Home > math education, modeling > Diane Ravitch speaks in Westchester

Diane Ravitch speaks in Westchester

January 29, 2014

One thing I learned on the “Public Facing Math” panel at the JMM was that I needed to know more about the Common Core, since so much of the audience was very interested in discussing it and since it was actually a huge factor in the public’s perception of math, both in the sense of high school math curriculum and in the context of the associated mathematical models related to assessments. In fact at that panel I promised to learned more about the Common Core and I urged other mathematicians in the room to do the same.

As part of my research I listened to a recent lecture that Diane Ravitch gave in Westchester which centered on the Common Core. The video of the lecture is available here.

Diane Ravitch

If you don’t know anything about Diane Ravitch, you should. She’s got a super interesting history in education – she’s an education historian – and in particular has worked high up, as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education and on the National Assessment Governing Board, which supervises the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

What’s most interesting about her is that, as a high ranking person in education, she originally supported the Bush “No Child Left Behind” policy but now is an outspoken opponent of it as well as Obama’s “Race to the Top“, which she claims in an extension of the same bad idea.

Ravitch writes an incredibly interesting blog on education issues and, what’s most interesting to me, assessment issues.

Ravitch in Westchester

Let me summarize her remarks in a free-form and incomplete way. If you want to know exactly what she said and how she said it, watch the video, and feel free to skip the first 16 minutes of introductions.

She doesn’t like the Common Core initiative and mentions that Gates Foundation people, mostly not experienced educators, and many of them associated to the testing industry, developed the Common Core standards. So there’s a suspicion right off the bat that the material is overly academic and unrealistic for actual teachers in actual classrooms.

She also objects to the idea of any fixed and untested set of standards. No standard is perfect, and this one is rigid. At the very least, if we need a “one solution for all” kind of standard, it needs to be under constant review and testing and open to revisions – a living document to change with the times and with the needs and limits of classrooms.

So now we have an unrealistic and rigid set of standards, written by outsiders with vested interests, and it’s all for the sake of being able to test everyone to death. She also made some remarks about the crappiness of the Value-Added Model similar to stuff I’ve mentioned in the past.

The Common Core initiative, she explains, exposes an underlying and incorrect mindset, which is that testing makes kids learn, and more testing makes kids learn faster. That setting a high bar makes kids suddenly be able to jump higher. The Common Core, she says, is that higher bar. But just because you raise standards doesn’t mean people suddenly know more.

In fact, she got a leaked copy of last year’s Common Core test and saw that it’s 5th grade version is similar to a current 8th grade standardized test. So it’s very much this “raise the bar” setup. And it points to the fact that standardized testing is used as punishment rather than diagnostic.

In other words, if we were interested in finding out who needs help and giving them help, we wouldn’t need harder and harder tests, we’d just look at who is struggling with the current tests and go help them. But because it’s all about punishment, we need to add causality and blame to the environment.

She claims that poverty causes kids to underperform in schools, and blaming the teachers on poverty is a huge distraction and meaningless for those kids. In fact, she asks, what are going to happen to all of those kids who fail the Common Core standards? What is going to become of them if we don’t allow them to graduate? And how do we think we are helping them? Why do we spend so much time with developing these fancy tests and on assessments instead of figuring out how to help them graduate?

She also points out that the blame game going on in this country is fueled by bad facts.

For example, there is no actual educational emergency in this country. In fact, test scores and graduation rates have never been higher for each racial group. And, although we are alway made to be afraid vis a vis our “international competition” (great recent example of this here) we actually historically never scored at the top of international rankings. But we didn’t think that meant we weren’t competitive 50 years ago, so why do we suddenly care now?

She provides the answer. Namely, if people are convinced there is an emergency in education, then the private companies – test prep and testing companies as well as companies that run charter school – stand to make big money from our response and from straight up privatization.

The statistical argument that poverty causes educational delays is ready to be made. If we want to “fix our educational system” then we need to address poverty, not scapegoat teachers.

Categories: math education, modeling
  1. Guest2
    January 29, 2014 at 8:10 am

    A book review on Ravitch, here: http://shermandorn.com/wordpress/?p=6733


  2. January 29, 2014 at 8:46 am

    Hi Cathy, I wanted to correct the impression that the Common Core was “written by outsiders.” I chaired the work team that wrote the standards in mathematics. You can see the whole list here:

    Click to access 2010COMMONCOREK12TEAM.PDF

    I share many of Diane Ravitch’s worries about misuse of testing, but she is not a reliable source of factual information about the standards. Perhaps when she says that the standards were developed by people with close ties to the testing industry, she is confusing the standards with a precursor document that was produced in summer 2009, with teams from Achieve, College Board, and ACT (I was also in that group, for Achieve, which, by the way, is not a testing company). That team had a very different composition and structure from the team that wrote the standards.

