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
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
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
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
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
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 citizenseffectiveschools.org.
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
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
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
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.