A Devastating Critique of Choice and Competition in Education by a Former Advocate: Part 3

The final part of 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.

Call to rejuvenate public education

Ravitch ends her book with a clarion call:

At the present time, public education is in peril. Efforts to reform public education are, ironically, diminishing its quality and endangering its very survival. We must turn attention to improving schools, infusing them with the substance of genuine learning and reviving the conditions that make learning possible

Above all, it must be recognised that education improvement is hard work and there are no miracle cures: “…history teaches that there are no shortcuts, no quick fixes, no easy answers” The New Republic, 15 March].

A quality curriculum for all is central to school improvement. She says that “what we need is not a marketplace, but a coherent curriculum that prepares all students” Wall Street Journal, 9 March]. In her book, she says that a broad curriculum for all students is fundamental: “You can’t have a full and rich education by teaching only basic skills”.

Ravitch emphasises the need to deal with poverty and its affect on learning. She says that schools cannot be improved if this is ignored.

Disadvantaged children need… preschool and medical care. They need small classes [and] extra learning time. Their families need….coordinated social services that help them….acquire necessary social and job skills, and…..obtain jobs and housing. While the school itself cannot do these things, it should be part of a web of public and private agencies that buttress families.

Ravitch says that every neighbourhood should have a good public school. She notes that neighbourhoods were once knitted together by a familiar local school that served all children in the neighbourhood, but this has been undermined by choice of schools. She says that most parents want a strong stable school that is within reasonable distance of their home.

Ravitch also supports a greater community voice in education decisions. She says that the integration of a corporate agenda for education and centralized education administration is denying a public voice in education. She points to Julia Gillard’s much admired New York City model as a classic case of how corporate interests and autocratic control of public education combine to deny parents and teachers a voice in education policy.

It solves no problems to exclude parents and the public from important decisions about education policy or to disregard the educators who work with students daily. Public education is a vital institution in our democratic society, and its governance must be democratic, open to public discussion and public participation.

She argues that the promotion of democratic citizenship is the central mission of public schools, an important corrective to big business reformers who focus only on test scores and satisfying “consumers.” In the penultimate paragraph of her book she writes:

Our public education system is a fundamental element of our democratic society. Our public schools have been the pathway to opportunity and a better life for generations of Americans, giving them the tools to fashion their own lives and to improve the commonweal. To the extent we strengthen them, we strengthen our democracy.

Timely warning for Australia

Ravitch’s book is a timely warning for the Australian public as the Rudd Government embarks on an extension of the market in education that David Kemp could only dream of.

Test-based accountability is now entrenched in Australia with the launch of the My School website. There is no strong evidence that it will increase student achievement. Even the head of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Council, Peter Hill, admits that there is very little evidence to support Gillard’s faith in reporting school results. Ravitch’s book shows that it narrows the curriculum and denies children a well balanced education.

Gillard has threatened schools that fail to lift their performance with sanctions, such as firing principals and teachers and closing schools. Sanctions are now a feature of the American education system. Ravitch clearly shows it has had little success in raising performance. Firing teachers is a punitive approach that demoralises the profession and turns people away from teaching. Closing schools in the US is now at a farcical stage as many school districts are closing schools that were opened after closing other schools.

At least one Australian state is now experimenting with a teacher pay system partly based on student test scores. Gillard has also floated the idea of adopting the New York City approach of basing teacher tenure on student test scores. Once again, there is very little evidence to support such schemes as Ravitch shows.

The Rudd Government has continued the privatisation of Australian education through the SES funding model of the Howard Government which has underwritten the expansion of private schools and undermined public education.

Further privatisation of public education is behind the agenda of calls for greater autonomy and independence for schools within the public system. It will create a wedge for greater business involvement and control of public education. The new system of autonomous schools in Western Australia is the start of a form of charter schools in Australia. The next stage will be a greater role for big business and private foundations. The recent call by former Victorian Premier, Steve Bracks, for big business to help schools improve and to play a greater role in funding and shaping public education should be seen as part of this agenda (_The Age_, 19 March). Bracks is now a senior advisor of the National Australia Bank.

The prospect is that these measures will cause Australian education to more and more resemble the parlous state of American education. There has to be a substantial re-think. Just as Diane Ravitch was forced to confront her own hopes about test-based accountability by the accumulating evidence that it does not work, Gillard and other education ministers around Australia should do so too. Ravitch’s new book is the place for them to start.

Trevor Cobbold

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