An Interview with Gary Ratner: About Effective Schools

by Michael F. Shaughnessy
June 22, 2005

Gary Ratner is a public interest lawyer, former Deputy Executive Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and a national school reform advocate. In 1985, he published a path-breaking article in the Texas Law Review arguing, in effect, that under existing constitutional and common law principles, it would not be enough for schools to equalize inputs. They must ensure effective outputs, i.e., student learning of basic skills, or, at a minimum, adopt the characteristics of "effective schools." The article, "A New Legal Duty for Urban Public Schools: Effective Education in Basic Skills," was featured in The New York Times' "Week in Review," Education Week and numerous other media nationwide. In recent years, his writing and speaking has focused on what legislative policy changes must be made to provide effective schooling, especially for poor and minority students. He founded Citizens for Effective Schools, Inc. to join forces with experienced educators and other concerned citizens nationwide to promote those changes.

Question #1. You are the Executive Director of Citizens for Effective Schools. What exactly are you and your organization trying to accomplish?

Citizens for Effective Schools (CES) is a non-partisan, non-profit organization of citizens deeply committed to attaining the national education goal of raising virtually all public school students to academic proficiency. However, we believe that the nation's current approach to trying to meet that goal--relying principally on "high stakes testing"--is totally inadequate, and often, educationally harmful.

CES and I have two objectives: initially, to shift the national school reform debate from concentrating on imposing sanctions for deficient test scores to having states and localities actually make the fundamental changes needed to dramatically improve teaching and learning; then, to mobilize public support to amend the No Child Left Behind Act and the Higher Education Act, and state laws, to implement the necessary changes.

To accomplish this mission, we need to educate the public about three threshold matters. First, the distance to the goal is huge. Today, about 70% of public school students are below "Proficient" in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and 70% below "Proficient" in math, with about 50% of poor students and 50% of minority students "Below Basic," i.e., they lack even "partial mastery" of the skills necessary for their grade level. Second, we can only understand what needs to be changed if we understand how the current situation arose. Third, notwithstanding the multiplicity of issues and controversies distracting the public debate, the central requirements for effective school reform are easy to understand, commonsensical, widely agreed to by experienced educators and confirmed by research. What's required now is to shift the conversation to what changes are needed and gain public support for making them.

Question #2. You have called for a reframing of the No Child Left Behind Act. What prompted this and what are your main concerns?

I believe that certain of the underlying concepts in the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), if properly harnessed, have the potential to dramatically improve public schooling nationwide, especially for poor and minority students. These include: the goal of academic proficiency for virtually all students; high standards; periodic assessments; public reporting of test results; disaggregation of test data; and recognition of the need to provide high quality teachers, professional development, and a strong federal leadership role in school reform.

However, NCLB's central remedial approach--sanctioning schools for failing to make "adequate yearly progress" (AYP)--risks permanently and needlessly undermining public confidence in, and support of, the public schools as an ever-increasing number of schools predictably "fail." Such loss of support would be particularly dangerous to public education because it would not occur in isolation. There is already strong pressure in certain quarters--manifested by support for vouchers, private management and charter schools--to privatize public schooling. An NCLB-generated loss of support for public schools combined with preexisting pressure to privatize could lead to drastically reducing or abolishing America's system of public education. The damage that this would cause to our central institution for integrating individuals from diverse backgrounds into a single national identity, inculcating democratic values, and seeking to create equal opportunities for economic, educational and social advancement would be inestimable.

I have been prompted to call for reframing NCLB because I profoundly believe in the importance of attaining its proficiency goal, but believe that this can only be accomplished if the Act is restructured. The potential consequences of NCLB for the future of American public education--for good and for ill--are too great to remain silent.

My first main concern is that NCLB fails to acknowledge the nature and magnitude of changes that would be required to substantially accomplish the goal. To bring almost all K-12 students to "proficiency," we would have to replace our longstanding two-track educational system--with a high level "academic" track for the relative few and a much lower level "general" and "vocational" track for the remainder--with an academically high level one-track system for all students, except the severely disabled incapable of ever learning at that level regardless of the quality of teaching. What NCLB needs to, but fails to, address is what major policy changes must be made to transform the system from a two-track to a one-track system nationwide.

