Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The school reform frame must change.

The Myth of Charter Schools,  Diane Ravitch in the New York Review of Books

Education historian and former Assistant Secretary of Education in the G.H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations wrote an insightful critique of the film "Waiting for Superman" in which she challenges the popular "common sense" the film seems to be promoting. The film, which has been featured on Oprah and NBC's "Education Nation" is based on the idea that charter schools run on public money by private companies are the solution to the crisis in education. The fact that Ravitch once supported the ideas of charter schools and the high-stakes testing of No Child Left Behind which drives this privatization makes her argument that much more powerful.

Ravitch uses hard data to make her point that most charter schools do no better than comparable public schools for their students. Her review is full of corrections to the assumptions and the assertions made by the film. She questions the idea of there being a crisis in public education at all. Ravitch sites a Gallop pole which reveals that an "overwhelming majority" of those polled are dissatisfied with public schools, yet 77% of parents give the school their children attend an A or a B rating.

Another notion which I hear all the time is that "money isn't the issue" in education, and that you can't just throw money at the problem. If that's the case why do wealthy areas around Chicago spend around 18 thousand dollars per student per year while CPS spends around 9K even when students entering schools in the wealthy suburbs come into kindergarten more ready to learn? Money isn't the whole answer, but more equitable funding of schools certainly is part of the solution.

The frame is clearly skewed and our children will pay the price... actually it's primarily the children who have the fewest resources who will pay most dearly. When schools are in competition with each other, principals must become PR agents to attract the "best" students who will raise their test scores and make the school most attractive to other "good" students. Students who are difficult or expensive to educate are filtered or pushed out. The burden is shifted from the state to parents to create educational opportunity for their children. Now parents must use their time and money and connections to research and visit and apply to magnet schools, charter schools, and selective enrollment schools. The very students who need the best schools to help them overcome disadvantages such as extreme economic insecurity, hunger, homelessness, disabilities and chaotic family life are the ones whose parents don't have the time, money or social connections to find and compete to get into a "school of choice." The system will continue to provide excellent schools for mostly white middle class people and the weakest schools for these students who are mostly of color.

Ravitch does a good job of reframing many of these issues, but my concern is that the New York Review of Books can't compete with Oprah or NBC News "Special TV Events." Is there a way to get these ideas out in a way that a good chunk of voting/campaign contributing people will consider them as an alternative to the dominant frame? I'd love to hear thoughts on a set of talking points that could be used from the grassroots on up... can there actually be such a thing as grassroots talking points?

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