Diane Ravitch on the Diane Rehm Show
By chance, I happened to be driving and listening to NPR today when Diane Ravitch had a guest slot on the Diane Rehm show. I only caught parts of the program, but what I did hear jived very nicely with some of the things I’ve been thinking (and writing) about on the subject of education lately. A quick list of the points she made:
- School choice has a brain drain effect, drawing the most talented and motivated students out of their communities and placing them in high-performing charters, leaving public schools loaded up with the lower-performing students (and creating a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy in the meantime). Same goes for students with disabilities. The most expensive inevitably end up at the public schools.
- Charters and private schools put public schools out of business, making schools in some communities non-existent. Essentially she said that the idea of an education market was misguided because it kills the neighborhood school in favor of the “best deal”. I tend to agree. I would go even further, in fact. If I had it my way we would work to reverse the brain drain at every level, including higher education.
- At the same time, Ravitch sees schools becoming more like businesses. Instead of educators running schools and coming up with creative ideas, corporate suits are beginning to dictate how we should run our schools. The ‘rainmakers’ behind charters are often paid exorbitant sums, while the teachers are over-worked and burn out quickly. Instead, we should have teachers assuming administrative roles and taking leadership positions. Not politicians or businessmen.
- One area I very much agree with Ravitch is her stance against rigid testing. She claims the states cheat on their scores anyways, and that there is no evidence this sort of testing has led to any gains in performance. Quite the contrary in fact. NCLB, she says, has been a huge failure. Schools were improving before it was enacted, and have regressed since.
- I also liked the idea of collaboration vs. competition. I think we need much more of an open-source model for teaching, connecting teachers and schools across the country in as organic and natural a way as possible, allowing for the free exchange of ideas and techniques. Rather than seeing it as a competitive process, we should view it as a collaborative process. Indeed, Ravitch mentions that charters were initially intended to act as tiny R&D laboratories but that mission quickly turned to one of competition. Also on this note, I’d like to address the notion of a national curriculum. While open-source education would allow for tons of innovation and different ideas bubbling to the surface, a national curriculum would do just the opposite – creating a rigid, inflexible, and ultimately stifling (and easily captured!) curriculum. A commenter asked if I would support a local public school’s teaching of creationism. While I would leave that to the courts, let me just say this: I would rather have a handful of local schools teaching creationism then a national curriculum under the sway of the religious right. That’s the danger with a national curriculum. Well, that and the whole stifling of innovation and crushing of the very soul of our American education system.
(P.S. at this point I’d like to just add that while I advocate local solutions and “localism” writ large, that is not the same thing as saying I support all actions of local governments. Local governments can be very tyrannical, very corrupt, etc. I just think top-down solutions are generally ineffective and can actually exacerbate local problems. Nor do I think that we, as a nation, shouldn’t come up with as many good ideas as possible. That’s part of open-source education, after all. I just bristle at the notion that we should somehow implement these ideas from the top down, as NCLB did.)
I didn’t hear the whole program, and I hope to listen to it the next chance I have. You can stream it online here and read a section of Ravitch’s book, as well as some highlights from the program. I wonder about a few things that this anti-school-choice position leaves open-ended:
- What about unions? There are some very serious problems with too-powerful unions making it almost impossible to get rid of bad teachers. Leaving aside the question of merit pay, what about simply getting rid of these awful teachers? Something needs to change, especially in heavily unionized areas. Again, this is a local problem. Schools in Arizona do not have the same union-related problems that Californians or New Jerseyans (Jersyites?) face.
- Along these lines, how do we get more, better teachers into the system? I think more creative autonomy is more important than more money – and I think this touches on something Ravitch said, which is that we need to make teaching more professional. I agree, but it’s only one part of what I think will be a much more difficult problem.
- Schools are facing serious budget issues, and will need to cut back on the excessive budgets of the housing boom years. How can we do this without causing a great deal of pain? In my home town we voted to raise property taxes to help ease the pinch, as the state legislature oscillates between sheer madness and sheer stupidity in their attempt to pass a damn budget. More and more I think we need to make schools less dependent on state and federal governments, but it won’t be easy. Autonomy for schools and teachers is key here, but how do we implement autonomy? The nature of the beast is to take it away!
As always, I appreciate your thoughts on all of this.