Publisher’s note: Educator Peter Huidekoper produces Another View, a newsletter he pens when not overwhelmed by the demands of teaching. This is his latest effort.
One must pay attention when a book on education—yes, education!—garners so much talk it is likely to influence policy. Or it certainly hopes to. This reader finds Diane Ravitch’s book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” both fascinating and disappointing.
It is fascinating to follow her review of education reform in America over the past twenty years—and to compare and contrast her look at standards, choice, and accountability, and the work of foundations, with what I have seen in Colorado over this time. But it is disappointing to see how inaccurate and unfair she can be in her critique.
I admire many sections of the book. I’d love to quote entire paragraphs on too much dependence on multiple choice tests and on her vision of good schools with a rich and rigorous curriculum.
But given the largely positive press she has received, including two reviews in The New York Times, I will focus on what I find unsatisfying. For I would be sorry to see her account go unchallenged. If you accept her position—get off the charter school bandwagon! Teach for America is no answer! tell those market-based foundations to take a hike!—you too might want to join the members of the National Education Association who gave Ravitch a standing ovation after she spoke at their convention (July 6). Reformers have to ask themselves tough questions, and I’m glad she poses them. Why indeed so little progress? But praise her stance as “completely logical”? No.
The subtitle of her book, “How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education,” gives me the first topic; then I will address two others: new teachers and the curriculum.
1. Choice and Charters
Ravitch fails to show how choice harms public schools in part because, for a highly respected scholar, she proves surprisingly inaccurate in defining her terms. Her definition of charters is a slippery one, and grows increasingly far removed from the truth. She first says they “were considered public schools under private management” (ch. 7–“Choice: The Story of an Idea,” 121).
She then says “private managers” and “private firms” operate many of these schools. A page later she acknowledges charters can be managed by “a local community group,” which is most common in Colorado. (Only a minority of Colorado’s 153 charters have a “contract with an outside company or agency” according to an email I received from Kelly Grable, Colorado League of Charter Schools, July 15. Fewer than 20 of our schools contract with for profit companies.)
But in this chapter—and in recent statements and speeches—she harps on the theme that charters are part of a movement to “privatize public education.” By the end of this chapter, she says charters now “are supposed to disseminate the free-market model of competition and choice” (146).
In a recent interview on “Democracy Now” with Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez she went further:
(The Obama Administration has) said to the states in the “Race to the Top” … that the requirements to be considered are, first of all, that the states have to be committed to privatizing many, many, many public schools. These are called charter schools. They’re privatized schools…. And I think that with the proliferation of charter schools, the bottom-line issue is the survival of public education, because we’re going to see many, many more privatized schools and no transparency as to who’s running them…. (March 5, 2010)
She is wrong; charters are not privatized schools. Were the parents overseeing the charters I taught in “privatizing public education”? Ravitch’s misleading comments continue, including her claim that “charters often get additional resources from their corporate sponsors, enabling them to offer smaller classes, after-school enrichment activities, and laptop computers for every student.” (I can hear most Colorado charters asking, where ARE those corporate sponsors?) It’s not my experience, and it contradicts the study from Ball State University, “Charter School Funding: Inequity Persists,” May 2010, which states: “charter schools continue to receive nearly 20 percent less funding per pupil than district schools.”
She concludes this chapter with excessive harshness: “The rhetoric of many charter school advocates has come to sound uncannily similar to the rhetoric of … the most rabid haters of public schooling. They often sound as though they want public schools to fail” (146). Again, Ms. Ravitch, definitions! Charters ARE public schools. Is she listening to superintendents like Bennet and Boasberg who would argue that charters make the system stronger? And many charters have been pleased to share their strategies and lessons learned with non-charters in their community. Haters? Really?
All of us who have worked for and taught in charter schools know they are not perfect. We have seen enough over the past 17 years (I’ve visited 50 in four states) to know that too many—even our own schools!—fall short of our expectations. But the movement deserves more honest criticism than this.
Finally, it is too easy to say the advocates of a specific reform oversell it as THE SILVER BULLET, and then, lo and behold (what a surprise!), the idea proves far less transformative and magical…. Ravitch makes a habit of this, suggesting the most extreme (and naïve) voices urging a certain reform speak for all, when in fact many of us have been more moderate in our expectations. One example: “The advocates of choice—whether vouchers or charters—predicted that choice would transform American education….They invoked the clarion call of A Nation at Risk as proof that America’s schools were caught in a downward spiral; only choice, they argued, could reverse ‘the rising tide of mediocrity’ …” (126-127).
