Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Diane Ravitch: The Business Model and Its Discontents


Dear Deborah [Meier],

You were a great partner in our debate last week in Washington, where the two of us—accustomed to differing—sparred with former governor of Colorado Roy Romer (who now chairs the group ED in ’08) and Jon Schnur (the founder of New Leaders for New Schools). I think we surprised everyone, perhaps even ourselves, by arguing in opposition to the idea that there should be a larger federal role in education in the future.

Our joint position was that the federal government should have a larger role in providing pre-kindergarten, after-school programs, nutrition, and healthcare, but should reduce its regulatory role in the classroom. Specifically, we agreed that NCLB has failed. NAEP scores increased more in the five years before the enactment of NCLB than in the five years since. Secretary Spellings and others like to refer to NAEP gains since 2000, but NCLB was not signed into law until January 2002. And as I pointed out, scores for 8th grade reading have been flat since 1998, and these are students who were in 3rd grade when NCLB was signed.

We also criticized NCLB’s heavy emphasis on testing and the narrowing of the curriculum. Gov. Romer and Jon Schnur emphasized that our nation is in crisis, that achievement must be much, much higher. I agree with them about that; you probably don’t. But I don’t see that Congress has answers to raising achievement. And it is my guess that the pressure to raise scores on standardized tests is not leading to higher achievement or to more thoughtful citizens, but to greater ingenuity on the part of states, districts, and schools in gaming the system.

As you pointed out (and correct me if I am wrong), some of the smartest people in the nation with great educations learned how to game our nation’s financial system, and they have brought us to the brink of ruin.

And speaking of gaming the system, I see the billionaire Eli Broad—who has done so much to promote the adoption of business models in the public schools—has given Harvard University $44 million to establish an “Educational Innovation Laboratory” at Harvard, headed by Dr. Roland G. Fryer Jr. Dr. Fryer, you may recall, is the Harvard economist who briefly served as New York City’s “chief equality officer.” He had the brilliant idea that the best way to raise test scores in New York City was to offer to pay kids up to $500 a year to get higher test scores.

As I read the story in The New York Times, I learned that Dr. Fryer’s plan to reward 3,000 middle school students with cell phone minutes for test scores and behavior was cancelled because the city was unable to raise enough money from private donors to pay the cost. This is the first time that it has been revealed that this controversial pay-the-student plan was cancelled.

Dr. Fryer, with Mr. Broad’s millions, will now proceed to evaluate the cash-for-scores plan that he designed for students in 4th and 7th grades. Maybe someone will remind Dr. Fryer that it is not customary for social scientists to evaluate their own programs.

It appears that the purpose of the Broad research laboratory at Harvard is to continue the Broad Foundation’s campaign to bring business methods to the schools. What a strange irony that this would occur at the very time that our financial system teeters on the brink of disaster! Do we really want the same “data-driven approach” in our schools?


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