All the bad crazy out of Wisconsin lately lines up really well with the book I’m reading at the moment, The Death and Life of the Great American School System by Diane Ravitch. Ravitch was for a long time an enthusiastic supporter of the choice and accountability movement in education reform. Her book is a very public way of breaking with that movement. I’m not all the way through it, but I’ll try to lay out some of the themes of the book, and by extension the current reform movement, and why it’s on the wrong path despite some limited successes.
The reformers, for all their talk of choice, are often (though not always) obsessed with top-down reforms. Ravitch details the twin reform eras of San Diego (under Alan Bersin) and New York City. It’s pretty galling how little those charged with reform care about the input of actual educators. This is because:
- Reformers tend to think that only authoritarian, top-down leadership can ‘shake things up’. Knock enough skulls together and you get results. This is the shock and awe version of education reform. It’s also highly undemocratic.
- Reformers tend to ignore the input of teachers, administrators, and parents. They find sympathetic voices in academia and in charitable foundations to bulwark their reforms in the intellectual sphere.
- Reformers tend to blame teachers, principals, and others members of the ‘status quo’ for the problems with education. Most education reforms in the past decade and a half have been aimed at breaking up teachers’ unions.
- Reformers do not pay much attention to the substance of education so much as they pay attention to the procedural side of things. Rather than focus on curriculum, reformers focus on uniformity in pedagogy and strictly regimented ideas on how to teach (specifically to tests).
- Reformers focus only on testable subjects, primarily math and reading, because accountability has become the golden goose of education reform.
I am about half-way through the book, so I’ll have more to report later, but it really is extraordinary to read about the reforms that Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein have foisted on New York schools (modeled on the authoritarian San Diego reforms that preceded the Bloomberg era) – and the very mixed results of those reforms. Bloomberg managed to gain total control of the school system, something that the mayor’s office hadn’t had in decades, and he passed that control over to Klein without oversight. Indeed, there is no oversight of the Bloomberg reforms.
The central theme of these reformers is not just to blame the teachers, but also to ignore them, spy on them, and undermine their autonomy. In San Diego there were public firings of school administrators who were escorted from their schools by the police. In both cities, money was filtered out of the classroom and out of support services like teachers’ aides, and put into professional development programs which were aimed at top-down pedagogical reform. Teachers and administrators who didn’t like it were fired or resigned. Turn over in both cities was enormous. Something like 90% of San Diego’s principals left in the course of six years. In both cities Balanced Literacy became the only approved teaching method. Dissent was not tolerated.
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