The Death and Life of the Great American School System
Noted policymaker Diane Ravitch says she was wrong to jump on the No Child Left Behind bandwagon.
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Ravitch discovered that even when the test scores were not gamed by states (by lowering the passing scores each year), focusing all accountability on math and reading scores was less productive than allowing schools to continue their muddled but broad-based curriculum. She also found that while some charter schools are indeed very good, they only become so by hook or by crook, because unusually dedicated teachers, parents, and students have thrown themselves into making a particularly good school; otherwise, most charters do no better than the public schools they too often gut and then displace.Skip to next paragraph
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Because education depends on the communication of not only skills but attitudes, immediate and steady neighborhood participation in public schools seems to work better than anything else: “The fundamentals of good education are to be found in the classroom, the home, the community, and the culture, but reformers in our time continue to look for shortcuts and quick answers. Untethered to any genuine philosophy of education, our current reforms will disappoint us, as others have in the past.”
It seems to me that politicians blaming teachers for our national failures in public education is like blaming bridges for falling down. Who made that bridge? Who maintains it? Who ensures its safety?: “Something is fundamentally wrong with an accountability system that disregards the many factors that influence students’ performance on an annual test – including the students’ own efforts – except for what teachers do in the classroom for forty-five minutes or an hour a day.”
Here and there Ravitch disarmingly evokes memories of her own childhood education in Houston in the 1940s and ’50s and a favorite teacher, Mrs. Ruby Ratcliff, whose greatness – “her ability to inspire students and to change their lives” – in today’s test-driven schools “would go unrewarded because it is not in demand and cannot be measured.”
Ravitch’s hopeful vision is of a national curriculum – she’s had enough of fly-by-night methods and unchallenging requirements. She’s impatient with education that is not personally transformative. She believes there is experience and knowledge of art, literature, history, science, and math that every public school graduate should have. She is necessarily vague, though, about how to achieve her goals, as school privatizers and billionaire philanthropists have not yet handed her the keys to the vault that opens the door to influence.
Bob Blaisdell teaches in Brooklyn at Kingsborough Community College. His children attend school in New York City.