School Choice & Charters Opinion

The Start of an Interesting and Dangerous School Year

By Diane Ravitch — September 09, 2009 3 min read
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Editor’s Note: Bridging Differences returns today from its summer hiatus. The blog will resume its regular Tuesday-Thursday publishing schedule next week.

Dear Deborah,

School is open, and it is time to talk! What a busy summer for all of us who care about education.

I had a good summer, finished editing my new book, and got it off to the publisher. I also managed to finish George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, my main summer reading. It took 140 pages before I became fully engaged, but then the plot and the characters grabbed me.

The big education events of the summer were huge. Starting locally, the New York legislature renewed Mayor Bloomberg’s one-man control of the New York City public schools. No surprise there. What was surprising and really shocking was a debate about whether to create a $1.6 million parent training center, a tiny bone tossed to critics of the mayor’s high-handed rule. The legislators wanted to place the new center at New York University. Then the New York Post ran a scare headline warning that someone who had criticized the mayor’s education reforms—Deborah Meier—would run the parent training center. This was laughable, since you are an adjunct and would have had nothing to do with the program. Nonetheless, the terrified legislators promptly shifted the appropriation (a grain of sand in our city’s $21 billion education budget) to City University of New York, where the mayor can keep it under his thumb and where it will be harmlessly divided into five separate centers.

Nationally, the most important event was the release of the federal government’s regulations for the “Race to the Top.” Those regulations made clear that the Obama administration has fully aligned itself with the edu-entrepreneurs who favor market-based reforms. As I predicted on this blog, President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan are now the spear carriers for the GOP’s education policies of choice and accountability. An odd development, don’t you think? The Department of Education dangles nearly $5 billion before the states, but only if they agree to remove the caps on charter schools and any restrictions on using student test scores to evaluate teachers.

What is extraordinary about these regulations is that they have no credible basis in research. They just happen to be the programs and approaches favored by the people in power. Under normal circumstances, the Department of Education would need congressional hearings and authorization to launch a program so sweeping and so sharply defined. Instead, they are using the “stimulus” money to impose their preferences, with no hearings and no congressional authorization.

Is any charter school better than any public school? As we learned from the Stanford CREDO study of charters a few months ago, only 17 percent of charter schools are superior to comparable public schools; the rest were either no better or worse. Yet the Obama administration wants to open up the nation’s public schools—especially in urban districts—to massive privatization.

And with the encouragement of Secretary Duncan (and the support of the Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation), privatization is taking root. Just last week, the Los Angeles board of education voted to turn over nearly one third of its schools to private management; this despite the fact that in the same week it was reported that the Green Dot takeover of Locke High School produced no gains. At Locke, 2 percent of the students met state standards in math; after a year of massive publicity about the Green Dot miracle at Locke, the scores came out, and 2 percent of the students met state standards in math. The excuses came thick and fast: the dropout rate was down, more students came to school, but…the scores were flat.

There is also no research that justifies the Obama administration’s belief that tying teacher evaluations to student scores will improve schools. I commend to our readers the response to the RTTT regulations by Professor Helen Ladd, an economist who has studied teacher evaluation for many years, as well as the one by Paul Barton, who has studied education issues for many years. What both of these responses clearly demonstrate is that there is no research basis for the priorities favored by Secretary Duncan.

This will be an interesting year. But also a very dangerous year for American public education.


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.