Let’s Change the Debate and Encourage the Right Kind of Charter

I hear Diane Ravitch’s critique of charter schools, but as a special education and ESL teacher at public charter school in DC I feel I must defend the work that I do. In her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining EducationDiane Ravitch opposes the establishment of charter schools, privatization, and school choice/voucher systems. She argues that charter schools continue to foster segregation by using funds to create increasingly specialized and selective programs that outperform public schools on assessment. As a result, traditional public schools are forced to operate with increasingly limited funds. In addition, they serve students who are often categorized as special education or English Language Learners. According to Ravitch, the real failure of education reform poverty and segregation.

I am certainly no expert on the national implications of the charter school movement. However, I do know that currently 40% of schools in DC are charters, and there is little chance of that percentage disappearing. So rather than continuing to beat on the drum of charter school failures, or debating whether or not charter schools should exist, I think we should encourage charter school possibilities.

We need to recognize the variation among charter schools. In many ways it is easier to make broad, sweeping statements against charter schools rather than to defend them. I agree with Ravitch that there is a real danger when educational reform is led by business-like, exclusionary charters that can quickly turn students into commodities driven by the desire to meet standardized accountability measures. Many, including Ravitch, may argue that this is the function of most charter schools. Maybe it is. But, just like traditional public schools, for all those poor charter schools, there are a few excellent charter schools. Drawing from my own experience, we should reconsider how charters can use their autonomy to granularly address the root causes of the achievement gap — segregation and poverty — at school.

For example, my charter school population is extremely diverse with a mix of races and affluent and low-income students. According to the book, A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education, by Richard Kahlenburg and Halley Potter, evidence shows that diverse student populations with socioeconomic integration and a balance of several ethnicities helps raise student achievement. Kahlenburg has been previously critical of charter schools but explains that they could be an avenue of ameliorating patterns of segregation if their enrollments are diverse.

Charter schools also have the autonomy to change narrative on equity and equality. Patterns of American history show all major civil rights shifts began as grassroots movements. So with a nuanced approach, a charter school (with less bureaucracy and increased flexibility) can generate a localized shift in discourse. I experience this each day. Not only do we have extensive equity training but continually think beyond quantitative measures. We care about student success as well as test scores. Yet, we simultaneously offer a variety of wraparound

services, promote collaboration, maintain inclusive practices, and support children’s ongoing social-emotional development. In fact, bettering inclusivity and building social skills to improve academic learning in early childhood basically sums up the entire purpose of my job. As Soo Hong explains in Cord of Three Strands: A New Approach to Parent Engagement in Schools, rather than dwell on dysfunction, the core to school reform is the induction, integration, and investment of the community, no matter how impoverished. Through this approach, a single school can stimulate dialogue built on relational trust and equalized distribution of power. If a charter school can develop an inclusive, reflective and equity-driven school culture, then the benefits of a well-run charter outweigh the detriments.

Sources

Ravitch, D. (2010). The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Kahlenburg, R. & Potter, H. (2014). A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education. New York, NY: Teacher’s College Press.

Hong, S. (2011). Cord of Three Strands: A New Approach to Parent Engagement in Schools. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

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Beware of American education “solutions”! Reflecting on the applicability of Diane Ravitch’s ideas in the Latin American context

When Diane Ravitch came to Lehigh University on February 10, 2015, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Having read her book, The Death and life of the great American school system, the week prior to her arrival, I was sure that she would touch upon three hot topics: charter schools, the voucher system, and No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Her writing style was both understandable and captivating, and I was sure that her in-person speech would be no different. However, the level of passion and ferocity with which she delivered her speech nothing short of shocked me. Diane Ravitch blended humor and gusto with her scholarly work and decades of experience, and I would describe her as nothing short of revolutionary. Ravitch excited and enthused the crowd, providing not only statistics and research regarding the current state of American education, but also suggestions for positive change.

The point that struck me most in Ravitch’s entire “debate” (which was essentially a solo performance, as her opposition did not attend) was her claim that poverty is the cause of poor education. She informed the audience that the United States has one of the highest, if not the very highest, level of child poverty of any developed country. The US education system, in turn, is failing these impoverished children because options such as charter schools are luring away the most motivated students and most creative teachers away from public schools. Though impoverished families are technically given equal opportunity to send their children to specialized or nontraditional schools, they frequently must provide transportation to this, say, charter school which is likely to be further from their homes. Ravitch cites this segregation – the encouragement of creative, motivated students from financially stable families to attend schools other than their local public school – as the partner to poverty in destroying the public school system. While the intentions of charter schools are noble and aim to provide healthy competition, they essentially leave behind the less motivated and less fortunate students in this supposed era of No Child Left Behind.

