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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 04/10/2010

Diane Ravitch’s letter to Florida lawmakers

By Valerie Strauss

Educators are watching Florida’s Gov. Charlie Crist to see whether he will sign or veto legislation that its supporters say will improve public education and that its critics say will go a long way toward wrecking it.

Florida’s Republican-led House and Senate have approved the legislation and sent it to Crist, who first said he supported it but then gave hope to its opponents by saying he had some problems with it after all.

It would be useful for Crist to read the following letter that education historian Diane Ravitch sent to members of the Florida Legislature after the Senate had passed it but before the House did before dawn on Friday.

She posted it on the excellentBridging Differences blog she co-authors with educator Deborah Meier on the Education Week website. She explains why she opposes the legislation. Ravitch is the author of a number of books, including the new bestseller "The Death and Life of the Great American School System."

Here's the letter:

From: Diane Ravitch
Dear Members,
I wish that I could be in Tallahassee to address you personally but prior commitments make it impossible to do so.

I am a historian of American education at New York University. I served as Assistant Secretary of Research and Improvement in the administration of President George H.W. Bush. I was a founding member of the Koret Task Force of the Hoover Institution. I was also a founding trustee of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. I have been studying and writing about American education for 40 years.

I write to oppose SB 6/HB 7189.

I understand that this bill would prohibit districts from paying teachers in relation to their experience and education, but would base teachers’ salaries mainly on student gains on standardized tests. I further understand that it is the law’s intent to develop new tests for every subject area, paid for by reducing operating expenses by 5 percent in the schools.

I strongly believe that this bill will have very negative consequences for the children of the state of Florida. I believe that it will dumb down their education. I believe that it will cause many of your best teachers to leave the profession or the state because this legislation is so profoundly disrespectful towards the education profession.

I urge you not to pass this bill.

My new book, "The Death and Life of the Great American School System," demonstrates that pay-for-scores schemes don’t work. The main reason they don’t work is that the measures were not intended for that purpose. Standardized tests are intended to evaluate whether students have learned what they were taught. They are not designed to assess teacher effectiveness or teacher quality. The more that teachers focus on these measures, the more they rob children of time for instruction and for the activities that engage children in their education and promote comprehension.

Teachers are not solely the cause of student progress. If students fail to make progress in their studies, there are many reasons for their failure. The causes of academic success or failure include the students’ own effort; the students’ regular attendance or lack thereof; the family’s support or lack thereof; the family’s poverty and its effects on the student’s health and well-being; the school’s resources; the district’s oversight or lack thereof; and the quality of the test itself, which may be subject to random variation. It makes no sense to hold the teacher alone accountable when student performance is affected by so many different influences.

Should the teacher get a bad evaluation if students have a poor attendance record?

Should the teacher be harshly judged if her students don’t speak English or move frequently from school to school? Should the teacher get an F if the student has poor eyesight or suffers from other undiagnosed health problems? Should the teacher be considered a failure if the student’s family offers no support for his learning?

Since the 1920s, American schools have experimented with merit pay plans. None has ever demonstrated success. Teachers will bend their efforts to raise test scores, but achievement nonetheless lags. The reason for this is that teaching-to-the-test does not yield good education. The students may learn test-taking skills, but they don’t learn how to generalize what they have learned to new situations. Thus, even when state reading scores go up, in response to intensive coaching, national test scores remain flat. As the national tests become more demanding—in 8th grade—the scores don’t rise at all.

Our nation has now had eight consecutive years of rising reading scores at the state level, yet the national scores for 8th grade students have not budged from 1998-2009. The reason for the discrepancy is that students are learning test-taking skills, but they are unable to understand complex materials or to demonstrate their progress on a test that is not the state test.

Test scores do not identify the most effective teachers. A teacher who produces big score gains one year may produce none the next year, depending on which students happen to be in his or her class.

The legislation now under consideration will not improve education in Florida. It will harm kids and their teachers.

I urge you to stop and reflect. The research on teacher effectiveness does not support the policies of SB 6/HB 7189. Please defeat this legislation.

