The Wealthy And Powerful Have Ruined The Economy; Now They’ve Turned Their Attention To Education

Diane Ravitch reviews two new books on the current “crisis” in education in the New York Review of Books (hat tip to Susan Ohanian, who has a very interesting site devoted to education here; incidentally, Ms. Ohanian is married to physicist and fine textbook author Hans C. Ohanian). Her review is entitled School ‘Reform’: A Failing Grade, and her historical perspective reminds us that American schools have been said to be in crisis for a century:

To put the current “crisis” into perspective, it is well to recall that American education was in crisis a century ago, when urban schools were overcrowded, swamped with students from Eastern and Southern Europe who didn’t speak English. The popular press at that time warned that the nation was being overrun by a human tide from inferior cultures, and the very survival of our nation was supposedly at risk.

The Bush II and Obama administrations are both criticized:

Because of its utopian goals, coupled with harsh sanctions, NCLB has turned out to be the worst federal education legislation ever passed. Recently, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan predicted that more than 80 percent of the nation’s public schools would be labeled “failing” this year by federal standards, including some excellent schools in which students (usually those with disabilities) were not on track to meet the target. By 2014, if the law is unchanged, very few public schools will not be labeled “failures.” No nation has ever achieved 100 percent proficiency for all its students, and no state in this nation is anywhere close to achieving it. No nation has ever passed a law that would result in stigmatizing almost every one of its schools. The Bush-era law is a public policy disaster of epic proportions, yet Congress has been unable to reach consensus about changing it.

The Obama administration has offered to grant waivers from the onerous sanctions of NCLB, but only to states willing to adopt its preferred remedies: privately managed charter schools, evaluations of teachers on the basis of their students’ test scores, acceptance of a recently developed set of national standards in reading and mathematics, and agreement to fire the staff and close the schools that have persistently low scores. None of the Obama administration’s favored reforms—remarkably similar to those of the Bush administration—is supported by experience or evidence.

Most research studies agree that charter schools are, on average, no more successful than regular public schools; that evaluating teachers on the basis of their students’ test scores is fraught with inaccuracy and promotes narrowing of the curriculum to only the subjects tested, encouraging some districts to drop the arts or other nontested subjects; and that the strategy of closing schools disrupts communities without necessarily producing better schools. In addition, the “Common Core State Standards” in reading and mathematics that states must adopt if they hope to receive a waiver from the US Department of Education have never been subjected to field-testing.

So, yes, there is a crisis in education, a crisis caused by ill-considered federal legislation that sets utopian targets and then punishes schools and educators when they cannot meet impossible goals. As a result, cheating scandals have been discovered in Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Baltimore, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere. Some people do terrible things when faced with unreasonable targets and draconian punishment.

The proposed remedy:

The response to the current crisis in education tends to reflect two different worldviews. On one side are those who call themselves “reformers.” The reformers believe that the schools can be improved by more testing, more punishment of educators (also known as “accountability”), more charter schools, and strict adherence to free-market principles in relation to employees (teachers) and consumers (students). On the other are those who reject the reformers’ proposals and emphasize the importance of addressing the social conditions—especially poverty—that are the root causes of poor academic achievement. Many of these people—often parents in the public school system, experienced teachers, and scholars of education—favor changes based on improving curriculum, facilities, and materials, improving teacher recruitment and preparation, and attending to the cognitive, social, and emotional development of children. The critics of test-based accountability and free-market policies do not have a name, so the reformers call them “anti-reform.” It might be better to describe them as defenders of common sense and sound education.

The fabulously wealthy have thrown their enormous influence and resources behind “reforms” that are counterproductive and inhumane. But we live in an age where the rich or famous feel that they are experts on things they know nothing about. Like a little boy with a hammer, who thinks everything he sees is a nail, the fabulously rich believe that applying “free-market” ideology, which has disproportionately enriched them by stacking the deck against ordinary people, will solve every problem.

Problems with standardized testing were identified and criticized as far back as mathematical physicist Banesh Hoffmann‘s 1962 book The Tyranny of Testing. What we really need are to create humane, supportive learning communities, and to support the continual professional development of teachers, rather than placing them under siege.

In these two books, we have two versions of school reform. One is devised by Wall Street financiers and politicians who believe in rigidly defined numerical goals and return on investment; they blame lazy teachers and self-interested unions when test scores are low. The other draws on the deep experience of a compassionate teacher who finds fault not with teachers, unions, or students, but with a society that refuses to take responsibility for the conditions in which its children live and learn—and who has demonstrated through her own efforts how one dedicated teacher has improved the education of poor young people.

The full article is well worth reading.

(This post first appeared at my other (now deleted) blog, and was transferred to this blog on 21 January 2021.)