Archives for category: U.S. education

When I was a young historian, back in the 1970s, I would occasionally search for a fact about American education in the nineteenth or early twentieth century to help me write an article or book. There was no Internet. I wasn’t sure which books had the right statistics. So I invariably called the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which is the statistical arm of the U.S. Department of Education (actually there was no Department of Education until 1980 [Congress passed the legislation in 1979, and the Department became operational in 1980]; the NCES was the longstanding research and statistics arm of the U.S. Office of Education). The federal role in education began in 1867 under President Andrew Johnson with the creation of a Department of Education, whose sole mission was to collect and disseminate information on the condition and progress of education in the United States. In 1868, however, due to fears that the new Department might eventually seek to exert control over state and local education policy, the Department was demoted to the U.S. Office of Education. Its central purpose, the collection and dissemination of accurate information, is today the role of the NCES.


When I called for information, there was one person who knew where to find whatever I was looking for. Not opinion or interpretation, just the facts. His name was Vance Grant. He invariably took my calls and just as invariably found the answer, if it existed in federal records.


In 1991, I became Assistant Secretary in charge of OERI (the Office of Education Research and Improvement) and NCES was part of my agency–the most important part. I met Vance Grant, and I had an idea. Why not assemble all the historical data into a publication? With the help of the very able career staff at NCES, especially Tom Snyder and Vince Grant, and with the help of historian Maris Vinovskis, who had taken a leave at my request from the University of Michigan to work with OERI staff, the publication became a reality.


It is called 120 Years of American Education: A Statistical Portrait.


I can say now in retrospect that this publication was the most useful thing I did during my two years in the federal government.


You too can browse its pages and charts and graphs via the Internet to see the growth of education in the United States.


Although not many people know of its existence, it is still the only reliable source of historical data on American education.

I owe a special debt to my alma mater, Wellesley College. The college accepted me in 1956, coming from San Jacinto High School in Houston, an unpolished, unsophisticated 17-year-old who wanted to make a difference in the world but didn’t know where to start. My four years at Wellesley changed my life. I acquired a bit of polish, a smidgeon of sophistication (my friends would say, none or very little, actually), and a great education. It took a while to figure out where and how to make a difference, but I eventually did figure it out. After marriage and children, I entered graduate school, studied with Lawrence Cremin, the nation’s most outstanding historian of education, and found my niche.

This Thursday, I will be speaking at Wellesley and inaugurating a lecture series that I endowed. Its theme is: “Education and the Public Good.” I have also endowed opportunities for student research and internships, as well as other activities that promote scholarship and understanding of current issues in education. Knowing the idealism and brilliance of the students it attracts, I am hopeful that Wellesley will become a center that produces women devoted to advancing the common good and the public interest. Wellesley graduates enter many fields, including education, government, business, law, medicine, science, engineering, philanthropy, and finance. Wherever they are, I hope that what they learn in college will imbue them with a commitment to improving the lives of all children and investing in our shared future. There is a huge reservoir of intellect, character, and wisdom at Wellesley. My hope is that this great resource will advance our common purposes, our public purposes, now and in future generations of students.

I am speaking at 7 p.m. and all are welcome. The event will be live streamed.

Here is the College’s announcement:

Watch the live webcast of the inaugural Diane Silvers Ravitch ’60 Lecture on Thursday, October 22 at 7:30 PM EST.

Wellesley College is proud to welcome Diane Ravitch ’60 for the inaugural lecture in a new series of talks on current issues in public education. Ravitch is a leading national advocate for public schools who is ranked at the top of Education Week’s 2015 listing of influential scholars. In her presentation, entitled How to Ruin or Revive Public Education, she will discuss how testing and privatization are damaging children, teachers, schools, and communities, and are threatening public education as a common good.

Author of the New York Times bestsellers The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education and Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement, and many other books and articles on education history and policy, Ravitch also maintains a popular blog with nearly 23 million page reviews. She served as Assistant Secretary of Education and Counselor under President George H.W. Bush, and was later appointed to the National Assessment Governing Board by President Bill Clinton.

Please join us in the Diana Chapman Walsh Alumnae Hall Auditorium, Thursday, October 22 at 7:30 PM, or watch How to Ruin or Revive Public Education streamed live.

Wellesley College
106 Central Street | Wellesley, MA 02481
781.283.2373 |

Open this link to find the Phi Delta Kappa annual poll.

In the Washington Post, Katrina vanden Heuvel describes an emerging populist agenda for the nation–and the 2016 election. She is the editor and publisher of The Nation.

It is encouraging to see that the centerpiece of this agenda is a focus on reducing inequality by increasing jobs. Anything that reduces poverty will help children, families, and communities.

