School Choice & Charters Opinion

This Strange New Era of “Reform”

By Diane Ravitch — September 02, 2008 3 min read
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Bridging Differences returns today with this entry from Diane Ravitch.

Dear Deborah,

Welcome back from vacation. School is open, and it’s time to start bridging differences. Let’s see what we can do to clarify the deep undercurrents in American politics that are changing what happens in the schoolhouse, and, in some cases, seem likely to change the very nature of the schoolhouse.

In my historical studies, I have usually found that the public debates about schooling may be heated, but teaching and learning change glacially. This has always been a source of frustration to reformers, whether they are progressives or essentialists, because they would like to prescribe big changes and see them happen fast. Ordinarily, that doesn’t happen.

Yet in these past six years, since the enactment of No Child Left Behind, we have seen bigger changes in daily classroom life than anyone could have imagined. The testing requirements of the law now define teaching and learning. As the old adage goes, what is tested is what is taught. So in district after district, all across the land, students are being prepared for the state tests in reading and math, often to the exclusion of other subjects, even recess.

This we all know. But something else is happening that is in some ways even more ominous than the Sword of Damocles that hangs over so many public schools.

We used to see a partisan divide about the big issues in education policy. The Democratic party advocated more funding for disadvantaged students and policies that promoted equity. The Republican party advocated choice, privatization, merit pay, and accountability, and criticized the teachers’ unions as the main obstacles to reform.

In this election cycle, that familiar divide has changed dramatically. The Republicans still advocate choice, privatization, merit pay, and accountability and are still critical of the teachers’ unions. But now there is a significant movement within the Democratic party that advocates the same positions as the Republicans.

The leading advocates of choice, privatization, merit pay, and accountability appeared in a panel discussion during the Democratic convention, led by Chancellor Joel Klein of New York City and Chancellor Michelle Rhee of Washington, D.C. Along with such colleagues as the Rev. Al Sharpton and Mayor Adrian Fenty of the District of Columbia, they present themselves as the true voices of “reform.” Listen to them and what one hears is the same views that the Republicans have been expressing since at least 1996, when Republican candidate Bob Dole launched an attack on the teachers’ unions. Now it is Rhee and Fenty trying to persuade D.C. teachers to abandon the tenure rights that their union won for them.

The “reforms” of the Klein-Sharpton-Rhee group are not at all new. They attack the teachers’ union, bash teachers, demand merit pay, promote charter schools and private management, and laud testing, lots more testing. They love NCLB, and they want it toughened. At bottom, they would like to see the public school system of the United States run like a business, with employees hired and fired at will. They are ready to privatize and outsource whatever they can, trusting private managers to succeed where the public sector (with themselves as leaders) has failed.

A number of articles recently have jumped on the idea that charters, testing, merit pay, etc. are the cutting edge of reform. (See here and here.)

It is curious, is it not, to see these two superintendents present themselves as successful reformers. Rhee has only recently begun her tenure, so it is indeed premature to anoint her a success, as so many in the media have already done, based solely on her bold rhetoric and her audacious effort to undercut the teachers’ union. Klein has been chancellor of the New York City public schools since the fall of 2002; he implemented his “reforms” in 2003. Since then, NYC has seen no significant gains on NAEP in 4th grade reading, 8th grade reading, or 8th grade math. The city’s gains in 4th grade math are suspicious, since the exclusion rate for that grade and subject was an eye-popping 25 percent, something not seen in any other district tested by NAEP. At the same time, the city’s education spending increased by a startling 79 percent.

Some formula for success. Some business model.

So this is the strange new era we are embarked upon, in which the mantle of “reformer” has passed to those who would dismantle public education, piece by piece.


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