Friday, March 19, 2010

The Death and Life of the American School System

I'm reading The Death and Life of the Great American School System by Diane Ravitch. I'm not going to say that I have strong opinions on what she says but this book is well worth reading. Its providing me a strong counter-argument to my own attempts to dismiss the public school system. In this book, her main arguments so far suggest that school choice, vouchers, charters and high stakes testing have shown absolutely no evidence of actually improving schools. She makes the obvious point that there is no royal road to learning. Education is a hard road of discipline and consistent effort. How do you help students who don't have the family support or personal desire to take on that road. That's a problem that has no easy solutions. But public education is all about providing education to every single child, both the motivated and the unmotivated. School choice has been more about developing charters and private alternatives that do nothing more than cherry pick the best, most motivated students, leaving the hardest to educate to the public schools. That is the only true explanation why some charters do better with test scores than public schools.

"What lessons can public schools learn from the charter schools? Should they create more selective schools to hold on to motivated students? Should they separate their students ability to prevent the unmotivated from negatively affecting the performance of the motivated? If they have longer hours and weeks, will that cause unmotivated students to become more motivated? How should regular public schools educate those who are not highly motivated and those who are not at all interested in their schoolwork, as well as those who are working hard and want a good education? These are problems that Albert Shanker once imagined would be studied and perhaps even solved by innovative charter schools.

As currently configured, charter schools are havens for the motivated. As more charter schools open, the dilemma of educating all students will grow sharper. The resolution of this dilemma will determine the fate of public education.

The question for the future is whether the continued growth of charter schools in urban districts will leave regular public schools with the most difficult students to educate, thus creating a two-tier system of widening inequality. If so, we can safely predict that future studies will 'prove' the success of charter schools, because the public schools will have disproportionate numbers of less motivated parents and needier students. As charter schools increase in number and able students enroll them, the regular public schools in the nation's cities will be locked into a downward trajectory. This would be an ominous development for public education and for our nation."

The current trend of trying to apply business models to all of our most pressing problems is frightening. Public education especially (and you can make the same arguments for health care) has been about making efforts in providing an education for every child. This is an impossible goal, but the pursuit of it is what government is all about.

If you privatize education (which is the trend) and deregulate it you'll find that more and more children will be left out. That's what the free market does. There are no guarantees of universal access in the private sector. The free market is not set up that way.