Diane Ravtich had a long piece in NYRB this weekend. You can read it here.
1. The United States has never scored well in international tests. And yet we lead the world in economic and military strength.
2. In 1983 a Nation at Risk came out with alarmist language that, in part, led to the national testing movement.
3. Since then, basically every president has said that are schools aren’t good enough, and that we need more / better tests.
4. In pushing this agenda, political leaders often point to the performance of Asian nations and cities.
5. Despite this rhetoric and accompanying strategies, our schools aren’t improving.
6. We should stop trying to emulate Asian nations: they over rely on rote learning instead of nurturing creativity.
7. Instead, we should shape our education policy based on two trends, increased globalization and technology, which will require giving more autonomy to both educators and students – as well as freeing them from the narrowing pressures of testing.
Where I Think Ravitch is Right
Little Correlation Between American Testing Performance and World Leadership: Ravitch is right to note that America has been a world leader despite performing at mediocre levels on international tests. Of course, world history is not a controlled experiment, so perhaps we’d have performed even better with high educational attainment, but, still, her point stands.
The Perils of Rote Learning: I agree that we should not fetishize the test scores delivered by rote learning and high-pressure cultures. At the very least, life is short and being a child in South Korea sounds miserable (surveys confirm they are amongst the unhappiest children in the world).
The Main Error in Ravitch’s Argument
Ravitch Provides No Evidence that Testing in Our Country has Reduced Innovation and Creativity: Ravitch’s main argument against testing is that it reduces innovation and creativity. Yet, she provides no evidence that this is occurring in the United States. I’m open to the possibility testing has had such an effect, but Ravitch provides no evidence that this in fact true.
Correlation Does Not Equal Causation: Instead of demonstrating how testing has reduced creativity and innovation in our own nation, Ravitch argues that China, which utilizes rote learning and testing, is not a very innovative and creative country. This may or may not be true (she provides little evidence), but, even if it is true, it’s not clear that testing is causing this lack of innovation. I think it’s more plausible that China’s rote learning and testing regimes are manifestations of their culture. It is unclear that changing the testing regime would change this underlying culture; just as it’s unclear that our own testing regime has in anyway affected our culture.
The Irony of Ravitch’s Proposals
Ultimately, the irony of Ravitch’s proposals is a familiar one: an education thought leader argues against top-down reforms and then offers up a vision of schooling which they think will be good for everyone.
Ravitch, in affirming the vision of her colleague, Yong Zhao, calls for:
schools where students produce books, videos, and art, where they are encouraged to explore and experiment … the individual strengths of every student are developed, not under pressure, but by their intrinsic motivation … schools where the highest value is creativity, where students are encouraged to be … confident, curious, and creative.
Aside from the fact that this is a pretty generic vision – and a vision that it is compatible with many standardized testing regimes – it’s unclear to me that every parent wants to send their child to a school where the highest value is creativity.
This seems to be what Ravitch wants.
But why should her vision of schooling be forced on everyone?
As it happens, there’s much I like about this vision. And, in arguing for this vision, I think Ravitch rightly identifies many of the core values of our nation (innovation, creativity, originality, and invention).
But let me add one more: liberty.
Instead of educators and families being forced to work in and attend schools that align with Ravitch’s vision, educators should be able to develop myriads of different types of schools that meet the different needs of the millions of children in our country.
Will some of these schools have creativity has their highest value? Probably so. Other may not.
Here’s the thing: I’d give up annual testing in a heartbeat if it meant our nation would transition to a system where educators could create non-profits to operate schools, parents could choose amongst these schools, and the government regulated the system with a less intense testing regime.
Unfortunately, this is not the vision Ravitch puts forth. Instead, she asks that we reject testing and instead adopt her own vision of public schooling.
In doing so, she ignores the connection between choice and humility.