Yours truly,
Diane Ravitch


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By Valerie Strauss  | April 10, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Standardized Tests, Teachers  | Tags:  Crist and teachers and bill, Crist and veto, Diane Ravitch, Florida, Florida and teachers, Florida teacher tenure bill, Gov. Charlie Crist, Gov. Crist, House Bill 7189, Senate Bill 6, performance pay for teachers, standardized tests, teacher tenure bill, teachers, teachers and job security, teachers and performance pay  
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Again, this is coming a little too late. Make no mistake, this is a huge milestone, and not a good one, for public education and not just in Florida. I truly hope behind the scenes, Diane Ravitch is speaking to Governor Crist. While my pollyanna side wants to believe legislators make educated decisions, from the votes that have already gone down, I am reminded bluntly they don't. As parent of children in South Florida schools, I cry for what their education will soon become. As a former teacher, I know my teaching days are done, at least if I stay in Florida. I will not teach in test prep factories nor will I be treated like a "little woman" as the Rep. Cretul and Rep. Thrasher like to respond to teachers. They forget that we are university educated professionals...oh yeah, but that's not necessary or valued anymore here.

Posted by: Live4literacy | April 10, 2010 7:37 PM | Report abuse

This letter will be ignored. I honestly don't believe the legislators or governor care about good education. Ms. Ravitch is one more meddling woman to be silenced and ignored. All the logic and evidence in the world will never be able to overcome the high stakes greed motivating this legislation.

Posted by: aed3 | April 10, 2010 9:30 PM | Report abuse

If they agree with that bill, they won't read the letter. The bill is so anti-education, I can't believe it.

Posted by: celestun100 | April 10, 2010 10:01 PM | Report abuse

Everyone wants the best teachers, but in this time when every dime is counted because of shrinking funds, we can't support this huge unfunded mandate. This is not about children, it is about power, money, and busting a union for political purposes. The sad part is, there is no tenure, only due process as we get fired. This all makes good soundbites but is not reality. We know teachers are hated, but why do this to school districts when they are at their wits end to make it through each year? We should all be pulling together during these tough times.

Thanks Jeb..... Jeb Bush = SB6 Tell the world.

Posted by: veteranteacher1 | April 10, 2010 10:03 PM | Report abuse

Apparently Floridians have not voted for intelligent legislators.

Posted by: celestun100 | April 10, 2010 10:36 PM | Report abuse

celestun-Floridians have not voted for intelligent legislators, and I'm afraid this kind of legislation is the canary in the coalmine for the rest of us. Neither the people who vote nor the lawmakers they elect care to be informed enough about what's happening to stop the destruction. The media is complicit by not bothering to dig deep enough.

Thanks, Valerie, for being one of the few to give another side to the story.

Posted by: aed3 | April 10, 2010 11:01 PM | Report abuse

Celestun- unfortunately this topic wasn't discussed in any resent elections. This is a result of Sen. Thrasher being appointed to the GOP chairmanship with the help of Jeb Bush. Jeb tried to get all these ideas through when he was governor, but were all deemed unconstitutional. Now Thrasher is threatening all his fellow Republicans with withholding campaign funds and killing their bills next year when he is in control of the party, if they don't vote his way on this. This has nothing to do with how Floridians voted but about political influence and money. Thrasher was a lobbyist for ETS testing company which stands to make over 900 million if this passes. Teachers are fired all the time in this state as we don't have tenure.
This is a money grab and we have more Republican districts in the north part of the state, hence more Republicans in control. I truly hope Crist steps up to the plate and slays them with a veto on his way out.

Posted by: Live4literacy | April 11, 2010 9:04 AM | Report abuse

This is all coming from the ED Deformers or as I call them, EDiots. People like Eli Broad, Joel Klein, Whitney Tilson, Thomas W Carroll, et al. They do not understand the nuances which go into the education of students. There is not one single answer or solution.

I write extensively about this at my blog:

Posted by: Sobronxschool | April 11, 2010 11:23 AM | Report abuse

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