It is discouraging, however, to see that the putative progressive agenda offers so little hope to beleaguered public schools, students, and teachers.

This is the purported progressive agenda for education:

“The Basics in Education: Most challenge the limits of our punitive education debate, focusing instead on basic investments in education: universal pre-K, investments in public education and various roads to debt-free public college.”

Not a word about the privatization steam-roller, nor about the attacks on the teaching profession and unions. Nothing about the NCLB-RTTT debacle. Nothing about reversing the federal demands to close schools, to fire teachers, to facilitate data-mining, to promote charters, to accept schools and colleges that operate for profit.

Vanden Heuvel knows better. Her magazine has published some of the most hard-hitting exposes of the corporate assault on public education, such as those by Lee Fang.

We will have to write our own agenda to support public education from the rapacious hands of the profiteers and privateers.

And we will. Starting now. Send me your agenda, one or several, and I will combine them as our platform.

This comes from Michael Hynes, one of the best superintendents on Long Island, Néw York, epicenter of the Opt Out movement:

Public Schools Work- We Need to Focus Below the Iceberg

Everyone in American education hears the relentless and consistent criticism of our schools: Compared to schools in other nations, we come up short. But the evidence on which that judgment rests is narrow and very thin.

A January study released by the Horace Mann League and the National Superintendents Roundtable, “School Performance in Context: The Iceberg Effect,” challenges the practice of ranking nations by educational test scores and questions conventional wisdom that the U.S. educational system has fallen badly behind school systems abroad.

The study compared six dimensions related to student performance—equity, social stress, support for families, support for schools, student outcomes, and system outcomes—in the G-7 nations (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States) plus Finland and China. They then examined 24 “indicators” within those dimensions.
Of the nine nations, the United States remains the wealthiest with the most highly educated workforce, based on the number of years of school completed, and the proportion of adults with high school diplomas and bachelor’s degrees.

“Many policymakers and business leaders fret that America has fallen behind Europe and China, but our research does not bear that out,” said James Harvey, executive director of the National Superintendents Roundtable.
Despite high educational levels, the United States also reflects high levels of economic inequity and social stress compared to the other nations. All are related to student performance. For example, in American public schools today, the rate of childhood poverty is five times greater than it is in Finland. Rates of violent death are 13 times greater than the average for the other nations, with children in some communities reporting they have witnessed shootings, knifings, and beatings as “ordinary, everyday events.”

Some key findings:

• Economic Equity: The United States and China demonstrate the greatest gaps between rich and poor. The U.S. also contends with remarkably high rates of income inequality and childhood poverty.

• Social Stress: The U.S.reported the highest rates of violent death and teen pregnancy, and came in second for death rates from drug abuse. The also one of the most diverse nations with many immigrant students, suggesting English may not be their first language.

• Support for Families: The U.S. performed in the lowest third on public spending for services that benefit children and families, including preschool.

• Support for Schools: Americans seem willing to invest in education: The U.S. leads the nine-nation group in spending per student, but the national estimates may not be truly comparable. U.S. teachers spend about 40 percent more time in the classroom than their peers in the comparison countries.

• Student Outcomes: Performance in American elementary schools is promising, while middle school performance can be improved. U.S. students excel in 4th grade reading and high school graduation rates, but perform less well in reading at age 15. There are no current studies comparing the performance of high school graduates across countries. All nations demonstrate an achievement gap based on students’ family income and socio-economic status.

• System Outcomes: The U.S. leads these nations in educational levels of its adult workforce. Measures included years of schooling completed and the proportion of adults with high-school diplomas and bachelor’s degrees. American students also make up 25 percent of the world’s top students in science at age 15, followed by Japan at 13 percent.

“Too often, we narrow our focus to a few things that can be easily tested. Treating education as a horse race doesn’t work,” said HML President Gary Marx.

American policymakers from both political parties have a history of relying on large, international assessments to judge United States’ school performance. In 2013, the press reported that American students were falling behind when compared to 61 other countries and a few cities including Shanghai. In that comparative assessment—called the Program for International Student Assessment—PISA controversially reported superior scores for Shanghai.

The study doesn’t oppose international assessments as one measure of performance. But it argues for the need to compare American schools with similar nations and on more than a single number from an international test. In a striking metaphor, the study defines test scores as just “tip of the school iceberg.”

A fair conclusion to reach from the study is that while all is not well in the American classroom, our schools are far from being the failure they are painted to be. Addressing serious school problems will require policymakers to do something about the huge part of the iceberg that lies below the waterline in terms of poverty and economic inequity, community stress, and support for families and schools. We must stop blaming public schools and demonizing educators. The problem is not at the tip of the iceberg, it is well below the surface.

