The Book of the Week is “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” by Diane Ravitch, published in 2010.
This book appears to argue that the great American school system is moving closer to death.
Ms. Ravitch discusses how testing and accountability have “become the main levers of school reform… In the trade-off, our education system ended up with no curricular goals, low standards and dumbed-down tests.”
With the imposition of more standardized testing than ever before, education has been narrowed to only the subjects on the tests– literacy and mathematics.
The goal of some school districts, in implementing reform, has been to close the racial achievement gap. For decades, students of certain ethnic groups (such as blacks and Hispanics) have shown lower test scores than their peers (who are whites and Asians). There may be many causes for this (such as economic and demographic changes, to say nothing of test-question wording), but politicians think they can solve the problem through a formula. Ms. Ravitch provides an anecdotal example of this thinking in San Diego in the late 1990’s.
Teachers were resistant to “get with the program” due to the way in which it was forced upon them. The outside educational coaches hired to work with the school personnel, were viewed as enforcers, rather than as collaborators. The teachers were supposed to utter inane phrases, such as “I am a reflective practitioner.” They were to spend a specific number of minutes on teaching a prescribed subject, and then move to another, even when the changeover was disruptive. Stress-related illnesses among the teachers, skyrocketed.
Ms. Ravitch covers a host of other issues, such as “No Child Left Behind,” controversies over standards, school vouchers, charter schools, use of private monies to fund education, the power of the federal and state governments concerning education, teaching-credentials, and a choice of schools for the students.
Politicians believe they are improving education by providing parents with an array of schools which their children can attend. The thinking is, choice will foster competition in the district. This is a misguided notion, to say the least.
Ms. Ravitch states, “Julian Betts of U.C. San Diego questioned whether choice was even a successful strategy because his own studies found that choice had little or no effect on student achievement.”
Some charter schools accept students via a lottery system; other schools hand-pick their students. Even when unlucky students or those who require extra help are offered it– through extra school hours or free tutoring– it has been the tutoring companies that have profited handsomely. There has been no quality-monitoring of the tutoring, so there has been no way to judge for sure whether students have shown any improvement. One way to see, might be through standardized test scores, but scores’ validity and reliability have been questionable of late, for various reasons.
In many districts, there is grossly unfair funding allocation among schools. A colossal amount of monies from billionaires (private sources) have been poured into charter schools and education reform initiatives that provide lucky students with special resources, while public schools have had to make do with scant taxpayer dollars and have had to go without, during times of severe budget cuts.
As for accountability, there is none. Ms. Ravitch writes that politicians have collaborated with nonprofit foundations because the latter are contributing megabucks to schools. Consequently, they have acquired overwhelming power and influence. “If voters don’t like the foundations’ reform agenda, they can’t vote them out of office. The foundations demand that public schools and teachers be held accountable for performance, but they themselves are accountable to no one… they are bastions of unaccountable power.”
RIP, quality American education.