By Lisa Edstrom
Lecturer, Barnard Education Program

In the second event in Barnard’s “For the Public Good” event series, Diane Ravitch posed the following question to her audience: “Is a public school a public good or a shoe store?” She went on to explain that the current management of public schools follows a business model much like a shoe store’s, one in which test scores are considered the profits, and if profits are poor the staff gets fired and the store may be closed. Speaking just after the teachers union in New York State agreed to a deal in which 40 percent of teachers’ evaluations will be based on their students’ test scores, Ravitch challenged the premise that test scores as measure of student learning should be equated with profits.

Students in Barnard’s Education Program see firsthand the effects of policy on student learning. In recent years student teachers have reported that more and more instructional time is being devoted to test preparation and less time is allowed for creativity and real problem solving. Test-taking skills are being prioritized over critical thinking. Our schools have not only adopted common standards, but to ensure standardization, many are also adopting scripted curricula that remove teachers from the decision-making process about what their students need. In the last few years, I have witnessed the increasing difficulty of student teachers to develop lesson plans that address the needs of New York City’s diverse student population, because they are being asked not to stray from the test-driven curriculum. Unfortunately, this loss of creativity is understandable; teachers and administrators fear for their jobs if they cannot raise test scores.

Warning that current educational policy, based on an antiquated ideology of carrots and sticks, is failing our children, our teachers, and our communities, Ravitch also took issue with the practice of merit pay for teachers and administrators. Citing studies that show that merit pay does not work, she instead asked that we look to cognitive psychology, where we see that “people are motivated by a sense of idealism, a sense of purpose and by a sense of professional autonomy.” Most teachers begin their careers with that sense of idealism and sense of purpose. I see it in the students who come through our program. What’s missing from the equation is that teachers are being denied professional autonomy. Teachers who train in programs like the Barnard Education Program are well-prepared professionals who, along with their students, deserve an opportunity to experience the excellent teaching that comes with professional autonomy.

Ravitch made the argument that rather than firing staff, we should be working to identify why schools are struggling; instead of closing schools, we should be working to fix them. She cited a number of reasons why a school may struggle, but asserted that the primary reason for low academic achievement (test scores) is poverty, reminding the audience that the United States ranks highest in advanced nations for child poverty. A family’s income impacts a child’s health, nutrition, preschool- and school-readiness experiences, and provides support for learning in the home. So returning to the original question of whether public schools are a public good or shoe stores, one has to wonder if the shoe store metaphor makes any sense when the customers are too poor to purchase the “shoes.”

As Ravitch insists, public schools belong to the public, not just those who occupy the building at the moment, and not the private interests that profit from them. Public schools are a public good that our communities depend upon. Ravitch gives us much to think about as we consider the future of public education in the United States.

Read more about this event in the "For the Public Good" series from a member of Barnard's political science faculty, as well as additional reflections on last semester's event.