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Public education is in peril, Ravitch warns

Schools run by the market will favor the haves, not the have-nots.
--Diane Ravitch

by Staff

There have always been critics of public education who called for drastic reforms, but today, "public education, as we have known it all our lives, is in genuine peril," Diane Ravitch, a professor at New York University, warned school board leaders.

In the 1950s, there was a lot of criticism of public education but reformers "did not challenge the very existence of public education." Thatâs no longer the case, Ravitch said at NSBAâs Leadership Conference Feb. 1 in Washington, D.C.

Today, critics say "public education itself is obsolete," she said. "There is a large and growing movement to dismantle public education."

Today's critics blame the public schools for the mediocre performance of U.S. students on international assessments but that is really more of a "long-term problem, not a crisis," Ravitch said. And schools canât be blamed for a culture that honors athletes and entertainers but not those who choose careers in science, education, or public service.

Ravitch believes the real crisis in education today has to do with a classroom environment, that, due to the influence of No Child Left Behind, emphasizes the subjects tested, while neglecting "creativity, originality, and disciplined thinking."

Many of todayâs critics want to replace public education with a "completely choice-based system of vouchers, privatization, and charter schools," under the assumption that "in an open market, good schools would thrive and bad school would die," she said. But this is a "ludicrous model to apply to public education, which is a public service, not a private good."

Some of the loudest critics want to turn schools into business organizations, with schools managed by people with no experience in education and whose only focus is the "bottom line" -- with the bottom line being test scores.

But when you pay teachers and students for higher test scores, this is the only thing that will matter to them, Ravitch said, and they will spend all their energies on test prep.

Ravitch was particularly critical of the Tough Choices or Tough Times report issued a year ago by Marc Tucker's New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, which called for schools to be turned over to private managers. But she notes, there is no evidence that privately run schools or charter schools are any better.

And schools are not a business, she said. "They are not churning out products, but shaping lives and character."

Nevertheless, these ideas are already being implemented in New York City. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein have abolished the central and community school boards, spent hundreds of millions of dollars on no-bid contracts, and forced parents to choose among a confusing array of new, specialized high schools with no track records.

Without a school board, "there is no democratic participation in education," Ravitch said. "There is no place where parents and other members of the public can stand up and ask questions and get answers. Decisions are made behind closed doors" and "there are no checks or balances on executive authority."

For Ravitch, "The survival of public education in our nation is intimately tied up with the survival of our democracy."

"Schools run by the market will favor the haves, not the have-nots," she said.

"The purpose of public education is to level the playing field. We cannot let the key fundamental principle of public education -- equality of educational opportunity -- die," she said. "We cannot kill a system that has flaws and needs improvement and replace it with something that will almost certainly be even more flawed and more inequitable.â"

— staff
School Board News


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