Diane Ravitch was in Wisconsin last week, before all the trouble started with throngs of workers marching and the Democrats going into hiding. Ravitch spoke about why the current direction of our federal school reform movement is endangering education. From In These Times:
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 was a former supporter of charter schools and school choice, back when she was the Secretary of Education for the elder President George Bush. Now she is coming out powerfully to question whether these reforms have served education well, and her conclusion is that they haven’t. I think it’s important to listen to her because she has a lot of wisdom and experience, and could help us to not go any further down the road toward fruitless reforms.
On a related note, it’s important to look with skepticism on the claim that our education system has gotten worse over the past 50 years. There is not a lot of clear evidence to support this claim. In fact, there is evidence to show that though we have always been mediocre compared to other countries, we have improved in the past few decades. From Jay Mathews at the Washington Post:
“U.S. students, who once led the world, currently rank 21st in the world in science and 25th in math,” Newsweek reported in September. I hear that a lot. Politicians and business leaders often bemoan the decline of American education compared to the rest of the world. We are doomed, they say, unless we [fill in here the latest plan to save the country.]
So I was surprised to find, in the latest report by the wonderfully contrarian Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless, that the notion of America on the downward track is a myth. The data show that we have been mediocre all along, as far back as 1964. If anything, we have lately been showing some signs of improvement.
Loveless, senior fellow at the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings, says in his annual report on American Education:
“The United States never led the world. It was never number one and has never been close to number one on international math tests. Or on science tests, for that matter. It is more accurate to say that the United States has always trailed the world on math tests.”
Among the comments on the latest results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in December, which showed some U.S. gains, was this from Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia: “The good news is that the free-fall seems to have stopped–and it was a free-fall for a while.”
Loveless says no. “There was no sharp decline–in either the short or long run,” he says. “The U.S. performance on PISA has been flat to slightly up since the test’s inception, and it has improved on TIMSS [the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, another major series of tests] since 1995.”
This is not exactly good news, but context is important. If we have managed to be the world’s most powerful country, politically, economically and militarily, for the last 47 years despite our less than impressive math and science scores, maybe that flaw is not as important as film documentaries and political party platforms claim. And if, after so many decades of being shown up by much of the rest of the developed world, we are improving, it might be time to be more supportive of what we already doing to fix our schools.