Ravitch and Krashen: Last Round in Common-Core Debate

Cross-posted on Education Week

This will be, I promise, the last round in a series of exchanges with Diane Ravitch focused on the Common Core State Standards. Her response to my last post was to post on her site some comments posted on my blog from Stephen Krashen, Professor Emeritus at the University of California. Krashen is a literacy expert. For the views of another highly regarded expert in this field, I suggest you look at a piece by David Pearson. Pearson, a member of the Validation Committee for the standards, provides what seems to me a very balanced and thoughtful defense of the Common Core.

But Krashen does not actually attack the Common Core standards per se. The “content of the standards is not the real issue”, he says. “The real issue is whether we should have standards and tests based on standards.” He describes the construction of the standards, the development of the new tests and the purchase of equipment to install this new system as one of the “greatest boondoggles of all time.” The real problem, he says, is “our high level of poverty.” He wants all the money invested in this new system invested instead in food programs, school nurses and school libraries.

“Tucker’s position,” he says, “is that tough standards, [and] tough-minded accountability will finally get educators moving, and force them to teach effectively.” [That is not true, but we will let that pass] But he says, “When we control for poverty, our students do very well. Middle class students in well-funded schools score at or near the top of the world….The problem is not teacher quality (or schools of education, or unions)….there is no crisis. The problem is poverty.”

I’ve quoted Krashen at length because I believe that he really does speak on this point for Diane Ravitch and for a great many professional educators in the United States.

Diane Ravitch did this country a signal service with the publication of her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education. Ravitch’s attack on those who have embraced education reform agendas based on tough accountability and market theory was a real breath of fresh air. If that was all that Diane Ravitch had ever done for American education—and it is not—she would deserve an honored place in the history of education in this country.

But—and it is a big but—Ravitch has done a lot to leave the country with the impression that, if those who are pressing this agenda of tough accountability and market strategies of reform would just go away, and we fixed our poverty problem, all would be well.

And that is simply not true. When OECD-PISA analyzes national education performance, they show how each country’s student population is distributed among six performance levels. It turns out that a smaller proportion of American students is found in the top levels of PISA and a larger proportion in the bottom levels than is the case for students in the top performing countries. Another part of the OECD-PISA analysis shows that a student’s socio-economic status is a much better predictor of that student’s educational achievement in the United States than in the top performing countries. We are less successful at educating students in poverty than these other countries are.

But this need not be an argument based simply on statistics. Other nations are recruiting their teachers from much higher segments of their high school graduating classes. They are insisting that not only their secondary teachers but also their elementary school teachers really know the subjects they are teaching. Because they believe that teachers need to know their craft, they insist that they spend at least a year learning that craft before they can begin teaching, with no “alternative routes” into teaching to circumvent that requirement. Because they believe that great teachers are the secret sauce for great education systems, they are offering them compensation comparable to the compensation offered to people going into high status occupations. Because they really mean it when they say they want all students to achieve at internationally benchmarked levels, they put more money behind their hardest-to-educate students than their easiest-to-educate students. We don’t do any of these things.

In saying that our students would perform at levels rivaling the best in the world, if only we fixed our student poverty problem, Ravitch and Krashen would have you believe that we can get results just as good as the top-performers are getting without instituting a fairer financing system, without recruiting our teachers from among the best of our high school graduates, without insisting that all our teachers master the subjects they teach, without compensating our teachers at a level comparable to the levels at which high-status professional are compensated—without, in short, doing any of the things the top-performing countries have been doing to improve the quality of their education systems.

If you believe that the only difference between the United States and the top-performing countries is the level of poverty among our children, think again. The level of poverty among our children is a disgrace and we must do everything we can to greatly reduce it. But, make no mistake, if we succeeded in that quest, we would still be far behind, and will remain so until we get serious about making the kinds of changes I have just described.

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