Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Ravitch Gets to the Root of the Matter

obriena's picture

Diane Ravitch has been quite busy of late. Among her recent activities: She has a piece appearing in Newsweek this month, and she herself appeared on The Daily Show. In February she gave a keynote at the American Association of School Administrators' annual convention and attended a meeting of Parents Across America. Last Friday, I had the good fortune of hearing her speak at the 2011 Celebration of Teaching and Learning (and the great fortune of getting a seat – it was standing room only). Over the past year, she estimates that she has talked to nearly 100,000 educators, parents and others across the nation.

Much of her message is the same regardless of her audience. She has a good grasp on the research, of course – and she often makes the point that ideology is trumping evidence in the policies du jour. Little to no evidence supports the merit pay, standardized testing, charter schooling, voucher and changes (as typically proposed) to teacher evaluation policies currently pushed by many politicians.

In addition to her knowledge of education research, what I appreciate about Ravitch is that she always hits on a point that should be (but isn't) at the heart of high-level discussions of education policy: The root cause of poor academic performance is poverty.

But instead of conversations about how we as a nation can best address the poverty within our borders, we just put the burden for eradicating the impact of poverty on our schools. And then we act surprised when they do not succeed, and our conversations focus on what they - teachers, principals, colleges of teacher education, guidance counselors, just the whole school structure - must be doing wrong.

When we scapegoat teachers and schools the way that some have, rather than discuss the underlying issues of poverty that many of our children deal with daily, we avoid having a real conversation on how we can improve schools - and life - in this nation. Consider this:

Today, more than 20 percent of our children are living in poverty and the number is going up. ... In Finland, the world’s highest scoring nation, less than three percent of the children live in poverty. Poverty matters.

So why, when we talk about ways to fix schools, do we focus so completely on teacher evaluations and standardized testing (both of which, as Ravitch points out, we do completely differently than higher-performing nations)? Why don't we focus on making sure that our students enter school ready to learn? That they come to school healthy and fed? Even poor children in the majority of the nations that outperform us on international assessments have access to healthcare and a stable, sufficient source of food.

Poverty is certainly not an excuse to avoid providing a great education to all children. And in education discussions we often hear, “We need to talk about the things that we can control.” Which is true. So for the individual teacher and school, the conversation should be about overcoming the challenges that poverty brings with a student.

But at the federal, state and even district level, politicians do control policies that affect children outside the school. Politicians should acknowledge that fact and adjustment their rhetoric accordingly. So should the media. And we, as voters and consumers, should hold them accountable for doing so.