Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Race to the Bottom: Obama school reform gone wrong

By Roger Bybee <http://www.inthesetimes.com/community/profile/6566>

Diane Ravitch, author of /The Death and Life of the Great American
School System/.

President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have
formed an alliance with billionaire "school reformers" whose agenda
is to downgrade U.S. public education and blame its shortcomings on
"bad teachers," warns educational historian Diane Ravitch.

Ravitch spoke Thursday night before a crowd of more than 1,000 education
professors, students, public school teachers, and community activists at
the University of Wisconsin.

"These corporate reformers are pursuing a strategy based on ideology,
not on evidence," she charged. "It is demoralizing teachers and setting
up public schools to be de-legitimized, as they are called upon to meet
impossible goals. This is not an improvement strategy, it is a
privatization strategy."

Ravitch, once assistant secretary of education under George W.
Bush, has undergone a remarkable transformation after observing how
the education system became fixated on test results, the scapegoating of
teachers and the promoting of a privatized approach to education.

She has now emerged as one of the leading critics of the Obama-Duncan
approach to public education, which has been driven by funding from
several huge foundations--the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli
and Edith Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family foundation.

The essence of this corporatized approach to public education is
"choice, competition, deregulation, accountability, and data-based
decision-making," as Joanne Barkan summarizes it an important /Dissent/
<http://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/?article=3781> article.

With progressive reforms for education generating little attention, the
corporate model has managed to make surprising inroads among some
liberals who have become persuaded that a market-driven education system
is key to America's future.

The corporate style of reform began with "No Child Left Behind" enacted
under George W. Bush, which promoted a preoccupation with standardized
testing and the conclusion that children's failure to measure up was a
direct result of inferior teachers.

This was followed by Duncan's "Race to the Top" program which embraced
the same core beliefs, including the closing of "failed schools." Duncan
and Obama, for example, applauded the decision of the Central Falls,
Rhode Island School Board to close the high school and fire all 91 staff
members, absurdly including the cafeteria and maintenance staff, based
on the assumption that low test scores reflected the failures of the

The poverty of the students and the fact that a high percentage were
immigrants learning English were seen as irrelevant to the low test
scores. Eventually, both Duncan and the local school system were forced
to back off due to public outcry.

But Duncan, along with the three huge foundations, is still pressing
ahead with imposing what Ravitch calls their "punitive" and
"market-based" assumptions on the nation's schools.

However, as both Ravitch and Barkan have pointed out, all the major
studies show that the key elements of corporate-style education reform
are simply not working:

*No improvement in learning* The most comprehensive study of
de-regulated "charter" schools, conducted by conservative economists at
Stanford University, examined education results among students at 2,400
charter schools nationally. They found 83% of charter schools perform
either worse or no better than public schools.

*Merit pay* The new wave of corporate reformers have argued that
merit pay is vital to incentivize" and reward better-performing
teachers. But a 2010 Vanderbilt University study clearly demonstrated
that merit pay does not generate higher standardized testing.

A National Research Council report, backing up numerous other studies,
found that standardized test scores fail to effectively measure student
learning The main result observed by Ravitch has been the tendency of
school curriculums to get narrower and narrower, focusing almost
exclusively on "teaching to the test" in reading and math. Supposed
"success" stories of market-based, mayor-driven "reform" in Chicago and
New York quickly unraveled once newspapers began independently
evaluating the test scores of students.

Nonetheless, the combined PR clout of the Gates, Broad, and Walton
foundations has generated a massive wave of favorable publicity for
their crusade against what Ravitch called "the Bad Teacher Syndrome."
This included a cover story in Newsweek, a weeklong series on NBC that
"celebrated privatization and scapegoating teachers," as Ravitch put it,
and two segments of Oprah devoted to discussing Waiting for Superman, which Ravitch called a badly-biased documentary.

All of these high-profile attacks on teachers, their unions, and
union-won rights avoid the real causes of poor school performance. "Most
of the nations that the US is comparing itself with have much lower
rates of poverty among their children. It's 20% nationally here, and I
know it's much higher in this community." (32 percent of children in
Milwaukee are poor.)

"Poor performance is mostly due to poverty and racial isolation," Raitch
said. Barkan further illuminated this point in /Dissent:/

The most recent results (2006) showed the following: students in US
schools where the poverty rate was less than 10% rnked first in
reading, first in cience, and third in math. But as the poverty rate
rose till higher, students ranked lower and lower.

Twenty percent of all U.S. schools have poverty rates over 75%. The
problem is not public schools; it is poverty.

And as dozens of studies have shown, the gap in cognitive, physical,
and social development between children in poverty and middle-class
children is set by age three.

The over-emphasis on testing, the targeting of teachers, the senseless
closing of schools, and the substitution of a market model for the basic
democratic right of public education are all generating an increasingly
vocal backlash from both teachers and parents.

"Teachers are going to be marching on Washington D.C. July 28 to 30 to
protest the 'testing and punishment' regime in education," Ravitch

The top-down corporate-style reform championed by Obama and the
billionaires threatens a further deterioration of education for poor
kids, and is an imminent threat to America's democratic traditions,
Ravitch concluded.
Reprinted with permission from In These Times.

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