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Between the Covers of The Death and Life of the Great American School System

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By Lance Hill, PhD, Special to the NNPA from the Louisiana Weekly –

New Orleans is the beachhead for a national movement to convert public schools into privately managed "charter" schools-on the argument that competition and the "business" or "market" model will produce better schools for the same taxes. New Orleans has 60 percent of its students in charter schools-publicly funded but privately managed schools-more than any school district in the United States.

But one of the nation's most respected education historians and policy analyst, Diane Ravitch, is raising grave doubts about the wisdom of the model that New Orleans is using. "Our schools will not improve if we expect them to act like private, profit-seeking enterprises," writes Ravitch in her new book The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining the Education. Ravitch should know: only a few years ago she was one of the nation's premier advocates of school privatization.

What made Ravitch come full circle on charter schools? More importantly, what does Ravitch's book say about the course that has been imposed on New Orleans schools?

Though Ravitch's focus is on the perils of charters (she refers to as "choice"), school privatization, and the high-stakes testing program that determines if a student will progress in grades (the LEAP test in Louisiana), and her book reads like Edward Gibbons definition of history in general: "little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind."

Ravitch takes the reader through a variety of school reform movements in different cities including New York and San Diego. In virtually every case, school reform sweeps in on a wave of optimism and the promise of change. But once the reform advocates depart and hand over the keys to the school data to new management, suddenly the community discovers that little has changed. Student performance had not increased-instead the tests were made easier. Schools did not improve because of new teaching strategies-instead the schools simply raised average test scores by excluding students with the greatest learning problems and concentrating them in schools where little learning was possible. The lesson learned too late was that good schools were simply made by creating bad schools.

New Orleans appears to be proving Ravitch's theory: While charter schools have increased their test scores, students in the remaining public system - the Recovery School District (RSD) schools - are failing the 8th-grade LEAP test at a startling rate of almost 80 percent a year for the last four years.

Though Ravitch does not address the issue, the problem of getting to the truth about school privatization has much to do with the fact that the people who control the flow of information, the media, think-tanks, foundations, are private sector enterprises owe their existence to the profit system. Many people tend to believe that what brought about their own success will do the same for others. But that may not be the case for education.

Ravitch warns that charter schools driven by competition will result in a two-tiered system of haves and have-nots. Charters will "enroll the motivated children of the poor, while the regular public schools will become schools of last resort" for children with learning disabilities, deficient skills, and encumbered by troubling home circumstances.

Ravitch's book is a window into the future of education in New Orleans and the nation as a whole. We don't have to wait 10 years to find out what mistakes we have made. Ravitch marshals substantial research to prove that the reforms of "market based" school competition, high-stakes testing, and state takeovers have already proved to be failures. The problem is that charter schools, as Ravitch observes, divide a community into competing consumers narrowly concerned with getting the best deal for their child, rather than uniting citizens around solving our common problems by establishing equitable "school systems that foster academic excellence in every school and every neighborhood."

The new school reformers ask us to entrust our children to the "magical powers of the market." But not everyone wins in the business world: competition creates losers as well and we have to ask ourselves if we want one child to succeed at the expense of another? "Deregulation contributed to the near collapse of national economy in 2008," Ravitch reminds us, "and there is no reason to anticipate that it will make education better for most children."

We can now add the BP oil spill as another example of how competition and the lack of direct public oversight can be a recipe for disaster.

School reformers thrive on nightmares and miracles. First they promote the idea that a school system is a nightmare that can only be transformed into a happy dream by handing it over to miracle workers. In the end, the nightmare may be true, but Ravitch makes clear is that there are no miracles. Effective education reform takes time and enormous effort. There are volumes of research that point the right way; we only need to avail ourselves of this knowledge rather than settle for the marketing spiel of educational entrepreneurs. It probably also means that we will have to spend more, the last thing tax payers want to hear. "Children who have grown up in poverty need extra resources," Ravitch warns. They need small classes for extra instructional time and they need preschool, medical care, and social services.

The solution to the education crisis is a good dose of reality-not another spoonful of miracle tonic.

Every person in New Orleans should read Diane Ravitch's book because she is talking about our city's future. She mentions New Orleans only once in her book, but readers will recognize in her case studies of other cities all the familiar ingredients of long-term failure and profound inequality that have been assembled in New Orleans.

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