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School reform

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The LR Film Festival program today included a documentary tribute to charter schools and Skip Rutherford reports a big crowd. I was over at the other theater.

As luck would have it, my Sunday reading had already worked up some thoughts on the topic.

For those ready to proclaim all public schools failures and all charter schools successes,I'd urge a reading of former education reformer Diane Ravitch's book on how the bogus "choice" debate is contributing to the ruination of the full and great promise of American public education. This review gives you a good summary.

To the reformers, it's all about the evil teacher unions (even though the vast number of school children, including in Arkansas, are not in unionized districts and even though many union teachers and leaders are paragons of what you'd want in the classroom. States like Minnesota where unions have greater influence have scored greater strides than, say, Southern states with lesser union influence.)

Stephen Brill endorsed this anti-union view and charter schools in a Times magazine article recently, an article already neatly debunked by a number of people, iincluding a Washington Post education writer. Brill's article also was slammed in letter after letter in the Times magazine today, but the one at the end of this post from a Utah college professor was particularly good.

Do test scores measure achievement? What part of achievement is determined by what a student brings to the class? Are motivated parents and students (and culling of those without motivation) a sufficiently recognized factor in charter school "success"? If a system of independent publicly supported schools (essentially free private schools, some operated for profit) is set up for the motivated, what outcome are you likely guaranteeing for the remants? Why not work harder at making existing schools work? Might union teachers not be the only problem? Might poor principals and administrators also be a factor? If we really believe in accountability, why do the charter cheerleaders mindlesslsy urge approval of just about any application, no matter how untested and lacking in resources. And why have they allowed, in Arkansas, a scandalous lack of oversight after approval?

The Walton-Hussman-Stephens oligarchs are coming with their bankroll to get the legislature to take the cap off charter schools in Arkansas in 2011. I don't know if their might can be stopped. But I know the state will come to regret this if the open door to charters isn't accompanied by true accountability and a fair measure of whether charter schools really "work." Any public school in this state, even bad ol' Little Rock, can educate middle class kids from stable families with participating parents. To date, accountability and meaningful assessment (as opposed to apples-to-oranges cheerleading) have been lacking.

LETTER TO TIMES MAGAZINE

A Tardy Education
To the Editor:

Alan Wolfe’s review of Diane Ravitch’s “Death and Life of the Great American School System” (May 16) was complacent at best, misleading at worst. Although I welcome Ravitch’s change of mind about the impact of choice, high-stakes testing and data-¬≠driven decision-making on public education, there is little in her book that anyone who has kept up with the critical literature on education policy would find new or surprising.

For well over a decade, many writers and scholars on the educational left have pointed out that the implementation of market-oriented reforms like choice and accountability were more likely to erode support for the public foundations of education than to equalize educational opportunity or lead to gains in educational achievement, yet for years Ravitch blithely ignored them.

Rather than praise Ravitch for having the courage to change her mind, therefore, Wolfe would have done better to ask why she became such an enthusiastic proponent of these reforms in the first place and why she turned a deaf ear for so long to those voices that recognized their potentially deleterious effects on the nation’s commitment to schooling for all. That he did not speaks more to how marginalized views from the left of center that challenge currently popular assumptions about what counts as “real” educational reform have become in mainstream public discourse than to anything particularly novel that Ravitch now has to say.

HARVEY KANTOR
Salt Lake City
The writer is chairman of the department of education, culture and society at the University of Utah.

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