The Death and Life of the Great American School System (part 3)

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Having critiqued many of the key elements of market-based school reform, Diane Ravitch ends her book by describing a few recent developments and summarizing the lessons she has learned.

President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 included $4.35 billion for “Race to the Top,” a program in which states could compete for funds by submitting their plans for educational reform. Ravitch complains that instead of asking the states for their best ideas, the administration published a list of its own ideas, based less on evidence than on the currently fashionable market-based approaches. States were told that they had to eliminate any barriers to the creation of charter schools and the use of student achievement data to evaluate teachers and principles. In 2010, seven civil rights groups attacked Race to the Top as an inadequate framework for helping students with the greatest needs. That was just one of a number of setbacks to market-based reform in 2010 and 2011. New York City ended its program of distributing bonus pay to schools that raised test scores, after a Rand Corporation study found it ineffective. The National Research Council of the National Academies of Science released a study finding that “test-based accountability led to score inflation, to gaming the system, and to behaviors that undermined the value of the scores,” and that it had little success in raising student achievement. Consistent with those findings, several cheating scandals came to light, notably in the city of Atlanta. The Department of Education published results of a comparison of charter and regular public middle schools, with no significant differences in either academic outcomes or behavior.

Ravitch obviously feels that the movement for school reform has taken a wrong turn in recent years. She is much more sympathetic to the earlier attempt to raise curricular standards, as recommended by the National Commission on Excellence in Education in 1983, and the attempt to strengthen the teaching profession, as recommended by the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future in 1996. She wants every school to have a “well-conceived, coherent, sequential curriculum” covering many academic areas. She wants assessment systems that reflect the full range of subjects taught. She wants teachers to be highly qualified professionals who “love learning and love teaching what they know.”

Ravitch thinks that the United States can learn something from other countries with more successful educational systems. She quotes Marc Tucker of the National Center on Education and the Economy as pointing out, “The education strategies now most popular in the United States are conspicuous by their absence in the countries with the most successful education systems.” Those countries have not achieved what they have through privatization, test-based accountability, merit pay and de-unionization. In Ravitch’s words, “Teachers in these nations are highly respected professionals, with competitive compensation, high-quality professional training in elite institutions, and broad professional autonomy in the workplace. Each of these top nations has a broad national curriculum that includes the arts and music, social sciences, and other subjects.” I have noticed before that America’s leaders often cite global competitiveness as an excuse to justify policies that are quite different from those of our successful competitors; for example, our tough labor policies with severe restrictions on vacation time and parental leave. So of course we blame teachers’ unions for our educational problems, even though an excellent system like Finland’s has unionized teachers.

One of the main reasons why the United States lags behind other countries is our great divide between rich and poor, complicated by our peculiar racial and ethnic history (slavery and high immigration). American schools with a low percentage of poor children compare very favorably to the best school systems in the world. Our educational problem is largely a poverty problem, not because poor children can’t learn, but because they need help overcoming the obstacles to learning that a disadvantaged background places in their way.

Our schools cannot be improved if we ignore the disadvantages associated with poverty that affect children’s ability to learn. Children who have grown up in poverty need extra resources, including preschool and medical care. They need small classes, where they will get extra teacher time, and they need extra learning time. Their families need additional supports, such as coordinated social services that help them to improve their education, to acquire necessary social skills and job skills, and to obtain jobs and housing.

The challenge is to deliver a high quality of services to populations that cannot afford to pay for them. That is an inherently democratic–some would say socialist–goal. It’s just not something that the free market does very well. “The market, with its great strengths, is not the appropriate mechanism to supply services that should be distributed equally to people in every neighborhood in every city and town in the nation without regard to their ability to pay or their political power.” Most poor families do not expect to shop around for a school, any more than they expect to shop around for a fire department or a clean water supply. They need a good public education from a neighborhood school, and good preschool programs as well. Any poor child should be able to spend a good part of the day in a safe, supportive and culturally enriching environment staffed by highly qualified and well-paid teachers or caregivers.

Teachers are important, but they are not everything, as the reformers claim. That claim is too often motivated by a desire to scapegoat the labor force and its unions. (There is often a political motivation as well, since public employee unions are among the last bastions of union support for the Democratic Party.)  “Researchers have consistently concluded that the teacher is the single most important factor that affects student learning inside the school, but non-school factors matter a great deal more.” While the market-based approach divorces school reform from social reform, any real progress requires combining the two. Looking at the problem that way forces us to ask if Americans really have a strong enough faith in poor children and a broad enough concept of investment to devote public resources to the task. As long as we regard the poor as nothing but the cheapest and most expendible labor, or as freeloaders looking for a handout, the answer will be no. We will continue to adopt “reforms” that offer little to those who need them the most.

Instead of reforms based on free-market ideology, we need real innovations that can be shown to have raised the achievement of high-risk students. We need to discover such models and commit the resources necessary to emulate them on a larger scale. Readers will have to look beyond this book for that kind of discussion, since Raditch doesn’t get that specific. Any suggestions for other readings along those lines would be welcome.

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