“Transform”? “Only choice”? Were we all such “true believers” that we put so much faith in this one strategy? In four issues of Another View #21-#24 in the summer of 2000, I examined what seemed at the time to be four key components of education reform: standards, choice, governance, and teacher development—a fairly common definition. Few of us put all our eggs in one basket.
She does this again in looking askance at the push for small high schools as a meaningful option in our cities (as I did in Another View #44). “The movement’s ardent adherents believed that small schools were the cure to the problems of urban education” (205). Of course by speaking of us as so simple-minded to think this was The Cure, we are bound to be proven wrong. But please first tell me who called it such a silver bullet? Shame on us if we did. Most of us were more inclined to speak of it as one way to better meet the needs of many high school students. And we’d still argue that.
2. Opening the door to new teachers / alternative licensure
Ravitch again oversimplifies when she examines the recent trend to focus on teacher quality, which has given new life to the movement for alternative licensure.
The teacher was everything: that was the new mantra of economists and bottom-line school reformers. And not only was the teacher key to closing the achievement gap, but the most effective teachers did not need to have any paper credentials or teacher education. … there was no reason to limit entry into teaching; anyone should be able to enter the profession and show whether she or he could raise test scores. (184)
Not exactly. The Gates Family Foundation, for whom I worked, partially funded the alternative licensure office at the Colorado Department of Education in the early 90’s, and later I evaluated an alternative licensure program for the University of Colorado at Denver. Paper credentials still matter—but they often have to do with what a person studied in college, the courses taken and how well they did, as well as previous work experience. (Just as this mattered at the private school that first hired me; of course the headmaster cared about my “credentials,” but they had nothing to do with education courses and a license.)
Alternative licensure programs and pathways like Teach for America do not open their doors to “anyone.” This past spring, TFA selected only 4,500 applicants out of 46,359 applicants. (Name me a School of Education as competitive as that!) Again Ravitch mocks TFA for what no one claims it can do: “it is simply an illusion to see TFA as the answer to the nation’s needs for more and better teachers.” Another straw man; another bow to the unions. Of course TFA is not The Answer. But do we believe public education in Colorado is stronger for welcoming another 150 TFA folks this fall to teach in our highest-need schools? Yes!
3. How ironic: The curriculum she admires – is here largely due to choice
My favorite section in the book is on the importance of a strong curriculum (“Lessons Learned,” 230-238). Ravitch articulates how vital it is to develop a rigorous and well-rounded academic program.
One of the unintended consequences of NCLB was the shrinking of time available to teach anything other than reading and math. Other subjects, including history, science, the arts, geography, even recess, were curtailed in many schools. (107)
So it is not surprising to see her praise the “sequential, knowledge-rich” curriculum of Core Knowledge (236). Here she sounds like the Ravitch who co-authored “What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?” (1987). But consider the irony, given her criticism of choice. (I tip my hat to Vincent Carroll, who made a similar point in “Don’t write off the ‘Orcs’ just yet,” Denver Post, May 15, 2010. This would be the wrong week for me to be guilty of plagiarism!)
- In our Race to the Top application, Table 2 lists the major “recognized school reform models” in Colorado’s charters (p. 170). Core Knowledge is first—49 charter schools; Expeditionary Learning and Montessori are tied for second with 4 schools each.
- Colorado has the highest percentage of Core Knowledge schools in the country, and only New York state has more of them. Of the 770 public and private schools in the United States “using all or part of the Core Knowledge curriculum,” over 90 are in Colorado (see list at the Core Knowledge Foundation website).
Look back at the mid-90’s and recall how few Core schools existed prior to the early success of several Core Knowledge charters: Littleton Academy, Cheyenne Mountain Charter Academy, and Liberty Common School among them. Schools that, in part because of their autonomy and clear academic mission, could stay committed to a well-rounded curriculum rather than succumb to pressures—from the state, the district, or even parents—to narrow their program. Schools that—to speak to another of Ravitch’s criticisms—will neither be consumed nor compromised by tests.
Isn’t it fair to say that choice and charters in our state stimulated the rapid growth of public schools with the very kind of curriculum—“rich in knowledge, issues, and ideas”—Ravitch advocates? So much for undermining education in Colorado.
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