2010-05-21 / Columnists

The Rockaway Beat

Commentary By Howard Schwach

This is the third of a series of columns detailing the words of a new book on education by one of the most knowledgeable educational historians in the nation.

There are books that need to be read by anybody who is interested in the forces that impact their life.

“The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education,” by educational historian Diane Ravitch is another.

Ravitch worked in the federal education department under Bush One and was instrumental in pushing for standardized testing and charter schools.

She has taken a long, hard look at what has happened to American education in the past ten years, however, and come to the conclusion, as have I, that there is little education going on in today’s schools.

I am going to let Ravitch speak for herself. What follows are quotes directly from her book.

How many columns will it take to tell Ravitch’s story? I am not sure, but keep reading and, at the end, you will be convinced that everything going on in the New York City public schools today is smoke and mirrors, designed to look as if the mayor had really done a splendid job with the schools, when in fact he and his management team have destroyed education.

The truth about social promotion and reading levels (page 79):

Over the next few years, the DOE ended social promotion, not only in grade three, but also in grades five, seven and eight and, eventually, in all grades. However, the number of children actually left back under the new retention policy did not change from what was customary in the past. Surprisingly, even fewer students were retained than in the past. A 2009 study of the city’s small high schools reported that a huge proportion of students arrive in the ninth grade with skills that are two, three or even four years below grade level, an observation that raises questions about whether social promotion ever really ended.

As it happened, the city’s policy of ending social promotion converged with the state’s unannounced decision to make it easier for students to reach level 2 on state tests between 2006 and 2009. The city used the results of the state tests to determine which students should be held back; any student scoring at level 1, the very bottom, was supposed to be retained. The state began annual testing of grades three through eight in 2006. In that year, significant numbers of New York City students scored at level 1 and were subject to retention. By 2009, very few students were at level 1. The number of students at level 1 dropped so low that level 1 could hardly be considered a performance level. In 2006, 70,090 students in grades three through eight were at level 1. By 2009, that number had fallen to 14,305. In reading, the number of level 1 students fell from 46,085 to 11,755. In seventh grade math, 18.8 percent were at level 1 in 2006, but by 2009, only 0.2 percent were [at level 1].

Why did the number of students at level 1 plummet? Because the state lowered the bar and made it easier for students to reach level 2. On the sixth grade reading test in 2006, students needed to earn 41 percent of the points to attain level 2. By 2009, students in that grade needed only 17.9 percent. In seventh grade math, students needed to attain 36.2 percent of the points on the test to attain level 2 in 2006, but by 2009, they needed to earn only 22 percent of the points to attain that level. The standards to advance to level 2 dropped so low that many students could get enough correct answers to pass to level 2 by randomly guessing [the answers].

Destroying the concept of neighborhood schools (page 83):

As it elevated the concept of school choice, the DOE destroyed the concept of neighborhood high schools. Neighborhoods were once knitted together by a familiar local high school that served all of the children of the community, a school with distinctive traditions, teams and history. After the neighborhood high schools were closed, children scattered across the city in response to the lure of new, unknown small schools with catchy names or were assigned to schools far from home. Meanwhile, a sad story was acted out in one high school after another. As a high school for 3,000 students was closed down, it was replaced by four or five small schools for 500 students. What happened to the missing students? Invariably, they were the lowestperforming, least motivated students, who were somehow passed over by the new schools, which did not want kids like them to depress the school’s all-important test scores. Those troublesome students were relegated to another large high school, where their enrollment instigated a spiral of failure, dissolution and closing. The DOE set into motion a process that acted like a computer virus in the large high schools. As each one closed, its least desirable students were shunted off into yet another large high school, starting a death watch for the receiving school.

Of school report cards (page 85):

The accountability movement entered a new phase in the fall of 2007, when the DOE revealed what it called progress reports for each school. Each school received a single letter grade, from A to F. This approach mirrored the grading system introduced in Florida by then-governor Jeb Bush a few years earlier. Most of each school’s grade was based on year-to-year changes in standardized test scores (its progress) as compared to a group of schools that were demographically similar; if a school’s scores went up, it was likely to get an A or B. If they remained flat or slipped, the school was almost sure to get a C, D or F.

Some excellent schools, known for their sense of community and consistently high scores, received an F because their scored were flat or dipped a few points. Some very lowperforming schools, even some schools the state ranked as persistently dangerous, received an A because they showed some improvement. In 2009, the city’s accountability system produced bizarre results. An amazing 84 percent of 1,085 elementary and middle schools received an A (compared with 23 percent in 2007) and an additional 13 percent got a B. Only 27 schools received a grade of C, D or F. The Department of Education hailed these results as evidence of academic progress, but the usually supportive local press was incredulous.

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