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Will School Reform Degenerate Into Privatization?

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After linking to a chart by Paul Thomas which illustrates the "insanity" of school "reform," Diane Ravitch explains her conclusion that the goal of today's attempts to restructure education is not school improvement, but privatization. So, Ravitch no longer uses the word "reformer," and instead uses the word "privatizer."

My initial reaction was that Ravitch is too harsh. Most "reformers" who I know, whether they came from Teach for America, charter schools or a business background, want to help poor children of color and, like me, they have no contact with behind-the-scenes true believers in market-driven policies. But reading Thomas' post and James Cersonsky's American Prospect article, I worry that Ravitch, once again, may be prescient.

Thomas provides the conventional list of problems that undermine educational opportunities for poor children of color, such as disproportionately inexperienced and uncertified teachers, public schools increasingly segregated by race and socioeconomic status, and three decades of standards-based testing and accountability to close the test-based achievement gap.

Then, he lists "reform" solutions -- inexperienced and uncertified TFA recruits, segregated charter schools and Common Core standards and assessments.

Thomas recounts the problems caused by top-down and bureaucratic reform policies that ignore teacher professionalism, the trivialization of teachers' autonomy and the use of euphemisms to rename but not solve problems.

Then, he notes more solutions -- federal top-down mandates that ignore teacher professionalism, replacing experienced teachers with rookies and replacing high-poverty public schools with "'no excuses' charters named 'Hope' or 'Promise'"

Thomas and Ravitch agree that this "reform" recipe fits the classic definition on insanity, "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." But Ravitch indicates that such insanity cannot be lost on advocates of pro-market "reforms." The only rational explanation is that their true goal is privatization of public schools.

It is now clear that "reform" has failed. Ravitch is right that the contradictions illustrated by Thomas' chart make perfect sense if the real goal is privatization. But, most reformers who are actually in schools are like most teachers. They do not have time to systematically study policy issues. Their hands are full trying to solve the same problems that have long bedeviled educators.

Perhaps Ravitch's conclusion is premature, I hoped, but she has a track record that cannot be ignored. So even if I could not see enough evidence for her diagnosis, I filed it away and continued to surf the edu-sphere. Then, I followed a link to Cersonsky's "Teach for America's Deep Bench," and got a sick feeling in my stomach.

Cersonsky reports on TFA Leadership Educational Equity (LEE), which is a network for TFA alumni. Starting in the restricted section of the TFA website, he investigates whether "LEE could shift control over American education reform to a specific group of spritely college grads-turned-politicians with a very specific politics." Cersonsky finds no smoking gun to prove that LEE is a neo-liberal version of the rightwing "ALEX" which quietly pushes for reactionary policies, but he documents a clear pattern. For instance, he quotes a community organizer who explains, "LEE hasn't been openly unsupportive" of teachers who resist privatization, "but LEE is clearly looking to strategically promote folks who have a different politic."

Cersonsky then reports on LEE alumni who not only support expanded charters, the "new unionism," and merit pay, but who also campaign for expanded standardized testing and "parent trigger" laws. He closes with the carefully worded statement that TFA which "began -- and is still viewed by many -- as an apolitical service corps could be the Trojan horse of the privatization of public education."

Again, it takes a big leap from determining that "reformers" have demonstrably failed to concluding that they have made the rational decision that "reform" is hopeless and that schools must be privatized. If, instead of recounting troubling patterns in regard to TFA alumni, The American Prospect claimed definitive proof that there is a conspiracy to pull the plug on public education, I would ignore their charges.

But Paul Thomas, Diane Ravitch and James Cersonsky, read together, make a strong case against my congenital optimism. The failure of the contemporary "reform" movement creates opportunities. Perhaps a young generation of idealists will now be more willing to heed the experience of veteran educators and the generations of social science research that they ignored. Or perhaps, the data-driven crowd are like a wounded bear and they have thus become more dangerous. If true believers in pro-market solutions conclude that their theories failed because public schools are beyond reform, privatization could be the next big solution that exacerbates of educational problems.