Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Diane Ravitch & The Death and Life of the Great American School System

Not too long ago, I wrote a review of this book on Elephant Journal, and I had the privilege of hearing Ms. Ravitch speak both in Boulder and in Denver.

I find myself agreeing with much of Ms. Ravitch's messages: the disaster that has become standardized testing, the over-involvement of politicians and business people in education, and the dangers of the lack of accountability when  it comes to large foundations who are (sometimes successfully) imposing their view of education on schools with often no background in education and no real accountability to anyone but themselves. I do, however, find myself in disagreement with her, at least in part, on the charter school issue.

First, standardized testing. While the idea behind the ill-implemented NCLB law was noble, and the idea that all children would be at grade level by the time they graduate is a noble one, the reality of it is that it is absolutely impossible for this to occur. While this may sound somewhat shocking coming from a career educator, the reasons I say this are many and most are beyond the control of schools. Let's say, for example, a student is recently arrived in the United States and does not speak any English, a phenomenon that is far more common than one might assume (regardless of immigration status, to head off that particular argument; this summer I worked with two students from Africa and one from Iraq who had been here less than one year, were documented immigrants, and who spoke no English upon arrival). It is well documented that it takes five to seven years to master a second language. Should that student arrive in their junior or senior year of high school, they will likely graduate with a rudimentary grasp of the language, but there is no way they will graduate on grade level. And so that student's school would be sanctioned.

And what of those students who, for a variety of reasons, are involved in special education and who are simply unable to achieve grade level in one or more areas of academic study? Once again, their school will be sanctioned. What of those living in poverty? For years, it was assumed that poverty did not affect a student's education, and while it is not an excuse for not learning, at the same time, it is simple fact that students living in poverty and/or attending less-affluent schools are not on equal footing with their more financially well-off peers. (There are a range of studies documenting this simple fact.)

Don't get me wrong. I'm not against being held accountable. I'm absolutely in favor of that. If I'm not doing my job, then help me to get better. If that still doesn't work, then counsel me out of the profession. However, as Ravitch discusses in her book, no one has any proven method for improving schools that don't do well on the tests and she points out the sad irony that closing schools is a sign of "getting tough" rather than a sign of failure of that administration, district, state, or similar governing body. It's a constant irritant of mine that when a school does well, it's to the credit of administration and/or parents, but when a school is doing poorly, it is the fault of the teachers alone. This constant vilification of teachers is one reason why I know of many very good, even excellent, educators either have left the field entirely or are seriously considering it.

Let us also consider the narrow range of the tests and also consider how much of what occurs in education is simply untestable. How does one test social skills, the development of creative thinking and problem solving, the skill of learning to work with and alongside those who may be radically different whether based on race, ethnicity, culture, gender, age, and so on? And yet, here we have NCLB. A nice idea badly implemented with no though to its unintended consequences and no attempt to redress those consequences.

Which leads me to my next point: the involvement of politicians and business people who have decided that they know better than those in the classroom what the needs of children are and how best to meet those needs. As Ravitch points out, there is much discussion by these same types of teachers being the "experts" and the "true professionals," yet when it comes down to it, that is not at all how teachers are really being viewed and treated. In her book, she wonders why it is these same politicians don't try to tell doctors, nurses, and so forth how to do their jobs; I agree. The prevalent view seems to be "well, I went to school once, so therefore I know what how to fix things." By that same logic, I've been to a doctor's office a few times, so where is my medical degree? Unfortunately, the current administration in the White House seems bent on continuing the same misguided policies of the previous administration, and so there will be no light at the end of this tunnel anytime soon. Certainly the passage of SB-191 here in Colorado, a law proposed by an "educator" who spent a mere two years as a teacher then three years as a principal, has given reason for pause for a great number of current and prospective teachers. It should be noted that for the five years this particular politician was involved in education, his students' scores consistently went down. I can't help but wonder if his new law was intended to protect children from "educators" like himself.

Money, money, money. Much as we would all like to say it's love that makes the world go 'round, it seems that money is increasingly the impetus for our planet's rotations. It deeply saddens me when I see communities vote down issues to improve their schools and their libraries. Communities claim to want the best schools yet seem unwilling to pay for them, and as a result, these huge foundations wielding large sums of cash yet no background in education, are able to come in and dictate what happens on their terms. And if their ideas fail, what then? They simply walk away with no real consequence to them, though the consequences to the school and/or community involved are tremendous.

Charter schools. Depending on who you talk to, charter schools are either the salvation or the destruction of the public school system, and I suppose depending on the charter school that is true. While I do understand the accusations made against charter schools, that they have a tendency to siphon off the "best and brightest" in a school, that is not always the case, but if and when it is the case, I find it unfortunate that a particular school will bemoan its loss rather than rather than said school or district taking the time to reflect on why there is a need for that particular charter school.

It's rather sad that so many of our public schools and public school districts are so incredibly conservative when it comes to change, and that is really what charter schools represent. It is convenient to put the blame on the teachers or the teachers' unions, but generally speaking, neither of those are the issue. The real issue is fear. Charter schools are willing to take chances and are willing to experiment with pedagogy and curriculum; traditional schools are much, much slower to take those same chances and are slower to respond to outside "market forces" (for lack of a better term). There is much talk of being "data driven" versus being "data informed" as Ms. Ravitch discusses in the book with a push towards the latter, which makes much more sense. The idea of being "research based" is an additional oft-repeated catch phrase in public schools, but charter schools are generally more willing to do the research themselves rather than wait for the someone else to do it.

And let's face it, when it comes to various specific populations of students, public schools simply drop the ball, viewing programs that might engage and benefit those students as "nice to do when we have the time or money," so while yes, there are many, many things that public schools do extraordinarily well, there is still a need for charter schools and there probably always will be.

That being said, I do agree with Ravitch when she speaks out against the privatization of public schools. That is an extraordinarily awful idea, and I definitely am suspicious of for-profit corporations that choose to open schools. Many are well-intentioned, no doubt. However, the idea of making money off of educating children in that regard just doesn't sit particularly well with me. One of the cornerstones of our country is the unique approach we have to the education of our children: that every child is fully entitled to a free and appropriate education. I'm not entirely convinced that a for-profit corporation can and will see it that way. I was told many years ago that I needed to understand that a particular school was a business; I responded that it was my opinion that person needed to understand that it was a school. The bottom line in education should be its students, not its profits.

Diane Ravitch's book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, is likely one of the best books on education and educational policy to hit the shelves in the past five, maybe even ten, years. I cannot recommend this book enough. Regardless of how much or how little someone may be involved in education, this is one book that will give the reader much to think about and perhaps much to consider locally and nationally on the educational stage.


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