Because I am extremely passionate about Latin America, I tried to put some of Ravitch’s debate points into a Latin American context. First, I extended her claim that poverty causes poor education in the afflicted individuals to a national context. A Figure below from a World Bank statement on Latin America’s situation relative to the rest of the globe expresses how countries’ GDP relates to the investment in higher education; these two variables are shown to have an obvious positive correlation. Every single Latin American country included in the Figure (Paraguay, Peru, Colombia, Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Argentina) was not only at the bottom half countries in regards to GDP, but also in regards to money spent on higher education. These seven countries constitute 90% of Latin America’s population as a whole and therefore these statistics are representative of the entire region (The World Banks, 2005, p. 341). Paraguay, Peru, and Colombia have the lowest GDP and lowest investment in higher education of all the countries studied. This expands Ravitch’s point that impoverished people and impoverished countries are at a disadvantage when it comes to education. Because these Latin American countries have limited financial capital to invest in higher education, a large portion of their populations will not have the opportunity of pursuing a degree in higher education, thus perpetuating the cycle of poverty and undereducated youth.

As I mentioned, Ravitch closed her “debate” with suggestions for positive change in the American school system, from which Latin America would certainly also benefit. Two of these suggestions very directly address the recurring issue of poverty inherent in the school system. Interestingly, her very first suggestion to improve public education was to provide and improve upon prenatal care because poor women do not receive it, which leads to increased likelihood of disabilities among their children, giving them an additional disadvantage to their already impoverished background. Another suggestion she offered was broader and entailed reducing the toxic combination of segregation and poverty. She offers plenty of other suggestions such as reducing class size, promoting a well-rounded curriculum, increasing teacher standards, and decreasing standardized testing, but the most relevant suggestions for the Latin American context, according to the World Bank data, were those involving the provision of resources for impoverished families, as those would benefit a large portion of those countries’ populations. The applicability and pertinence of Diane Ravitch’s entire lecture, and her entire book for that matter, shows its relevance not only in an American context, but in a global context. As curriculum and education practices are being borrowed and lent from country to country, these problems will also prove to be transferrable, as well as the solutions Ravitch proposed. I think it would be opportune for educators in foreign countries, especially those trying to emulate the American or Western school system, to be aware of the points Ravitch makes in order to prepare for the effects of its implementation.

income figure

 

References

The World Bank. (2005). The Latin American Way: Trends, Issues, and Directions. In Higher education in Latin America: The international dimension (chapter 11).

Vote for Ravitch: Goal for U.S. Education Renaissance

Last week, I was fortunate to attend a talk “Reign of Error: the Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools” led by Dr. Diane Ravitch, Research Professor of Education at NYU, historian of education, educational policy analyst, and author of best-selling books on #AmericanEducation, #standardizedtesting, #publicschool, #charterschool. Thank you to Professor Iveta Silova who bought tickets to all CIE403 students!

Professor Ravitch was previously a policy maker. Between 1991 and 1993, she served as Assistant Secretary of Education and Counselor to Secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush. Assistant Secretary Ravitch led the federal effort to promote the creation of voluntary state and national academic standards. In 1997-2004, she was a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federal testing program. Today, returned from “dark side” in the policymaking world, Dr. Diane Ravitch criticizes current U.S. education policies, leads an army of educators promoting equality, human rights, racial diversity, cultural diversity, and curriculum diversity, while striving to re-think and turnaround education reforms.

7 PM Lehigh Zoellner Arts Center, Baker Hall was full of school teachers, administrators, professors, scholars, and students. Lehigh College of Education Dean Sasso introduced us to our distinguished guest. Dr. Ravitch organized her lecture as a dialogue between her and Mr. Reformer. We witnessed how solutions to problems of education are found on the surface not in the root: “Low test scores – fire teachers”, “low test scores – pay more for good scores.”

Diane Ravitch concluded her talk with a set of recommendations:

  • Increase funding.
  • Reduce class size to 20 or less students.
  • Offer full curriculum, including Arts and Physical Education.
  • Support highly-prepared and motivated teachers (at least 10 year higher education)
  • Teach more, test less.
  • Fund schools with psychologists, librarians, and nurses.
  • Ban charter schools by law.
  • Reduce segregation.
  • Reduce poverty.
  • Change public perception of the teaching profession, raise quality, and raise standards.

I truly agree and support reforms proposed by Ravitch and I find them universal and applicable to any country. It is not too late to stop, recognize failures and mistakes, it is not late to change, to adopt and implement new reforms. Why do we need standardized mandatory tests? What do test scores prove? This international race should find an end for children are our future.

