How Can Education in the United States Be Improved?

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The United States ranking on international testing of high school students dropped in 2010. New York State recently won a $700 million Race to the Top grant which required school systems to include a significant percent of teacher evaluation on their student test scores. Governor Andrew Cuomo has threatened to withhold state aid from districts that do not reach agreements on a teacher evaluation process. Comments by school personnel in Westchester highlight why teacher evaluation is such an elusive goal. Teacher unions are opposed. Administrators have been quoted in the press as saying the money they are allotted to receive will be insufficient to allow the schools to reach the required standards.To illustrate, in Westchester and Rockland 31 districts will get less than $50,000 and 8 will get nothing. School board members lament they will have to deal with collective bargaining issues. In the meantime President Barack Obama has given l0 states (not New York) a waiver from the No Child Left Behind's demanding requirements.
Shedding some light on this dilemma is Diane Ravitch, a New York University professor and author of many books on education. She served as Assistant Secretary of Education under George H.W. Bush. Her latest book is "The Life and Death of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education." Ravitch addressed the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators of New York City recently and expressed her well researched and thoughtful views on the present state of public education.
Referring back to the 50th anniversary of this 2012 address, she stated (to loud applause) that in l962 people working in schools were revered," but now they are "on the
chopping block." The current education model is patterned after a destructive "business model." At this time "most students are graduating unprepared." If the New York City Department of Education were successful, she continued, they would not be closing schools. Closing a public school puts a "knife in the heart" of a community. This is something people do not understand. For example, charter schools exclude English language learners and special education students. In New York City there is no way to hold the Chancellor accountable, he is a "rubber stamp for the Mayor." Democracy has been lost because there is no way to make the public's views heard and "no one cares how many people come out for a hearing."
In 2010 the students' scores on the federal level were "flat" and the Regents and New York State Department of Education knew something was wrong. Worse yet, under New York City's program for high schools, parents and students had to scramble for a high school. She emphasized, there's no plan to help students, except closing present schools and opening new schools.
With the possible exception of Chile, no other country is using value added criteria and "firing teachers." In Tennessee a major new plan "failed." Again to loud applause, she continued, "Judging teachers by test scores is ridiculous." Tests only measure student progress. Teacher evaluation should be accomplished by principals and peers. History will look on this era as "terrible and demonizing" of education.
In l988 government data showed teachers with 15 years experience were more numerous than any other years of experience group (mode). Now this mode is one year of experience for teachers because there are so many experienced teachers leaving. The loss of these teachers is a "tragedy."
What are some things Ravitch projected as needed in education: experienced teachers, principals with successful classroom experience, small classes, one-to-one tutoring, and a full curriculum including the arts, physical education, and every day support.
Children should have libraries, dental, visual and other services available. "Support" and respect which educators don't have today are needed. Principals should take a stand for professional dignity. This situation education is in can be changed. The mean spirited attacks on education need to end. This is the richest country in the world and we "should never lose sight" of that vision and goal. Public education in her view is essential in a democracy.

In the February 16 issue of the Westchester Guardian

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