Accountability Opinion

What Works Best: Help or Punishment?

By Diane Ravitch — May 17, 2011 4 min read
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Dear Deborah,

Your last column reminded me of fruitless debates that I have had with education “reformers” who are extremely certain about their views. They are convinced that they have exactly the right solutions for fixing schools—firing teachers and closing schools—and that anyone who disagrees with them is a “defender of the status quo.” I have heard exactly this charge, again and again.

A friend and former student, Kevin Kosar, created a fascinating graph in which he traced the historical usage of the term “failing schools.” The term was seldom used until the mid-1990s, when it appeared with frequency. After 2000, it became a common term. Now we hear public officials use the label often and unquestioningly. There are many ways to interpret Kosar’s chart. Perhaps there was an explosion of “failing schools,” beginning in the late 1990s; or, perhaps federal policy created the terminology, preferring to blame the schools for low performance rather than to look at other possible causes, such as poverty, language, or resources. So are the schools failing because the staff is incompetent, or do the schools have low scores because they serve many children with high needs? I tend to think it is the latter, but the corporate reformers are quite certain that schools with low scores are “failing schools” and should close. They say that such schools can’t be fixed and must close as soon as possible; anything less would mean putting adult interests over those of children. As time goes by, we learn that many of the new schools eventually become “failing schools” if they enroll the same children; many “succeed” by removing or avoiding low-performing students.

A few months ago, I spoke at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, California. It is a Catholic university, located on a beautiful campus. After my talk, a member of the faculty gave me a ride back to my hotel in San Francisco. He spoke about his long career in parochial education and why he had become a college professor, mentoring many Catholic schools in the region. At one point he had been the principal of an elementary school. I asked what he did about teachers who were not doing a good job, and he described the help and support he and others would provide. I asked what he thought of the current zeal to fire “bad teachers.” He said something I will never forget. He said that we must remember that one has a moral obligation not to terminate someone’s livelihood and career without long and hard deliberation; to do so, he said, required taking responsibility for ruining someone’s life. We talked about the “reformers” who are almost gleeful in their zeal to fire teachers. He thought that they failed to recognize the moral dimensions of leadership.

I thought, too, about a panel I was on in New Orleans last fall. One of my fellow panelists was John Jackson of the Schott Foundation for Public Education. He said that he had recently visited some high-performing nations, and at each stop he would ask someone from the ministry of education: “What do you do about bad teachers?” The answer invariably was, “We help them.” And he asked, “What if you help them and they are still bad teachers?” And the response was, “We help them more.”

What do I conclude from these disparate thoughts? I think we are dealing with two very different mind-sets. One sees the school as a community, a place of learning where there is an ethical obligation to support both staff and students, helping both to succeed. The other sees schools as one part of a free-market economy, where quality may be judged by data; if the results aren’t good enough, then fire part or all of the people and close the store, I mean, the school and pick a new location. The former looks to teamwork and mutual support as guiding principles; the other prizes competition, leading either to rewards or punishments.

What’s scary is that we now see the advance of the free-market ideology across many states—Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, for example. We see strong support for the market basis of schooling in both No Child Left Behind and in Race to the Top. We see it with the advance of charters, for-profit online corporations, virtual charters, merit pay, and the proliferation of charters as a panacea. We see a continuing campaign to dismantle public education, privatize it, and turn it over to entrepreneurs of various stripes.

So, I come back to where I started: Do I defend the status quo? Absolutely not. The status quo is firmly tied to test-based accountability, to punishing the people who work in schools instead of giving them the support they need to succeed. The status quo is indefensible. The defenders of the status quo are the corporate reformers, who want to tighten the grip of No Child Left Behind, who cannot imagine schools that can function effectively without competition for rewards and punishments for low scores.

The debates don’t seem to change their views. Neither does evidence that their “solutions” don’t work. Neither does the fact that the top nations in the world are not pursuing privatization and de-professionalization as cures for education. Perhaps someday they will recognize that their ideas don’t work. Or they will get bored and move on to some other pastime.


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.