Can public schools be saved? by Marjorie Arons-Barron

The entry below is being cross posted from Marjorie Arons Barron’s own blog.


It takes a strong woman, a person of standing, experience, intellect and courage to change her mind in the public arena.  No, I’m not talking about Hillary Clinton.  I’m talking about Diane Ravitchanother Wellesley College graduate, Diane Silvers Ravitch.  A former assistant secretary of education under President George Herbert Walker Bush, she also served under President Clinton as a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) process.  Ravitch was one of the principal drivers of national educational standards and achievement through multi-grade testing. (Full disclosure: she is a classmate and friend.)

Five years ago, Ravitch did a 180.  She had been a supporter of No Child Left Behind. No longer.  She once supported charter schools. No longer. She now sees these efforts as a way to vaporize teachers unions and public education in general.  She brought her ideas to Wellesley on Thursday.  In a riveting speech, this author of 21 books and more than 500 articles decried the infatuation with standardized testing, rating teachers based on student scores, and the wholesale firing of teachers scapegoated for student scores that reflect intractable social problems (like low household income and lack of parental involvement, among others). She excoriated the rise of for-profit education and the proliferation of charter schools, which, she says, are starving out our public school systems.

Yesterday morning, President Obama called for a reduction in testing and said Education Secretary Arne Duncan will be working with school systems to reduce both the number of tests and the time teachers take to prepare their students to take them.  Ironically, Duncan, according to Ravitch, has played a particularly disastrous role in driving the excesses in testing.  She doesn’t expect any better of John King, Jr., the deputy secretary slated to succeed the retiring Duncan.

Ravitch paints an appropriately dire picture of testing today compared to when she first espoused it. She decries both the money that is diverted to testing from other important educational programs and the stifling of creativity in teachers incentivized to teach to the test.  National curriculum guidelines, she said, should leave teachers free to teach the way they want to because they are professionals.

Her analysis of the charter school movement is equally vivid. While she briefly concedes that there are some good charter schools, her overall critique is heavily against, especially those that are “funded by billionaires” and hedge fund managers. She suggests that the media have been  deluded by the siren call of charter schools and thus are becoming a tool of the far right, whose goals, she says, are elimination of teacher unions and privatization of education.

My beef with her is her nearly wholesale condemnation of charter schools. In an ideal world, charter schools wouldn’t be necessary.  But in sub-par school systems, concerned parents should have a choice. If school improvement is taking too long, those parents should be able to choose a good charter school alternative.  That doesn’t signal opposition to public education.

While Ravitch is absolutely right to praise those underpaid, idealistic, hard-working teachers in the classrooms, I have never heard her criticizing the often stultifying work rules of some unions. Yet, over the years, it has been fair to criticize them for tying the hands of principals when, for example, they want to move out an ineffective teacher to bring in someone with fresh energy and drive.  There are other union work rules that keep a principal or teacher from being nimble and creative. (I would have liked to pose such questions to Mass. Teachers Association President Barbara Madeloni, who introduced Ravitch.)

Few advocates are more compelling than Ravitch in laying out importance of strong public school systems to the effective and just workings of a democracy. States must delink the quality of education from poverty.  Legislatures must ensure that cities and towns have enough money for the arts, phys ed, libraries,  social workers and more. De facto segregated  schools must be integrated as an important tool in changing the odds, so all children have equality of educational opportunity.

Some testing may be appropriate, she says,  but not every year. Saturday a report by the Council of Great City Schools said that, between kindergarten and grad 12, students take 112 standardized tests. The 25 hours of testing doesn’t measure the countless other hours preparing for tests.  Standardized testing doesn’t hold systems accountable for academic rigor, just for that time spent on test prep. The purpose of education, Ravitch reminds us, is to shape good human beings, of good character, and help them reach their full potential.  As she convincingly notes (and the President echoed yesterday), life doesn’t consist of choosing the right answer from bubble a, b, c or d. Life is often making difficult choices where there are no right answers.

Massachusetts is debating a possible shift from the MCAS tests (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) to the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers). The latter, according to a Boston Globe  editorial, is a better measure of student progress and would reduce the incentive to “teach to the test.” Perhaps Ravitch would agree with a UMass professor who wrote to the Globe that the debate was like arguing for the new Coke rather than Pepsi.  Neither one of nutritional value. Better to reject them both.

The Wellesley College audience on Thursday was exhorted to push for education improvement politically, making sure they support legislative candidates who share these values and goals. The same might be said of presidential candidates. The Republicans have been beating each other up on Duncan’s Common Core standards and measurements.  The Democrats’ debate last week was silent on the issue.  We, all of us, have to demand more from those seeking our votes.

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