THE BLOG

Keep Your 'Disruption' Out of Our Schools

08/21/2013 03:09 pm ET | Updated Oct 21, 2013

Judith Shulevitz recently wrote a brilliant essay on "disruption" as a business strategy.

As we know, mega-corporations believe they must continually reinvent themselves in order to have the latest, best thing and beat their competitors, who are about to overtake them in the market.

They believe in disruption as a fundamental rule of the marketplace.

By some sloppy logic or sleight-of-hand, the financial types and corporate leaders who think they should reform the nation's schools have concluded that the schools should also be subject to "creative disruption" or just plain "disruption."

And so we have the unaccredited Broad Superintendents Academy, underwritten by billionaire Eli Broad, sending out superintendents who are determined to "disrupt" schools by closing them and handing them over to private management.

Unfortunately, Secretary Arne Duncan agrees that disruption is wonderful, so he applauds the idea of closing schools, opening new schools, inviting the for-profit sector to compete for scarce funds, and any other scheme that might disrupt schools as we know them.

He does this believing that U.S. education is a failed enterprise and needs a mighty shaking-up.

First, he is wrong to believe that U.S. public education is failing. That is untrue. I document that he is wrong in my new book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and The Danger to America's Public Schools, using graphs from the U.S. Department of Education website.

Second, "disruption" is a disaster for children, families, schools, and communities.

Think of little children. They need continuity and stability, not disruption. They need adults who are a reliable presence in their lives. But, following the logic of the corporate reformers, their teachers must be fired, their school must be closed, everything must be "turned around" and brand new or the kids won't learn. No matter how many parents and children appear at school board meetings, no matter how much they plead for the life of their neighborhood school, the hammer falls and it is closed. This is absurd.

Think of adolescents. When they misbehave, we say they are "disruptive." Now we are supposed that their disruptive behavior represents higher order thinking.

But no one can learn when one student in a class of thirty is disruptive.

Disruptive policies harm families because after the closing of the neighborhood school, they are expected to shop for a school. They are told they have "choice," but the one choice denied them is their neighborhood school. Maybe one of their children is accepted at the School of High Aspirations, but the other didn't get accepted and is enrolled instead in the School for Future Leaders, which happens to be on the other side of town. That is not good for families.

Disruption is not good for communities. In most communities, the public school is the anchor of community life. It is where parents meet, talk about common problems, work together, and learn the fundamental processes of democratic action.

Disruption destroys local democracy. It atomizes families and communities, destroying their ability to plan and act together on behalf of their community.

By closing their neighborhood school, disruption severs people from the roots of their community. It fragments community.

It kneecaps democracy.

City after city is now suffering a "disruptive" assault on public education. Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed dozens of schools in Chicago; Mayor Michael Bloomberg closed dozens of schools in New York City; public education in Detroit is dying; Philadelphia public schools are on life support, squeezed by harsh budget cuts and corporate faith in disruption and privatization.

But the disruptive strategy won't be confined to urban districts. As the tests for the new national Common Core standards are introduced in state after state, test scores will collapse as predicted because they are so "hard." Parents will be outraged. Disruption and havoc will produce what corporate reformers are hoping for: a loss of faith in public education; a conviction that it is broken beyond repair; and a willingness to try anything, even to allow for-profit vendors to take over the responsibilities of the public sector. That is already happening in many states, where hundreds of millions of dollars are siphoned away from public schools and handed over to disruptive commercial enterprises. It doesn't produce better education, but it produces profits.

Maybe that is the point of disruption.

Diane Ravitch is a historian of American education. Her latest book is Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and The Danger to America's Public Schools. She writes a blog at dianeravitch.net