CLEVELAND – At forums here last week Diane Ravitch , author of “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” and a national leader of the fight to defend public education, sounded the alarm about concerted efforts by corporate and right-wing forces to undermine democracy and destroy public education in our country. At events held by the Cleveland Teachers Union Feb. 2 and the next day at the Cleveland City Club, Ravitch blasted the well-financed “school reform movement” that seeks to bust teachers unions and privatize the schools.
In her speech to 150 teachers and supporters at Pilgrim Church, Ravitch said major foundations, such as those run by the Gates and Walton families, Wall Street hedge fund groups, Fox News and the Republican Party, are behind the attack which has created “an existential crisis” for public education.
Unfortunately, she added, the movement has the support of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, although President Barack Obama made a contradictory statement, both supporting and opposing the movement’s aims, in his recent State of the Union speech.
The movement got official sanction with the No Child Left Behind law, enacted by President George W. Bush when he took office in 2001. Ravitch called the measure, mandating 100 percent proficiency in reading and math by 2014, “a crazy, irresponsible law” that “delegitimized the public school system” and is “the death star of public education.”
The law was aggravated by the Race to the Top program under the Obama administration which has increased sanctions against teachers and principals and pressure to privatize, she said.
Privatization, including vouchers for private and religious schools, charter schools, home schooling and cyber-schools, operates under the innocuous-sounding name of “school choice” and is a major goal of the reform movement, Ravitch charged. While these measures are highly profitable for entrepreneurs and in many cases operating licenses are “payoffs for contributions to politicians,” she said, there is no evidence that they improve school performance or test scores. On the other hand there are many examples of financial corruption, score inflation, debased standards and non-accountability in these enterprises.
It was the total lack of evidence for improved education that caused Ravitch, an initial supporter of “school choice,” to break with the movement. Charters, including cyber-charters, actually do worse than public schools and, after 21 years, the voucher program in Milwaukee has not improved test scores, she said.
The most reliable predictor of scores on standardized tests, she said, is family income.
“Children from affluent families have all the advantages,” while poor students are “more likely ill, hungry, homeless and many lack skills in speaking English,” Ravitch said.
The real problem, she said, is the “unprecedented income inequality” as well as racial segregation. The U.S., she noted, has the highest rate of child poverty of any developed nation.
The other main goal of the corporate reformers is “deprofessionalization” of teaching – eliminating or reducing required qualifications and ending professional development, Ravitch charged.
These reformers claim that, instead of training, teacher performance should be improved with bonuses and “merit pay.” While attempts to do this date back to the 1920s, no evidence of improved performance has ever been produced and, on the contrary, there is evidence that bonuses and merit pay, by pitting teachers against each other, actually undermine performance in the highly collaborative arena of education.
The measures advocated by the corporate school reform movement are completely absent in countries like Finland, Singapore and South Korea with the highest performing public school systems. In Finland, Ravitch said, teachers all have Master’s degrees, are highly respected and rarely leave their jobs. Classes are small and there is no standardized testing, but teachers make their own tests to identify problems students are having. The education is diverse and well-rounded, includes breaks between classes and playtime.
In addition Finnish teachers are all unionized, and it is the teachers unions in the U.S. that are offering the greatest resistance to the “reform movement,” Ravitch said. The school reform movement is closely connected with efforts to end seniority rules and bust public employee unions. Ravitch noted that states like Massachusetts, New Jersey and Connecticut with the highest levels of unionization also have the highest school performance, while the lowest performance is in the Deep South with the lowest unionization.
“These are terrible days for public education in the United States,” she said. “A democracy must have a strong, vibrant public education system. No matter how much money and power they have, the corporate reformers are just wrong.”
In answer to a question, Ravitch said, “This is the time for direct action.”