Date: Feb 11, 2014 2:07 PM
Author: Jerry P. Becker
Subject: Tested -- Diane Ravitch's latest call-to-arms

From The Nation, Tuesday, January 28, 2014. See - Our thanks
to Rheta Rubenstein for bringing this piece to our attention.
Note: Photo of Diane Ravitch appears at the end of this article.

Diane Ravitch's latest call-to-arms against the privatization of
public schools.

By Joseph Featherstone [This article appeared in the February 17,
2014 edition of The Nation]

SIDEBAR: Reign of Error The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and
the Danger to America's Public Schools. By Diane Ravitch --
Diane Ravitch is a historian of education who was once a proponent of
conservative school "reform." Starting out in the 1970s as an ally of
Al Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, Ravitch
moved rightward when she joined the movement calling for national
standards and test-based accountability in education. Famously, in
the wake of the wreckage created by President George W. Bush's No
Child Left Behind policy, with its emphasis on high-stakes testing
and the policy of punishing failing schools, she changed her mind.
And she let people know it with a brilliant broadside, The Life and
Death of the Great American School System, aimed at what she now
calls "corporate education reform." [See Featherstone, "Resisting
Reforms," August 12, 2010.] She has since used her popular blog and
nationwide stump speeches to rally a fast-growing army of mutineers
that includes groups like FairTest and Citizens for Public Schools as
well as teachers and parents around the country.

In her new book, Reign of Error, Ravitch attacks the central
narrative of corporate education reform, which goes like this: test
scores prove that US schools have failed, sinking in relation to
measures of aptitude in other countries. High school dropout rates
are on the rise, and our economy and security are at risk. At the
heart of the problem are lazy, incompetent and undemanding teachers.
For this reason, unions and teacher job protection must go. Schools
need evaluating so that we can close the failed ones and open charter
schools in their place. For-profit charters, along with vouchers and
online schools, will provide better education for children at a
cheaper price. Business leaders and foundations are helping us move
in the right direction, toward innovation and school reform.

Reign of Error is both a manifesto fueled by righteous indignation
about this narrative and a policy wonk's memo crammed with charts and
footnotes refuting it. Much like the celebrated statistics wizard
Nate Silver, Ravitch is an explainer, someone who is adept at
explicating technical data without resorting to geek speak. She
extends the arguments of her previous book by claiming that the
American public is the victim of a "hoax" in which purported
free-market solutions have worked as distractions from the truly
pressing problems of poverty and segregation by race and class, which
impede learning and therefore should be the actual target of
education and social reform. The corporate-reform narrative tactfully
avoids using language that smacks of privatization because, while
accurate, it would almost certainly make the proposed reforms less
popular. "Public education is in a crisis only so far as society is
and only so far as this new narrative of crisis has destabilized it,"
Ravitch writes. Having explained why student scores on standardized
tests cannot reliably be used to measure and assess their teachers'
performance, Ravitch concludes by offering a stinging appraisal: this
signature idea of corporate reformers "may even be junk science."

Ours is an age of relentless testing, corrupted by cooked or
deceitful results and widespread cheating scandals. Only one test,
the National Assessment of Educational Progress, has remained
credible, because there are no stakes attached to it. Ravitch cites
NAEP results showing that, contrary to the corporate reformers'
talking points, children's test scores are at the highest point on
record. Reading and math have improved over time (the biggest gains
occurred, however, before No Child Left Behind-a showing that may
reflect the shift in federal policy from equity to test scores). Nor
is it true that the United States is falling behind compared with
other nations, though its scores have never been very high, and
policy-makers should probably worry more than Ravitch does about the
stagnation of US college graduation rates. (Severe inequality pulls
US scores down in international comparisons.) But the high school
dropout rate is at an all-time low, and graduation rates are at an
all-time high. Moreover, there is absolutely no good evidence that
schools are to blame for the struggling economy. On the contrary,
business leaders have succeeded in turning schools into scapegoats
for their decisions to export jobs and lower labor costs. Nor is
there any basis for the claim that schools will improve if teacher
tenure and seniority are abandoned. Likewise, the claim that learning
can be improved by a scorched-earth policy of firing principals and
teachers, closing schools, and starting anew remains unproven.