Second, the Act's remedial approach--imposing escalating sanctions on Title I schools for test scores failing to meet AYP--is widely ineffectual and educationally injurious. The whole concept of "adequate yearly progress," mandating ever increasing percentages of students who must meet "proficiency," culminating in 100% by 2014, has no scientific basis and is arbitrary.

Moreover, by making the avoidance of sanctions depend entirely on test scores, NCLB causes educationally harmful narrowing of the curriculum and concentration on memorization of test material and test-taking techniques in lieu of teaching needed higher-level thinking skills. Similarly, NCLB's AYP/sanctions-based remedial approach induces states and localities to engage in self-defeating manipulation of reported scores in order to avoid sanctions. These manipulations have included: reducing standards for "proficiency;" postponing AYP target dates; excluding low-performing students from testing; and increasing push-outs and drop-outs. Moreover, the emphasis on high-stakes tests, by causing dumbing-down of the curriculum and restricting teacher discretion, is destructively driving creative and intellectually demanding teachers out of the public schools.

Third, NCLB's implicit premise that the threat of sanctions would induce schools and districts to do whatever is necessary to greatly improve learning is false. Having operated a two-track system for more than 70 years in which relatively little academically was expected of most students and correspondingly little of their teachers, administrators and parents, today the schools and districts generally lack the capacity to effectively teach all students at a high academic level and many parents lack the capacity to provide the needed support. What are needed is not punitive threats of sanctions, but massive improvements in teacher and administrator preparation programs, peer collaboration, mentoring and other professional development, and parenting skills/literacy support for parents, to create the necessary educator and parent capacity.

Finally, NCLB's "school plan"/"corrective action" strategy for turning around failing schools is fundamentally misconceived. It seeks to remedy the deficiencies in each school individually, even though the dominant causes of failure are policies adopted district, state or nation-wide. It demands the preparation and implementation of written, strategic plans as the engine for reform, even though they have been proven to be excessively complex, rigid and ineffectual in improving the quality of teaching. And it fails to recognize that the key to turning around poorly functioning schools is not piecemeal correction of isolated defects, but having skillful and committed principals who can change the expectations, attitudes and behaviors of all the stakeholders as an organic whole

Question #3. Many years ago, during Ronald Reagan's presidency, we were told that we were "A Nation at Risk." We didn't seem to listen then. Is NCLB a knee jerk reaction to the current problems in education?

I'm not sure I accept your premise about the impact of "A Nation of Risk." I believe that we "listened" to "A Nation at Risk" more than you may think and that, in fact, there is a strong connection between it and NCLB.

After "A Nation at Risk" was published in 1983, hundreds of groups were formed at the state level to respond to it. In 1984, Southern states began a multi-year effort to raise standards, require high school graduation exams and take other actions intended to improve education. In 1989, President George Bush and the nation's governors agreed to adopt six national education goals, including Goal 3: that "all students ... will demonstrate [] competency over challenging subject matter [and] learn to use their minds well..." And in 1994, President Clinton led Congress to enact these goals into federal law.

In the private sector, The Business Roundtable, an organization of about 200 of the largest U.S. corporations, responded with numerous initiatives. Of greatest relevance for NCLB, in 1990, it published a list of nine Essential Components of a Successful Education System. Then, it sought to get state legislation enacted on all components. But, when the Roundtable found that it was virtually impossible to get comprehensive legislation enacted, it decided to focus initially only on having states enact reforms embodying three of the components: standards, assessments and accountability. The Business Roundtable's initiative played a critical role in the states adopting "standards, assessments and accountability" legislation in the 1990s. This "standards, assessments and accountability" movement remains the principal state approach to school reform to this day, even though the Roundtable understood that those three components were only one piece of the necessary reforms.