Reforms proposed by Ravitch sounded like a good platform for an election run. I do not know whether she will decide or not to return to politics, but I have no doubt that Dr. Diane Ravitch will find support in thousands of people who share and support her views and ideas. So, Vote for Ravitch when time comes!

Photo Feb 10, 8 17 18 PM

The Downward Spiral of the American Education System

I obtained my Bachelor’s degree in Adolescent Education and Social Studies from St. John’s University in Queens, New York in May 2011 and was excited to find a full-time teaching position for the upcoming school year. After endless interviews, I received the phone call I had been waiting patiently to hear. I was offered a full-time teaching position for a public high school in Brooklyn, New York. I was full of excitement and enthusiasm as well as nervousness at the realization that I was about to be in charge of my own classroom and hundreds of adolescents. I was ready to take on the challenges that would ensue as I tried to make a difference in children’s lives and prepare them for their futures. I had always felt that some sacrifice on behalf of the teacher was necessary to ensure student success; however, I was completely unprepared for the realities of being a full-time teacher and the extent of sacrifices I would have to make for students, particularly in an inner-city school.

After the first few days of school, I was in complete shock and baffled by the education system in which I was teaching. I did not quite understand the circumstances in which I found myself. I had thirty-four students in each class composed of gifted students, on-level students, below-level students who were unclassified, students with disabilities of varying types and degrees, and English language learners who had multiple first languages and whose English abilities ranged from extreme beginner to advanced. I was trying to teach students who literally had no interest in learning and whose absenteeism was abysmal. Student behaviors portrayed a complete lack of respect for authority figures as well as peers, and undermined all efforts by the teacher to educate students who truly desired to learn. Parental involvement was almost nonexistent. I was supposed to prepare students for college and career readiness, but the majority of students had basic elementary level literacy skills. Additionally, hardly any students had been exposed to computers or any form of educational technology. Lastly, my administration and colleagues offered no support or guidance in how to teach this vastly diverse set of students. I came home everyday and cried due to the frustration and intense level of stress I was under.

I looked back upon my own education and acknowledged that I had been sheltered in some way from the realities of the world. Perhaps while growing up there were students who I attended school with that were not interested in learning; that had high rates of absenteeism; that did not complete their homework; that did not study for exams; that had behavioral issues and interrupted the learning experience for their peers; and that had no parental support at home, but I was never exposed to these types of students. I was on the advanced track in school. I took honors classes as well Advanced Placement and college-credit courses. I virtually spent my entire education with the same forty students who were similar to me, and perhaps, were all from the middle class, where resources were in abundance and parental support was the norm. We were chastised for our bad behaviors and bad marks in school and were taught to perform well in order to secure a successful future for ourselves. None of what I had known and experienced throughout my own education was apparent in the system in which I currently taught. I was bewildered and confounded.

Here I am, three years into teaching, and I contemplate leaving the profession. The American education system values conformity over individuality and self-expression. As Sir Ken Robinson stated in his talk Changing Education Paradigms, the American education system has become a factory system where we dole out students who are unable to think for themselves, but could state facts verbatim. Each student is expected to master the same reading, writing, and mathematical skills, but not to find passion in other subjects, which are now neglected in schools, such as the arts and trades. The curriculum encompasses a “one-size-fits-all” model, but each child is unique and should be taught to strengthen and foster their individual talents. Few of my students in Brooklyn fit this “one-size-fits-all” model that the American education system has created.

Diane Ravitch further supports the holistic education of children in her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education, where she stated, “We must make sure that our schools have a strong, coherent, explicit curriculum that is grounded in the liberal arts and sciences, with plenty of opportunity for children to engage in activities that make learning lively” (p. 13). The No Child Left Behind (2001) movement has taken the liveliness out of learning in favor of standardized testing that further alienates students who do not do well on these types of exams as well as teachers who are held fully accountable for students’ results. In my opinion, the Common Core Curriculum Standards do not accurately represent the student body of America today. The standardized tests and the new national curriculum merely reflect the goals and abilities of the elite, who have access to resources and parental support. These exams do not reflect the melting-pot culture of America, but merely the culture of our forefathers and colonial America. The American education system needs to reflect the changing times and experiences of current learners, like those who make up my inner-city public school in Brooklyn. How will America help all children excel in education, and not just the elite or native-born citizens? Reforms to education are needed, but not the type of reforms that critique and punish teachers who devote their lives to mentoring students and preparing them to become successful citizens. In its current state, the American education system is a downward spiral with no turnaround in sight, and it is our children who continually suffer the mistakes of bureaucrats who have never experienced the teaching side to education, yet tell educators how to teach.

