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Educating for Democracy: Diane Ravitch: Reforming the "Reformers"

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In the latest issue of the New York Review of Books, Diane Ravitch, who has been writing critically and incisively for the last five years about the inadequacies of the "School Reform" movement, wrote a review of a book by Steven Brill called Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America's Schools (New York Review of Books, (9/29/2011) www.nybooks.com. ) The review itself convincingly dissects Brill's book for what it is: an advocacy for charter schools, standardized testing and other measures of the so-called "reformers" who are, essentially, defenders of the economic status quo. Since there has been no measurable improvement in student scores, as determined by reliable tests like the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) over the last decade, one would hope that some sensible policies might be considered to replace those failed ones. And there seem to be a few glimmers of hope, although they are only glimmers.

Ravitch's review underlines the pattern of "reform" measures as a result of the No Child Left Behind law which, in her words "has turned out to be the worst federal education legislation ever passed." She then puts in historical perspective the challenges to the educational establishment in the United States for not just decades but generations: "American education was in a crisis a century ago, when urban schools were overcrowded, swamped with students from Eastern and Southern Europe who didn't speak English." More contemporary examples include Admiral Hyam Rickover's blaming the science and math programs of the nation's schools for the Soviet's temporary triumph with Sputnik in the 1950's; the concerns of Civil Rights leaders over the effects of racial segregation in the 1960's; Charles Silberman's "Crisis in the Classroom" in the 1970's; Secretary of Education Terrell Bell's evaluation of schools as a "rising tide of mediocrity" in the 1980's; President George H.W. Bush's convening of the nation's governors to "agree on national goals" for education in 1989; culminating in George W. Bush's "No Child Left Behind" and President Obama's "Race to the Top" in this last decade.

Ravitch points out that contrary to negative perceptions about the school system's ability to educate the nation's young learners, the top students in this country in districts where less than 10% of the students were poor recently "outperformed the schools of Finland, Japan and Korea." Even when the percentage of economically disadvantaged students was one quarter, American students performed as well as those from these top-performing countries. Additionally, Ravitch cites a recent report by the Educational Testing Service (www.ets.org) that "the black-white achievement gap is as old as the nation itself" but was cut in half in the 1970's and 1980's by, among other things, "increased economic opportunities for black families, federal investment in early education, and reductions in class size." Since then, the black-white achievement gap has once again widened.

According to Ravitch, the policies that do not work, although still in the forefront of the "reformers" agenda are: "privately managed charter schools, evaluations of teachers on the basis of their students' test scores, acceptance of a recently developed set of national standards in reading and mathematics, and agreement to fire the staff and close the schools that have persistently low scores." Yet it seems that lacking empirical evidence that they are effective in improving student learning, these "solutions" have been implemented and expanded in many states as if the policies were run by a bunch of drunken steamroller drivers plunging into a Sunday school picnic.

And yet Ravitch's dogged and tireless attempts to put the breaks on the steamroller may begin to have borne some results buttressed by the recent revelations of test score cheating in public schools in major cities and the increasing awareness of parents that "reform" in their children's schools is really about "dumbing down" standards to give the appearance of improvement in learning.

On a recent program on WNYC, (Brian Lehrer (9/22/2011) Beth Fertig, an education reporter, indicated that the new NYC school chancellor, Dennis Walcott, is deciding on a "kinder, gentler" approach to the chaos that has marked "school reform" in New York City since Mayor Bloomberg took charge. Walcott used such phrases as "I want to listen to parents" and "testing should be more aligned to what is going on in the classroom," and that missing phrase from most of the "reformers'" discussions on improving the schools:the need for students to develop "critical thinking" in describing the changes he intends to make in how schools will be run and evaluated in the future. But if what he means by "testing more aligned to what is going on in the classroom" is just more testing, that will lead nowhere.

Even President Obama is finally getting the message that neither "No Child Left Behind" nor "Race to the Top" is going to produce any measurable improved results -- legitimate results -- in learning until he stops the misguided policy of his predecessor and gives teachers a chance to teach, not drill students as a sorry substitute for learning. His Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, said Thursday that the emphasis in giving waivers to states on developing their educational policies will be more on growth than on test scores. "We can't have a law on the books that's slowing down progress, that's slowing down innovation," he said.

Perhaps Diane Ravitch's crusade to save the public school system in this country, of which she is the most conspicuous advocate among many others, will bear some positive results. But much damage to the teaching profession has already been done. I have been told by a few educators who supervise teacher education that the numbers of students majoring in education are declining despite the poor economy. In the past, teaching has been a logical choice for students who felt it as a vocation or, unfortunately, felt inadequate to get a degree in another area. But despite difficult times for employment, in the last year there has been a precipitous drop -- 8% -- in student enrollment for master's degrees in education, a warning of things to come.

I have little doubt that the scapegoating, unreasonable demands and expectations of bureaucrats and politicians, and a media that has bought into the idea that the "reformers" are what they pretend to be, drive able and talented teaching veterans out of the profession. They are replaced, at least half the time, by young and/or inexperienced teachers who need the veterans as mentors and lacking them, will be leaving the profession almost as fast as they get into it.

The linkage between poverty and low educational achievement as the most significant factor in determining a young learner's chances of success has been copiously documented. Until the "reformers" are reformed enough to acknowledge that simple fact and begin to address economic inequality as the most serious barrier to successful learning, all of the smoke and mirrors they are using to distract the public will eventually prove futile, but it will be at a terrible cost to the nation's young learners.