A Devastating Critique of Choice and Competition in Education by a Former Advocate: Part 2

Trevor Cobbold continues a review of Diane Ravitch’s new book: The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education.

Charter schools

Ravitch has also skewered charter schools as a panacea for education improvement:

Given the weight of studies, evaluations and federal test data, I concluded that deregulation and privately managed charter schools were not the answer to the deep-seated problems of American education. Wall Street Journal, 9 March]

Charter schools are publicly funded schools that operate outside the direct control of local school districts, under a publicly issued charter that gives them greater autonomy than other public schools have over curriculum, instruction, and operations. They are schools of choice and any parents within a district can apply to enrol their child.

In her book, Ravitch shows that charters have never outperformed traditional public schools on the federal NAEP tests from 2003 to 2009. Nor have black and Latino students in charter schools performed better than their counterparts in public schools.

She says this is surprising because charter schools have many advantages over public schools. Many are better funded than public schools. They skim off many of the most motivated students. They are free to “counsel out” students who are unable or unwilling to meet expectations, that is, to encourage them to leave. For example, one study of charters in the San Francisco area found that 60% of those students who started the fifth grade were gone before the end of eighth grade. Most of those who left were low performers.

Studies of charters in Boston, New York City and Washington have found that charters, as compared to public schools, have smaller percentages of the students who are generally hardest to educate—those with disabilities and English-language learners. Because the public schools must educate everyone, they end up with disproportionate numbers of the neediest students which charters don’t want.

So we’re left with the knowledge that a dramatic expansion in the number of privately managed schools is not likely to raise student achievement. Meanwhile, public schools will become schools of last resort for the unmotivated, the hardest to teach and those who didn’t win a seat in a charter school. If our goal is to destroy public education in America, this is precisely the right path. Los Angeles Times, 14 March]

Under Obama’s Race to the Top program states have to be committed to transforming many, many public schools into charter schools. Ravitch says it is in fact a privatisation program. It means turning over many, many public schools to charter schools. She notes that the charter school sector has largely been taken over by private entrepreneurs and more will move in under Obama’s plan for more charter schools. It threatens to destroy public education.

… I think that with the proliferation of charter schools, the bottom-line issue is the survival of public education, because we’re going to see many, many more privatised schools and no transparency as to who’s running them, where the money is going, and everything being determined by test scores. Democracy Now, 5 March]

We can’t improve American education by destroying the public education system and privatizing it. Education News, 13 March]

Teachers

Ravitch is especially critical of what she sees as a very punitive attitude towards teachers in the United States. She says that teachers now are being blamed for everything and this is undermining teachers’ morale and professionalism and driving people away from the profession.

If we are serious about improving our schools, we must abandon the punitive rhetoric that threatens to drive away many good teachers. Of course, there should be better teacher evaluations, and bad teachers should be removed if they fail to improve with extra support. But evaluations should be thoughtful and must involve human judgment, not just rely on test scores. We can’t fire our way to better education. And we won’t attract better teachers by demonizing and scapegoating them whenever students fail to get higher scores. The New Republic, 15 March]

She has noted that nations like Finland and Japan seek out the best graduates for teaching positions, prepare them well, pay them well and treat them with respect New York Times, 2 March]. They make sure that all their students study the arts, history, literature, geography, civics, foreign languages, the sciences and other subjects. She says “they do this because this is the way to ensure good education.”

Ravitch castigates evaluating teachers by their students’ test scores. She says there is no evidence that it will improve student achievement. The scores depend to a large degree on the random mix of students in a teacher’s class. A teacher may have a highly motivated group of students one year that gets excellent scores, but an unmotivated group the next year that gets average or poor scores.

What’s more, although it has become fashionable recently to discount the influence of poverty on student achievement, decades of social science research have demonstrated that test scores are highly correlated with income and social status. Just as teachers can’t control which students they have in class each year, they can’t control where those students come from.

She says that schools work best when teachers collaborate to help their students and strive together for common goals, not when they compete for higher scores and bonuses.

Ravitch also has something to say in her book about teacher unions. She says that it is a myth that unionisation hinders education improvement as many advocates of markets assert.

No one, to my knowledge, has demonstrated a clear, indisputable correlation between teacher unionism and academic achievement, either negative or positive…Some of the top-performing nations in the world are highly unionized, others are not. Finland, whose students score highest on international assessments of reading, has a teacher workforce that is nearly 100 percent unionized. Most high-performing Asian nations do not have large proportions of unionized teachers (though some do). Unionization per se does not cause high student achievement, nor does it cause low achievement.

The threat of corporate control of education

One chapter in Ravitch’s book is titled “The Billionaires Boys Club”. Here she examines the efforts of several billionaires who have been using their wealth through their foundations to shape American education in ways that have been excluding the voices of the people whose schools are being reshaped and the teachers who work in such schools.

These foundations have been pouring unprecedented amounts of money into schools to underwrite initiatives they favour. Their agenda is choice, competition and the privatisation of public education. In a recent interview on the launch of her book, she said:

We have never in the history of the United States had foundations with the wealth of the Gates Foundation and some of the other billionaire foundations—the Walton Family Foundation, The Broad Foundation. And these three foundations—Gates, Broad and Walton—are committed now to charter schools and to evaluating teachers by test scores. And that’s now the policy of the US Department of Education. We have never seen anything like this, where foundations had the ambition to direct national educational policy, and in fact are succeeding. Democracy Now, 5 March]

In her book she says this development is a threat to the future of public education:

With so much money and power aligned against the neighbourhood public school and against education as a profession, public education itself is placed at risk.

Further, she writes:

There is something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society’s wealthiest people.

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