Budget & Finance Opinion

Tough Choices and privatization

By Diane Ravitch — March 30, 2007 3 min read
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Dear Deborah,

I think we are in a very strange and disquieting time for public education. “Reforms” are being implemented that will have unforeseen consequences. I was one of the early supporters of charter schools, as a means of establishing more choice within the public system, but as they proliferate I wonder what the end game is, where are we heading? I have not had any beef with those who said that private managers could step in and do a better job with the lowest-performing schools—after all, when schools are not managing to educate the kids, why not try a different strategy?

Both ideas ran into considerable resistance for a long time, but the resistance seems to have eroded. Now as I see these ideas that made sense as limited outlets being turned into basic strategies of an entire school district, it worries me. Maybe I wasn’t smart enough to see that this was the road we were heading down.

We keep alluding to the “Tough Choices or Tough Times” report. It is time to discuss it directly. In my view, the most radical proposal of that commission was that every public school should be operated by an “independent contractor.” Maybe they meant groups of teachers, but I rather think they meant the big chains of charter school operators that have been growing by leaps and bounds. Whether those operators are non-profit (like New Visions for Public Schools in New York City) or for-profit (like Edison and Victory), the result is the same: to privatize the operations of public schools.

Some educators think all this is just so much hot air, that it will never happen. But it is starting to happen here in New York City, where I write. Under mayoral control, the system is setting up three alternative pathways that principals may choose. One involves becoming an “empowerment” school, quasi-autonomous from any district regulation; another involves signing up with a private manager, the names of which have not yet been announced; a third permits principals to join some amorpous thing called a Learning Support Organization, headed by someone who used to be a superintendent but has no power to supervise.

It is hard to say what the endgame is in this situation, though insiders believe that our Chancellor Joel Klein is trying to follow the “Tough Choices” recommendations (he was a member of the commission that drafted the report and he signed it).

It does seem to be an effort to dissolve the New York City school district, to remove from central officials all responsibility for curriculum and instruction, and to put in place an elaborate system of accountability. That’s what I suspect the endgame is: to put the schools into a marketplace situation, where it’s “every prinicipal for him/herself,” and “every school for itself” in a struggle to compete for high-performing students, to exclude low-performing students without getting caught, and to be judged above all by test scores.

Unlike you, I have never been opposed to testing, though I would like to believe I have been a steadfast advocate for better tests, not just multiple-choice, bubble-tests.

I admit, however, that I am appalled by the idea of a school system that has a mandated method of instruction (balanced literacy and the workshop model) but no curriculum. I think that is exactly backwards; if we learn from other countries that have a successful education system, they have a strong curriculum and leave teachers free to teach in the ways they think best.

I am also appalled by the idea that a school system would care not at all whether students were learning the essential elements of education, such as the arts and history and geography. And I am appalled that testing and accountability have somehow become the only strategies to “reform” schools. Such a strategy, I predict, will not reform schools. It will only turn them into testing factories. Principals, knowing that their job hinges on test scores, will find ways to exclude low performing students, and if that doesn’t work, find other means to get the scores to save their job.

I find all of this not only appalling but abhorrent. And this is where I think we are heading. And it is frightening.


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