Anti-Charter Voices (Sam Osaki)

September 17th, 2013. Free Library of Philadelphia.

Summary: Diane Ravitch, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education, launched her new book – Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. The event was attended by several members of PES. Ravitch was introduced to the podium by American Federation of Teachers President, Randi Weingarten. Her book calls for the halt of public school privatization and includes a detailed plan for the survival of the American school system.

I should preface this blog post with my admitted bias: I firmly believe that there is indeed a place in our education system for charter schools, and I lean ideologically more toward reformists like Geoffrey Canada and Eva Moskowitz than with staunch supporters of teacher’s unions or others who believe that charter networks are an attempt to supplant public schools.

That said, I believe all ends of the reform spectrum must collaborate, and I am more than willing to touch upon what I thought were some of Ravitch’s best points:

1. “We need to talk about the 1/4th of our children living in poverty.”
This is a fairly non-controversial statement about the need to fix the achievement gap in America. According to the US Department of Education, being raised in a low-income family often means having fewer educational resources at home, poorer health care services, poorer nutrition, and fewer opportunities to engage in learning at home.

2. “We need to assess charters and vouchers, not blindly adhere to them.”
It is important to remember that while “school choice” for parents sounds good on paper, the reality does not often pan out as well. There are many failing charter networks, and vouchers often end up helping some students escape failing schools, leaving peers hopelessly behind.

3. “We need better teacher development programs.”
Ravitch claims that in an era of teacher blaming, we are currently seeing the “massive demoralization of teachers.” There is some truth to this; while more rigorous standards and evaluations are certainly necessary to ensure the quality of education that children receive, they should not be set in place at the cost of workers’ satisfaction. Offering on-going professional development, rather than rapidly firing under-performers, may be the most effective way of encouraging teaching best practices.

4. “We need to focus on lessening racial segregation, with government incentives.”
The self-entitled Best Map Ever Made of America’s Racial Segregation:

5. “Education reform is the Civil Rights issue of our time.”

My main criticisms fall under three main areas:

1. She over-sensationalizes –
Reign of Error, as in Reign of Terror… enough said.
She lists a series of “hoaxes,” – i.e. the great charter school hoax is really a veiled attempt by the private sector to take over schools. Which is odd, because I have never heard of turning around schools being a particularly lucrative market. It does not take much creativity to imagine how KIPP founders Mark Feinberg and Dave Levin might respond to this.

2. She defends our country’s gains at the cost of de-emphasizing our failing system’s many problems –
Ravitch consistently said things like “we have the lowest dropout rates in history,” “test scores are higher than ever – both internationally and nationally,” and “we consistently outperform other nations in production despite what many have dubbed our failing schools.” I haven’t read her book and can’t make any claims on the sources used, but it’s surprising to me that much of what she said is in direct contradiction to much of what I have read.

3. She relies too heavily upon amped-up rhetoric –
At one point, she quoted Linda Darling-Hammond: “you can’t fire your way to Finland.” An oversimplified, too-obvious statement designed at spurring thoughtless agreement. Yes, it is unjust and absurd to mindlessly fire our teachers. But what about the ones being passed from school to school because they are both ineffective and virtually impossible to fire? What about those consistently showing poor results, year after year? If our goal is to make teaching a more prestigious occupation, we need to ensure that those who fall under the profession deem themselves worthy of the title.

For someone so defensive of collaboration, Ravitch certainly made it a point to create distinct binaries – namely, charter schools pitted against public schools, rather than working as a supplement to them. Still, Ravitch ended her talk by pushing forward several very reasonable solutions, calling for prenatal care (because children without have provable cognitive deficiencies), early childhood education, and wrap-around services, to name just a few.