Ravitch demonstrates that a key claim of the corporate reformers-that
charter schools will be able to produce better results than regular
district schools-is not supported by the evidence. Charters "run the
gamut from excellent to awful," she notes, but on average they're no
better than public schools with comparable populations of students.
Too many charters obtain their good results by culling students who
test well from the public school population, not by taking their
share of special-needs and immigrant students and improving their
capacity to learn. Ravitch does admire the best charters: top-notch
schools that are drawing imaginative teaching talent and doing a
brilliant job with kids in poor communities. She would like to see
good stand-alone nonprofit charters flourish, but with ground rules
that would tether them more closely to public purposes and prevent
them from becoming the foundation of a dual school system even more
segregated by race and class than our present one. She opposes the
growing shift to large charter management chains, which raise serious
questions of accountability, quality and public purpose. The
well-known Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) schools do an admirable
job of selecting smart and determined students, but they are
basically a triage operation, not a model for inclusive public
education. And despite there being some real promise in technology,
Ravitch scorns for-profit virtual and online schools.

The mission of public schools should not be to make money, she
insists. Required to educate all citizens, public schools embody
hard-won principles of equity and inclusion that are now endangered.
The free market always favors those with more money and information,
generating inequality. Many who protest the corporate reformers'
fixation on tests and the current efforts to narrow curriculum and
pedagogy will agree with Ravitch that public schools also have an
obligation to produce a full, rounded and "liberal" education for all
citizens. Good schools with such a curriculum should be, like clean
air and medical care, available to all families. For all the
unfairness and vagaries of local school control and the myriad ways
that political arrangements in the United States act as sieves for
privilege, many local schools still knit together the common life of
a community or neighborhood. Reign of Error is a moving plea to renew
democratic principles and justify education not as a consumer good,
but as an integral part of democratic society.

* * *

In the second half of Reign of Error, also written in a punchy,
data-rich style, Ravitch offers a set of proposals for education, and
they are in keeping with the social and educational vision of
progressives like John Dewey. Specific policy proposals range from
prenatal care for pregnant teens to smaller class sizes. Ravitch has
now joined the growing ranks of scholars and educators who, while
arguing that genuine school reform is crucial, decry the claims of
reform utopianists that schools alone can somehow solve the problems
of a radically unequal social order. The quality of teaching at
public schools can be improved, she says, but such efforts should
march in tandem with progressive initiatives in areas like jobs,
housing, healthcare and early childhood education.

Nearly one-quarter of American children are poor. By emphasizing that
poverty is the central tragic fact about the nation and its schools,
Ravitch is able to explain how, with their false crises and
ill-judged solutions, corporate educators have created a world of
school "reform" that masks the true forces of deterioration in the
public sector: constant school budget cuts and swelling class sizes;
the tailoring of the curriculum to what tests easily in a
multiple-choice format; and an impoverishment of educational services
and vision that erodes the prospects for poor children more than
anyone else. The result is a system in which, increasingly, regular
district schools become dumping grounds for low-scoring children
sitting in decaying buildings that resemble those of a failed state.

It is especially worrying that the federal government, a big backer
of corporate reform, seems to be abandoning its role as a defender of
equity and social justice. The test score gap between black and white
students narrowed in the era of school desegregation, which was
enforced by a vigilant federal government and the courts-but in
recent decades, segregation by race and income has returned as the
new normal in American education. Much of the public, and parts of
the government, have shown little interest in countering the
exacerbation of racial and class segregation; instead, Republican
gerrymandering and the Supreme Court have chipped away at older civil
rights advances. The rare, brave and successful efforts at
desegregation by race and income, such as in the Wake County school
district in North Carolina, are now in retreat under threats from
suburban whites, right-wing politicians and cynical profiteers.

