacher-dominated audiences, and I thought, “What does that mean – teacher-dominated audiences?”  And the only thing I could think of was “communist-dominated,” you know, it was a term of derision but what is bad about talking to teachers about education?  Why not?  So the things that I have been talking about, not just to teachers but also to parents, school board members, to people who care about education, administrators and others, one is the advance of privatization, the advance into education of the for-profit motive and in some cases nonprofits, which pay outrageous executive compensation.  I have been talking about de-professionalization, that whereas the top performing nations in the world are trying to strengthen the education profession, we have legislatures now that are destroying the education profession, lowering the entry standards for becoming teachers, obliterating the standards for being principal or superintendent.  We recently just had an ill-fated adventure with a superintendent in this city who lasted ninety-seven days and had no qualifications and should never gotten a waiver from the state Education Department, but did.  And thirdly, the thing that I think people are deeply concerned about is the reign of high-stakes testing, this idea that if you just test, that testing and testing and testing, that will make everybody do better if you just keep testing them and then testing becomes a replacement for instruction.  It becomes a replacement for curriculum and so the more we test and the more we focus on basic skills, the worse education becomes.  Even if the test scores go up, it does not mean anything.  In New York City the test scores went up and then they all collapsed.  Seventy-five percent of our kids who graduate high school and go to a community college have to have remedial reading or writing or mathematics.  The graduation rate does not mean anything under those circumstances.  But high-stakes testing has become a replacement for good education and this city, having made a fetish of testing now for nine years, is now investing another sixty-seven million dollars to develop more tests because we have only been testing reading and math so now they are going to test social studies and science and maybe like other states they will develop tests for the arts and multiple-choice standardized tests for everything.  It is insane.

So there is also this belief that carrots and sticks are the way to reform education.  If you just offer enough rewards, teachers will work harder.  Or if you offer enough punishments they will be so frightened that they will work harder.  And then comes this crazy idea that I think Pat Moynihan would have said is a crazy idea, that poverty does not matter.  I mean, one of the great things about Pat Moynihan was that he had a wholistic vision; he understood that families matter very much and that the social circumstances in which children live, the society in which they live, shapes their behavior, shapes their attitudes, shapes their aspirations.  It is not determinative but it sure matters and we have leaders today at the highest levels and in the states who say poverty does not matter, it is just an excuse.  And at the same time poverty amongst children is an international outrage, a scandal.  Almost twenty-five percent of children in this country are living in poverty and yet we dare to compare ourselves to a country like Sweden where it is less than three percent.  We lead the world, except for underdeveloped countries, we lead the world in child poverty.  Nothing to be proud of.

So now we have, across the country as more and more of these Tea Party governors are elected, attacks on teachers, attacks on their collective bargaining rights, attacks on their job protections.  Some states have adopted laws recently that say if your test scores do not go up in a year, you lose your tenure, if they do not go up for two years, you are fired.  If you are teaching kids with profound disabilities, you are in deep trouble.  If you are teaching kids who are highly gifted, you are in deep trouble because your scores are not going to go up; if they were already close to a 4.0 it is really hard to get them up any higher than perfect. So what we have right now in education is an abandonment of social policy.  Pat would have been outraged.  We have this crazy idea that schools can solve all of our problems, create equality.  Of course schools are terribly important, he knew that, I know that, and you know that.  But they do not take the place of social policy.  Schools are embedded in society and we are in a period of people trying to deny it and instead we have leaders and people like Bill Gates and Arne Duncan saying we should not pay teachers to have master’s degrees, we should not pay them to have more experience, and we should maybe give them more money if they just take a few more kids and have larger classes.  And I ask, does this make any sense?  How can we improve education if we have teachers who have less education, less experience, and larger classes?  This is not what the top-performing nations in the world do.

So we are in this era now where ideology reigns in education and evidence does not matter.  What I have tried to do as I talk to educators and concerned parents and citizens is to talk about evidence, not just data but evidence.  So I look at the evidence, for instance, on vouchers and vouchers now are back again, I thought it was a dead letter issue, but it is not.  Indiana just passed a sweeping voucher plan.  Governor Walker in Wisconsin wants the income limits raised in Milwaukee so that everybody can get vouchers.  Milwaukee has had vouchers now for twenty-one years and presumably the beneficiaries of vouchers were going to be the African-American children of Milwaukee, but the latest scores that came out from Milwaukee showed that Milwaukee Public School students have test scores on the national test, where there are no stakes attached, their scores are below those of African-American children in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama, after twenty-one years of vouchers, and the kids in the voucher schools are doing no better than the kids in the public schools.  So we have had an evidence proof that this is not a successful school reform, and yet we have Pennsylvania on the verge of adopting vouchers, indiana with Michelle Reeves’ enthusiastic support passing vouchers.  The charter idea is one that holds promise but the range and quality of charters is vast.  Some of them do a great job, some of them are absolutely horrible; on average they do not do any  better by all the measures we have than regular public schools, and for some of the charter leaders and supporters it has become the leading edge of the privatization of public education, not for all but certainly for the big charter chains.  Merit pay does not work.  It has never worked.  It is what I call the idea that never dies and never works.  It has been tried again and again.  There was just a massive social science experiment in Nashville, Vanderbilt University.  One group of teachers was offered a bonus of fifteen thousand dollars if they could get the scores up; the other group was offered nothing.  At the end of three years there was no difference between their scores.  Both groups worked as hard as they could.  Most teachers work as hard as they can.  Teachers do not like merit pay, they do not want merit pay.  I mean, if I am speaking before five hundred teachers, if I denounce merit pay they all cheer.  The do not want merit pay, not because they do not want more money but because they do not want to be pitted against one another.  They know that a successful school requires teamwork, collaboration, and sharing of secrets – not hoarding of secrets to get an advantage over the person in the next room.

So now the current obsession is evaluate teachers by test scores.  It is a terrible idea.  There is just, again, a mountain of evidence that says it does not work, these measures are inaccurate, they are unstable.  The teacher who gets big test score gains one year might not get them the next year, probably will not get them the next year, and many teachers who were excellent teachers will have their reputations ruined and they may be fired even though they are fine teachers.  Other teachers who are not so good will get good ratings.  It is not a reliable or a good system.  And one of the things that concerns me that never gets mentioned is evaluating teachers by students’ test scores changes the whole power relationship in the classroom; it gives children the power to fire their teachers and they will know it, they already know it.

So it is not data that we are lacking, it is vision.  And it is interesting that just last Friday a major report came out from the National Research Council, the most prestigious of our academic groups, saying incentives do not work.  In education when you attach incentives to tests, what happens is the test scores get inflated, we have seen that in New York, and people game the systems and people cheat.  It is inevitable.  And that was a huge report that was not even mentioned in the New York Times but it should be talked about and I will talk about it as much as I can.  And as I said, the problem today is not a lack of data, it is a lack of vision.  It is the lack of conversation about why we educate, how to educate, what we want, how important it is to educate for citizenship, how important education is to our democracy, how important it is that we nurture not test scores but the things that test scores do not measure – curiosity, persistence, ingenuity, innovation, imagination, creativity.  We are probably unique amongst the nations in testing every child every year from third grade through eighth grade with multiple-choice standardized tests.  We are crushing the very things that we should be nurturing.

So thank you very much for this honor, and I accept very humbly.  Thank you.