For education reform, don't blame the teachers

American students in a classroom in Alaska.

Tess Vigeland: Educators across the country are taking a close look today at what you might call the New No Child Left Behind. Just before the weekend, President Obama offered a little more flexibility to states struggling under the the program's strict requirements. That includes waivers from some rules, like one in which students must be proficient in reading and math by 2014.

Education historian and N.Y.U. professor Diane Ravitch was a well-known supporter of No Child Left Behind. She has now famously changed her views. We've reached her today to talk about what the latest reforms mean. Welcome.

Diane Ravitch: It's great to be with you.

Vigeland: So after years of wringing our hands over education reform, it's the teachers at this point getting the brunt of the criticism. Do you think that what the Obama administration has now done will help them do their job better?

Ravitch: No, I think this is going to demoralize teachers across the country. This is like the main plank of the Obama administration's platform, is to evaluate teachers by their students' growth and test scores. This will mean more focus on standardized tests. It's going to lead to more cheating scandals because when you put unusual pressure on people to get scores or be fired, there'll be people who'll feel desperate and who cheat. They're on the wrong track and there just doesn't seem to be any way to shake them awake and say, 'Hey guys, we've had 10 years of No Child Left Behind. You're now shifting accountability from schools to teachers, and all you're doing is making the teachers like they're being unfairly blamed.'

Vigeland: But certainly, at least the intent has been billed as trying to relieve the pressure on states and schools to meet these standards.

Ravitch: I think the only relief is that they are ending something called "adequate yearly progress," in which a lot of affluent suburban districts will shrug and say, 'Thank goodness, we're not going to be under the gun.' But the lowest performing schools, the states have to agree to do something called transformation, which means either closing them, turning them into charter schools, firing the principal, firing the teachers. All of these are very punitive, and as far as relief goes, every school still has to do annual testing.

Vigeland: You touched on this earlier, that the effect of all of this on teachers themselves and people frankly who perhaps no longer want to be teachers. I read somewhere that master's degrees in education are actually on the decline. So what, in your opinion, should be done to bring more skilled teachers into that profession?

Ravitch: You know, I just came back from Finland, and it was such a culture shock for an American educator to go to Finland because this is one of the highest scoring nations in the world. They usually end up in the international assessments either first or second in the world, whereas we're in the middle. And Finland doesn't test its kids at all. What they've put their bets on over the past 30 years is building a strong profession of educators -- they trust their teachers. And I asked teacher after teacher, principal after principal, 'How would you feel about using your student test scores to evaluate you?' And they just looked at me as if I were crazy. They said, 'Well why would we do that?'

Vigeland: But then how should teachers be measured? Because certainly there should be some measure for them -- there's no career where you're not measured.

Ravitch: The metrics that we use are not good metrics. And I would think that the best way to determine the quality of a teacher is, first of all, to have them well-prepared. I asked these questions again in Finland, and I was told, 'Everybody comes into the profession well-prepared; they've had a five-year preparation period where they get deep academics and they deal with all the special needs. Our classrooms are overwhelmed with children who speak many languages and children who have all kinds of disabilities.' So there has to be serious training and when people become teachers, having this strong background, they should be judged by their superior -- who should be a master teacher -- and by their peers. That's the best kind of judgment, is observation, looking at student work. What I would love to see the president do is to change direction in terms of teaching and begin to raise standards for entry into teaching. What we've been doing over the past 10 years is to drop the standards for entry into teaching, so that anyone can become a teacher.

Vigeland: Diane Ravitch teaches at New York University. Her book is "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education." Thanks so much for being with us.

Ravitch: Thank you.

About the author

Tess Vigeland is the host of Marketplace Money, where she takes a deep dive into why we do what we do with our money.
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Hi, I´m a Finnish teacher, and yes, we mostly are unionized but that is not the only reason for anything.

I'm a teacher who agrees with Ravitch in that we do need training. It should not be after we are in the classroom though. I was in an internship program that did not prepare me for the job prior to the job. I am fortunate to work for a district that has given me a lot of training. But because of budget issues (lack of manpower), there is no follow up to make sure that what we learned is being taken to the classroom and done correctly. In addition, with the many budget cutbacks, our classes are getting more and more crowded, and combo classes are increasing. With the daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly changes to policies and procedures that teachers have to deal with, it's a miracle we get the job done. We have tons of paperwork for accountability's sake, many assessments to give, and face the possibility of grade/school/classroom changes at the end of every year. Do I even have to bring up the pink slips that some of have received on an annual basis? Is teaching a worthwhile career for those who are just now getting out of college? Be ready for sleepless nights, weekends gone, and burn out. There just doesn't seem to be enough time in the day!

