The audience packed tightly into Lehigh University’s Baker Hall on Tuesday February 10th in anticipation of hearing Diane Ravitch’s controversial approach to stifle our government’s current efforts towards school reform. Ravitch presented her argument through a witty self-debate that vehemently defended the American public school system and fought against any interventions that posed to threaten it such as privatization, choice/voucher systems, and the establishment of charter schools. Her reasoning was compelling: transforming education into a for-profit, business-like industry turns students into commodities, encourages efficiency and money over student innovation, and attempts to, in her eyes, inaccurately quantify the abstract character of intellect through the use of standardized measures. She also argued that permitting school choice through voucher systems would not result in academic competition between schools that would increase quality of education, but rather leave schools’ disparities and children’s education largely unchanged. This would be likely due to the lack of knowledge and/or interest from low socioeconomic families in changing their children’s schools, the inaccessibility of transportation for the students across towns, the lack of seating available in better schools, and the insignificant amount of vouchers available compared to the extensive needs of many districts.
Ravitch also considered charter schools a major threat to the success of the public education system, pointing out that not only do charter schools students not perform any better than regular public school students on assessments, they have also deviated from their original missions of helping the neediest students to becoming specialized academies that are in many cases operating as an industry and luring away the most motivated students through their attractive, creative programs. In this way, charter schools continue to foster segregation among students by collecting money from states for their newly specialized programs for specialized students, leaving public schools to suffer with the most challenging and expensive heterogeneous student body, including the learning disabled and non-native English speaking children- and to do this under increasingly restrictive funds.
While these arguments are neither epiphanous nor unfamiliar to educators, Ravitch was able to make her position unique by the sheer scope of her perspective. While teachers struggle every day in the classroom to find better, more effective ways to improve their students’ education, Ravitch acknowledged that this struggle is futile on the individual level because the issues hindering academic success remain much bigger than the classroom. Zooming out past a classroom, a school building, a district, and even a state, she posited that the real sources of our current academic system’s failure lay in macro-level influences such as self-interested business powers, misled government policy, and major inadequacies in social services contributing to a lack of academic resources, poor mother and child healthcare, and persisting poverty. Ravitch not only challenges, but places blame on these dominating, powerful overhead forces like private corporations and the federal government that she herself once worked for.
The way Ravitch uses language is her most powerful tool. She purposely chose to present her speech with a dramatic, igniting vocabulary, claiming that she wants to ‘destroy’ the current education reform, that we are ‘failing’ to defend our public schools, we are inhumanely using ‘fear’ and ‘punishment’ to incentivize better assessment scores, that business elites have ‘no place’ in public education, and that for-profit charter schools should be ‘banned by law’. It is this fearless, defiant attitude that separates Ravitch from the masses that agree with her, but it is also the quality that has her labeled as a radical.
She insists that the problems that current education reforms are designed to attack, such as low test scores, are not the true problems at all, but rather the negative consequences of much larger underlying causes such as under-resourced schools, under-trained teachers, poor social services, poverty, and poor health. And while I absolutely agree that these struggles inhibit student’s performance as well as their wellbeing, Ravitch’s suggestion to address these great forces are just as grand as their scale. Ravitch is absolutely correct that a poor, malnourished child attending an under-resourced school is going to face overwhelming barriers to academic success and benefit little from privatization, voucher systems, or charter schools. However, how exactly she plans to eradicate global crises such as poverty and hunger and persuade the federal government to significantly increase funding to public education and improve social services, I have no idea. The importance of addressing these crises is immense, and I do not think anyone is willing to dispute that. However, I would like to ask Diane Ravitch how she plans to practically overcome these barriers to educational equality and success, and if stifling current governmental reforms is just the place to start.