Sources:

Changing Education Paradigms by Sir Ken Robinson. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mCbdS4hSa0s

Ravitch, D. (2010). The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education. New York: Basic Books.

Some thoughts on Vietnamese education after listening to Diane Ravitch’s talk at Lehigh University

The talk by Diane Ravitch at Lehigh University made me reflect on Vietnamese education system. Though I have been working as a teacher in Vietnam for 12 years, attended numerous training courses, and listened to a myriad of talks about education reform in Vietnam, I have never had an opportunity to listen to any educators who can vehemently express disapproval of the current education policies. What I heard about school reform in the US in Diane Ravitch’s talk brought me a refreshing experience and helped me better understand Vietnamese education.

Since “Doi Moi”(renovation) process in 1986, together with the economic reform, Vietnamese education has undergone significant reforms in education and has seen certain achievements. However, teachers and students who implement and are supposed to benefit from these reforms are almost always voiceless. There are articles in the media criticizing some aspects of the education system. However, in Vietnam, it is nearly impossible to find an education activist like Diane Ravitch or Sir Ken Robinson who can overtly criticize national education reforms, arguing they are killing students’ inquiry, creativity, and critical thinking, and propose that drastic measures should be taken to transform education rather than reform a failing system. There was once a high-school teacher in Vietnam who quite often publicly fulminated against the corruption in the Vietnamese education system. However, his debating points were not well-received by most people who were used to taking the negative sides of the public education system for granted. After several years of being the lightning rod of criticism, his voice in the fight against education corruption is no longer heard.

Quite different from public education in the US, Vietnamese public education is not threatened by educational privatization because public schools are recognized to be of higher quality than private ones.  However, there is still a need to protect public education as the ‘civil rights issue of our time’ in Vietnam. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights by UNESCO,  which was passed nearly seven decades ago, states that “Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages.” However, that right is not entirely ensured in Vietnam. Because public schools are underfunded, some students cannot enjoy free K-12 education.  Tuition and other hidden fees can become a burden for many households of students, including even primary students. The dropout rate after primary education is high, especially among students in rural, mountainous areas because their families cannot afford their education and/or child labor is more valuable than school attendance. Diane Ravitch is absolutely right when stating that poverty is among the root causes of low education standards.

Though there are no incentives and sanctions imposed on schools and teachers based on the results of high-stakes standardized testing in Vietnam. These tests not only drive teachers to teaching to the test, cause hierarchy among subjects, and lead to feeling “shame” and further marginalization among marginalized youth (Rich, 2003), but also make most students resort to purchasing private tutoring and consequently create “teacher corruption” (Dang, 2007). Unlike the US where low-performing students are offered free tutoring, private tutoring is a thriving market in Vietnam in which students (and their parents) – whether they are low achievers or high achievers – are the eager buyers of tutoring services, hoping to enhance their children’s academic performance and teachers are enthusiastic sellers, aiming to supplement their low income (Dang, 2007; Kim 2013). Private tutoring in Vietnam is not borne by the government’s encouragement to enhance the quality of public education like in the US. Its existence instead may threaten the quality of mainstream education. Private tutoring may “create disaffection” at school because students are bored with over-learning or they have learn the contents in advance during tutoring lessons. In addition, tutoring can decrease the effectiveness of teachers. Teachers may teach less during the school day to save their energy for the after-school tuition (Buchman, 1999) and students may have to attend lessons to please teachers (Dang, 2007). High-stakes standardized testing in Vietnam indeed directly or indirectly creates a fertile ground for private tutoring, which deepens the social inequalities between the rich and the poor, the rural and urban areas, and becomes a financial burden for many families.

I am totally convinced by Diane Ravitch’s argument that testing is “undermining education” and students’ academic performance and achievement should be evaluated through a process of learning rather than merely the test scores.  In order to improve education, we need to enhance the quality of teachers’ professional lives and increase their salaries rather than threaten to fire them. Above all, tackling poverty-related matters is the key to improving educational standards.

Sources:

Buchman, C. (1999). “The State and Schooling in Kenya: Historical Development an Current Challenges.” Africa Today, 46 (1), 95-116.

Dang, H. A. (2007). The determinants and impact of private tutoring classes in Vietnam. Economics of Education Review, 26(6), 683-698.

Kim, H. K. (2013). An analysis of the causes of shadow education in the era of the schooled society. The Pennsylvania State University.

Ravitch, D. (2011). The death and life of the great American school system: How testing and choice are undermining education. NY: Basic Books.

Rich, W. (2003). Historical high‐stakes policies relating to unintended consequences of high‐stakes testing. Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice,22(1), 33-35.

