On this said day, when the mayor of Chicago has closed nearly 50 schools, Daily Kos links to a great profile of education reformer Michelle Rhee. The former head of Washington D.C. schools, Rhee makes strong decisions that seemed based on belief rather than fact, especially the belief that teachers’ unions are the biggest problem facing public schools. Instead, she favors an unproven market model that depends on charter schools. There is no clear evidence that charter schools perform better than traditional public schools. In other cases, as Diane Ravitch documents in The Death and Life of the Great American School System, reforms have clearly failed, only to have billionaires pour more money into some new model as well as funding union-bashing PR. Is this reform really about children or busting unions?
May 22, 2013
March 25, 2013
[On Sundays, this blog explores diverse issues in Sabbath.”]
School Closings in Chicago – Reform or A Trojan Horse?
Today’s Chicago Sun-Times features a great analysis on school closings in Chicago. A chart that accompanies the article shows that students from over 1/3 of the will be moved to schools that are ranked no better or even worse than the ones they are leaving. The chart also indicates that several of the schools have met performance goals. Is this how education is “reformed”?
Mayor Rahm Emanuel is featured in a separate article in the paper. Unlike those officials who say the schools are being closed because they are “underutilized,” the mayor only talks about giving students more opportunity: “We look at it and viewed it as what we can do to have every child have a high-quality education regardless of their neighborhood, regardless of their circumstances, regardless of where they live.”
If the mayor is sincere in these words, he should be very troubled by the information put forth by the Sun-Times. While some students will be moving to much better schools, many more are moving to schools with similar performance ratings. There is also a question of cost. According to the mayor’s most vocal critic Karen Lewis, head of the Chicago Teacher’s Union, it will cost the system $1 billion dollars to close the schools, which is the same amount the system claims is its current deficit. Lewis and her colleagues contend that this round of school closing is a Trojan horse that the mayor and his allies are using to open even more non-union charter schools.
No one wants children in poor performing schools. No one wants to waste money heating and maintaining schools that are half empty. However, it’s hard to trust politicians in any city when we see how charter schools can be new tools for the connected to wash each other’s hands. Over the past few months, the Sun-Times has published several articles about conflicts of interest at Uno, Chicago’s largest charter school organization. Uno’s head was a key player in Mayor Emanuel’s campaign. Will Uno benefit from the school closings? That would be an interesting question to have answered.
Here’s another question: Why can’t Chicago fund its schools? I grew up in Cleveland and saw that great city’s decline first hand. Over the last two years, I’ve been to Detroit twice and have experienced to a small degree that city’s challenges. Those cities have an excuse to close schools. They embody the rust belt and millions of lost jobs that have left northern industrial cities. Chicago doesn’t have that excuse.
I attended a production at Chicago Shakespeare Theater yesterday. Before going to the play, a friend and I rode Navy Pier’s Ferris wheel, which offers a magnificent view of the skyline, a panorama of skyscrapers that are filled with business that are making money. I could also see large condo developments in the south Loop, all of which were built in the last 10-15 years. How can schools be poor in a city that is so rich? Why can’t we have schools with small class sizes if our city has so much wealth circulating in it? We need to ask the mayor and his staff some of these questions. All children do deserve equal opportunity. Whacking at schools with an axe doesn’t seem to be the best answer, just the most simple answer.
February 23, 2013
I frequently cite Laura Clawson of Daily Kos for her great reporting on workers’ issues. Here is a link to her overview of the week’s labor news. The first story is especially troubling. A group of “education reformers” are trying to influence a school board election in Los Angeles. Why? They want to chip away at traditional public schools and teachers unions. I recommend this story and everything else Laura Clawson writes.
April 23, 2012
Common Dreams has reposted an article in which Diane Ravitch examines Michelle Rhee’s impact on education “reform.” I use quotation marks because anyone who has read Ravitch’s great book The Death and Life of the Great American School System understands how most reforms seem to have one goal: Destroy the public school system.
Ravitch takes Rhee to task for her alliances with politicians who are transferring funds and resources from public schools to charter and private schools. Rhee’s primary argument centers on blaming teachers for poor performance. Ravitch answers that the former Chancellor of Washington D.C. schools is basing her argument on “urban myths,” claims that do not stand the kind of research Ravitch has done throughout her career. It’s easy to blame teachers. Ravitch will not take that easy path, which is why I trust her.
March 20, 2012
Writing in Common Dreams, Diane Ravitch looks at the state of teaching as a profession. She notes that some of the leading “education reformers” constantly attack teachers as the problem without proposing a real solution. In Finland teachers are given five years training before they reach the classroom. In the U.S., half of new teachers leave the profession in their first five years. That’s a problem, and the reformers only answer seems to be “bust the union.”
March 10, 2012
Common Dreams reports on a survey of teachers that found them dissatisfied with their career and the way they are being treated in a time of reduced job salary/benefits and services for students. The survey, sponsored by MetLife, finds that teacher are facing more and more obstacles to teaching while fewer resources are available. One union leader says more teachers will leave the profession. Is that a surprise?
“Education reformers” (a.k.a. union busters) have been attacking teachers for several years. Now teachers are facing flat (or, here in Chicago, reduced) wages and worse working conditions. Who would want this job? The reformers beat their chests and proclaim that their working in the best interest of children. How can that be if their actions are making teaching a profession no one in their right mind would want to pursue, especially in challenged schools?
In a related article, Diane Ravitch gives Secretary of Education Arne Duncan a taste of his own medicine. Duncan, one of the reformer-experts who has never been a teacher or principal, touts evaluation as the key to success in education. Ravitch evaluates Duncan’s performance and finds it a complete failure. She writes, “Do Duncan’s policies encourage teachers and inspire good teaching? No. Duncan’s policies demean the teaching profession by treating student test scores as a proxy for teacher quality. A test that a student takes on one day of the year cannot possibly measure the quality of a teacher.” She evaluateDuncan’s performance in several other areas and finds it equally dismal.
