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.


H said...

I was talking to a mutual friend who said that one of the highest excelling schools in Tempe plummeted to the bottom of the barrel after Ward opened up. I guess all the motivated students transfered over there and they were left with the unmotivated. But if we have a school like Ward, where you are encouraged to leave if your child can't get the grade, then where do all of these kids go? Back to public school, just like this books states. This charter school bit sure is a dilema. I have issues with the charters at the other end of the spectrum as well- the ones that take discipline cases and special needs students and don't actually give them an education at all.
We need to talk, I can't type all my thoughts in a comment box :)

tempe turley said...


I was waiting for your response to this. Also, the book makes a pretty strong statement that if you are able to compare a charter (like ward) with a public school keeping the demographic of the kids constant between the two schools, you see no difference in quality.

In other words, if you have motivated students, they are likely to do just as well in either setting.

H said...

I wouldd agree to that last bit for te ;mostt part. I thinkf there is a difference in teacher quality and expectations as well. (PAyton i s helP Ing me tpe here.sorry)

tempe turley said...

Right, teacher quality matters to some extent. But which schools have the best teachers? Hard to say.

I doubt Ward magically has better teachers than say the neighborhood public schools. I would imagine they have roughly an equal amount of good, bad and average teachers.

Certainly you're not going to know based on test scores alone.

H said...

Oh Scott, you're just baiting me with test scores, aren't you?! I'm not biting. But, in relation to the teachers (since I don't have a 4 month old helping me type now)...

I think, in general, public school teachers have to put up with an awful lot. There are so many "have to's" that don't benefit their overall teaching abilities or student achievement. Charter school teachers do not have to have the same qualifications across the board. In some situations this can be good, in others it can be very bad. It's so hard to know what is right for your children, and so hard to judge a good teacher because it takes so much to run a classroom. Take, for instance, the teacher with all the creative juices and knowledge of subject matter that one could possibly want, but has no class management skills. Even the most motivated class in the world will get sidetracked by socializing and misbehavior.

I will say, hands down, the best run schools I have seen in my years as a teacher, substitute, and parent (public, private, and charter)have one common denominator: good administration. You show me a good school and every parent knows who runs the place. The principal or director is visible and approachable and gets things done in an effective and timely manner. This person is one person that can make a difference. I'm not saying that it is their way or the highway, I'm saying there is a go-to person. This person can look at a situation that needs rectification, weigh the pros and cons, get relevant input and make a decision that is for the good.

That's my 2 cents on the matter anyway. Now, I really need to go attempt this glutten-free pie crust...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post, Scott. This helps put this issue into perspective for me, because the exact nature of so-called charter schools have always perplexed me.

It seems like some are for-profit schools, some are not. It's a strange animal. I will have to read the book; I hope it shows all of the elephant.