Assessment Opinion

Is Democratic Governance the Problem?

By Diane Ravitch — December 09, 2008 3 min read
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Dear Deborah,

You quote John Goodlad, who asks “Whatever became of the idea that representative democracy is the essential starting point for public education?”

This is an important question to raise today, as I suspect that our political elites have lost faith in this idea. Take, for example, the spread of charter schools. There are now some 1.3 million children in more than 4,500 charter schools in 40 states, plus the District of Columbia. Without getting into the merits or demerits of charter schools, it is worth noting that the impulse to “go charter” seems to align with the impulse to remove oneself from the public square. Just last week, a report on the charter schools in the Twin Cities held that they were more racially and socially segregated than the regular public schools.

As we know, both John McCain and Barack Obama endorsed charter schools during their last debate in the campaign. The big foundations, notably Gates and Broad, are gung-ho for charters, as are business groups. There seems to be a strong and growing belief that the schools controlled directly through the democratic process are incapable of improvement and that only schools managed privately can flourish. Actually, a recent paper by Cecilia Rouse (with Lisa Barrow) [School Vouchers and Student Achievement: Recent Evidence, Remaining Questions] says that there is not a lot of difference in outcomes between choice schools and regular public schools, but findings such as hers seem not to have daunted the growing movement for charters and choice.

Also last week, Louis V. Gerstner, the former CEO of IBM, wrote an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal in which he called for the abolition of the nation’s 15,000 or so school districts and the imposition of national standards, national tests, merit pay, and longer hours in school. Although I have long supported national standards and national testing (without stakes!), I was alarmed by Gerstner’s conclusion that school districts, school boards, and democratic governance were the root cause of our educational ills. I wrote an article for Forbes.com (perhaps reaching some of the same readers as the WSJ) arguing that we should not abrogate democratic control of our schools, that it would be wrong to relinquish discussion, debate, and public review of education policies.

It is worth mentioning, I think, that Gerstner’s proposal is a kissing cousin to the ideas set out by John Chubb and Terry Moe in their book “Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools” in 1990. They argued then, on behalf of vouchers, that the fundamental problem in American education was democratic control of the schools. So, while Gerstner, Chubb, and Moe advocate different policies, their analysis is congruent.

I remain confused and uncertain about what kind of “accountability” is best. I am not even sure how to define the term; it seems to be rubbery, depending on who is using it and what ends they pursue. I agree with many of our readers that tests matter, and they are not going to disappear. I do believe, however, that they are being overused and misused, especially when so many rewards and sanctions are now tied to test scores. As one of our readers wrote, when every child is tested, then states will seek out the cheapest way to test every child. And then every child, every teacher, and every principal finds their future tied to a cheap measuring stick.

It is clear to me that we need more measures, more ways of looking at inputs and outcomes, and that we should not expect only test scores to become the ultimate judge of everything that happens in the school. So long as we continue to cling to simplistic measurements, we will be in a bind, the one I mentioned last time: Even if the scores should go higher, it won’t necessarily mean that kids are better educated. They may even be less well educated as a result of our misguided policies.


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