    I compiled a series of press releases from NGA during the year of standards writing, 2009–10, here:



    • January 29, 2014 at 9:04 am

      Awesome, Bill, and thank you. I will take a look at these for sure.


    • David Meyer
      January 31, 2014 at 3:57 am

      Bill, this seems disingenuous: At least one of the professional mathematicians on this list, Steve Wilson (JHU), and one on the Validation Committee, James Milgram (Stanford), are “insiders” not happy with the Common Core math standards—Milgram refused to sign off on them.


      • January 31, 2014 at 10:01 am

        Professor Milgram also testified last year before a state legislature that the standards are “better than 90% of the state standards … they replace.”
        For that matter, I think it is disingenuous for Professor Milgram to say that “Common Core’s college and career readiness standards aim for admission to non-selective, community colleges.” And that “low-level workforce-development is the goal of Common Core.”
        This message has proved politically powerful for opponents of the standards. But it is not accurate.
        Is the study of polynomials, for example, really required for admission to non-selective, community colleges?
        Obviously not.
        Is a body of material representing easily three years of mathematics at the level of Algebra 2 really well characterized as low-level workforce development?
        Not at all. The phrase “low-level workforce development” has been designed intentionally to evoke images of vocational education, the “low track” in high school, the places where schools house “those kids.” Nobody who knows any mathematics can look at the Common Core in high school and see this picture.
        Professor Milgram and his colleagues in the Tea Party are being politically effective when they push their messages as hard as they can. But I have to say, I find it disingenuous.


        • David Meyer
          January 31, 2014 at 12:38 pm

          I don’t presume to know Milgram’s motivations in criticizing the math CCSS, although California is not in that 90% and Stanford is in California. My concern is that the CCSS effectively put a ceiling on what is taught, as well as a floor, and that ceiling is well below what is necessary to challenge the most able students.


        • January 31, 2014 at 7:24 pm

          I don’t understand where you get the idea of a ceiling. For the last 20 years or so, most state standards have described mathematics achievements roughly up through Algebra II. No state has required more than that for graduation; most have required much less (including California). Everybody has always understood that high achieving students need to go further than that. Any parent in the country with ambitions for their children has known they need to take precalculus, calculus, and even more to prepare for STEM careers or elite colleges. This has always been true, and is still true under CCSS. The difference is that CCSS provides a pathway for such students, starting in elementary school with a serious focus on arithmetic as a foundation for algebra.


        • David Meyer
          February 2, 2014 at 10:20 pm

          Bill, if you have had children in public school you know that guidelines/standards shape the syllabus, and that it is a rare teacher who has the time, while trying to manage 25+ other students, to guide any students who are advanced beyond whatever the syllabus says should be covered on any given day. So yes, each day, each unit, and each grade has a ceiling on what will be taught to an advanced student, and the height of that ceiling is now set by the CCSS. My daughter in kindergarten, who can do addition and subtraction, has no opportunity at school to work on anything beyond that, say multiplication, because that is not in the CCSS for kindergarten math. She understands negative numbers, too, to give another example; according the the CCSS she will be taught about them 6 years from now, in 6th grade. For her, this is a very low ceiling.


  3. dotkaye
    January 29, 2014 at 12:22 pm

    it is startlingly difficult to find any uncontested facts about Common Core. This alone is a warning signal that CCSS is more about politics than education.


    lists the members of the advisory group:
    Achieve, Inc., ACT, the College Board, the National Association of State Boards of Education and the State Higher Education Executive Officers.

    The first three of these are testing companies. Achieve appears to be affiliated with Pearson. The National Association of State Boards of Education, despite its fine-sounding name, is a private organization.

    It would take an investigative journalist to unravel the full tangle of interests, but start here,


    The CCSS is presented to us as a nation-wide education reform. By definition the problem of poor children in schools needs to be addressed. If you take out the results from poor children, the US as a whole has the best test results of any nation.

    and at the school district level, a painstaking analysis,

    We don’t have a problem with our schools, we have a problem with funding them for all children. CCSS is trying to solve a poverty problem with punitive high-stakes testing. The solution doesn’t match the problem. It’s also debatable if high-stakes punitive testing strategies are really the best way to educate children.


