Diane Ravitch: The Virtue of Admitting Error

In a speech last week, education expert Diane Ravitch (and not for the first time) did something that our politicians are scared to death of doing: She admitting that she can be, and has been wrong:

I said that I was wrong. I was wrong on every count. Testing should be used for diagnostic purposes, to help students and teachers, but it has turned into a blunt instrument that is used to reward and punish teachers and schools. Charters should serve the neediest, but, with some notable exceptions, they have become aggressive and entrepreneurial. Instead of seeking out the neediest students, many of them exclude the neediest students and skim the best.

At this point, saying it once more only reinforces the obvious–for her personally and for the issues, generally.  It has been years since Ravitch first stepped away from her old beliefs, and the broad acceptance of the value of standardized testing and charter schools has finally begun to deteriorate.  But the battle, though the tide may be turning, isn’t over.  The press needs to continue, and Ravitch, bless her, continues to press.

Just five years ago, anyone making this claim of hers would have been seen as an extremist:

The entire current reform movement rests on a fanatical belief in standardized testing. Yet testing experts warn us that the tests should be used for diagnostic purposes, not to fire teachers and close schools. The basic rule of testing is that a test should be used only for the purpose for which it was designed. A test of fifth grade reading tests whether students can read at a fifth grade level; it is not a test of teacher quality. Testing experts warn that tests are subject to statistical error, measurement error, and human error. Sometimes the answer is wrong. Sometimes the question is wrong. Sometimes a thoughtful child will pick the wrong answer because it sounds plausible. 

Now, it’s a standard drumbeat of the push-back against what Ravitch these days admits is a mis-named “reform” movement, one more attuned to corporate profit than to the improvement of education.  She asks:

So why would we make testing the most important measure of education? Why would we take the technology that is most discouraging to children in the bottom half and then insist that it matters more than anything else? Why would we give more credibility to standardized tests than to teachers’ and parents’ judgments about children’s potential?

She continues, later, with some more questions, the very questions that have led many of us to resist the “reform” movement, and to have done so for years:

Do we want to be a decent society or a decadent society? Do we want to nurture, protect and inspire all of our children? Do we want children who are leaders or followers? Do we want to make sure that this generation of young people is prepared to sustain our democracy? Do we want citizens prepared to ask questions or just to answer questions posed by authorities?

We must stop the trash talk about our public schools and dedicate ourselves to making every one of them a school that is just right for all our children. Yes, it will cost more, but ignorance and neglect are much more expensive.

Ravitch is right… today, and has been for some years now.  That she was once wrong and was able, in the light of new evidence, to change her mind, shows that she is one of the few real intellectuals with prominence in today’s public sphere in America.  Unlike the entertainers who pose as pundits on TV, who are wedded to their positions simply because those positions define the personae they play, Ravitch looks to learn and understand, not simply to argue.

That makes her an exemplar, too, for our students.  She’s not just an advocate but shows what our children should strive to become.

If we ever win the battle over education, winning it for real reform and not for greed, she will deserve all of our thanks.


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