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An Abraham Lincoln student works on an algebra problem during "Math Intervention, " class Monday January 31, 2011 in San Jose. The class is designed to help students who need extra help with mathematics. (Maria J Avila Lopez/Mercury News)

ASPEN, Colo. -- Diane Ravitch is the nation's most vocal educational historian. She once was one of the leading intellects behind the education reform movement -- emphasizing charter schools, testing and accountability. Over the past few years, she has become that movement's most vehement critic.

She pours out books, op-ed essays and speeches, including two this week at the Aspen Ideas Festival. She is very forceful, but there are parts of her new message that are hard to take. She is quick to accuse people who disagree with her of being frauds and greed-heads. She picks and chooses what studies to cite, even beyond the normal standards of people who are trying to make a point.

She has come to adopt the party-line view of the most change-averse elements of the teachers' unions: There is no education crisis. Poverty is the real issue, not bad schools. We don't need fundamental reform; we mainly need to give teachers more money and job security.

Nonetheless, Ravitch makes some serious points.

Most important, she is right that teaching is a humane art built upon loving relationships between teachers and students. If you orient the system exclusively around a series of multiple choice accountability assessments, you distort it.

If you make tests all-important, you give schools an incentive to drop the subjects that don't show up on the exams but that help students become fully rounded individuals -- like history, poetry, art and sports.


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You may end up with schools that emphasize test-taking, not genuine learning. You may create incentives for schools to game the system by easing out kids who might bring the average scores down, for example.

In sum, Ravitch highlights a core tension. Teaching is humane. Testing is mechanistic.

This is true, but look at which schools are most distorted by testing. As the education blogger Whitney Tilson has pointed out, the schools that best represent the reform movement, like the KIPP academies or the Harlem Success schools, put tremendous emphasis on testing. But these schools are also the places where students are most likely to participate in chess and dance. They are the places where they are most likely to read Shakespeare and argue about philosophy and physics.

In these places, tests are not the end. They are a lever to begin the process of change. They are one way of measuring change. But they are only one piece of the larger mission. The mission may involve E.D. Hirsch's Core Knowledge curricula, or character education, or performance arts specialties. But the mission transcends the test. These schools know what kind of graduate they want to produce. The schools that are most accountability-centric are also the most alive.

Contrary to Ravitch's assertions, these places are not just skimming the best students. At the Urban Prep Academy of Chicago, which Ravitch holds up as an example of a bogus success story, more than 15 percent of the students are special ed. Ninety-six percent of the school's first incoming class were reading below grade level.

And contrary to Ravitch's assertions, these schools, hundreds of them, have taken their students and put them on trajectories much different than the ones you would predict just by looking at the socio-demographic backgrounds.

Carolyn Hoxby has rigorously shown good charter results in New York and Chicago. New Orleans is dominated by charters and choice. Since 2007, the New Orleans schools have doubled the percentage of students scoring at basic competence levels or above. Schools in New Orleans are improving faster than schools in any other district in the state.

The places where the corrosive testing incentives have had their worst effect are not in the schools associated with the reformers. They are in the schools the reformers haven't touched. These are the mediocre schools without strong leaders and without vibrant missions. In those places, of course, the teaching-to-the-test ethos prevails. There is no other.

The reform movement is most famous for tests and assessments. But the untrumpeted and undeveloped secret of the reform movement is the content -- the willingness to develop character curriculum or Core Knowledge curriculum, the willingness to infuse the school with spiritual fervor.

Ravitch thinks the solution is to get rid of the tests. But that way just leads to lethargy and perpetual mediocrity. The real answer is to keep the tests and the accountability, but make sure every school has a clear sense of mission, an outstanding principal and an invigorating moral culture that hits you when you walk in the door.

Ravitch's narrative is that America has humane local schools that are being threatened by testing wonks. The fact is that many schools have become spiritually enervated and even great teachers struggle in an inert culture. It's the reformers who often bring the passion, using tests as a lever.

If your school teaches to the test, it's not the test's fault. It's the leaders of your school.

David Brooks is a syndicated columnist who writes for the New York Times.