Should We Let 3rd Graders Decide Educational Policy?

I thoroughly believe in listening to students, even when it comes to things like state tests.


Note: This article has been cross-published on

First, let me state unequivocally that I care what students think about education. We should ask them frequently, and incorporate that feedback. Diane Ravitch, in a recent blog post, seemed to advocate though that we should allow students to actively make decisions about intricate elements of educational practice and policy independently.

More specifically, she praised a 3rd grader for, independently, opting out of state testing. She trusted his professional opinion about which elements of education to take part in. It’s not hard to see where I’m going with this.

Ravitch supporters have supported her historically by claiming that she using hyperbole to drive home messages. My critiques of her less-than-professional use of hyperbole aside, it’s hard to make a case that this falls into that category. She’s straight out suggesting that if a 3rd grader doesn’t like something, he shouldn’t have to do it.

So, start rolling your eyes – here’s where I state the obvious. Sammy is allowed to opt out of state tests, what about guided reading groups? Science lab? School discipline practices? Special education? Physical Education?

Clearly, again stating the obvious here, a 3rd grader doesn’t have the skills, experience, or cognitive maturity to understand the complexity of state tests. Say what you will, stand on whichever side of the line you prefer, but it isn’t simple enough for a 3rd grader to understand thoroughly.

Again, returning to my first point – I thoroughly believe in listening to students, even when it comes to things like state tests. But, under no circumstances should a a 3rd grader be given the power to make big-time educational decisions he can’t possibly understand.

The better question here is why Diane Ravitch could possibly think this is a good idea? Truthfully, I don’t think she probably does. She’s a smart woman – I’m sure she sees the logic in what I’m saying here. My best guess is that this makes for good press, and what is clear is that she’ll stop at nothing to get her message out and gain readers – after all, she recently blogged about her success with gaining 21 million page views.. This is fine, but not if you start publishing nonsense to get a reaction.

The problem, not just with this blog post, is that people will eventually catch on to your methods and stop taking you seriously. Most of her followers seems to die-hard pro-teacher-at-any-cost supporters who refuse to acknowledge a single valid point that is not their own. They refuse to acknowledge complexity or nuance of arguments, perspectives, or educational policy. Anything suggested by the Gates foundation must be wrong, anything ever accomplished by a non-non-profit or school must have a secret agenda.

I’ll end by saying what I’ve said plenty of times before – I’m probably more on Diane’s side of the argument more than I’m not. She has some good things to say, but doesn’t generally find a good way of saying them. I continue to hope she finds a more mature position from which to advocate for our shared positions, because I believe kids would benefit more if she did.

Until then….

Merit Pay

Diane Ravitch recently blogged again about an article advocating against merit pay for teachers. While I often find myself not agreeing with Diane on a lot of topics, I do side with her on this one.

There are two ways to attack this issue: from the neutral perspective of data (simply asking if the technique works), and from a theoretical one.

From a data-based perspective, I’ll leave that to other folks who have those data to confirm, but my understanding is that it’s been tried, and hasn’t worked. If that’s the case, sort of end of story on that point.

From a theoretical perspective, my initial response is actually that I do think there is a salary point above which merit pay would work. To use an extreme example to illustrate the concept, let’s say teachers were given a $300,000 bonus if their kids’ test scores were above a certain point. I don’t think all teachers would be able to accomplish this with all kids, but I do think we’d seen an increase in effort and time spent by teachers, and better results. My sense is that you’d see teachers exerting all kinds of crazy effort trying to improve their game and get results.

However, when we’re talking practically and considering what merit pay actually looks like – the actual amounts offered – it just doesn’t make sense. On the contrary, what we see is a reduction of effort because teachers – many of whom are driven by passion for students and learning – are insulted that their worth or results would be reduced to a few hundred extra dollars. They’re insulted that they’re being told through such an incentive program that they aren’t really trying as hard as they can, because if the powers that be did believe they were trying their hardest, they wouldn’t be offering this incentive program.

So, for now, I’ll enjoy this moment of consensus with Diane!