NCLB was modeled on this very state movement. It was, in effect, the federal government's own approach to implementing these same three components. NCLB requires states receiving Title I grants under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to establish "standards," annually "assess" whether the "standards" are being met, and holds localities and states "accountable" by subjecting them to various sanctions if Title I schools fail to meet AYP.

Thus, NCLB was not a "knee jerk reaction to the current problems in education" in the sense that it lacked any historical foundation or was done without any thought. Rather, it was an intentional effort, in effect, to "federalize" the states' "standards, assessment and accountability" movement. But that does not mean that what NCLB did was adequate or well-conceived. In two critical respects, it was neither. First, its overwhelming reliance on the three components of "standards, assessments and accountability" is wholly inadequate. Those components do not address the central question: what educational changes do localities and states need to make to dramatically improve education, especially for poor and minority children? Second, using an "accountability" system that holds states and localities accountable for raising test scores as an end in itself, rather than for implementing the underlying changes necessary to dramatically improve student learning, is widely ineffectual, counter-productive and harmful.

Question #4. What are some of the most important changes that you believe have to be made to the educational system?

Fundamentally, I believe that we have to convert our educational system from our historic two-track system--with a high level academic track for some and a much lower level track for everyone else--to a high academic level one-track system for almost all students. This would not preclude students from taking vocational courses. However, except for demonstrably severely disabled students who could never learn at grade level, vocational courses would have to be in addition to a solid core of academic courses. Nor would this preclude students taking Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or other courses above grade level; it's just that all academic courses for virtually all students would have to be at least at grade level, i.e., "proficiency."

For the educational system to effectively provide such a "proficient" level of education, it needs to create three conditions for all students for whom they do not already exist: a challenging curriculum, effective teaching, and family (or surrogate) support for high achievement. Unlike today, where many students are being taught a "dumbed-down" and boring curriculum that emphasizes memorization and test-taking skills, almost all students need to be taught a challenging curriculum: not just basic facts, but complex vocabulary and ideas, analysis, problem-solving and other higher-level thinking skills. In the vast number of high schools where "honors" is simply the name given to grade level courses in the academic track, all courses below "honors" need to be eliminated, except for the severely disabled.

To provide "effective teaching," all teachers need to know every subject matter they teach at a level well above the grade level they're teaching and they must have the pedagogical skills to engage the interests of students with diverse learning styles and backgrounds, including disabilities and limited English proficiency. To produce new teachers with those capabilities, all schools of education should provide at least 30 weeks of closely supervised clinical placements, integrating "methods" and "theory" into candidates' "real life" student teaching experience, in contrast to the 8-10 weeks of clinical experience common now. Time spent on "methods" and "theory" courses should be significantly reduced, emphasizing, instead, the need for following certain basic principles in teaching all courses, including presenting material clearly, modeling it, having students use and communicate it and having teachers resolve confusion. For existing teachers, professional development must shift from traditional "workshops" that are grossly unproductive in improving teaching in the classroom to peer collaboration, mentoring, and other forms of support that directly meet the needs of individual teachers for particular subject matter knowledge and pedagogical skills. Preparation and training of principals and superintendents needs to focus on how to lead school and district transformations to a high level one-track system, not how to manage ongoing businesses.

To develop "family support for high achievement," the educational system needs to offer adult literacy and parenting skills programs, especially for all families whose children are "Below Basic" on the NAEP or at a comparable level. Where parents or guardians are incapable of actively supporting their children's academic learning by providing structure for homework, encouragement and interaction with school, other surrogate adult role models need to be offered by governmental, public-private or private programs. (This need for adult role models might be met to some extent by school staff where the school day has been extended beyond regular hours.) Finally, teacher and administrator preparation and professional development programs need to teach how to effectively reach out to parents and engage their cooperation in students' learning.

Question #5. Given the increasing technology and information concerns, should we be lengthening the school day or school year?

