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A Letter from One Non-Believer to Another

In the following letter, education historian and author Diane Ravitch responds to an opinion piece by Marc Waxman, an educator based in Denver. Education News Colorado published Waxman’s piece, “Why I Don’t Believe in ‘Reform,'” on Sept. 7. This post is cross-posted at Education News Colorado.

Dear Marc,

I was surprised and delighted to read your essay explaining your loss of faith in the now-dominant narrative about school reform. These days, everyone seems to be either in one camp or the other; most everyone seems to have rock-solid beliefs; and all too few people seem willing to re-examine their beliefs.

I was trying to do that in my book, and as you know, it is painful. It is also risky. In your case, you risk alienating friends, allies, even financial supporters. I had more freedom than you; my work life is behind me, I don’t need any financial supporters, and my children are on their own. But it is scary to take risks, and not many people are willing to do it.

I was heartened to read your admission, in light of your experience, that charter schools are not a panacea. That is a bold admission to make at a time when three new movies are trying to persuade the American public that charter schools are indeed a panacea. The charter movement unfortunately has built a narrative around the ideology that charter schools are not only a panacea but that they can beat regular public schools by the only metric that matters: test scores.

And it is here that your blog was most wondrous: You have worked with children for many years, and you have come to realize that test scores are not the only goal of education. I certainly agree with you that test scores should not be confused with “achievement.” Achievement, broadly defined, is a worthy goal. We want children to achieve many things, including the ability to read, write and calculate. Learning to play a musical instrument is an achievement; writing a research paper is an achievement. For some children with unusually difficult lives, just being in school everyday is an achievement. Like you, I have learned not to accept test scores as synonymous with achievement, nor to assume that the only children who matter are those who “win” whatever competitions we create for them. Teachers, especially those who deal with a wide variety of children every day, understand this.

You find yourself asking hard and important questions about why we educate and what we hope for when we educate. You understand that the powerful demand fueled by NCLB and the Race to the Top to get higher test scores year after year is not by itself a worthy goal, nor one that well serves the children for whom you are responsible, nor is it a reasonable way to judge teacher quality. Sure, test scores matter and we should use them. But you understand that test scores these days are misused, and the policymakers’ obsession with them is warping schools and the lives of children. I suggest that the obsession with test scores is also warping the charter movement, encouraging charters to exclude students who might pull down their scores, and limiting the movement’s ability to develop good schools.

Discussions about why we educate and how we define good education can easily become mere rhetoric and empty verbiage. I would be content to rely on my favorite quote from John Dewey: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children.” So, let us ask, for example, whether the education our society provides for its children is good enough for the children of President Obama and Bill Gates and other leaders of society. I don’t think they would stand for schools that have cut back on the arts and science to make more time for test prep. Not for a minute. I doubt that their children go to schools where teachers are judged by their students’ test scores and thus incentivized to ignore whatever is not on the state tests.

Marc, I admire your courage and your independence. Keep raising questions. Keep questioning yourself. I don’t know what your funders will think about it. But you have crossed that bridge already. Now you are in new territory. Thinking is dangerous. But how could you teach your students to think and to free their minds unless you were willing to do it yourself?

Diane Ravitch

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.