Michael Hynes is the superintendent of the Patchogue-Medford School District and member of the National Superintendent’s Roundtable

The most contentious issue in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (currently named No Child Left Behind) will be the federal role in mandating annual testing. The latest polls show that it is opposed by a majority of parents and educators, but Secretary Duncan has staunchly insisted it is necessary; 19 civil rights groups endorsed his position, even though the children they represent all too often are negativrly afrcted by such tests. Since minority children, English learners, and children with disabilities are disproportionately stigmatized by standardized tests, it is bizarre to assert that standardized tests are guarantors of civil rights.

So here comes an interesting debate in the conservative National Review. Michael Petrilli of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Rick Hess of the conservative American Enterprise Institute take issue with Jonah Edelman of the corporate reform Stand for Children.

Stand for Children is an active and politically savvy opponent of teachers and teachers’ unions. A few years ago, Jonah Edelman boasted at an Aspen Ideas Festival about his role in buying up all the best lobbyists in Illinois so he could ram hostile legislation down the throats of teachers across the state and make it near impossible for the Chicago Teachers Union to go on strike. He was wrong about the latter, because the CTU garnered overwhelming support for a strike and followed through in 2012. Edelman pulled a similar stunt in Massachusetts, having collected millions of dollars from hedge fund manager to make war on teachers and their benefits and job security.

In the present case, Petrilli and Finn chastise Edelman for supporting an expansive federal role in education.

They write:

“In the piece, Edelman denounces efforts to shed some of No Child Left Behind’s more onerous and unworkable provisions as a “threat” to “your kids’ future.” He then recounts a parade of horribles from the last century. “Linda Brown was denied the opportunity to attend a nearby public school because she was black,” he reminds us. “Black students were denied access to a public high school by segregationist Governor Orval Faubus.” And states and districts weren’t meeting the “special needs” of students with disabilities.

“This is a shopworn parlor trick — equating conservatives concerned about federal micromanagement of schooling in 2015 with the “states’ rights” segregationists of two or three generations past (who, for what it’s worth, were overwhelmingly Democratic)….

“But this sort of rhetorical sleight-of-hand has not held up particularly well. Debating whether the federal government should tell states how to label, manage, and “improve” schools (all on the basis of reading and math scores) is a far cry from debates over whether states should be allowed to deny black students access to elementary and secondary schools. Moreover, those who, like Edelman, celebrate Uncle Sam’s expertise and the effectiveness of federal bureaucrats fail to acknowledge how often federal bureaucrats have gotten it wrong — and put in place laws and regulations that have gotten in the way of smart, promising reforms at the state and local level.

“What are the issues that have Edelman so worked up? Republicans on Capitol Hill make no secret that they envision a reauthorization of No Child Left Behind that will significantly reduce the strings attached to federal education dollars. Among the possible actions: Allowing states to test students every few years rather than annually; getting the federal government out of the business of telling states how to design school-accountability systems or address low-performing schools; and making clear that (contrary to the Obama administration’s designs) the federal government should have no role in dictating state reading and math standards.

“Casual followers of the education debate might notice that these changes seem both modest and sensible. Yet Edelman insists that if Congress dares to go down this path, “disadvantaged students will lose out, and millions of young people who could have become hard-working taxpayers will end up jobless, in prison, or worse.” (Worse?)….

“The deeper problem is that Edelman and his allies fail to grapple with the very real harm that federal education policy has caused, especially in the past decade. This is baffling, given his own admission that No Child Left Behind is “deeply flawed” and that “federal interventions don’t always work as intended.” But his solution — to simply update the law more regularly — indicates a misunderstanding of the realities of the legislative process (Congress updates laws when it will, not on the schedule of us pundits) and of the root problem. The real issue is not just that specific provisions of NCLB are problematic (though they are); it’s that the federal government is destined to mess up whatever it touches in education. That’s because it’s three steps removed from actual schools, with states and local districts sitting between its good intentions and its ability to ensure good results.

“All the federal government can do is pass laws telling federal bureaucrats to write rules for the states, whose bureaucrats then write more rules for school districts, which in turn give marching orders to principals. By the time this game of telephone is done, educators are stuck in a stifling, rule-driven culture that undermines the kind of practical discretion that characterizes good schools.

“During the Obama years, this problem has only grown worse. Convinced of their own righteousness and brilliance, Obama’s education officials have pushed all manner of half-baked ideas on the country (especially the demand that states evaluate teachers largely on the basis of test scores); helped turn potentially promising ideas into political hot potatoes (see Common Core); and embarked on ideological, deeply harmful crusades (using legal threats, for example, to discourage schools from disciplining minority students)….”