We need to support teachers while challenging the reformers to prove that their experiments are helping children, not filling the pockets of parasitic corporations that are feeding off education through charter schools, testing, and tutoring programs. We do need good teachers. We need to pay them well, get out of their way, and let them teach.
February 5, 2012
[On Sundays, this blog explores life and work in Sabbath.]
The Big Game and a Bigger Game
Over the last week, tension has built day by day as the Big Game – the Super Bowl – approaches. Now it’s the day of the Big Game, and in a week most people will not remember the score or which team was the winner.
Hype makes people pay attention in America. Let me offer proof in one word: Kardashian. Education? It’s more important than a football game or a celebrity, but it doesn’t get the hype. It’s just a policy issue, one that most politicians only discuss in sound bites.
I recently read a book that takes the subject very seriously, Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System. Ravitch was an advisor to the first President Bush and President Clinton. She was an early champion of charter schools and testing as a way to measure performance. A few years ago she did something we almost never see in contemporary America: Ravitch said the ideas she championed were wrong.
Examining data and results, she found that all charter schools do not perform better than public schools. Charter schools have produced mixed outcomes: Some achieved better results than the average public school, some are worse – most show no real difference in outcomes. At the same time, they often achieve success by cherry-picking students and leaving students with learning or behavior disabilities to be educated in the public system. Ravitch’s evaluation of testing was even more disturbing. As programs like No Child Left Behind judge schools by test scores, principals and teachers began to teach to the test, ignoring the broader curriculum that fosters a real education. Some schools have even cheated to raise their test scores.
Ravitch criticizes the political and philosophical positions that support “education reform.” She notes that both political parties have embraced charter schools as a solution. One of the reason they have done so is that billionaires and foundations have poured millions of dollars into programs to support charter schools. Those schools, however, must follow the philosophy of the funder. If that philosophy doesn’t work – as in Bill Gates’ support of “small schools” – the model schools are no better than the public model they have replaced. Who loses? The students who were the subject of experimentation.
Who is at fault for failing schools? Teachers. We hear that claim made again and again. Ravitch examines it and demonstrates how it is flawed. She clearly states that bad teachers need to be replaced (just like bad CEOs). However, many of the people who say the teachers are the problem are often motivated by a desire to bust teachers unions, not improve learning. They point the finger at teachers, ignoring administrators, parents, and social factors, including poverty.
Earlier, I compared education to a game, and in a sense it has become just that. Different reform groups “compete” to see who has the best model. President Obama rewards funding to schools that rank highly in his “Race to the Top” program. Reformers and politicians – including the alleged liberal Obama – want to replace pay based on seniority with merit-based pay, a form of competition. Ravitch criticizes all of these measures as an attempt to bring a business mentality to teaching. She shows why these logical-sounding ideas fail miserably as a way to measure learning.
Education in America is a multi-billion dollar game that will shape the future of this country and its individual citizens. Most people don’t take the time to think about the ideas that are reshaping our schools and the people who are spending tax dollars that are meant to educate children. Diane Ravitch doesn’t offer a simple answer. She does shine the light on some very bad ideas, which is the first step to building a school system that will be a winner.
December 11, 2011
Working people will only have opportunities if they have the skills and discipline need to be part of a fast-changing workforce. For generations in America, public schools educated most Americans. Now, especially in poor communities, there is an “education reform” movement that is pushing charter schools and vouchers as substitutes for public education.
Diane Ravitch was one of the early champions of such reform in the 1980s and 1990s. After careful study, she has done something few experts do: Admitted she was wrong. In an essay reposted on Common Dreams, Ravitch outlines the politics behind the reform movement and how it does not serve the needs of children.
One of Ravitch’s claims that struck me is that the reform movement is based on an inherent contradiction. Reformers praise the public sector business model. In that model, poor performers are left behind. Does the logic of schools as business mean that some are sure to fail? Ravitch argues, “The goal of our education system should not be competition but equality of educational opportunity. There should not be a Race to the Top. What is the Top? Who will get there first? Will it be poor and minority students? Don’t count on it. The Top is already occupied by the children of the 1%.”
I strongly recommend this article, especially to those people who support education reform. Ravitch challenges us to think about the purpose of education, and she offer serious ideas for real reform. Why should she be believed? She is strong enough to admit she was wrong. When was the last time anyone in Washington did that?
Postscript: Here is an interview with Ravitch in which she criticizes the impact of the No Child Left Behind Law.
September 14, 2011
Without a good education, it is impossible to have a good career or a good life. We need schools that teach skills that fit today’s economy. Instead, we are getting more debates about what should not be taught and how that information should be tested. The results of good education manifest themselves in a good society. As Ravitch argues, too many children living in poverty pull down not just test scores, but the very notion of learning. We need to focus on the real problem, not political smoke screens.
March 2, 2011
A country’s greatest resource isn’t its military, industry, or natural resources. Children are the future – future citizens, consumers, and workers. In an essay from Common Dreams, Diane Ravitch looks at the dollars-focused “reforms” proposed for public schools in several American cities. The most shocking might be in Detroit, where 50% of the schools are slated to be closed by 2016. Some students will be housed (not learning) in classes of 60.
Our failure to fund education, the Right’s constant attack on public schools and teachers, will have major consequences in the future. At a time when jobs demand increased knowledge and skills, we are taking resources away from education. Teachers in some of the roughest schools are having pay and benefits cut – who will want that job? Anyone who’s talking about balancing the budget and putting people back to work without supporting education is either a fool or a hypocrite.