From Afghanistan to the United States in search for “Best Practices” that don’t exist

Attending the education activist Diane Ravitch’s talk was an eye-opening experience for me. Before coming to the United States, I thought that I would learn “best practices” and “policies” from the U.S. education system and try to implement them in Afghanistan to solve some of education problems Afghanistan faces. However, I was not well aware of the drastic problems within the school reform in the U.S.

Ravitch’s talk flagged many problems with the U.S current education. In her talk, she engaged the audience in a marvelous imaginary debate with a school reformer. The reformer argued that public schools are failing, because they are not doing well on standardized tests. The reformer also emphasized that, since the test scores are declining, drastic measures are needed to save the nation and make it more competitive in a global economy.  Reformer further stated that teacher should be held accountable for student failures on standardized tests. If students do not perform well, according to reformer, the solution is to fire teachers. Ravitch raised a question, why shouldn’t teachers have a job for life?  Because firing teachers will not solve problems facing the field of education.

Ravitch’s counter arguments were very convincing.  In her talk, as well as in her book ‘The Death and Life of the Great American School System’, Ravitch argues that standardized testing has led school districts to narrow down the curriculum. Therefore, some subjects (such as art or history) are not perceived as important as math and science that dominate standardized tests. As Ravitch’s stated in her speech, this leads to more problems. Since students are more exposed to math and science rather than liberal arts courses, the system makes students more clerk-minded. While student may not know who the president was during the Civil War, they would know well how to eliminate answers on a multiple-choice test. Education thus becomes equated with either passing or failing the standardized test.

However, if students are failing the standardized tests, it’s not because teachers are not performing well. If the system insists on evaluating the teachers based on students’ standardized testing, why not use the same standard to evaluate lawyers? State legislators? Members of Congress? Governors? Why would they blame teachers for the failure of students instead of looking for faults in the system or considering the effects of poverty and segregation on poor student performance?

The fixation on standardized testing changes how we understand the purpose of education. With such a strong emphasis on tests, we are moving further away from what Dewey defined as “Education is a process of living and not a preparation for future living” (p. 54). In order to know the real meaning of education, we should not prepare students to be as clerks but rather students with a higher aim in their lives.

Keeping this in mind, I am motivated to rethink deeply the education system reform in Afghanistan. Similar to the United States, teachers in Afghanistan are often blamed for poor students’ performance in schools. Whereas the policy makers and administrators tend to forget about other dimensions of teachers’ and students’ daily lives. Teachers are being paid very poorly and they are expected to work hard. This could be the main reason for why people are beginning to avoid teaching as a profession. Since there are so many other factors influencing students’ test scores, it is not realistic to just blame teachers for their students’ low performance.

Conservative reformers – both in the United States and Afghanistan – have looked for similar solutions to low students’ test scores. In the United States, the emphasis has been on charter schools and the broader movement to privatize public education. However, as Ravitch argues, for the past 25 years students in charter schools did not get higher scores than public schools. So why not focus on fixing public schools instead of pouring more money to charter schools and private hands? As Michael Apple (2005) mentioned, “market driven politics can lead to a remarkably rapid erosion of democratically determined collective values and institutions” (p. 13). This only leads to commercialization of education and nothing else, which is really applicable in Afghanistan.

Privatization of schools is becoming a serious issue. Nowadays, private schools are like business industries that pop up everywhere and attract students for various reasons. In most cases, the quality of education is the same as in public schools and they are teaching the same curriculum as public schools in Afghanistan. So why not support public schools when there is no difference in quality as well as curriculum? How would private schooling make education better if it has never done better before?  In Afghan culture, we have a proverb which says, “to retest the one tested is a fault in itself”. Ravitch also touched on this in her speech by saying that, the US is the most over tested nation in the world. Why are we so fixated on the tests that have never worked before and can’t change anything in the future?

References:

Apple, M. W. (2005). Education, markets, and an audit culture. Critical Quarterly,47(1‐2), 11-29.

Flinders, D. J., & Thornton, S. J. (Eds.). (2004).The curriculum studies reader. Psychology Press.

Ravitch, D. (2011).The death and life of the great American school system: How testing and choice are undermining education. Basic Books

Adopting a Holistic and More Liberal Approach to Education

On 10th of February, Lehigh University hosted Diane Ravitch’s lecture “School Reform: Finding Common Ground” at the Zoellner Arts Center. As a graduate student in Comparative and International Education, I felt pretty lucky to have the chance to attend this lecture and listen to Dr. Ravitch’s speech about the U.S. public education. Her arguments were really thought-provoking and eye-opening.