Many educators who backed President Obama were shocked when he not
only backed major elements of No Child Left Behind but also doubled
down on its preference for school "reform" by means of testing and
privatization. His Race to the Top program is worse than its
predecessor in its insistence that states evaluate teachers on the
"junk science" basis of yearly gains in students' test scores. Its
requirements and goals have also triggered a whole new machinery of
failure that culminates in the privatization of schools. This may be
the first time in history that the federal government has encouraged
private sector investors to create for-profit schools.

Ravitch offers an excellent snapshot of the interlocking directorate
of the corporate-reform movement, which spans a political spectrum
ranging from the Obama administration to the Koch brothers and ALEC,
the right-wing legislative outfit, and includes the powerful and
little-understood Gates, Walton and Broad foundations. These actors
have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in a grand effort to
deprofessionalize and privatize public education. The Common Core
State Standards, for example, have already been adopted by forty-five
states (though few have even heard of them)-rushed through, as
Ravitch says, by coalitions of corporate reformers and their allies.
When students across New York State did poorly on Common Core-aligned
tests last year, some observers began to suspect that beneath its
lofty aims, the Common Core could become yet another layer of
pointless testing and another means of labeling schools and teachers
as failures. The most urgent question posed by corporate education
reform, Ravitch says, is "whether a small number of very wealthy
entrepreneurs, corporations and individuals will be able to purchase
educational policy in this nation, either by funding candidates for
local and state school boards, for state legislatures, for governor
and for Congress or by using foundation 'gifts' to advance the
privatization of public education."

* * *

The school failures and closings sanctioned by Race to the Top cause
disruptions in neighborhoods where there is already little stability
in children's lives. When a school is labeled a failing or "focus"
school, it must concentrate all the more on test results, but at that
point many of the academically ambitious families who can will have
fled for better prospects. Federal regulations operate like
quicksand: the more schools struggle, the deeper they sink.
Increasingly, such schools enroll more and more of the disadvantaged
in a downward spiral.

In a high-profile experiment in New York City, then-Schools
Chancellor Joel Klein and Mayor Michael Bloomberg closed low-scoring
schools and replaced them with charters, but the city still has many
strong district schools. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has closed
forty-nine allegedly "failing" schools (some of them launched not so
long ago by an earlier corporate reformer-Arne Duncan, the current
secretary of education-when he was in charge of the Chicago schools).
Emanuel claims that the charters have a "secret sauce" for success,
not knowing-or pretending not to know-that charter test scores are
often the result of pushing underperforming students out. A badly
informed public has little idea of the excesses of privatization now
unfolding in cities like New Orleans, Cleveland and Philadelphia, or
in states like Tennessee, Louisiana, North Carolina, Arizona,
Michigan and Pennsylvania. In Pennsylvania, as in so many other
states, the election of a radically right-wing Republican governor
spells deep trouble for public education. There and in Ohio, wealthy
entrepreneurs have created businesses to run charter schools that get
terrible results but are never held accountable because the
entrepreneurs are major campaign contributors. In Cleveland, the
mayor replaced dozens of public schools with charters even though
Ohio charters generally perform worse than district schools. In
Philadelphia, the Boston Consulting Group-whose well-paid consultants
include Margaret Spellings, secretary of education under President
George W. Bush-was invited to write a report recommending
privatization, even though many Philadelphia schools were privatized
years ago and are doing badly.

