04 June 2011

Talking School Reform With The Mayor

I have posted here pretty regularly on a range of issues having to do with secondary and higher education in the United States. This past week I read a truly impressive book by Diane Ravitch entitled The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (Basic Books, 2010). The book is impressive for a number of reasons. Not the least of those reasons is that in it Ravitch rightly indicates what evidence exists regarding both school choice and high stakes testing does not support those trendy reforms. At best, the evidence for specific proposals within those broad rubrics is mixed; more often it is not even mixed. Simply reviewing that evidence would not in itself be remarkable but for the fact that for many years Ravitch herself advocated the choice and testing policies she is now calling into question. In a sense then she has changed her mind and she is saying that frankly and in public. How refreshing and how rare to hear an intellectual do that?

The second reason the book is impressive is that Ravitch consistently stresses the implications of particular reforms proposed for public education for democratic politics. This is clearest in her discussion of the inflated claims made for "mayoral control" schemes and in her (to my mind) withering criticism of the well-endowed foundations that are wielding so much power in debates about education. But the theme appears throughout the book in an understated manner. It is all the more powerful for that tone.

Finally, the book is impressive for the variety of positions Ravitch affirms. She speaks out for teachers and their unions and she speaks out for community schools. She speaks out for the importance of a solid curriculum in schools - even as she acknowledges that devising one is difficult. She speaks out generally for constructive interventions when they are called for and repudiates "punitive" strategies. More generally, she speaks out for the importance of public education in a democracy. So, while I do not always agree with her particular recommendations - I think, for instance, that she is a bit to sanguine about the virtues of community and I have experienced first-hand the downside of Catholic School systems - I found the reasoned, non-dogmatic way she advances her views remarkable given the vituperative, high decibel way too many discussions of education reform take place. This approach come through too in her contributions to the joint blog Ravitch keeps with another writer on matters of education whom I very much admire - Deborah Meier.

It turns out, of course, that speaking frankly about the shortcomings of policies backed by the wealthy and powerful often will make those supporters cranky. So, predictably enough, Michael Bloomberg (Mayor of NYC, backer of mayoral control and various punitive and ineffectual education reform strategies) apparently has taken exception to Ravitch's book. The folks at Salon.com report that a prominent writer at one of Bloomberg's publications has produced an intemperate attack on Ravitch. It surely rings hollow to read at the end of the piece that the opinions the author expresses are "his own." He might as well have been taking dictation from the Mayor. In that sense the reporter at Salon.com is being way to charitable in saying there is only the appearance of impropriety here.
P.S.: You can find the proximate cause of Bloomberg's pique here in Ravitch's recent Op-Ed at The New York Times.

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