  4. Anne
    January 29, 2014 at 2:06 pm

    As a retired NJ School Social Worker with 30 years experience, I agree with Diane Ravitch regarding the manufactured educational crisis by the private education and testing industry. They saw an opportunity to make money. There is a direct link between student academic deficits/failure and poverty. I worked in a economically diverse community. There was a direct link between parental income and underperforming and special education students. I worked the district’s middle school and two elementary schools. The majority of children receiving basic skills instruction were from poor or working poor families. When the district conducted a study the social/economic/racial/ethnic background of high school students enrolled in Honors and higher level math classes, they found the majority of our poor/working poor and African-American and Hispanic/Latino students were not in the higher level classes. Many of our top African-American students and Hispanic/Latino students were recruited by local private preparatory schools. The African-American and Hispanic/Latino American students in Honors and higher level classes came from middle and affluent families. The remaining came from our federally housing community or our poorer sections of town. I’m proud to say that the school district working with the broader community started a year-round tutorial/enrichment program for our low income students to boost their academic skills. It is working. The community was not entirely altruistic in their support of this program but they recognized that the lower test scores were pulling down the school district ratings. This was effecting home sales and community morale.

    In this same school district are high school students going to Princeton University and other local colleges who have maxed out of the AP courses. A large number of students take Honors and AP courses. Yet, the school district was one step away from a state takeover under “No Child Left Behind” . There were other top-ranked affluent and very competitive schools in the same situation. Our school district was saved by taking full advantage of “student porfolios” as a substitute for standardized tests for our students with IQ’s in the borderline to the low end of the low-average of measured intelligence (these students also had significant learning disabilities, drug exposed during pregnancy, lead poisoning from leaving in old building, birth injuries, etc.).

    When I monitored special needs students taking standardized tests, I witnessed their frustration being given a test with academic material above their ability level. Many of my average to above-average student with reading disabilities were frustrated because the reading level was above their reading level. This also interfered with their ability to correctly answered mathematical word problems. I know that some of them will be able to understand Algebra in a couple of years but they were not ready to be introduced to it when they took the test. But, that doesn’t matter when everyone is expected to achieve at the same time and everyone’s brain is expected to mature at the same time.

    Because of the need to pass the state testing, one of our former principals decided to push students into Algebra I, as the students taking Algebra I were all proficient or highly proficient on state exams. This decision turned out to be disastrous for those students. Many of our average to above average special education students with learning disabilities actually did better on the math exam because their teachers were able to fill in the math gaps and by ninth grade they were ready for grade level math. Unfortunately this type of teaching is not available to all students and teachers are being asked to ignore brain science and proven teaching theory and strategies in order to teach to the test.

    As a retired school professional, I was extremely discouraged, frustrated and angered by the attacks on our public education system. I don’t know about the rest of the US but NJ has an excellent school system. Yet, all of our schools were attacked by our Governor and his private educational corporate buddies who to come into the state to simply make a lot of money. Luckily in the majority of our middle class to wealthy communities, the public said “NO” to private educational corporations taking over one or more of their schools because they recognize that their schools are excellent. This is not the case in our poor communities. I have friends working in the poorest school districts in the state. They are discouraged because they are not being asked to teach in a way that doesn’t work for the majority of their students. They are dealing with children with a myriad of social problems yet they are expected to have the same educational outcomes as their peers teaching in middle class and affluent communities. You can’t fix the lowest performing schools until poverty, substance abuse and violence are recognized and addressed by our nation.


  5. pjm
    January 29, 2014 at 6:33 pm

    Cathy, I have an applied math background (with a bit of stats, enough to be dangerous). I notice how in reading the press about international comparisons of scores it’s all about rankings and not about variances or effect sizes. (Actually, this is a mistake I hear other people – who should know better – make in other contexts as well).

    Great piece, btw. The poverty link is ignored and the education “crisis” is used to play on middle class neuroses and insecurities (which is how one wins at the politics game).


  6. January 29, 2014 at 9:50 pm

    I appreciate you bringing your voice to this conversation. I think a lot of well-intentioned people speak up about Common Core without understanding the inherent politics and economics of the situation. I know you’ll bring attention to those issues.

    Also, I suspect it’s hard for non-teachers to really understand the landscape of public education in this current era of “reform”, but you seem to be aware of how (and why) things like VAM and school grades are being used.

    Most defenders of the standards try to distance themselves from the high-stakes tests that are now widely being used to rate teacher job performance (here, as per recent NY State law!), school progress, and of course, student achievement. But there are those who see the standards as an inextricable part of a suite of policies that include increased testing, test-based teacher evaluation, invasive technology polices, and more. For them, it’s not clear supporting the standards in and of themselves is really a meaningful position.

