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Keeping Public Schools Public

Illustration by Jonathan BartlettOn February 24, the New York City Department of Education released data pertaining to public-school teacher evaluations. News outlets such as the New York Post and NY1 published this performance data for 12,170 fourth- through eighth-grade English and math teachers.

Intense debate quickly arose—with parents calling for the termination of low-scoring teachers, teachers asserting that the data was inaccurate, and even presidential candidates weighing in with their views. Similar debates have arisen around the country as increased emphasis has been placed on standardized testing and blame for this country’s diminished position as an international leader in education has largely been placed on teachers

Three days prior to the release of the New York data, Diane Ravitch, former assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush and now a research professor of education at New York University, provided insight into the issues. The lecture “Is Public School a Public Good or a Shoestore?” was an event in the Public Good series, a multi-year, interdisciplinary project at the College.

Ravitch is the author of several books about education, the most recent being her 2010 work The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. Once a staunch advocate of programs like No Child Left Behind, she now speaks out against the trend of turning underperforming public schools over to private management, which she said is supported by major foundations, the U.S. Department of Education, a significant number of hedge-fund managers on Wall Street, and various billionaires.

“They’re treating public schools like shoe stores. They’re treating test scores in public schools like profits and losses,” Ravitch told the capacity audience at The Diana Center’s Event Oval. “If they don’t make a profit, their employees are no good,” she continued. “But public schools are not shoe stores. They are essential public services. The obligations of the officials—especially those that are in charge of the schools—are to give the [public schools] the help they need to improve. But we’re in this weird period where the people who are in charge take no responsibility to improve the schools they’re responsible for. Accountability only holds at the bottom and never migrates to the top.”

Ravitch noted that this is the first time in history that schools have been closed because of low test scores. Leaders are promoting charter schools but, on average, charter schools do not outperform regular public schools. She also asserted that charter schools don’t want the lowest performing students, such as those with disabilities or those who don’t speak English, because these youngsters will bring test scores down. “Why don’t [officials] find out why the [public] schools are struggling and provide the help and resources they need to help their children?” she asked.

Ravitch discussed the Parent Trigger Law passed in the California legislature in 2010 with other states following. The idea is if 51 percent of the parents in a school choose to privatize the school, the school will leave the district and become a charter school. “The problem is the school doesn’t really belong to the parents,” she said. “It belongs to the public. The public paid for it. The public built it. These are public schools.

“One of the most important reasons I changed my mind about so many of these ideas was I realized how every community needs basic public services.” Ravitch said privatization is linked with the movement for high-stakes accountability, noting that high-stakes testing produces pressure to narrow the curriculum and teach to the test.

“Teachers have lost their professional autonomy,” she asserted. “All teachers are expected to teach the same content with the same method with the same outcome.” She called teacher evaluations a “quagmire” and said merit pay initiatives have never been shown to be effective. “The main effect of judging teachers by the test scores of their students will be to demoralize teachers who realize they are being judged by factors most of which are out of their control,” added Ravitch.

Twenty-first century education should value creativity, divergent thinking, innovation, and idealism for students and teachers. “We must insist that every neighborhood has good community schools and that every public official who is put in charge of public education has an obligation to support that development,” she concluded. Teachers in the audience—many of them Barnard alumnae—agreed with Ravitch’s assessments, particularly about high-stakes testing and pay incentives.

“High-stakes testing is taking away a teacher’s ability to be creative, to be spontaneous, to engage students in authentic learning,” said Vanessa D’Egidio ’08. “It’s pretty much been boiled down to teaching to the test, a very formulaic approach to education.”

Brett Murphy ’07 said the first public school at which she taught was a pilot school for pay incentives. They won the award, but no one really paid attention to it. “It made no difference in the way that anyone was working,” said Murphy, who teaches 11th-grade U.S. history. “It’s not what you’re thinking about when you’re day-to-day working with kids.” — by Lois Elfman ’80

Illustration by Jonathan Bartlett

Click here to watch a video of the lecture