First, I would like to start with Dr. Ravitch’s statement about poverty. Underlining the fact that poverty and inequality are very prevalent in the U.S. society, she argues that holding public schools – including their teachers and administrators – accountable for their relatively low test scores is neither fair nor realistic approach. She suggests that we need to get to the root of the problem. It is a common mistake to state that education is the answer to all of our problems and expect that education will sort all our problems. It is more like a fantasy projection as indeed many of the problems that we have in education today stem from existing social and economic structures. As Ravitch concluded, we need to tackle the broader problems of poverty and segregation first.

Secondly, I would like to touch on Ravitch’s arguments about test scores. As Ravitch suggests, if a test does not have a diagnostic value, it is nothing other than a score. There is an increasing obsession with test scores worldwide, which compels countries to perceive that rising test scores are a sign of success. However, placing more importance on test scores and pushing for more testing make students focus on testing only rather than learning. Indeed, such an approach to education may not leave much room for imagination and creativity. In addition to that, strong push for standardized testing creates a sense of competition among students, which hampers interaction, collaboration, and effective learning. When high test scores become the final goal in education, then the question comes to mind – ‘What is education for?’

At this point, I would like to refer to Finnish education system, which usually ranks the highest on the PISA test. Contrary to common approach to education, Finland has taken a very different path. As Finnish educator and scholar Pasi Sahlberg highlights in one of his speeches:

“I want nobody here in the room to leave thinking that Finland has the best education system in the world, that’s an illusion that has been created by foreigners. Because in Finland we don’t think of education as a global competition. We actually don’t care if we are better than anyone else. Education for us is for individual enhancement and for the common good.”

I think the secret of Finnish success lies in the way education is perceived. Education is not a global competition and should not be perceived as commodity in the labor market. Rather, education should be a common good and prepare students for life. As Ravitch says, we should have more zeal to make our society better through education, which is much more important than high test scores.

Finally, I completely agree with Ravitch’s recommendations regarding well-rounded curriculum, arts education, and physical education. Narrowing the curriculum and putting more emphasis on math and science have negative consequences on students’ learning. Education consists of both intrinsic and instrumental values and it should enable students to grow not only professionally but also personally. Therefore, a holistic approach to education would be more beneficial. For as long as students are not exposed to suitable conditions, which can foster their imaginative function and spark creativity, it will be unrealistic to expect that school graduates will reach their full potential, be aware of what they would like to do in their lives, and be motivated in their careers.

Look to the Horizon: Education Reform Extends Far Beyond the School

There is much debate in education theory as to how a mass system of education should be structured in order to provide opportunity for every child. There is also debate as to the meaning of education, whether it should help students gain an understanding of life and their role in society, or rather to become recognized as a competent – and competitive – asset to the workforce and economy. I would argue that the United States focuses on the latter. This means that a proper education is often the only route to professional success, and therefore, those without access to a good education are often prescribed to fail.

The United States is home to many of the world’s most revered academic institutions, yet for many, primary and secondary public education is failing. Why is this? There is much discussion about how a system of education should be structured in order to provide every child with opportunities for success. Currently, it can be said that the U.S. system has adopted what can loosely be defined as the “conservative restoration,” combining two, often contradictory, theoretical backgrounds of neoliberalism and neoconservativism. Neoliberalism calls for the marketization of education, and neoconservativism calls for harsh standardization (Apple, 1993). This type of system pushes for school choice, the privatization of schools (charters, for example), yet also often unattainable standards in public schools. Many assumed this would lead to a better system overall because of market competition. What has actually resulted is the deterioration of the public system, and the widening of the gap between rich and poor. Those who have the means to choose better, more resourceful schools (which are often private schools) do so, while those in poverty are stuck in public schools that do not have the resources or infrastructure to support the children they teach.

In 2002, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was mandated by the Bush administration in hopes of bringing equilibrium in education (Ravitch, 2011). Through implementing high stakes testing, the goal was to find public schools which are failing, get rid of bad teachers, and give students the opportunity to choose where they go to school, with the expectation that everyone will win. 2014 (the end date of NCLB) has come and gone, and arguably, the end goal was not achieved. The United States is now struggling between a failing public education system, and the rise of for-profit charter schools and voucher systems. As NCLB has ended, it is imperative for the U.S. government to enact education reform that will bring positive change. How do we begin to do this? The answer, in my opinion, lies outside of the school system.