    And as far as the tests go, I’ve been writing about the terrible quality of NY State math tests (and the consequences for teaching and learning) for years. And when NY state released the first batch of “Common Core aligned” 8th grade test questions last year, I wrote a piece for ChalkBeatNY about how many of the questions were just copies of old 9th and 10th grade math Regents questions. As you suggest above, people seem to put a lot of faith in these tests, but no one seems to look very closely at them.


  7. January 30, 2014 at 9:11 am

    An independent analysis of Common Core for mathematics:



  8. Thomas Ball
    January 30, 2014 at 10:52 am

    Education test standards, development and policy follow strict protocols that leverage the best thinking available. That said, one of the biggest pitfalls of NYS’ Regents exams is that they are graded by teachers. Nothing against teachers but I have never seen a report that estimated the interrater reliability of this approach. My bet is that it’s not high.

    Whatever you think of testing it is the only scalable way to measure progress and achievement (unless someone has other options…would love to hear about those). The development of the CCS was unquestionably rigorous and evidence-based but the biggest problem with them is that the developers seemed to have given little thought to how these standards were to be evaluated. Even a cursory review of the CCS for many areas suggests that the benchmarks are highly qualitative in nature, subject to multiple interpretations and not readily “testable.”

    The only solution I can envisage is algorithmic. In other words, turn the machines loose and let them evaluate performance. But between the design of the standards and machines calibrating the results, the development of appropriate test modalities is a Rubicon that has yet to be crossed.


    • David Meyer
      January 31, 2014 at 4:11 am

      Thomas, I don’t think “evidence-based” is a very good description of the essentially untried plane transformation approach to geometry in the CCSS. See http://www.ams.org/notices/201401/rnoti-p24.pdf


  9. January 30, 2014 at 1:50 pm

    I watched most of the address, and many of Ravitch’s points are right on target, especially at the ones about testing (Mark Twain said “you can’t fatten a pig by weighing it”). But there are also many half-truths and exaggerations. One in particular is that the claim that Common Core wasn’t written by educators. Educators were involved at every step, the drafts went out for several rounds of reviews, and successive revisions reflected the feedback. Bill’s post provides more on this.

    For all it’s flaws, there are reasons to embrace the common core in mathematics. For one thing, the standards are more coherent than the state standards that have crippled school mathematics for at least a generation. For another thing, you can read them—they are free of the standards-speak that have plagued previous standards. And they have mathematical integrity. Elaborations on these ideas and others are in my essay at mpi.edc.org.

    Al Cuoco


  10. January 30, 2014 at 5:52 pm

    I’ve been going through the exercise of figuring out how all my calculus worksheets about the math of planet Earth fit with the Common Core standards, and I kind of like them. Purely from the point of view of someone teaching mathematics at the college level, I think, “Yeah! My students better know this from high school! And the standard is pretty clear!” They make a lot more sense than some of the mushy language around conceptualizing a dynamic understanding of the underlying abstraction of the use of symbols… or whatever.

    Example: “CCSS.Math.Content.HSF-LE.A.1 Distinguish between situations that can be modeled with linear functions and with exponential functions.” Good idea. Clear. A NCTM suggestion about modeling: “Grades 9–12 Expectations: In grades 9–12 all students should– identify essential quantitative relationships in a situation and determine the class or classes of functions that might model the relationships; use symbolic expressions, including iterative and recursive forms, to represent relationships arising from various contexts; draw reasonable conclusions about a situation being modeled.”

    The NCTM guidelines aren’t wrong, they’re just so fuzzy as to be not useful.

    That said, the politics surrounding the Common Core are complicated and murky. Right-wingers hate it because it’s a socialist plot (?), left-wingers hate it because it’s a corporate plot (!), libertarians don’t want anybody telling them that linear functions are important. There *are* a lot of politics going on, as Ravitch points out, but we must ask ourselves: is it *possible* in this country to tell people that fourth-graders should know how to multiply without it becoming a political issue?


    • Priscilla Bremser
      January 30, 2014 at 9:44 pm

      Kaisa, your last paragraph is spot on, as is your comment about the NCTM standards. In your first two paragraphs, you do what many critics seem unwilling to do: actually read the Common Core standards. It’s not that hard. Has Diane Ravitch done that? Can she point to the mentions of “Common Core tests” in the CCSS? (Trick question — there are none. She must be referring to a test developed by New York State.) There are a lot of teachers out there — a couple of my own relatives, e.g. — who are rightfully disgusted with the blind faith that so many policy makers have in high-stakes testing, and the unwillingness to acknowledge the complexities of teaching, especially in high-poverty schools. (And why do we have to “Race” anywhere? Could we maybe have an actual veteran educator as Secretary of Education, just as we have an actual medical doctor as Surgeon General?) It’s understandable that for some teachers, the CC standards seem like just the latest in a long line of directives. I appreciate that Diane Ravitch is (now) on the side of our beleaguered teachers, but she isn’t doing them any favors by continuing to conflate the standards with the testing. I work with teachers on math, and I already see good things happening as a result of the CCSSM.


