School Choice & Charters Opinion

The Strange Paradox of ‘School Reform’ Today

By Diane Ravitch — June 08, 2010 3 min read
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Dear Deborah,

Over the past few months, I have traveled the country and spoken to thousands of educators—teachers, administrators, and school board members. At the same time, I have kept close tabs on the national discussion about the Obama administration’s Race to the Top.

I have discovered a strange paradox. With few exceptions, the national media are excited by the Race to the Top, especially the expansion of charter schools, the tough accountability measures directed at teachers, and closing down of “failing” schools. But educators are overwhelmingly disheartened by these same measures.

The people who have the closest involvement in schools see the Obama administration’s policies as misguided, if not disastrous, yet these same policies are celebrated by journalists and pundits who see education as just one more policy issue with obvious answers.

Consider these two journalistic celebrations of Race to the Top: one, by Stephen Brill in The New York Times Magazine, and the other, by David Brooks in his column in The New York Times. Brill, a lawyer who usually writes about legal topics, has no credentials as an education journalist, yet he uses his platform to extol charters, accountability, and other hallmarks of the new “reform” era. He shows no familiarity with the extensive research that questions the value of these policies.

Brill wrongly asserts that a charter school in Harlem in New York City achieves success with precisely the same children who attend a regular public school in the same building. If Brill knew anything about education, he would have sought data from the New York state Education Department. If he had, he would have discovered that the charter school and the regular public school do not serve the same kinds of students. (See “More on Steve Brill’s imperviousness to the facts,” from the NYC Public School Parents blog.)

The charter school, Harlem Success Academy, has higher test scores for its 3rd grade (the only grade tested so far), but it serves fewer needy students, fewer students who are limited-English proficient, and fewer students with disabilities. Brill was right that the two schools are in the same building, but they don’t enroll similar students. The students in the charter school are more advantaged than those in the public school. As any teacher or researcher knows, that difference has a significant impact on the schools’ test scores.

David Brooks loves the competitive ideas behind Race to the Top. Brooks is a Republican, so it is not surprising that he believes that competition will cure the ills of American education. So does Newt Gingrich, who has toured the nation with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to tout the benefits of the Race to the Top.

Brooks lauds the Race to the Top because it “uses federal power to incite reform, without dictating it from the top.” Educators disagree. Carlos A. Garcia, the superintendent of schools in San Francisco, says it is a strong-armed approach, no different from No Child Left Behind, and “we’re tired of all that stuff.”

Like Brill, Brooks is unaware that competitive pay plans have a record of consistent failure and that even when they “succeed,” such plans incentivize the wrong behaviors among teachers, who are compelled to do more counterproductive teaching-to-the-test and more curriculum-narrowing. Such behaviors do not produce good education.

The Obama administration has benefited mightily by winning the approval of the national media. But the media have failed to ask what the race is about, what the “top” is, who will lose the race, and what will be accomplished by the government’s expenditure of nearly $5 billion for these purposes.

I think the Race to the Top is a massive waste of money that will produce perverse consequences. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of schools will be privatized, handed over in some cases to incompetent or unscrupulous organizations. Teachers will be pushed to focus more of their energy on unworthy tests. Many schools will discover there is less time to teach the arts or sciences or foreign languages or history.

Based on my travels these past few months, I conclude that my views are by no means unusual. Our nation’s educators are strongly opposed to the Race to the Top. They know these policies will harm and degrade education. Our policymakers in Washington, D.C., should pay attention.


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.