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Ravitch Reveals All

I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of Diane Ravitch’s new book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System.” It is, frankly, a revelation, and anyone interested in education, particularly New York City education, needs to read it right now.

For anyone who’s wondered where on earth Joel Klein dreamed up his “reforms,” look no further. A substantial source of inspiration appears to be a three-stage process — a New York City experiment that gave a false impression of success, a San Diego experiment that eluded success altogether, and a stubborn determination to replicate both in overdrive.

As both Bloomberg and Klein were business experts using business models, they used a “corporate model of tightly centralized, hierarchal, top-down control, with all decisions made at Tweed and strict supervision of every classroom to make sure the orders flowing from headquarters were precisely implemented,” Ravitch writes. It appears they didn’t squander their valuable time on troublesome input from teachers, parents, or any contradictory voices whatsoever. In fact, Ravitch points out that though the mayor had promised increased parental involvement, it was actually reduced. Parent coordinators were hired, but in fact, they actually “worked for the principal, not for parents.”

Ravitch calls New York City the “testing ground for market-based reforms.” She states Mayor Bloomberg wanted “full control of the schools, with no meddlesome board to second guess him.” The San Diego experiment of utterly disregarding teacher and parent input resulted in a community-selected Board of Education that eventually rejected the program altogether — but Mayor Bloomberg made sure his new board would be patently incapable of disagreeing about anything whatsoever. And indeed, Mayor Bloomberg has fired members of his board rather than allowing them to vote their consciences. Ravitch touts the NYC Public School Parents blog. But Mayor Bloomberg not only disregards their opinions, but sees fit to dictate which topics on which they’re permitted to have opinions at all.

Tweed’s philosophy may well be this — if NYC parents knew anything worth knowing, they’d be as rich as Mayor Bloomberg and his pals. Ravitch points out that the way things are going, the education of our children will be entirely dictated by billionaires — Eli Broad, Bill Gates, and the Wal-Mart heirs, the Walton family, to name the most prominent. She says the Walton family clearly wishes to “create, sustain, and promote alternatives to public education.” They encourage privatization and invest heavily in non-union charter schools. Ravitch concludes the Walton family is committed to “an unfettered market, which by its nature has no loyalties and disregards Main Street, traditional values, long-established communities, and neighborhood schools.” To those of us in New York, that has a very familiar ring.

Ravitch, with meticulous research, demonstrates how virtually every achievement of the so-called “reformers” entails selecting high-performing kids and extracting high-performance from them. This is hardly remarkable, and worse, hardly covered by the ever-incurious American press. Are charter schools miraculous? Are small schools a magic bullet? Are public schools as abysmal as they’re routinely made out to be in the New York Post?

Well, if you look at the coming films glorifying Geoffrey Canada, Michelle Rhee, and the founders of KIPP, you will certainly get the impression, as did Roger Ebert, that teacher unions are largely responsible for all the world’s ills. Ebert says he knows little about math, a mindset which might explain why he bothered to question nothing whatsoever in this so-called documentary (“Tenured teachers have a job for life”). It’s my fond but dim hope that Ravitch’s publisher sends Ebert a copy of her book, and that he actually takes the time to read it.

Ravitch states, “Once Tweed embraced charter schools, they received priority treatment. The Chancellor placed many charter schools into regular public school buildings, taking classrooms and facilities away from the host schools and igniting bitter fights with the regular schools’ parent associations.” Given the disparate treatment of neighborhood and charter schools, it’s hardly surprising some of them do well. The only surprise is how many do not. Ravitch provides chapter and verse.

I’ve no doubt, for example, that Geoffrey Canada’s kids do well, but I’ve also no doubt, with his annual budget, the city’s willingness to create space for his kids while ignoring ours, his activist approach to early childhood, and his ability to dismiss entire grades if they don’t meet expectations, many public schools could produce similar, if not better results. Of course, Chancellor Klein does not provide troubled schools with additional resources. He just closes them, and if the data on which he bases his statistics are utterly false, well, that’s just too bad. After all, why bother to re-examine anything? Under mayoral control, he and Mayor Bloomberg are always right.

Teachers of literature will be touched by the story of Mrs. Ratliff, who inspired Ravitch to love literature, to write with precision and clarity, and to respect the rules of written English. Doubtless today Mrs. Ratliff would be in the rubber room for insubordination. She’d be patently unable to wade through the rubrics of jargon and standards-based nonsense with which we train our children to pencil in circles nowadays.

Ravitch demonstrates how obsessed we’ve become with test prep, often to the exclusion of all else. This hits home with me, at least. I often teach ESL kids how to pass the English Regents, as most of my colleagues are too smart to volunteer for such a thankless task. I drill the kids to death, largely neglecting the grammar and usage they so sorely need, preferring to make sure they minimally answer questions so they can pass. After all, if they don’t pass, they don’t graduate.

As I read Ravitch’s descriptions of the test-prep factories we’ve allowed our schools to become, I realize that I’ve become yet another facet of the problem. She describes a phenomenon I’d been part of, with no notion it was so widespread. Kids learn from me how to pass one single test. They don’t learn how to write, and they don’t learn to love reading either (in that class, at least). Like many teachers, I haven’t got time for such frivolities when my kids need to pass that test. And since they really do need to pass that test, I’d do it again. In her conclusion, Ravitch makes numerous worthy suggestions about how we can address this issue.

Ravitch bemoans the preposterous demands of NCLB, which has asked that we make every child proficient by 2014. She points out how states can simply lower the bar year by year, and give the appearance of progress. That’s the essence of “reform,” as far as I can tell.

My only quibble would be Ravitch’s description of Green Dot as a union school. While Green Dot teachers are ostensibly unionized, they enjoy neither tenure nor seniority rights. Without tenure, like many of my colleagues, I’d have been fired years ago for reasons having nothing to do with my ability to teach (or lack thereof). Green Dot has a “just cause” clause to protect its teachers, but with neither tenure nor seniority rights, it appears to me that Green Dot teachers can be fired “just cause” their bosses feel like it.

Most of my views on education come from experience. I haven’t got any gift for analyzing data or reading endless reports. I’m always impressed by people like Ravitch, who can plow through papers and reports I’d read only if forced, and not only make sense of them, but also take the time to explain them to people like me, with extensive documentation for those who wish to double-check. She must be a great teacher, and from me, that’s high praise indeed.

Working teachers have come to many conclusions similar to Ravitch’s, drawn from just instinct and experience. It’s gratifying to see how many of our conclusions match those of Ravitch, and how strongly they’re borne out by hard data. And here they are, for all the world to see, in one convenient place.

I’ve only scratched the surface here. If you’re motivated enough to bother reading GothamSchools, you really owe it to yourself to read this book.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.