At the end of her speech at Lehigh University on February 10, 2015, Diane Ravitch listed about ten suggestions that she finds vital for school reform. Many of these included the provision of resources in all schools, yet others also extended to prenatal care and support for young mothers, and importantly, the need to attack the root causes of our failing education system: poverty and segregation.  I, personally, could not agree with her more. Education is not solely the institution of schooling – it occurs on a daily basis from the moment a child is born. If there is no familial support for a child in their home and wider community, a school cannot be looked at to provide this support, and every child cannot be expected to achieve the same level.  If our government were to focus on policies which would ensure that every child would receive support from the time they take their first breath, regardless of their social, economic, racial or familial background, I believe the success of students would grow exponentially. Further, I would be inclined to call for a shift of curriculum focus to that which fosters in every student a perspective that can identify differences – be it cultural, economic, racial, or moral, to name a few – and seek to understand them, and the commonality that can be found in the differences. We are all human, after all, and I believe we are all searching for them same answers. A successful school system can help us achieve that.

Sources:

Apple, M. (1993). The politics of official knowledge: Does a national curriculum make sense? Teachers College Record,     95(2), 222 – 241.

Ravitch, D. (2011). The death and life of the great American school system: How testing and choice are undermining education. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Chasing a Passion or Leaving Others Behind?

After reading “The Death and the Life of the Great American School Systems” and watching Diane Ravitch speak on how charter schools “have become in many communities a force intended to disrupt the traditional notion of public schooling” by “siphoning away the most motivated students” and resources from the public schools, I have been feeling torn and slightly guilty, as I have my daughter enrolled in a charter school. Since her first week in charter school three years ago, I have not questioned this decision. Like most parents, I want the best for my child, but now I have to ask myself whether that decision is contributing to the problems public schools face?

It wasn’t because I was unhappy or dissatisfied with the public school system that I transferred my daughter to an alternative public school. I believe that it was my daughter’s motivation that brought her to the Arts Academy Charter School. I’m not sure if I would have agreed for her to leave her public school if she wasn’t as motivated as she is. In fact, before deciding to enroll her in the charter school, I was skeptical about whether she would receive as good of an education as was available in her original school. My daughter has a learning difference and I was afraid that the charter school wouldn’t have the same resources needed for her success. She was determined to go to the charter school to explore her passion and to be able to spend part of the day doing what she loves to do – figure skating. So we looked into it and I was pleased with the information I received. I believe there has to be some type of motivation for attending any school other than public school. It takes some effort on both the student’s and parent’s part. In the case of my daughter’s charter school, students have to be motivated by having some type of interest in art, otherwise why would they bother going to school there?

How do we get all students to be motivated? Sir Ken Robinson states in The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything:

“The fact is that given the challenges we face, education doesn’t need to be reformed — it needs to be transformed. The key to this transformation is not to standardize education, but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions.” (p. 238)

I believe there are public schools as well as charter schools that are succeeding at this, while there are some that are failing to do so. Unfortunately, in the case of most public schools, they aren’t equipped to personalize education as there are too many students with a vast amount of interests. Discovering each student’s talents would take too much time away from focusing on standardized tests in Math & Science. This doesn’t leave much room for the teachers to foster creativity. While many charter schools are focusing on a particular interest of the student and have like-minded students attending their schools.

Like traditional public schools, charter schools are funded by tax dollars. In Pennsylvania, the school district of residence of each student is responsible for funding the charter school. The formula, set by the state, is based on the district per student operational cost from the prior year less certain federal reimbursements along with expenditures for facilities, transportation, and adult education. In general, the school districts must give about 20-30 percent less than what the state gives the district per student. This formula has been controversial because every time a student leaves the district, it hurts the traditional public school’s budget with their fixed costs. Another controversy is that some of the charter schools are profit-driven, benefiting large corporations and entrepreneurs. While there are some money-making opportunistic charter schools, there are some that struggle with funding just as much as the traditional funding schools do. There has been agreement on both sides that the formula which hasn’t changed since 1997 needs to be fixed to make the system more equitable.

“Without knowledge and understanding, one tends to become a passive spectator rather than an active participant in the great decisions of our time.” This quote by Diane Ravitch really resonates with me. Choosing to have my daughter attend a charter school that is not focused on profiting financially but on providing an education that enriches the lives of their students and inspires them to greater achievement, I believe is not contributing to the problem. Not being aware that there is a problem does contribute to it. It is important to educate parents and the taxpayers about the issues that we face in education and to demand the policy makers to make changes for a more equitable system that can provide the resources and motivation for all students. With the “knowledge and understanding” there is a greater chance for success and change over time.

References

Commonwealth Foundation. (2011). Charter School Funding in Pennsylvania http://www.commonwealthfoundation.org/research/detail/charter-school-funding-in-pennsylvania

Hardy, D. (2014). So the charter funding formula is unfair – but to whom? http://thenotebook.org/october-2014/147728/so-charter-funding-formula-unfair-to-whom

Ravitch, D. (2010). The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education. New York: Basic Books.