Ravitch could have written more extensively about how reform is
dumbing down the teaching profession. The attractive face of Teach
for America-drawing elite college graduates into education-masks the
fact that students taught by TFA graduates score no better than
comparable teachers with comparable kids. But TFA does provide cheap
staffing for the new charter-management chains. (Just under half of
TFA instructors continue to teach past their two-year commitment,
however, and they are often very good.) The Broad Foundation has been
credentialing professionals with no teaching experience to work as
principals and superintendents. The Obama administration has provided
incentive for states competing for Race to the Top funding to promote
often dubious alternative-certification programs. And now it is
taking aim at education schools, armed with the same "junk science"
used to shutter public schools. Who doubts that the machinery of
privatization will follow? Granted, much of teacher education could
be improved; teaching credentials in many places are suspect. Any
defense of teacher education needs to accept that many education
programs do not produce teachers or administrators with the skills
necessary to create the schools needed most. By contrast, the world's
leading school systems-from test-heavy Singapore to progressive
Finland-go to great lengths to support and strengthen teachers as
professionals. The reformers say that teaching is the heart of the
matter, and the public agrees. Yet these same reformers oppose
various proposals to strengthen teacher education and cultivate good
teaching in schools, or to guarantee decent working conditions in
order to attract and retain talented teachers. It's a scandal that
many of the new privatized schools supposedly offering "great
teachers" are staffed by low-cost, untrained instructors with no
rights. Nor is it any surprise that they have considerable staff

* * *

Ravitch can sometimes sound as if she thinks all teachers are
irreproachable, but of course she knows they're not. What to do about
incompetent or abusive teachers and those public schools that operate
like safe houses? Ravitch points to the excellent peer review system
in places like Montgomery County, Maryland, which provides assistance
to struggling teachers and fair processes by which they can be
evaluated and, if necessary, dismissed. Teachers unions too often
stonewall such reforms, but they have also made it possible for
teachers to have careers rather than short-term jobs. Unions are more
necessary than ever to defend the rights of teachers in a new world
of corporate bosses-and to defend public education against the
privatizers. Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey-three states
with test scores that compare favorably with the best in the
world-all have reasonably strong teachers unions. Apart from the "bad
apple" problems, however, national education policy in the long run
should aim for the complete opposite of what the corporate reformers
want: promoting teacher professionalism and finding ways to attract,
retain and promote talented teachers in public schools.

Those like Ravitch who defend public education need to concede-more
than they have been willing to do thus far-that the US system as it
stood before the current wave of corporate reform was not effective
at cultivating good teaching or developing teachers skilled at
reaching children in struggling communities. Good teachers always
exist in numbers, but they are rarely developed by the system. The
depths of racism, poverty and segregation that still exist in this
country strike at families and children in ways that only highlight
the inadequacy of the lazy old bromides about public education. Many
classrooms are not working well for children of the poor (the phrase
"failure factories" comes to mind). Changing this will require, as
Ravitch insists, initiatives against poverty and segregation. We also
urgently need educational resources and-if the word is still
permitted-reform that involves ongoing teacher development.
Similarly, to create, as Ravitch proposes, good universal preschools
will require teachers, schools and professional development programs
of very high quality that we do not now have in any great number.

David Kirp has recently written in his fine book Improbable Scholars
of the ongoing development of principals and teaching staff in Union
City, New Jersey, who have reformed an entire school system that now
does remarkably well by its population of immigrants and the poor.
Union City offers no "secret sauce," but it is a good example of how
the performance of school staff can improve in a district without
corporate reform. Union City has no charters, no TFA teachers and no
school closings-although one catalyst for change was a warning from
the state that the schools were in trouble. Kirp details the way that
teachers and administrators have concentrated collectively on
developing mutual respect, the emotional and character-building
aspects of education, the skills of the teacher, the engagement of
students, parental involvement and the rigor of the curriculum.
Everyone involved is working toward a truly complex-yet
achievable-common goal: "To succeed, students must become thinkers,
not just test-takers." (Among its other reforms, the district offers
two years of pre-K education.)

It may be easier to fight the corporate reformers than to reimagine
and enact the kind of public education that really does leave no
child behind-let alone to reinvent our broken political and economic
systems. But Ravitch's critique of the corporate reformers'
manufactured agenda, along with the truly progressive alternative she
offers, shows us a way to begin the long haul toward improving
democracy's classrooms.

Diane Ravitch

Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244