Republished with permission of the New York State School Boards Association
Diane Ravitch is calling on school board members to be the front line in defending traditional public education from reform tactics that have political appeal but little or no science behind them.
“We need local school boards,” said the renowned education historian and prominent author in an address at NYSSBA’s 91st Annual Convention & Trade Show, held in Manhattan Oct. 21-24. “We need local school boards because we need democracy, not autocracy. We need a place where the public can go to talk about the issues they care about, to debate issues and to make decisions in public and not have decisions made behind closed doors and thrust upon them.”
Ravitch who spent nearly an hour after the speech signing copies of her latest book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System said the issue of federal aggregation of power has gotten worse in the past two years.
And the feds want individual states to hold more sway over local school district decisions, she warned. “They consider you the impediment,” she said.
She implored school board members to continue to be “the eyes and ears” of their communities.
The other option, she warned, is unaccountable power in Washington, Albany and the privately-run charter school movement.
Ravitch said the federal government has unleashed a torrent of ill-founded school reforms that could undermine student achievement and put American students further behind their international counterparts.
“There’s been a terrible continuity from the George W. Bush policies of No Child Left Behind to the current administration’s policy with Race to the Top,” said Ravitch, who served as assistant secretary of education under George H. W. Bush. “It’s the same approach: Let’s kill all the school boards, let’s have mayoral control and let’s wipe out democracy in education because we have all the answers.”
Armed with an encyclopedic command of education research, Ravitch said data is often manipulated and used for political ends. For instance, she excoriated the State Education Department for its recent decision to change the proficiency scores on Regents’ exams, calling it “a terrible debacle.”
She said children were “cheated” by officials in Albany who for years were “boosting scores and boosting their own reputations.” And no one was held accountable, she noted.
After state officials determined their scores did not mesh with those on national standardized tests, the decision was made to raise the scores needed for proficiency. Ravitch scoffed at the timing of that decision, noting the “inflated scores” were used in New York’s Race to the Top application.
She called the Obama administration’s Race to the Top grant program “a bad bargain.” Some districts, she said, will be granting control of their educational policy to the state for only a few thousand dollars.
“What you’ll get are more privately managed charter schools even though the research shows they don’t get better results than traditional public schools, you’ll get more pressure for merit pay even though the research shows that it has not achieved desired outcomes,” Ravitch warned. “You’ll get more data collection as if we don’t already have enough data, you will get more evaluations of teachers by test data and more of an emphasis on testing as though there isn’t enough already, and you’ll have to pay for all of this yourself.”
Meanwhile, the public is being bombarded with a harsh and negative narrative about public education, she said.
Ravitch pointed directly at the recent NBC special “Education Nation” and the popular documentary film Waiting for Superman.
The film, she said, was “dishonest” and part of what she calls the “shock doctoring” of public education. The said the film is another voice claiming that “public education is broken beyond repair and it needs to be run like a business.”
This steady but inaccurate message is part of the reason that charter schools have become such a force in this country, according to Ravitch.
The other is that the ability to use public dollars in a largely unregulated business appeals to hedge fund managers and others who want to make money by investing in education.
One problem, noted Ravitch, is that despite the claims of charter school proponents, the schools have not performed better than their traditional public school counterparts.
In fact, she cited a study by Stanford University economist Margaret Raymond that concluded that 17 percent of charters were superior to a matching traditional public school, 37 percent were worse, and 46 percent performed no differently than a similar public school.
Using the much-heralded Harlem Children’s Zone Charter School run by Geoffrey Canada as an example, Ravitch said his school does not produce amazing results. And charter schools have the luxury of booting underperforming students back to their neighborhood school.
“Geoffrey Canada told his students that if you come to this school you will go to college,” Ravitch said. But when one class continued to underachieve, Ravitch said that Canada sent a letter home to parents saying, “I’m dissolving this grade level; you’re all thrown out.”
That’s just one of the stories she said the public will not hear from the mainstream press. Instead, they are fed storylines about kids escaping bad schools, especially bad teachers, in the traditional system.
Another popular belief that Ravitch branded a misconception is that great teachers can change everything.
She noted that in the movie “Waiting for Superman,” there was an odd inclusion of a clip of pilot Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier. Since Yeager did what many thought impossible, Ravitch sarcastically noted, does it follow that good teachers are all it takes to overcome the disadvantages of poverty, homelessness, joblessness, poor nutrition and absent parents?
“If the teachers are very important, if they are the single most important factor inside of a school, the outside school factors matter more,” she said.
For that reason, Ravitch was critical of the overwhelming dependence on merit pay and value-added analysis. She said she distrusts such a reliance on performance data and believes more time should be spent on teacher and principal training.
“What we need in our schools is experienced and knowledgeable principals that are wise enough to evaluate their teachers and wise enough to know who should stay and who should go,” Ravitch said in her closing remarks.
-Brian M. Butry, staff writer, On Board