Quick quiz from this independence-minded Vermont perfesser.
What’s the United States’ greatest gift to the world?
If you answered with the Declaration of Independence (all about “secession,” of course), the invention of the U.S. postal office (a few years after the first Vermont republic started delivering their own mail beginning in 1777), the national park idea, or really good beer, you are in the ballpark. The best answer, though, may be the invention of universal public education, something we do really well here in the once and future Republic of Vermont.
So tell me if you've heard this mantra.
Our public schools are terrible. Graduation rates are a scandal. Teachers are incompetent. Our kids are getting crushed in the globalization education race. U.S. high school dropout rates are the highest they've ever been. Unless you’ve been traveling abroad without regular access to U.S. news since birth, this all may sound familiar: our U.S. public school system is “in crisis,” threatened by a “rising tide of mediocrity” (See the 1983 “A Nation At Risk” report and this month’s New York Times) that demands urgent fixes.
The problem is that none of these claims are actually true.
So says author and educational reformer Diane Ravitch in her new book Reign of Error: The Hoax Of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, a polemical, fiery take-no-prisoners call to arms. Instead, Ravitch argues that U.S. public schools are “under assault” by an unholy alliance of federal government “reform” movements and for-profit corporations looking to erode support for public schools and create money-making market opportunities for themselves. Their list of strategies - “charter schools,” standardized testing, merit pay, and other so-called “reforms” - have siphoned off vital public support and resources, “decimating” communities, abandoning kids, and wrecking lives.
We’re living through an era of educational “hoaxes,” Ravitch asserts. Hoax #1? No Child Left Behind (thanks, George W. Bush), which absurdly benchmarked the year 2014 as the year when ALL American schoolchildren – 100%, that is - would be “proficient” in reading and math. Ravitch explains that “reformers” endorsed this impossible-to-attain goal knowing that it would set up public schools for certain failure, justifying the argument for privatization by Big Corps salivating in the wings. The second hoax? “Race To The Top” (thanks, Barack Obama), which promotes more teaching to standardized tests, more demoralization of teachers and principals, and more school closures, almost all of them in impoverished neighborhoods. To where are we “racing,” asks Ravitch rhetorically, and where is the “top”? So-called reformers’ “measure and punish” approach has “failed,” she concludes, after examining mounds of data. Standardized testing, “the enemy of creativity,” she states, “is a measure of income and education, not of capacity and potential.”
A third hoax Ravitch exposes is the notion that the private sector “always does it better,” especially when it comes to educating American kids. Private charter schools perform about as well as public schools when considered as a whole, notes Ravitch, and the private sector’s ability to practice “risk management” gives them a leg up by allowing them to exclude children who don't make the cut – kids who don’t speak English as their primary language, or have disabilities, or are among the poorest of the poor. Hoax #4, meanwhile, is a naïve belief in technology as our educational saving grace. To illustrate, Ravitch points to the “absurd” idea of “virtual academies,” one in which kids learn remotely via computers rather than in brick-and-mortar buildings full of a real-life people who care about the outcome. And the biggest hoax of all, asks Ravitch? The “reformers” collective abandonment of the principle of equal access to educational opportunity, a central hallmark of the U.S. public education system for close to two centuries.
Let’s be accurate in our assessment of U.S. public education, says Ravitch. First, the good news. Graduation rates are the highest they’ve ever been in U.S. history for students of all races. Dropout rates are the lowest they’ve ever been in U.S. history. If U.S. public schools have a systemic problem, it can be linked to pervasive poverty among U.S. school children (#1 in the industrialized world), and the ever-widening chasm between the rich and the poor in the United States. What our public schools most need moving forward, Ravitch emphasizes, is a well-coordinated national attack on childhood poverty and institutionalized racism, as well as increased support for the public school profession.
Is American public education perfect? Absolutely not, says Ravitch. “Schools need stability, adequate resources, well-prepared and experienced educators, community support, and a clear vision of what good education is,” she writes in Reign Of Error. “The purpose of elementary and secondary education is to develop the minds and character of young children and adolescents and help them grow up to become healthy, knowledgeable, and competent citizens.”
Here in the once and future Republic of Vermont, we do a fairly good job of educating our kids, despite all the federally-mandated and often-underfunded “requirements” (or are they?) like No Child’s Behind Left In The Race To The Top. When she visited Vermont last week on her book tour, Diane Ravitch suggested that state educators consider imposing a three-year moratorium on federally-mandated standardized testing.
Sounds like a sound educational idea to me.