Dreaming big: Diane Ravitch can talk educational policy form, but walking it out is a different story

Screen shot 2015-02-16 at 11.02.51 PM

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.

Advertisements

Myschool’ Website: Short-Sighted Policy on Public Vs Private in Australia

Image

The public and private school debate has elevated in Australia.

While choice has always been part of Australian schooling, governments of all political hues have been enhancing their commitment to educational choice by increasing funding to the non-government sector (Forsey, Davies, & Walford, 2008).

 The Australian Minister of Higher Education has spearheaded a project spending $3 million on research and creating a website “Myschool” that uses national standardized tests to compare performance of socio-economically and demographically similar schools across the country. Any parent and community member can now search and compare profiles of almost 9,500 Australian schools.

The launch of the website has raised several major issues regarding the private versus public debate in the field of education, questioning sociocultural ideology behind school ‘choice.’

There are several issues not only with school choice but also with how the website goes about comparing such schools. Forsey et al. (2008) note several reasons for why parents find ‘school choice’ so crucial. The first is self-segregation (a trend of a specific population group trying to separate itself for self-interest) – otherwise known as ‘white flight.’ It often results in wealthier families self-segregating themselves in better performing schools. Other reasons include higher level of placement testing (schools with higher average of standardized test scores) and concerted cultivation (parent expectations for structure and child-rearing support through the education system.)

It would appear that the government run website has embraced these facts, stating specifically that its purpose is to “locate statistical and contextual information about schools in your community and compare them with statistically similar schools across the country.”

How does the website compare such schools? This is where more problems arise…

The website compares the socio-economical background with the schools performance in ‘NAPLAN’ testing. The socio-economical status is judged by examining family background information provided to schools directly by families, including parental occupation, and the school education and non-school education levels they achieved. In some cases, where this information is not available, ICSEA uses Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Census data on family background to determine a set of average family characteristics for the districts where students live. Where as the NAPLAN is based on two subjects (literacy and numeracy) and includes 40 questions. NAPLAN collects data on a national level every two years and it forgoes arts, science, health, music and the ability to function as a part of the community. It thus reflects an extremely narrow conceptualization of the broader purposes of schooling.

Another controversial point is about the use of the data on the school background (ICSEA), i.e. where the school sits on the socio-economic scale. The website shows whether a particular school is doing better, worse or about the same as schools that are statistically similar in their demographic group. In a way, it is directly naming and shaming Australian public schools and specifically singling out those in the lower socio-economic areas.

Another related and highly contested issue is the use of public funds in the private sector. The below numbers, which are taken directly from the website, reveal the funding of one of the most elite private schools in Sydney compared to one of the low-achieving public schools. When looking at the below charts, on the surface, a reader would notice both some discrepancy in the amount of money spent per student and unbelievably different academic results.

Private: Sydney Church of England Grammar School, North Sydney, NSW
  Total Per Child
Federal Funding $2,593,487 $1,644
State Funding $1,747,072 $1,107
School Fees $33,278,400 $21,089
Total (including deductions)                                             $34,134,46 $ 21,631
Public: Chifley College Shalvey Campus, Shalvey NSW
  Total Per Child
Federal Funding $1,235,638 $3,051
State Funding $5,469,505 $13,505
School Fees $81,221 $201
Total (including deductions)                                             $6,843,842 $16,898

 

This can’t be all there is to education. Money in, against scores out.

The short-sightedness of comparing the scores of the wealthy private scores against the low socio-economic means we’ve already given up on the majority of our population in such areas.

But our seemingly poor scoring low socio-economic schools do so much more. Let’s for a second forget that these kids may have less educated parents or less resources at home to help bolster scores. Schools for these students are more than just a place to memorize grammar and mathematical equations. Shalvey School (listed above) offers home cooking skills (whether for the students or their family), fitness classes, healthy cooking classes, getting kids involved with club sports, Smith Family I-track program for 20-30 students being mentored online from business people in the community about goal setting and personal development, University of Western Sydney student mentoring with pathway, Impact club for outdoor, home handy man and film course, learning grounds program for Aboriginal students focusing on number and literacy development, classes for women to make prom dresses while learning about community issues.

The school also offers classes for parents on how to use of computers, help students with homework, use numbers around the house, and improve literacy.

These schools are making communities stronger, they are making communities safer and maybe, just maybe (although not in standardized tests) they are making these communities smarter.

________________________________

*Forsey, M., Davies, S. & Walford, G. (2008). The globalization on school choice? An introduction to key issues and concerns. In M. Forsey, S. Davies, & G. Walford (Eds.), The globalization of school choice? (pp. 9-26). Oxford: Symposium Books.