Blumner: Schools aren't really failing

Diane Ravitch decries orchestrated “attacks on the very principle of public responsibility for public education.”
Diane Ravitch decries orchestrated “attacks on the very principle of public responsibility for public education.”
Published Sept. 27, 2013

Here is something you don't hear often about the nation's public schools: They are not failing. In fact, schools today are doing a better job educating the nation's youth than they did decades ago. • I know it's hard to believe considering the steady stream of hysteria churned out by so-called school reformers over bad teachers, dropout rates and how American kids rank below so many other countries on standardized tests.

But that's all part of an insidious propaganda campaign to discredit public education for private profit and political gain, says Diane Ravitch, a former proponent of the school reform movement who is now among its most thoughtful and active critics. In her breath-of-fresh-air new book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools, the research professor of education at New York University and former assistant secretary of education in the elder Bush administration sifts reality from myth in the education debate.

She says the reason schools are in crisis is because of "persistent, orchestrated attacks on them and their teachers and principals, and attacks on the very principle of public responsibility for public education."

Anyone living in a state with a Republican governor and a Republican-controlled Legislature has seen this firsthand. Plenty of liberals misguidedly go along, too.

School privatization is an attempt to replace the current system of neighborhood public schools with a market-based system where parents choose their child's school, public or private, paid for with tax dollars.

The political advantages for conservatives are obvious. Privatizing education directs huge sums to profit-making entrepreneurs who become campaign donors. It sends money and students to church-run schools, something religious conservatives relish. And it cripples the progressive activism of teachers unions who are the chief lobbyists for public education.

After years of experiments in vouchers and for-profit charter schools, including in Florida, Ravitch dives into the evidence and finds that they don't provide a significant boost in learning for low-income students. Harm, though, comes to public schools, our nation's great democratizing institution. They lose vital funding and community support.

What Ravitch wants people to understand is that for most students public schools are working well:

• High school graduation rates are at an all-time high and dropout rates are at an all-time low.

• On international assessments, American students have never scored particularly well against foreign students. In the first such assessment in the mid 1960s, the United States came in last among 12 countries testing seniors in math. Lately, though, there have been notable improvements. In certain 2012 assessments, U.S. students ranked among the top performers in math, science and reading against students in dozens of countries, topping Germany and tying Finland, Israel and Australia in different categories.

• On narrowing the achievement gap between African-American students and white students, there has been genuine progress. Had white achievement stood still, the gap would have been closed. Because students of all races are doing measurably better, it persists.

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• Test scores are at their highest point ever recorded. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the one authoritative measure of academic performance in reading and math, scores have steadily increased since 1992.

Moreover, students are "studying and mastering far more difficult topics in science and mathematics than their peers 40 or 50 years ago," Ravitch asserts.

Still, America's education system has one overriding and growing challenge: poverty.

Nearly a quarter of America's children live in poverty, the highest of any advanced nation. In every country, even high-performing nations like South Korea, disadvantaged students do worse academically. Regardless of teacher quality, across nations the achievement gap grows as income inequality widens. The gap is the smallest in countries with strong social systems that protect the welfare of children.

That means school reform is a society-wide endeavor. We must reduce America's punishing income inequality and raise students' material well-being. Do that, as the world's examples demonstrate, and better schools will follow.