I agree with you that the amount of information available in today's world is growing incredibly fast and that our schoolchildren need to be taught how to use technology, at least in part to deal with this information explosion. I also agree that there are strong reasons for expanding the school day and the school year, especially in severely disadvantaged communities. However, I do not believe that lack of school time is the greatest time-related schooling problem. Nor, while I believe that it would be legitimate to lengthen school time to address technology and information concerns, do I believe that these are the most important reasons for doing so. Let me explain.

The volume of information in the world is already so massive, and new information is being generated so rapidly, that it would be impossible for any student to learn a substantial percentage of all that's out there, regardless of how much the school day or year was extended. Instead, what students need to learn is: the most fundamental facts and ideas; how to think; and ultimately, how to teach themselves, i.e., "how to learn," including how to find the information that they will need to successfully carry out all aspects of their lives. This is the essence of what schools must teach for students to become academically "proficient."

Today, the biggest time problem in schools serving high concentrations of low-performing students is not spending too little time in school, but misusing the time they already have. Instead of teaching a rigorous and interesting curriculum, including great literature, and emphasizing analysis, problem-solving and other higher-level thinking skills, these schools are typically teaching their students a watered-down curriculum, "drill and kill" memorization and how to maximize test scores. Instead of teaching a broad curriculum, including music, art and physical education to engage students for whom these may be their only interests, the schools too often exclude these courses and narrow the traditional academic subjects in a relentless focus on passing mandated tests. Instead, of asking provocative questions and responding to students' individual needs, the schools frequently rely on scripted programs. Instead of integrating work with computers into regular courses, frequently the computers are left unused or taught ineffectively. To have a chance of vastly improving poor and minority students' learning, we must significantly enhance the level and quality of teaching during the regular school day.

Having said that, there are also strong social, recreational and educational reasons for lengthening the school day and year. Extending the school day would allow invaluable time for students to do homework in a quiet, structured environment under adult supervision. It would allow safe opportunities for children to expand their interests, learn new skills, socialize and have fun in chess, dance, drama, debate, computer and other clubs and activities. Expanding the school year would allow students more days to master challenging academic classes, as well as to develop and reinforce positive extracurricular experiences and abilities. Especially for children in disadvantaged urban schools, more time in a supportive, stimulating and structured school environment would be multiply beneficial.

Question #6. Is making teachers better and more competent the answer or is the answer more homogeneous classes?

As suggested above, if we are serious about accomplishing NCLB's "proficiency" goal, we need to convert our educational system from a two-track to a one-track model, with at least a grade level curriculum for virtually all students. In that scenario, there would be little room for grouping students homogeneously by achievement levels, because virtually all classes would be at least at grade level. The exceptions would be classes for seriously disabled youngsters, which could be well below grade level, and Advanced Placement or other classes that would be above grade level.

Nor would this be a particular problem. One of the marks of a good teacher is that s/he can effectively manage and teach children from diverse backgrounds and at different skill levels. For those teachers who cannot do that, a principal responsibility of "school reform" is to develop their capacity to do so.

Indeed, recent experience on Long Island strongly suggests that detracking --converting from a two-track system of high and low curriculum level "homogeneous" classes to uniformly high level "heterogeneous" classes--is extremely effective educationally. The racially and economically diverse Rockville Centre School District extensively detracked its middle and high schools beginning about seven years ago. As a result, the percentage of its black and Hispanic students who graduated high school with the academically demanding Regents diploma shot up from 32% to 82% between 2000 and 2003, while the comparable percentage of white and Asian students also rose, from 88% to 97%. Carol Corbett Burris and Kevin G. Welner, Closing the Achievement Gap by Detracking, PHI DELTA KAPPA, April 2005, at 595-597. Low-level homogeneous classes have held back poor and minority students for too long. They are no answer.

Question #7. You have a web site What are you trying to communicate to parents, teachers and others?

The essence of what CES is trying to communicate to parents, teachers and others is as follows. While we believe that NCLB represents an unprecedented opportunity to transform our educational system to provide a high quality education for all students, NCLB's central approach to accomplishing that-- imposing sanctions for failing test scores--is totally inadequate and, often, educationally harmful. It fails to recognize the nature of the changes that are required to accomplish the goal because it fails to address why the current situation arose.

