Historian, policy analyst and New York University professor Diane Ravitch is one of the most prominent voices in the national debate over education. Most recently, Ravitch has turned her attention to teacher evaluation policies, which she criticizes as ineffective in her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System.
Incidentally, teacher evaluations play a prominent role in this week’s Forefront story on education policy in Memphis. Reached by email, Ravitch discusses our tendency to treat achievement metrics like the latest fad, names the societal factors that depress student performance and explains why she believes current teacher evaluation policies are “junk science.”
Next American City: The notion of using student achievement levels to measure teacher quality gained traction after researcher Eric Hanushek and others published a report on the subject in 2005. Now, local communities are investing heavily in policies that reflect this idea. Memphis, for instance, has landed billions of dollars in grants from Race to the Top and the Gates Foundation in the hope that radically revamping its evaluation system will help reverse years of poor graduation rates and teacher turnover.
You’ve spoken out against this approach to teacher evaluation policy on the state and federal level. Why do you think Hanushek’s ideas caught on when they did, and what other methods of school reform could local districts like Memphis take on in lieu of them?
Diane Ravitch: Our nation has been in search of metrics to define results since 1983, when “A Nation at Risk” was published. We tend to jump from one big idea to the next. From 2000-2008, small schools was the big idea, because Gates pumped $2 billion into it. Then Gates decided that didn’t work, and the foundation decided that the big problem was teacher evaluation. As it happened, Gates and [U.S. Secretary of Education] Arne Duncan were in agreement, so federal policy aligned with big foundation dollars.
In my view, this will eventually founder because the biggest problem in U.S. education is not teachers, but poverty. We lead advanced nations in child poverty (23 percent). Poverty in combination with racial isolation is toxic and depresses academic achievement.
It’s easier to build new evaluation systems, even if they don’t identify teacher quality, than it is to deal with poverty and racial isolation.
NAC: During a recent debate over implementing teacher evaluation policies in New York state, you wrote in the New York Review of Books that “[t]he consequences of these policies will not be pretty.” Do you think the problem lies with officials emphasizing test scores, or does it go beyond that? Is there a broader anti-teacher sentiment in this country? Do communities use teachers as scapegoats?
Ravitch: The current policies surrounding teacher evaluation do not improve education. They demoralize teachers, promote teaching to the test, narrow the curriculum, incentivize gaming the system and cheating, and destroy professionalism. They are junk science.
NAC: In that same NYR article, you wrote, “Of course, teachers should be evaluated. They should be evaluated by experienced principals and peers.” Are there any school districts in the country where you’ve seen teacher evaluations that work?
Ravitch: Montgomery County, Maryland. The Peer Assistance and Review program.
Credit: Tim Gough
NAC: You’ve credited student performance to many factors — such as race and class — besides teacher quality. Cities like Memphis are betting that by improving teachers, they can improve students who in turn will, by virtue of their enhanced prospects, improve the communities where they live. Can good teachers create good cities, or are there too many other variables at play?
Ravitch: There are so many variables that it is hard to isolate a single one. It would be wonderful if every single teacher were excellent. But some teachers are great for some students, not for others. And ultimately, students must take charge of their learning. Not all learning is determined by teachers. Teachers work in collaboration with other teachers, and learning depends on student effort, family support, good leadership, adequate resources, class size, a strong curriculum and a supportive community. Are children healthy and well nourished? Do they arrive in school at age four or five ready to learn? Healthy communities have good schools.
NAC: There are a number of models to improve school systems around the country, but do you think that America’s levels of achievement are fundamentally hampered by the fact that we don’t have a popular culture that values learning? If so, would it make sense for big funders to match their support of schools with support for other programs — such as public and non-profit media, arts programs and continuing education programs — that can enrich people’s minds and enhance their communities?
Ravitch: Yes, yes and yes. Good education depends on many factors, inside and outside schools.
We would all be better off if we stopped expecting teachers to be miracle workers and gave them the respect they deserve. Education is a community effort. We must ask ourselves whether we are doing our part to help children and families and schools.