Data Opinion

Schools Are Not in a True Marketplace

By Diane Ravitch — November 20, 2007 3 min read

Dear Deborah,

It was interesting that you used the analogy to Consumer Reports to discuss the value of grading schools. As a longtime subscriber to CR, I understand that it is useful to have a disinterested voice evaluating the products in the marketplace. To make sure that there is never a conflict of interest, CR does not accept advertising; no one can ever say that their judgments were tainted by commercial interests.

The CR example shows, I think, the problems with assigning a letter grade (only one letter grade, not a report card) to each school. To begin with, schools are not situated in a true marketplace. We may decide to buy this car, not that one, or this television, not that one, because we are consumers and have a wide choice of products. But parents do not have the same free choice about where to send their children; even if they wanted to withdraw them from an F school and send them to an A school, the A school may be too distant from their home and it certainly will not have enough seats for students who might want to transfer in. Most parents would be happy to know that their children were attending a good school that was close to home. They have neither the time nor the sophistication to shop around the city for a higher-rated school. Given the widespread complaint that the ratings themselves are flawed, school officials may be dispensing false data to parents, scaring them needlessly about their children’s school and destabilizing schools and communities.

Then, too, there is the problem of conflict of interest. Is it really a good idea that schools should be graded by the very officials responsible for leading them? Don’t they have an inherent conflict of interest? Consumer Reports takes pains to insulate itself from the appearance of conflict of interest. Top school officials, on the other hand, are the ones who rank and grade and test and report on their own performance. In New York City, the situation is anomalous, in that school officials disdain any responsibility for improving the schools; under their theory of principal empowerment, only the principal is to be held responsible, even though there are many conditions affecting achievement that are beyond the principal’s influence.

I certainly agree with you that NCLB should not be reauthorized until there is more careful reconsideration of what it has accomplished and what its negative consequences have been. Everything that I read and hear supports the view that it will NOT be reauthorized until after the 2008 election. A new president will presumably set the agenda for federal education policy. Since Democrats control the Congress until the next election, I think it fair to say that NCLB is now the property of the Democratic party.

Given the importance of the NEA and the AFT within Democratic ranks, I would have assumed that Congress would be taking a hard look at NCLB, but this does not seem to be the case. Last week I was invited to meet with a very smart Democratic congressman who is a member of the Education Committee in the House of Representatives. I told him that I hoped Congress would consider a radical restructuring of NCLB. He immediately disabused me of that idea. He said that NCLB will be re-authorized; that there would be changes, but that they would not be radical ones. I told him that if they did some polling or even talked to teachers in their districts, they would find that the law was hated by most teachers. That didn’t seem to faze him. The law will no doubt get a new name, but the basic structure will not be abandoned.

One wonders, if the people who have to do the implementation say that it is not working, why would Congress push ahead? But apparently they are. It is time to realize that this law, in its next iteration, will be a product of the Democratic party. My guess is that no one in Washington wants to give up the power to tell teachers what to do.


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