Today, about 70% of all students are below "proficiency" in reading and 70% below it in math, with about 50% of poor students and 50% of minority students "Below Basic," i.e., lacking even partial mastery at their grade levels. But this huge gap did not happen accidentally. It is a direct result of policy decisions made decades ago around the country to create a two-track educational system, with a high level "academic" track for those expected to go to college, and a much lower level "general" and "vocational" track for everyone else. These decisions implemented a national commission's recommendation that for the then-existing Industrial Age, in which the vast majority of people would be working on assembly lines and in other low-skilled jobs, there was no need for them to receive a high level academic education. (For decades, poor and minority students have been disproportionately assigned to the lower track.)

While creating a two-track system may have been reasonable in 1918, NCLB implicitly recognizes that it no longer is--in the new Information Age, all students need academic proficiency. Yet, we are still operating under the two-track system. That has profound consequences. Many teachers, especially those who have been teaching the lower track, do not have the subject matter knowledge and pedagogical skills to effectively teach a rigorous curriculum to diverse students. Many superintendents and principals do not know how to lead the transformation of expectations, knowledge and behaviors necessary for their districts and schools to provide a high level education to all students. Many parents do not have the literacy and parenting skills needed to support their children's learning at a high academic level. And many students lack the motivation to take their academic studies seriously.

To have any chance of approaching NCLB's goal, we must shift NCLB's remedial emphasis from sanctioning schools for failing to raise test scores to holding them accountable for making the major changes needed to actually improve education. We must convert from a two-track to a high level one-track education system nationwide. This can only be done by significantly enhancing the capacity of our human resources: administrators, teachers and parents (or surrogates.) To do this, we must greatly improve preparation and professional development programs for teachers and administrators, as well as provide parenting skills and adult literacy programs for families of children far below "proficiency." If you care about accomplishing NCLB's important goal, and share our views about what needs to be done to get there, please join CES. (A simple membership form is available at our web site.)

Question #8. What question or questions have I neglected to ask?

What are some of the recent advocacy efforts CES has been making to reframe the national debate on NCLB and restructure the law, and what are its plans for the future?

In October 2003, CES published an Open Letter to President Bush and Congress signed by more than 100 distinguished educators and other citizens nationwide explaining why NCLB's approach to "accountability" needs to be extensively revised to accomplish the Act's goal of academic competency for virtually all students. The Letter lists the specific policies that NCLB should require states and localities that receive federal education funds to adopt in order to profoundly improve education, especially for poor and minority children.

In October 2004, CES joined with the National School Boards Association, National Education Association, NAACP, National Urban League, League of United Latin American Citizens, Children's Defense Fund and many other national organizations in a Joint Organizational Statement calling for major amendments to NCLB. The Joint Statement declares that: "Overall, the law's emphasis needs to shift from applying sanctions for failing to raise test scores to holding states and localities accountable for making the systemic changes that improve student achievement." The Joint Statement enunciates key principles that the amendments should incorporate in the areas of progress measurement, assessments, capacity building, sanctions and funding. (The full text of both the Open Letter and the Joint Organizational Statement, as well as lists of their respective signers, are available on CES' web site.

I have just finished writing a law review article, "Why the 'No Child Left Behind Act' Needs to Be Restructured to Accomplish Its Goals and How to Do It." Among other things, the article explains which elements of NCLB should be retained, which should be replaced and what policies they should be replaced with, and includes an analysis of why the key premises underlying NCLB's current sanctions-based remedial scheme are false.

This article is expected to be published in the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law Law Review in the next several months.

CES has spoken publicly in Washington, D.C., Maryland, New York and Georgia about how NCLB needs to be amended and actively pursues opportunities to speak elsewhere on this subject, as well as on school reform generally. And CES is working with other organizational signers of the Joint Organizational Statement to increase public awareness of, and support for, the Joint Statement, through public speaking events and the media.