“I’m here because I’m frightened for the future of public education.”
That was the opening salvo by education historian Diane Ravitch, as she offered a spirited condemnation of many of today’s popular school reform ideas at a Sunday afternoon session of NSBA’s Federal Relations Network Conference.
As a matter of history, it’s unclear that public education has ever faced such fierce criticism as it does today, said Ravitch, a nationally recognized education author, former U.S. assistant secretary of education, and research professor at New York University.
Certainly the public schools have come under criticism before, she said. But there was a difference from today.
“Critics of public education wanted to make public education better. They didn’t want to replace it with privatization. They wanted higher standards
more funding and more equitable funding
an end to segregation. They didn’t want to get rid of public education.”
Today, it appears some school reformers are out to demoralize the education community and undermine public confidence in the public schools, she said.
They’re telling people the schools are terrible, Ravitch said. The schools are failing. Educators can’t solve any of their problems. Teachers are responsible for the failure. The schools are filled with bad teachers.
“They want to divide people who support public education,” she continued. “Then, when everybody is divided and demoralized, that’s when they’ll move in and privatize our schools. That’s just a terrible scenario.”
As Ravitch described it, the cacophony against public schools is the work of “politicians, Wall Street hedge fund managers, media tycoons, and the wealthiest in the nation who have their eyes on the education industry,’ as they call it. They see an opportunity for desegregation, to put schools in the hands of entrepreneurs.”
This effort really gained momentum with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, a “toxic brand” as Ravitch described the law. By setting impossibly high standards for 2014, school reformers ensured that more and more schools would be labeled as “failing”setting the stage for public disillusionment with public education.
“No Child Left Behind is a timetable for the deconstruction of public education in America.”
Today’s reformers no better. Ravitch criticized the Obama administration’s Race to the Top (RTTT) program for its competitive approach to reform. The federal role in education was designed to bring equity to the nation’s schools, she said, not to create a generation of winners and losers for federal funding.
“Federal funding should be available to all children … to all students in need, not those in states that happened to win a competition.”
Another of today’s popular reform ideas — the closing of low-performing schools — also is wrongheaded, she says. That practice has been used in the Chicago schools for years, but research shows that the majority of students at these schools simply end up transferring to other low-performing schoolsand, on top of that, they lose any community supports that exited at their old school.
Such efforts are nothing but a case of musical chairs, she said. “No child will be helped by any of these measures. It will be accompanied by turmoil, with new schools opening with the same kids and the same problems unaddressed.”
Finally, such reforms ignore what educators have known for years — that a school’s academic success is highly linked to the number of impoverished children it serves, she said. “You keep having corporate types saying that poverty is just an excuse,” she said. But “we have 100 years of political science that says they don’t know what they’re talking about.”
So when school leaders walk out of the FRN conference later this week to visit with to lawmakers in Congress, she said, the message should be: “Stop closing schools. Closing schools is not a turnaround strategy
Fix the schools. Evaluate their needs and help them. The federal government has dramatically overstepped its bounds
Get the federal government out of the business of punishing schools.”