Friday, June 17, 2011

Ravitch: Don't let schools become "profit centers"

Education researcher Diane Ravitch told members of the Georgia School Boards Association this morning, “Stand up for public education. Don’t let private entrepreneurs divide your community and turn your schools into profit centers. Don’t stand by and let politicians tear down a public institution that has been the foundation of our democracy for 150 years.”

Blogger Maureen Downey, writing for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, covered the association's annual meeting in Savannah, and she reports that Ravitch "lambasted most of the reforms du jour in education today, merit pay, value-added teacher evaluations, charter schools, vouchers and testing."

She cautioned the 600 attendees to look critically at reforms being led by the high tech sector and hedge fund managers “who don’t much about public schools. They don’t much about education and, sometimes, I think they don’t know much about children.”

The competitive model that they are pushing will not work because the goal of education is not to produce winners and losers, Ravitch said, but to give “every child our best effort.”

Reminding the audience that 93 percent of Georgia’s students attend public schools, Ravitch said, “We must improve those public schools. We must not pretend those children don’t exist while we are creating more choices for 2 to 3 percent of them.”

Author of “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” Ravitch cautioned school board members to think twice about proposals and reforms that might inflict harm, saying, “We adults can take a few wrong turns and survive it, but children shouldn’t suffer because of our mistakes.”

This frenzy to tear down schools and start over does not work for children who don’t thrive in upheaval and chaos, but who need stability, she said. And the destruction of our current education system is built on lies, including that American education has failed, that it was far better 50 years ago. One of the nation’s premier education historians, Ravitch said, “Take it from me. They literally don’t know what they are talking about.”

The education system 50 years ago shortchanged children of color and ignored children with disabilities. While the corporate reformers decry the rise in education costs, Ravitch said they overlook the large increases due to federal laws requiring schools to educate all children, including the profoundly disabled. Congress mandated special education, she said, but has never fully paid for it.

Ravitch also disagreed with complaints that American children have shown no academic progress in that time, noting that there has been a slow and steady rise. She cited the gains made by black students in the 1970s and 1980s. She cited the rise in math performance on NAEP — a federal test considered the gold standard — since 1992.

This is a smart lady. If you haven't read her book, it comes highly recommended and gives a great history lesson on the forces that have amassed against public schools in the last couple of generations, including the self-styled philanthropic foundations and corporate interests who profit from public education.

Downey added a brief digest of highlights from Ravitch's remarks:

–America will never improve schools by running down or running off teachers. Citing the loss of 50 percent of teachers in their first five years, she said getting rid of teachers is clearly not the answer.

–She fears that a dozen years of multiple choice testing as a result of No Child Left Behind will squeeze every ounce of creativity, imagination and innovation from children’s brains.

– She said merit pay has been tried again and again since the 1920s. “This is an idea that never succeeds and never dies,” she said. Ravitch referenced the Vanderbilt study last year that found merit pay did not change student outcomes. She cited the view of business guru William Edwards Deming that merit pay destroys teamwork and collaboration and makes people only think of what is best for them rather than what is best for the organization.

–She also said there is no evidence that closing schools and starting fresh does anything but undermine communities and destroy social networks, citing Arne Duncan’s school closure regimen in Chicago. “It didn’t help in Chicago,” she said.

–The goal of education should not be higher test scores, but a balanced and full education that includes arts, music, science social studies, geography and health, she said.

–To improve education outcomes, make sure every young woman has prenatal care and expand early childhood education. The No. 1 goal of the nation’s education vision in 1990 was that every child arrive in school ready to learn. That goal remains unmet, Ravitch said.

–“It is incomprehensible that the richest country in the world cannot afford a found education for its children,” she said.

–When the United States recently ranked in the middle of international rankings, President Obama said it was our “Sputnik moment.”

Noting she was around for the original Sputnik moment, Ravitch said American students ranked dead last in the first international comparison in 1964. Yet, that generation went on to create a dynamic business environment, the high tech industry and the world’s most respected higher education system. “How can a generation that ranked in the bottom quartile produce those amazing achievements? she asked.

–She also noted that the media greeted the original Sputnik moment with complaints that schools were to blame, that the Soviets had put us to shame and left us in their academic dust. “I would like to point out that they are gone and we are still here,” she said of the Soviet Union.

–As for the current rankings that put Finland in the top slot, Ravitch said, “If those international tests predicted the future, we should be worried now about Finland dominating the world. We will be forced sit in saunas whether we want to or not.”

Her point was that these tests may not tell the whole story or predict much of anything in terms of a country’s economic future.

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