What Secretary Duncan has achieved in his six years in office is to persuade many liberals and conservatives that the U.S. Department of Education has abandoned any sense of federalism and has assumed far too much control. While liberals are uneasy about trusting either state or local government with the future of education, they are just as wary (or warier) of the heavy-handed power of the federal government. Duncan himself has become a symbol for many of the federal government’s abandonment of public schools and its commitment to privatize public schools “with all deliberate speed.” Duncan’s demand for annual testing and his determination to evaluate teachers based on students’ test scores–practices not found in high-performing nations–has put him on the wrong side of history. He simply ignores the failure of his pet policies, as well as the protests of parents and educators. His self-righteousness is no substitute for evidence and democratic governance.

What does real education reform look like? Dr. Jeannette Faber, an educator in Connecticut, explains what is needed: innovation and investment.

We won’t achieve the improve t we seek by firing teachers, endless testing, or merit pay for higher scores. Genuine improvement requires positive and well/informed thinking.

She writes:

“To start, by innovation, I mean this: We do need to transform public education as we still largely work on a century-old model – the factory model. We do need to make education more innovative, creative, student centered, and constructivist – all focusing on critical thinking, problem solving, and collaboration. The current road of “corporate education reform” will not take us there. In fact, it will take us in the opposite direction.

By investment, I mean this: Equity in funding and resources. When public education became compulsory a century ago, education leaders vowed to make public education the great equalizer. We have failed at that for a century. Usually, wealthier students receive more funding; poor students, less. That is a betrayal of our democratic values.”

She then offers 12 resolutions to transform our schools. All rely on innovation and investment.

Peter Greene here tells the jaw-dropping story of what happened when Forbes convened a group of billionaires to share their ideas about how to redesign American education.

What would it take, Forbes asks, to move our middling international test scores to the top five in the world?

Why not ask some of the richest people in the nation, who never taught, probably didn’t go to public school, and perhaps never set foot in a public school?

Where do the unicorns come in? Here is what Peter says about the Common Core, which the billionaires love:

“Wonder how CCSS is still hanging in there? One likely answer is that rich guys just love it. “While Common Core has critics on both extremes of the political spectrum, those in the sensible center rightly view high national standards, coupled with tools to achieve success, as a no-brainer.” This is unintentionally hilarious to me because I do indeed believe that Common Core makes the most sense if you do in fact have no brain. The Forbes Factoid Squad projects that it will cost $185.4 billion to make CCSS fully happen, but will yield returns of $27.9 trillion. Do you suppose that rich guys smoke really, really good drugs. Laced with unicorn blood?”

Lloyd Lofthouse, a regular commentator on this blog, has written a succinct history of public education, bullet points that show the good and the bad, as well as the recent efforts by billionaires to destroy public education.

Iris Rotberg, Research Professor of Education Policy at George Washington Policy, critiques the endless search for the silver bullet that will close the test score gaps among children from low-income and high-income groups.

In 2009, a study claimed that attendance at a charter school in New York Cityfor several years would virtually close that gap. We now know, Rotberg shows, that this was an exaggeration and in fact, based on the latest state tests, untrue.

She predicts that Common Core will turn out to be yet another distraction.

“The supporters and opponents of the Common Core are now engaged in an escalating debate about whether the Common Core will strengthen U.S. education or, instead, become a dangerous intrusion by the federal government to control the content of the curriculum. Most likely, as in the case of previous reforms of curriculum standards, it will turn out to be irrelevant to any real change in the opportunities available to low-income students, and it is certainly unlikely to become the silver bullet that narrows the achievement gap.

“It is often assumed that the Common Core’s emphasis on reasoning will make it difficult to cram for and, therefore, test preparation will no longer be useful. That is the claim initially made by the College Board when cram courses were first used to prepare for university entrance exams (College Entrance Examination Board, 1965). The SAT, GRE, LSAT, and MCAT all emphasize inductive and deductive reasoning, yet affluent families figured out how to cope: They spent thousands of dollars on their children’s cram courses or tutors because they saw that the preparation was effective in raising test scores. If we continue to reward and punish teachers based on the test scores of their students—even if these scores are based on Common Core tests—educators in low-income communities will continue to have little choice but to narrow the curriculum to give more time for test preparation. Rather than reducing the achievement gap, the risk is that the Common Core test, like those that preceded it, will lead to fewer opportunities for children in high-poverty communities. And the rhetoric surrounding it will continue to detract attention from the policies needed to address the societal inequities that have led to the achievement gap.”

She concludes:

“It has been argued that to critique current policies is equivalent to saying that nothing can be done for low-income children. Just the opposite: we know that economic, social, and educational policies in areas of employment and wages, taxation, housing, health, school integration, school finance, and access to higher education can be effective in addressing the fundamental problems of poverty. Meanwhile, however, we can work to ensure that our current policies do not make matters worse for the most vulnerable students.”


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