Monday, September 27, 2010

Assault on a Public Good

Since at least the Reagan administration and before, conservative zealots in this nation have been hard at work trying to dismantle government and all it stands for. Attacks on the EPA, the FDA, social security, and most regulatory agencies have become standard fare. In recent years, though, the most sustained attack has targeted public education—witness the school districts in Washington, DC, New Orleans after Katrina, and New York City under Michael Bloomberg. With Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the rallying cry of “accountability” has been codified into a mantra that Democrats, including President Obama, have slavishly echoed.

Now we have a book that tells us what all this has been about, and it is not pretty. Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System, goes behind the scenes to explain the programs, the facts, and the failure of charter schools, testing regimes, and much more. If you’re at all interested in education (and what is a democracy without an educated electorate?), it’s a must-read. Ravitch might seem an unlikely critic of these conservative dogmas, because she’s been on the conservative side for years. She supported the takeover of the NY Public Schools, NCLB, charter schools and all the rest. But to her credit, she stopped to examine the data and, horrified by what she found, has written a stinging criticism of the whole mess. Whether it will stop the train wreck that’s coming is something else, but this is a noble effort.

To begin with, let’s be clear: conservative Republican hatred for the public schools has its roots in racism (and classism). That’s what the public schools signify: mixed-race classes, busing, early childhood education to compensate for years of discrimination, and teachers’ unions encouraging black and brown people to enter the education workforce. Vouchers were an attempt to have government pay for private schools—“school choice” in their lingo—which was a thinly-disguised way to get separate-but-equal back. It was also a convenient way to get god back in the classroom, and godless evolution out. But vouchers were too transparently discriminatory. So the always-busy conservatives came up with charter schools and now NCLB, and that seems to be working. If, that is, you can call destroying public education “working.”

Ravitch slams NCLB from several angles (and isn’t it strange that anyone expected George W. Bush, one of the dumbest men ever to sit in the White House, to come up with a plan to improve public schools?) To begin with, NCLB never refers to what students should learn, i.e. there’s no curriculum in it at all. That’s left up to each state. All NCLB did was demand that schools produce higher test scores, proficiency, in basic skills—math and reading. Even so, proficiency might seem a reasonable goal until one realizes that the states are left to determine what “proficiency” means as well. All they are told is that their schools have to show regular increases in proficiency (average yearly progress or AYP), until—and this is the laughable part—in 2014 all schools in all states produce students who are fully proficient. If schools fail to show AYP, or, in 2014 fail to show full proficiency (fully mastering the grade standards) for ALL students, they will be closed, teachers will be fired, principals will lose their jobs, and “some—perhaps many—public schools will be privatized.” According to Ravitch, this is an impossible goal. But there’s more:

the most dangerous potential effect of the 2014 goal is that it is a timetable for the demolition of public education in the United States….indeed, scores of schools in New York City, Chicago, Washington DC, and other districts were closed because they were unable to meet the unreasonable demands of NCLB. Superintendents in those districts boasted of how many schools they had closed, as if it were a badge of honor rather than an admission of defeat. 204.

Now one might think, well, those schools in those districts were ‘bad’ schools and deserved to be closed. But Ravitch has the facts:

…In the year 2006-2007, 25,000 schools did not make AYP. In 2007-2008, the number grew to nearly 30,000, or 35.6 percent of all public schools. That number included more than half the public schools in Massachusetts, whose students scored highest in the nation on the rigorous tests of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)….To date, there is no substantial body of evidence that demonstrates that low-performing schools can be turned around by any of the remedies prescribed in the law. Converting a “failing” school to a charter school or handing it over to private management efforts offers no certainty that the school will be transformed into a successful school. 204.
So what can we expect from public schools and states put under this kind of gun (“in 2008, a team of researchers funded by the National Science Foundation predicted that by 2014, nearly 100% of California’s elementary schools would fail to make Adequate Yearly Progress”)? You guessed it, they will cheat. States, that is, define “proficiency” themselves. So a state like Mississippi recently claimed that 89% of its fourth graders were at or above proficiency in reading, but, according to a national test given by NAEP, only 18% were proficient. How does this happen? The variety of ways to cheat is impressive. First of all, under the testing regime, teachers are incentivized to teach to the test (in some cases, this means actually giving the children practice in the actual test they will take.) Second, states change both the tests (making them easier) and the scoring required for “proficiency,” to make it easier to pass the tests. This is what New York State did. So,

Between 2006, when the state introduced a new test, and 2009, the proportion of students in grades 3 through 8 who reached proficiency on the state math test leapt from 28.6% to an incredible 63.3% in Buffalo, from 30.1% to 58.2% in Syracuse, and from 57% to 81.8% in New York City….But in reality, state officials made it easier to pass the tests. In 2006, a student in 7th grade was required to get 59.6% of the points on the test to meet state standards in math; by 2009, a student in that grade needed only 44% to be considered proficient. 157.

The same thing is documented in Chicago—where Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, took credit for huge increases in scores. You get the picture: if you can’t make the grade, cheat. One wonders how teachers in such a system can urge students to be honest when cheating reigns all up and down the line. As Ravitch concludes: “This sort of fraud (fiddling with scores, teaching to the test) ignores the students’ interests while promoting the interests of adults who take credit for nonexistent improvements.”

Perhaps the most alarming news in Ravitch’s book comes from her chapter called “The Billionaire Boys’ Club.” This refers to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation (Wal-Mart) and the Broad Foundation, among others, who are now pouring billions of dollars into the effort to change American education in the ways noted above. The basic idea of these “venture philanthropies” is to reform education to mimic the business model that made them their money: schools should be accountable (or be closed, or fired), should advance school choice (charter schools or vouchers), be competitive as in business, and move towards privatization as a final goal. In this effort, they fund charter schools (many run as private enterprises by people who know nothing about education; in that regard, the foundations have funded the hiring and mayhem of “chancellors” such as Joel Klein, a lawyer, in New York and Michelle Rhee, with two years with Teach-for-America and no education training, in Washington DC) that will compete with the public schools. The irony, pointed out by Ravitch, is massive:

There is something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society’s wealthiest people; when the wealthiest of these foundations are joined in a common purpose, they represent an unusually powerful force that is beyond the reach of democratic institutions…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. 200-01.

She also quotes the Broad Foundation: “We don’t know anything about how to teach or reading curriculum or any of that. But what we do know about is management and governance.”

There is much more in this crucial book. It deserves to be read and brought to the attention of all legislators, including the President himself—who, as Ravitch points out bitterly, has “warmly endorsed” the Gates-Broad agenda by hiring Arne Duncan, one of the biggest beneficiaries of foundation money when he headed the Chicago public schools. Not surprisingly, and despite his hype, the schools there are still failing. Thousands more will be put on the chopping block in 2014 when NCLB comes due. Which will be nothing less than a tragedy, this death of American public schools, for, as Ravitch points out, going to school is not like shopping: “Schools are not businesses; they are a public good.” Privatizing them makes about as much sense as privatizing police and fire departments. What should be attended to is not testing, but what is being taught—the curriculum. One of the few states that does this is Massachusetts, and its students have the “highest academic performance in the nation on the NAEP and rank near the top when compared to their peers in other nations.” In other words, we know how it should be done, and it is not by testing, not by privatizing, not by killing public education in America. Most decidedly, it is not by letting the worst boondoggle in education history, the NCLB, to come to its bloody fruition. Look to it.

Lawrence DiStasi

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