Robinson, K. (2013). Finding your element: How to discover your talents and passions and transform your life. Penguin UK.

One for all, or all for some? Re-examining the limitations of gifted education in the public school system.

I am a product of a supplemental “gifted education” curriculum in a public school system. Up until taking this curriculum course, I did not reflect deeply on what that actually meant not only to myself but to the larger system I belonged to. Discussing the topic of gifted education in class prompted me to think more purposefully about the meaning behind the word “gifted” and how these types of programs may unwittingly foster inequality not only within the school setting but in society at large. The issues that gifted education pose are bi-fold and, at times, overlapping: sociocultural and academic.

A classmate in the field was recently discussing the extreme difference between low-income and high-income areas where she has taught. She mentioned that, while the average percentage of ‘gifted’ students in a school is ~ 3%, in some high-income areas it can be as high as ~ 50%. This poses a serious concern – it is inconceivable that this difference can be chalked up to actual differences in capacity. More likely, it is a combination of culturally perceived differences and how much exposure a child has to intellectually stimulating materials (i.e.  books, tutoring, etc.). Another classmate referred to this phenomenon as “economic giftedness.” This issue is mirrored in the under-representation of racial and ethnic minority students in gifted programs. Ford (2008) discusses this issue through what she calls the “deficit thinking” that occurs in the public school system:

“With deficit thinking, differences in someone who is culturally, racially or ethnically diverse are interpreted negatively as if the individual and/or characteristics are abnormal, substandard, or otherwise inferior. For example, a student who speaks nonstandard English and is making good grades in school may not be referred to screening and identification if the teacher neither understands nor appreciates nonstandard English.” (Ford, 374)

Ford also points out that academic aptitude exists across racial, ethnic and economic divides. It is illogical, then, that there is such a dearth in minority, low-income students receiving the label of ‘gifted.’ This problematic situation demands that policy makers and curriculum designers address how to provide gifted education programs that are both excellent and equitable.

There is another issue plaguing gifted education that straddles the border between cultural and academic. This is how we (collectively) define the term ‘gifted.’ The type of gifted education that Ravitch and Ford discuss is typically centered on scholastically advanced students, as measured by a standardized IQ (intelligence quotient) test. Winner (1996) discusses the potential ethnocentrism of gifted education by highlighting the differences between ‘western’ definitions of ‘giftedness’ and those of other cultures. Specifically, she discusses how the Pueblo “have no word for giftedness” and instead believe that “special abilities should not be used as a basis for evaluating one person over others. For this group, a special gift is meaningful only if it is used in a way that benefits the community” (Winner, 4). In other words, individualistic western culture values individual success over community well-being and rewards competition rather than collaboration. As such, gifted education can reproduce a number of inequalities, creating a divisive environment within the school (an example of the kind of ‘hidden curriculum’ also discussed by Ravitch).

Further issues with gifted education that warrant discussion are the curriculum and assessment of such programs. In my experience, many ‘gifted education’ programs are project-based and have an emphasis on divergent thinking. This is in contrast to the rote memorization being pushed in ‘normal’ classrooms. We must question why the methods being employed to teach the ‘best’ students are not made available to other students who may benefit from similar approaches. Additionally, some states employ ‘merit pay’ for teachers, judging their performance on students’ scores. In this scenario, teachers of gifted students would, theoretically, receive higher pay than those of ‘average’ or ‘below-average’ students. However, in one of her blog posts Ravitch blasts this ‘myth’ stating that when a “students’ scores are already at the top… they have nowhere to go, so the teacher will get a low rating.”

While students who excel at school should, in my opinion, receive an education capable of stimulating them and encouraging their talents, I also believe that this benefit should not be reserved for those who score the highest on standardized tests. It is high time that we (both culturally and in terms of educational policy) recognize non-standard forms of ‘giftedness,’ encourage critical thinking and creativity and, most importantly, rid ourselves of the ‘deficit’ mindset that is denying so many capable children the opportunity to excel, solely because they do not fit the societal and/or academic standard.

Sources:

Winner, E. (1996). Gifted children: Myths and realities. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Ravitch, D. With VAM: All Teachers of the Gifted Are “Bad” Teachers. Retrieved February 13, 2015, from  http://dianeravitch.net/

Ford, D. (2008). Recruiting and retaining gifted students from diverse ethnic, cultural and language groups. In J.A. Banks & C.A. McGee Banks (Eds.), Multicultural education: Issues and Perspectives, (371-392). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.