The Death and Life of the Great American School System (part one)
All the bad crazy out of Wisconsin lately lines up really well with the book I’m reading at the moment, The Death and Life of the Great American School System by Diane Ravitch. Ravitch was for a long time an enthusiastic supporter of the choice and accountability movement in education reform. Her book is a very public way of breaking with that movement. I’m not all the way through it, but I’ll try to lay out some of the themes of the book, and by extension the current reform movement, and why it’s on the wrong path despite some limited successes.
The reformers, for all their talk of choice, are often (though not always) obsessed with top-down reforms. Ravitch details the twin reform eras of San Diego (under Alan Bersin) and New York City. It’s pretty galling how little those charged with reform care about the input of actual educators. This is because:
- Reformers tend to think that only authoritarian, top-down leadership can ‘shake things up’. Knock enough skulls together and you get results. This is the shock and awe version of education reform. It’s also highly undemocratic.
- Reformers tend to ignore the input of teachers, administrators, and parents. They find sympathetic voices in academia and in charitable foundations to bulwark their reforms in the intellectual sphere.
- Reformers tend to blame teachers, principals, and others members of the ‘status quo’ for the problems with education. Most education reforms in the past decade and a half have been aimed at breaking up teachers’ unions.
- Reformers do not pay much attention to the substance of education so much as they pay attention to the procedural side of things. Rather than focus on curriculum, reformers focus on uniformity in pedagogy and strictly regimented ideas on how to teach (specifically to tests).
- Reformers focus only on testable subjects, primarily math and reading, because accountability has become the golden goose of education reform.
I am about half-way through the book, so I’ll have more to report later, but it really is extraordinary to read about the reforms that Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein have foisted on New York schools (modeled on the authoritarian San Diego reforms that preceded the Bloomberg era) – and the very mixed results of those reforms. Bloomberg managed to gain total control of the school system, something that the mayor’s office hadn’t had in decades, and he passed that control over to Klein without oversight. Indeed, there is no oversight of the Bloomberg reforms.
The central theme of these reformers is not just to blame the teachers, but also to ignore them, spy on them, and undermine their autonomy. In San Diego there were public firings of school administrators who were escorted from their schools by the police. In both cities, money was filtered out of the classroom and out of support services like teachers’ aides, and put into professional development programs which were aimed at top-down pedagogical reform. Teachers and administrators who didn’t like it were fired or resigned. Turn over in both cities was enormous. Something like 90% of San Diego’s principals left in the course of six years. In both cities Balanced Literacy became the only approved teaching method. Dissent was not tolerated.
In New York, closing schools became a new fetish for reformers. If a school didn’t perform up to city standards it was closed. Some of its students moved to other public schools or charter schools. Often the lowest performing students were shuffled off to another low-performing school. New ‘small schools’ were created to replace the big schools. At first the admissions to these new schools were selective and the results were great; as more and more low-performing students landed in the small schools they began performing just as poorly (or worse) than the schools they had replaced. It goes on and on like this, with new top-down initiatives, poorly construed tests and a rating system for schools that was incoherent at best, and conflicted directly with state and national rating systems. Businessmen and politicians, often bringing in six-figure incomes, trying to implement top-down reforms on teachers and administrators without asking for input or buy-in, and punishing schools and educators for not meeting their arbitrary standards.
I’m currently reading about the history of the ‘choice’ movement which has its origins in both the writings of Milton Friedman and the desegregation movement in the south. Friedman’s ideas were based on his honest belief that choice would lead to better schools in the long-run. But white southerners co-opted these ideas and used them to keep schools in the south segregated. No surprise that when given a choice in the matter, white students stuck with white schools and black students stuck with black schools. Government money flowed to white pockets to move white students out of mixed-race schools and into private schools.
While the voucher movement has largely failed, the charter school movement has a great deal of momentum.
This movement is not consciously race-based, but it is certainly creating a two-tiered system and that inevitably leads to racial segregation as well as class segregation. Of course, we already have that to some degree – good neighborhoods produce better schools. There is a fundamental imbalance in how schools are funded that is nearly impossible to remedy. But choice undermines the public education infrastructure. A charter school may theoretically be open to any student, but unless that student can provide their own transportation they’re pretty much out of luck. Inevitably parents who have more time and money and who place more of a priority on education will be the ones who enroll their children in good charter schools. The very concept of a neighborhood school has been undermined.
Charter schools are not all they’re cracked up to be, either:
- Reformers tend to gloss over the fact that charter schools are often heavily funded by private donors such as the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and other deep-pocketed groups and individuals. All this money makes apples-to-apples comparisons between traditional public schools and charter schools very difficult.
- Reformers have forgotten that the original idea behind charter schools was to empower groups of teachers to experiment with new ways of teaching and reaching out to students, often from within traditional public schools. They were never intended as ways to bypass unions or school district control, though that is what they’ve become. Some early proponents of charter schools have withdrawn support from the movement after seeing how it has become captured by corporate and private interests.
- Across the country, charter schools fair much worse than traditional public schools on national tests. Reformers use anecdotal evidence of high-performing schools to bolster their case while ignoring the broader data. Films such as Waiting for Superman and The Lottery focus on heartstrings stories of students trying desperately to get out of bad public schools into excellent charter schools.
- One lesson you can draw from these excellent charter schools is that they do very well because they are very well funded. Perhaps if the big foundations put their money into failing public schools they could have similar results. This is a good argument for more education funding. Of course the big foundations want to fund new, exciting, glamorous ideas, not boring old public schools.
- Still, the media tends to praise education reformers, glossing over the many problems these reforms lead to, and glossing over the authoritarian nature of many school reformers.
More on this later as I get further into the book. Ravitch has confirmed many of my suspicions, though I was not aware at quite the extent of authoritarianism in the current movement. The choice movement always struck me as a path toward division and the breakdown of the neighborhood school, and teaching to tests is perhaps the most wrong-headed idea education reformers have ever dreamed up.
I’m left with a few thoughts. For school reform to succeed we have to stop blaming the unions and the teachers while still tackling the cases of abuse we do uncover. The “Rubber Room” is used over and over again as a bludgeon against teachers’ unions, but examples like the Rubber Room are extremely limited; we should not use anecdotal evidence to condemn an entire system. Teaching to tests is utterly wrong-headed, especially when those tests are crafted at the state level and devoted almost solely to math and reading. NCLB was not only misguided in its aspirations but in its means of achieving its goals: asking states to create their own accountability standards to get federal dollars is just silly. Curriculum reform is a much better path; voluntary national standards plus a voluntary national curriculum should come before accountability to arbitrary testing. Reformers need to focus on the substance and quality of education, and that starts with a coherent and consistent set of standards and expectation. It also means turning to educators rather than CEO’s and politicians. Teachers and schools should retain as much autonomy on how to teach as possible, and will need to be a part of the reform effort if it is ever going to succeed.
These are just loose-fitting thoughts at the moment. More later.