Are teachers in Finland unionized? Just askin'.

I think the focus of education in this country is on the wrong thing. We should not be looking for "results" because of the simple truth that not all students are created equal. Further, not all teachers are created equal either. Instead, we should be focusing on ensuring our students the opportunity to further their education, by providing adequate supplies, guidance, and teacher training. You can bring a horse to water, but you can make it drink. At least we should make sure there is some water there.

Teachers' salaries are low? Oh, I beg to differ. The starting salary of a teacher in my district with only a bachelor's and zero experience is over $53,000 a year, plus excellent nearly-free benefits, a solid pension, and reimbursement to collect their master's degree. In fact, the large majority of the teachers in my district have been making six figures for many years now. I pay handsomely for this through my taxes, but I do not make anywhere near that salary. I'm not complaining or expressing jealousy; I'm simply putting things in perspective. We pay dearly for our teachers, yet we aren't the top school in the state. I'm a strong proponent of having teacher evaluations to determine raises, not based on senority and silly union hamstrings.

No Child Left Unprofitable? I guess I must be the cynic in the crowd. Does anyone really believe that the NCLB Act of 2001 was anything but another attempt to privatize a public institution and allow corporations to turn it into a cash cow? It’s step two on the economic liberalization agenda taught at the Chicago School of Economics and exported to developing countries around the world (who have rejected it en masse). First, starve the funding (beast); second, find some way of discrediting it as a “socialist failure” publicly; except it seems to be working fine in other social democracies, with Finland serving as a fine example, as your guest mentioned.
Parental accountability aside, isn’t this really just a case of a Big Government Program designed with the specific intent of destroying a Big Government Program? Don’t parents have enough on their plate with both of them working and drawing the same salary that one used to earn? Omitting two provisions in the original mandate would change a lot, and no doubt improve test scores, owing to a major shift in priorities. In the official list of NCLB goals, it states that “if the school fails to hit its AYP targets for the sixth year in a row . . . Common options include . . . turning the school into a charter school, hiring a private company to run the school, or . . .” etcetera. In reading some of the proposals offered by Obama to reform NCLB, none of them include such a change. The irony here is that the free-market ideologues are right: Big Government programs, particularly ones that emphasize enforcement, don’t always work well. And this is one of them. However, world history and economic trends tell us that privatization, the ultimate wizard behind the curtain here, won’t get anyone home without a hefty price tag.

I think its not just the parents. I think its the support the faculty and administration gives the teachers-seminars, training, back up-showing the students they are accountable and responsible. Only this will prevent burn out and let teachers deal with all the social and personal issues that students bring to the classroom.

Yes, parents are the key. As a former teacher who has also worked in law enforcement, I can certainly affirm that NCLB and its apparent successor, teacher evaluation, both fail to address the lack of parental involvement. In fact, parochial schools succeed because thoughtful and concerned parents self-select and choose these schools, not because the school curricula are that much better. You simply have students who are better prepared and have parental support. A public school without a critical mass of such "good" parents will inevitably struggle no matter how much standardized testing you require or how much you threaten the teachers.


You said the number applying for a Master of Education degree is going down. Sad to hear. I think it's because the profession is unattractive, with its low financial rewards for hours put in, criticism by the public who don't help with homework themselves, and by the minimal honor paid to good teachers.

Regarding the latter, I donated my resort timeshare to the school system to be awarded each year to the teacher selected by a committee for coming up with the most creative teaching idea. This idea is disseminated to all teachers in the district to use in their classrooms and to inspire them to come up with a good idea. My donation costs me $650 per year in condo fees and property taxes, but it's my way of calling for better teachers and rewarding those who hit the mark.

As someone who's been involved in international and comparative education for nearly 30 years, I can confidently state that the academic preparation in teacher training programs in western European countries exceeds those of the U.S. exponentially. In addition, the support system in place for these teachers and the resources made available to them, as provided by their respective governments, are factors seriously lacking in our educational system and the teaching profession here in the U.S.


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