The American education system may not be as bad as you think.
While reform-minded individuals cite our country's low standing on international rankings, Diane Ravitch, a national education author, researcher and historian, made the opposite case Tuesday night.
She said reformers are pushing a "phony narrative" that puts down the public school system and blames bad teachers for low performance. That narrative has allowed reformers to pass policies in Tennessee and other states, she said, that give increased weight to test scores, weaken the role of teachers unions and get rid of teachers easier.
"Once you've established the shock doctrine that you've failed, then people will try any and everything," Ravitch said.
Ravitch addressed a nearly full auditorium at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga on Tuesday as the first speaker in this year's George T. Hunter Lecture Series. She argued that standardized testing is being overused and misused and that efforts to link tests to teacher pay and evaluations are misguided. These and other reform policies have little support from teachers, resulting in a demoralized and fleeing teaching force, she said.
Area teachers in attendance agreed.
Sandra Griffin, a veteran East Lake Academy teacher, said it's demoralizing to let test scores determine the value of a teacher.
And the emphasis on accountability has sucked some of the joy out of the classroom, as teachers focus instruction on the short-term goal of passing a test and lose sight of long-term goals.
"It's making liars and cheats out of us," Griffin said.
While Ralph Noble has more than 35 years of experience in the classroom and can retire at any time, he said he's seen many good, young teachers leave the profession fed up with bureaucracies, testing and a lack of resources.
He said he agreed with Ravitch's notion that testing should be used as a diagnostic tool for teaching, but not for judging teachers.
"I think she's right on target," said Noble, a Whitfield County, Ga., seventh-grade social studies and language arts teacher.
Ravitch called merit pay -- linking teacher pay to student test performance -- an "unproven, unworthy and hapless scheme."
She said education reformers have downplayed the role that poverty, health and home environment play in education. Students living in poverty and racial minorities always perform lower on standardized tests, she said, and the United States has more children living in poverty than any other advanced country.
"Lets not kid ourselves: the deck is stacked against them," she said.
To narrow achievement gaps, Ravitch recommended looking to policies of the 1970s and 1980s, when racial desegregation and increased economic opportunity helped shrink achievement gaps between groups.
Other policies, like decreasing class sizes can help, she said, though many reformers have pitched increasing class sizes as a means to pay teachers more.
Despite all its challenges, Ravitch stood up for the U.S. school system. She pointed to the National Assessment of Education Progress, a longitudinal assessment of student achievement.
On that test, she said scores for American children -- whites, blacks, Asians and Hispanics -- are at their highest point in decades.