Monday, May 14, 2012
Corporate Education Reform: the Status Quo That "never works and never dies"
If the growing groundswell against the country’s so-called “education reformers” has a philosophical leader, it is Dr. Diane Ravitch, a gray-haired, soft-spoken and mightily armed education historian and author.
Earlier this week in New Brunswick, Ravitch — now research professor of education at NYU and author most recently of "The Death and Life of the Great American School System" — brought her audience to its feet more than once as she quietly, but with deadly force, demolished the cause and case of “education reform” in America.
In Thursday's annual “Education Justice Lecture” jointly sponsored by the Education Law Center and the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy of Rutgers University, Ravitch spoke on “What Is School Reform?”. Questions from a panel and audience members followed.
In discussing the state of public education today — attacked and demonized by ”reformers” — Ravitch assured that virtually no issue was left behind: student testing and teacher evaluation, charter schools, merit pay, teacher tenure and the two federal laws that engendered “reform,” No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.
Before beginning her low-key evisceration of education “reform,” Ravitch rejected its first premise, that American public education is failing, as “nonsense.” She detailed how the current graduation rate is now the highest in history, and achievement rates are going up, even given mainstreaming of special needs students and growing numbers of pupils who speak English as a second language.
Tracing the drive for education reform to President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) law, Ravitch said that thanks to it, more than half of our schools are deemed “failures” because the proficiency levels they were supposed to achieve were impossible. “Schools have been turned into testing factories,” she said. “We’re confusing testing with teaching,” while “the ideas of joy and learning seem hopelessly antique.”
Describing NCLB as “the death star of American education,” Ravitch pointed out that testing has become a financial bonanza for everyone involved in test making. It holds kids accountable, she said, while President Barack Obama’s “Race To The Top,” picking up where NCLB left off, holds teachers accountable.
“No one has explained why we are racing or what the top is.”
On today’s education “reformers,” Ravitch was emphatic. They are factually wrong, she said. Their approach employs corporate language, with “turnaround” and “transformation” among their euphemisms and schools are seen as businesses. Rather than offering help, they close schools and turn them over to private enterprise.
“Corporate reformers are never discouraged by evidence; they’re believers,” she said.
Charter schools are one thing education “reformers” (including NJ Governor Chris Christie and Chris Cerf, Acting Commissioner of the Department of Education) believe in and promote.
Ravitch held that charters do not get better results and they also drain money away from public schools. Charters have fewer regulations and more money than public schools, and fewer kids likely to have low scores or who are troublesome, she asserted. Charters don’t seek the neediest students, but the highest test scores, for bragging rights.
She foresees the possibility of a dual education system eventually emerging, with charter schools for segregated, hand-picked students likely to do well, and public schools as dumping grounds for students the charters don’t want.
As “one of the most important issues of our time,” Ravitch said the basic reason for public education is to prepare citizens, and this doesn’t happen in a charter school.
“A democracy requires a free public education system that serves all children well,” she said.
Another reformer-favorite is merit pay, now coming up on its 100th birthday as a concept. Ravitch described it as “the issue that never works and never dies.” Teachers believe in working collaboratively, not competitively,” she said. As for teacher tenure, long a reformer target, it’s not a promise of lifetime employment, she said, but a promise of due process.
Poverty, said Ravitch, is the “root cause” of poor academic achievement. And yet we turn a blind eye to poverty and income imbalances where resources and energy expenditure are concerned.
Repeatedly asked how to push back against this “education reform” movement, Ravitch said it will take an ongoing process of public education. Rather than merely pushing back against reformers’ agenda, she advised, focus on “our schools,” “our community” and “our collaboration.” It shouldn’t be about "me" (as in my school or my kid), but about "we," she stressed.
She has talked with an estimated 200,000 people in the last two years, and “No one likes what’s going on.” But “It’s an unequal battle right now. We have the people; they have the money.”
Introduced to her lecture audience as “the country’s foremost advocate for public education,” Ravitch still held the trophy by the end of her talk. She was presented with the Education Justice Award for outstanding service and commitment to advancing equal opportunity at a reception afterwards.