What public schools need

What public schools need

September 20th, 2012 in Opinion Times

Diane Ravitch speaks to Times Free Press editorial board members during a meeting at the Public Education Foundation offices. Ravitch is widely known as a teacher advocate who views standardized testing and "privatization" through charter and virtual schools as some of today's biggest threats to public education.

Photo by Patrick Smith/Times Free Press.

In the current contrived political climate - a sad sham, actually - fixing so-called failing schools and raising overall achievement scores demands teaching to unending tests and denigrating under-supported teachers by gagging their collective voice and ending tenure. Against this deeply flawed trend, the clear sanity of Dr. Diane Ravitch's message here Tuesday came as a welcome elixir. It's too bad county commissioners and school board members, who regularly fight over the county school system's budget and mission, largely failed to show up to hear what she had to say in the kick-off presentation of the Benwood Foundation's annual lecture series.

Ravitch, who served as Under Secretary of Education to Lamar Alexander when he was Ronald Reagan's education secretary, has arrived at her views on what makes public schools great from decades of teaching, research and national and international exploration - all the subject of her books on education. So it's hardly surprising that this unpretentious, facts-only-ma'am guru diagnostician received endless rounds of applause and cheers during her talk as she described the problems of current trends and her common-sense contrarian formula for keeping America's public schools the best in the world.

She points out, in fact, that American student performance is still the best in world against the typically higher-ranked European and Asian achievement scores if student scores in America's high-poverty schools are excluded. It's the latter - and its root cause: poverty levels for American children that are the highest in the industrialized world - that bring down the nation's average achievement scores and spur such misguided, destructive, obsessive political fixes as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.

Ravitch finds the resulting emphasis on constant testing unreasonably excessive, misguided and misused - and she's obviously right. It's caused too much teaching-to-the-tests, a narrowing of educational focus, cheating by administrators and teachers, and misbegotten penalties against teachers and schools - all because of lack of diligent attention to the family and social circumstances that negatively affect learning by students from impoverished families and neighborhoods.

The commonly perceived under-performance of schools in high-poverty areas is a reflection of the truth of most such schools: the effects of poverty itself - and not, as a rule, a lacking in quality teachers there. The nation's wildly disproportionate level of child poverty is "the number 1 problem," she asserts. Fix poverty and you fix the school.

Thus the current model of penalizing teachers for under-performance in high-poverty areas is both wrong and wasteful. Worse, it is leading to a futile cycle of blaming and shutting down neighborhood schools, or passing the problem on to a similarly misbegotten state takeover. Combine that blindness with the political trends toward undermining teachers' unions, squelching their voice on educational matters, and tearing down public schools and robbing their funding to support private school vouchers, cherry-picking charter schools and unproven for-profit virtual schools -- and you see the end of the nation's model public schools and their greater common good, Ravitch declares.

Studies persistently show, she emphasizes, that the causes and effects of poverty, in early learning, nutrition, family support and encouragement, are the predominate factors in under-achievement. Firing, penalizing and demoralizing teachers is not the path out of that dilemma.

Her formula for actually helping high-poverty schools is intuitively correct: Cut class-size to no more than 15 students, so teachers can have the opportunity to build personal relationships with students and tailor their teaching accordingly. Provide kids and their parents in high-poverty areas early-learning and high-quality after-school programs. Give teachers more resources and more support, rather than slamming them. And put arts, physical education, creativity and joy back in the school experience - the environment that makes kids want to be in school.

Ravitch's prescriptions have depth, merit and wide support (see her blog at dianeravitch.net). They also reflect common-sense and the historical framework of America's most successful public school era. Indeed, Ravitch would return schools to the approach taken in the 1970s and 1980s, where segregated schools were ended, teachers were given more resources, minority families had more job opportunities, and scores in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) outperformed those in other advanced countries.

She also would end the divisive notion of merit pay, which diminishes teachers' collaboration and mutual support. Instead, she would improve teacher morale by providing respect, recognition, higher pay, master teacher mentoring and support for teachers' unions. The latter, she rightly believes, is vital to the informed collective voice teachers have traditionally provided to counter destructive political tactics that defame public schools and bully and denigrate teachers for partisan political advantage.

Better treatment of teachers is also necessary to stanch the flight of seasoned teachers from the nation's public schools. Not long ago, Ravitch notes, the largest group of teachers in the work force had 15 years of experience: Now, the largest group is teachers with just one year of experience. That's a disastrous trend on its face.

Retaining good teachers and mitigating the effects of child poverty must be priority goals. The artificiality of constant testing won't improve well-rounded education and the curious, creative minds America must have to prosper.