    • David Meyer
      January 31, 2014 at 4:24 am

      Kaisa, I’ve been going through the exercise of reading the CCSS in math (and ELA) to see what my daughter in kindergarten has ahead of her. Focussing on a couple of topics in the elementary school standards that she already understands: When would you guess students are supposed to understand that 2/4 = 1/2? And when would you guess negative numbers are to be introduced?
      Answers: Grade 3 (was Grade 2 in previous California Standards); and Grade 6 (was Grade 4 in previous California Standards).
      Conclusion: The math CCSS leave good students at least a year, maybe two years, behind where they would have been under the previous California standards by the time they enter middle school.


  11. January 31, 2014 at 12:57 pm

    As a Language Arts teacher of students in poverty who currently has to integrate Common Core (even into my AP class, for which I have standards from College Board), I will say that many of the CC standards are onerous, and horridly conflated to a point where they should instead be dissected into singular skills. When reading them, it seems at times that the writers were more interested in creating standards that sounded fancy and impressive to outsiders than to writing standards for things students actually needed to know.

    Also, the assessments included in the CC are so far above my students’ proficiency level it’s frightening. There is a great push for graduation rates and student growth and all of that onus is placed on the teachers. I feel it every day. However, there is never really a discussion of helping these kids move out of poverty, or helping their parents get out of poverty.

    A particularly poignant moment happened just yesterday in my AP Language and Composition class (a class for which many of my students are academically unprepared and the amount of information and skills I have to scaffold is tremendous). We’re reading Nickel and Dimed, and as companion “curriculum” we’re investigating the current US Minimum Wage debate. I compiled a set of articles for them from various sources, and as we finished the presentations (students worked in groups to read, analyze, present, etc.), a student turned to me and said, “Do they even want to help people get out of poverty?”

    Out of the mouths of babes…


  12. philip daro
    January 31, 2014 at 1:09 pm

    Diane Ravitch’s critique of the role of testing in current education policy and practice is cogent and important. I can add to her arguments the fact that no high performing countries have testing based accountability systems like ours, nor do they measure teacher performance with tests. We should look at what high performers do in this policy area.
    Diane errs, however, when she uses the Common Core as an icon of testing based accountability. State standards before the Common Core were, indeed, written frame the state tests. Mostly, they addressed test makers to tell them what should be tested. In writing the common core we broke with this practice and emulated what we saw in the standards of high performing countries: we wrote to teachers about what should be taught. This was an unpopular shift among state officials, but we stuck to this shift from testing to teaching. We did not specify a list of the kinds of problems that should be on the test, but stated what students should understand be able to do well beyond what can be tested. We set standards for Mathematical Practice that are about students thinking and discourse. Indeed, test makers have found the CCSSM very challenging.
    I hope Diane continues her campaign against invalid reliance on testing in accountability which started in the states but took over the systems because of No Child Left Behind. CCSS has just arrived. Compared to No Child Left Behind style standards and testing, it is a move toward more depth and honesty, and away from the mile wide, inch deep trivializing of the curriculum.


  13. February 1, 2014 at 6:27 pm

    I have no concrete idea of the pros or cons of academic testing other than “how do we measure otherwise”? And to watch the path of Bill Gates seems to lead to “answers” rather than “suppositions” and he has as they say “no dog in the fight” as to making a dollar–seems to have aplenty.
    What I do see in our “yard of the week contest” ( http://www.yardoftheweek.org) is the lack of parental support available to the economically average family in the US. School and a teacher are one arena of learning. An interested mom at home is an even more important element in the picture. Without a secure home, without an able mom, the student-child studies in a void. Or rather does not study in a void. This lack causes “rounding down” in public schools…where police presence is now a norm.
    Private schools should and will soon have the public tax support the child deserves.


  14. February 13, 2014 at 1:57 pm

    I’ve put comments on another Ravitch speech on the Common Core Initiative here: http://mathedck.wordpress.com/2014/02/13/comments-on-ravitchs-mla-speech/

    In my opinion, the speech has some statements that are unclear, appear unaware of research in mathematics education, or seem uninformed. Some concern: Characteristics of standardized tests, field testing standards, developmental appropriateness of the CCSS, development of the CCSS.


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