America’s schools are in serious decline, are indeed close to a state of emergency. Serious reform efforts need to be implemented, soon as possible, privatizing schools, expanding charter schools, and firing teachers (ridding ourselves of the albatross of teacher tenure, and deep-sixing those pesky teachers’ unions). And we need everyone everywhere to teach the same basic Common Core curriculum. And to add multiple layers of accountability, and to identify the worst schools and teachers and districts and states (so they can be safely euthanized) we need to test test test test test test test.
Any of that sound familiar? Because let’s be blunt–there’s no evidence for any of it. The entire paragraph above is complete bollocks, utter balderdash. Public education in the United States is NOT failing, is NOT in a state of crisis, is NOT in desperate need of reform. Of course there are problems with public education. But the proposed reforms will make things worse, not better. Are there failing schools? Yes. But all the evidence–all of it–points to family poverty as the single best predictor for educational underachievement. We do NOT have a education crisis in our country. We do have a poverty crisis, and poverty hurts kids more than any other factor.
This is also not a partisan problem. No Child Left Behind was a Republican reform program, championed by President Bush. It misidentified the problem, and proposed a draconian and unworkable solution. But President Obama’s Race to the Top is as spectacular a failure. I have a good friend, a Republican and a dedicated veteran teacher, who loathes the Common Core curriculum proposal. I’ve read his eloquent writings on the subject, and agree with him entirely.
But mostly, I’ve been reading Diane Ravitch. You remember her, right? Worked in President Bush’s Education Department, implementing NCLB. A Republican. She’s got a new book out, and it rocks. I’ve also been reading Sean Reardon. And Joanne Barkan. But back to Ravitch; read Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. It’s Ravitch’s new book, a scathing attack on education reformers and privatizers, with breath-takingly simple and effective proposals for how we can actually fix the real, genuine problems in public education. Here’s Ravitch on what she thinks public education should be:
Pregnant women should see a doctor early in their pregnancies, and have regular care and good nutrition.
What? What does that have to do with education reform? Very simple: poor pregnant women who do not receive proper medical care are much more likely to have children with developmental difficulties. The link is, always, between poverty and education achievement. And, let’s face it, the basic equality of opportunity that is the essence of the American dream.
Children need prekindergarten classes that teach them how to socialize with others, how to listen and learn, how to communicate well. . . . while engaging in the joyful pursuit of play and learning that . . . builds their background knowledge and vocabulary.
Children in the early elementary grades need teachers who set age-appropriate goals. They should learn to read, write, calculate and explore nature, and they should have plenty of time to sing and dance and draw and play and giggle. Classes in those grades should be small enough (less than twenty) so that students get the individual attention they deserve. Testing should be used sparingly, diagostically, to see what kids are learning . . . (and) test scores should be a private matter, shared with parents only, not shared with district or state.
None of this seems remotely impossible. If the federal government genuinely wants to get involved in education, how ’bout this: a federal law mandating class sizes of 18 or fewer kids, K-6, with block grants for districts who need help meeting the standard. Done.
This next bit is my favorite. It’s long, but read the whole thing:
As students enter the upper elementary grades and middle school and high school, they should have a balanced curriculum that includes not only reading, writing and mathematics, but the sciences, literature, history, geography, civics and foreign languages. Their school should have a rich arts program, where students learn to sing, dance, play an instrument, join an orchestra, band, choir, perform in a play, sculpt, or use technology to design structures, conduct research, or create artworks. Every student should have time for physical education every day. Every school should have a library, with librarians and media specialists. Every school should have a nurse, a psychologist, a guidance counselor and a social worker. And every school should have after school programs. . . . And teachers should write their own tests, and use standarized tests sparingly, and only for diagnostic purposes. Classes should be small enough so that teachers know their students.
That was my high school. It describes my junior high school as well. Aside from all the standardized testing nonsense, it basically describes the high school and junior high schools my kids attended. This is not some kind of unrealistic pipe dream. It’s completely achievable. We just have to decide to do it.
But first of all, let’s take a big ol’ fan and turn it on and blow away all the smokescreens that privatizing education reformers keep clouding the air with. American public education has NOT failed. Indeed, it’s performing quite heroically, given the real barrier that poverty erects to educational achievement. A recent article on Salon.com lays out the evidence. Poverty is the problem. Income inequality is the problem.
We want to believe that we live in a country where it’s possible for poor people to achieve, where effort and determination and will and talent can make it possible for people from even the most deprived backgrounds to succeed. And to some extent that’s true. We can always point to, like, Jay-Z or someone, and there’s that potent American narrative. “See, he came from a poor inner-city family, and he’s now a billionaire.” (In the case of Jay-Z, that narrative is complicated by him bankrolling his first rap album by dealing crack.) But in fact, our society has erected massive barriers to achievement by the disadvantaged. And the first, and most formidable, of those barriers are failing schools. And by ‘failing’ I mean, schools with inadequate resources, schools with too large class sizes and not enough books and not enough desks and no playgrounds. And teachers who have to teach to the test or they’ll lose their jobs. So teaching is supplanted by rote memorization.
So look to Finland. Best schools in the world. How do they do it? By acting sensibly. By paying teachers enough to attract capable people to the profession. By allowing teachers to set the curriculum, and trusting them to just teach. By mandating small class sizes. And forget standardized testing, and draconian consequences to schools where the kids don’t rote-memorize up to some arbitrary standard.
Above all, by not insisting on privatizing, or ‘introducing competition to failing schools,’ or allowing charter schools to proliferate, or insisting that market forces can improve education. Or firing teachers. Or attacking teachers’ unions.
Let’s look openly and honestly at what’s really going on in this country. Let’s admit that the American dream is more fantasy than reality anymore. Let’s give poor people a hand up. Let’s tax rich people more to pay for it. Income inequality is not just a slogan on a poster at Occupy Wall Street protests. It’s real, and it’s hurting poor people. There are real things that we can do (that GOVERNMENT) can do to help. Like paid maternity leave, and child-care subsidies, and Obamacare, and expanded Pell grants and block grants to public education and expanded small business loans. Above all, let’s stop pretending that education is in a state of crisis, and that privatizing reforms are the answer. Let’s tell the truth for once. We need more teachers and we need to pay them better. And free them to teach. Let’s start there.