Ravitch Is Right on Common Core, Wrong on Main Causes of Poor Achievement

Published August 16, 2016

In her recent New York Times op-ed titled “The Common Core Costs Billions and Hurts Students,” prominent education researcher and longtime advocate of high-stakes testing Diane Ravitch describes the effects of Common Core compared to its proponents’ promises.

I agree with much of what Ravitch says about Common Core being a rush job funded by money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, written by ill-qualified authors, and sold as a panacea that will “improve achievement and reduce the gaps between rich and poor, and black and white.” I also agree with Ravitch’s decision to lay much of the blame for the recent drop in the National Assessment of Educational Progress achievement scores to Common Core. It is difficult to see any other national-level educational change in recent years that could have produced such a broad and sharp dip in achievement across the nation.

Despite being correct about many of her anti-Common Core claims, Ravitch’s decision to make an unqualified attribution of “poverty and racial segregation” as “the main causes” of poor student achievement caught me short. Surely she must be wrong. If poverty and racial segregation were the causes of poor achievement, we would never see racially segregated but academically successful schools or successful schools with largely poor kids. A few successful disadvantaged kids? Sure. But there is no way schools with hundreds of such kids can beat the statistical odds against success if poverty and segregation are the causes of poor achievement.

Yet, such schools do exist! We have numerous examples of effectively segregated schools with a significant number of impoverished students that manage to bring their students to high achievement, and they typically do this without significantly different expenditures per student.

How are they able to accomplish this if poverty and race are the causes of low performance? The answer is simple: They are not. Schools with good curricula and competent staff are successful with any kind of kid, rich or poor, black or white.

‘Unnecessarily Onerous’ Testing

Ravitch goes on to criticize the onerous annual testing regime introduced by the No Child Left Behind Act and doubled under Common Core. I find her criticism correct in general but not very discerning. Specifically, there seems to be little wrong with testing per se once every few years, particularly if its results affect the students themselves. Such testing tends to promote student achievement.

Ravitch is right to characterize the current annual testing regime as unnecessarily onerous. I am unaware of any other country, whether educational leader or laggard, that tests most of its kids grade-by-grade every year. Furthermore, making the tests high-stakes for teachers rather than for students, as is done today, creates incentives for teachers to spend extravagant amounts of time on test preparation.

Ravitch recommends giving “teachers the autonomy to tailor instruction to meet the needs of the children in front of them and to write their own tests.”

She is mostly right. It is indeed foolish to expect an identical curriculum and identical test to be the best for every student in a country as large and as diverse as ours. That is what Common Core believers were peddling, not only in math and reading but also in history, geography, the sciences, civics, the arts, foreign languages, technology, health, and physical education.

Ravitch’s suggestion to focus instead on “well-maintained schools” or on “classes of reasonable size” is also wrongheaded. There is little evidence American schools are generally ill-maintained, and we already have some of the smallest class sizes in the world. Educational rankings are dominated by East Asian nations such as Japan, Singapore, and South Korea, where class sizes are frequently double ours. Not coincidentally, the larger class sizes enable these countries to pay their teachers more.

Granting Schools Flexibility

What really will make a difference is Ravitch’s suggestion to develop expert teachers. Despite our teachers’ very high level of formal college education and the fact many have graduate degrees, their level of actual content knowledge and cognitive skills is rather low, according to the available evidence. Although content knowledge in itself is insufficient to make an individual a great teacher, clearly one cannot teach what one doesn’t know.

I would add another element: school administrators’ qualifications and autonomy. The more schools are ruled by one-size-fits-all and zero-tolerance policies from some central office, whether federal or state, the less autonomy, initiative, and flexibility are left for school staff to do whatever is necessary to educate children effectively.

Overwhelmingly, schools that beat the odds in educating poor students are charter schools that have the flexibility to manage themselves. Not every charter beats the odds, but almost all those that do are charters. That is another strike against Washington, DC’s takeover of schools through Common Core and testing: It is nigh impossible to change or fight federal rules. Changing them at the state level is much more likely.

Wrong Focus

In summary, Ravitch is right in her conclusion alleging Common Core costs the nation dearly in terms of treasure, student achievement, and damage to federalism. Consequently, we should dismantle it as soon as we can. But her focus on poverty, race, and class size is wrong and unnecessarily distracts us from where the true improvement lies: improving schools through better teacher education and certification and through school flexibility to adjust to local conditions, rather than to be trapped in a rigid system of governance imposed by a remote authority.

Ze’ev Wurman ([email protected]) is a senior fellow with the American Principles Project. This article was originally published by the American Principles Project. Reprinted with permission.