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What should a public school system look like?

“Schools will be failures if students graduate knowing how to choose the right option from four bubbles on a multiple-choice test, unprepared to lead fulfilling lives, to be responsible citizens, and to make good choices for themselves, their families and society.”
Diane Ravitch

Current trends in the US and the UK are replacing a state-owned and administered primary and secondary school system with a lightly regulated sector comprising independent, private institutions. The grand idea is to reinvent government by breaking the grip of ‘bureaucracies’ and the ‘vested interests’. The UK government’s Minister without Portfolio, Oliver Letwin, speaks of ‘post-bureaucratic’ politics and creating self-improving systems that no longer require political intervention.

By deregulating and introducing a market driven by parent choice, student performances is supposedly boosted. Poorly performing schools fail to recruit and are allowed either to close or merge into better performing chains or schools. Standards are thereby driven up across the board: competition is the ‘rising tide that lifts all boats’.

Diane Ravitch was a former education advisor to George Bush Sr. She was a strong advocate for accountability, testing, charter schools and choice. In 2006, she became concerned about how that agenda had been taken over by large private foundations (Gates, Broad and Walton) and entrepreneurs looking to make profits. She outlines her case studies that led her to change her mind about the market reform agenda in Diane Ravitch The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (New York: Basic Books, 2010) Revised and expanded edition.

We will concentrate on Chapters 1-4 of the book. You may also find daily updates and discussions on her blog:

The chapters selected provide detailed case studies of various reform initiatives in New York City and San Diego along with the testing scandals implicated in flagship policy No Child Left Behind. Ravitch’s criticism is that testing in a limited range of subjects, often just mathematics and reading, displaces a broader education. It not only represents a ‘measurement strategy without vision’ but the insistence on quantitative indicators leads to misplaced incentives and, in some cases, corruption. It also ignores the central issue of poverty and housing in educational achievement preferring to focus on the recruitment and development of ‘good teachers’, again measured simply in terms of annual standardized test scores.

Beyond this criticism, Ravitch also identifies two problems from the point of view of democracy:

  1. ‘A democratic society cannot long sustain itself if its citizens are uninformed and indifferent about its history, its government, and the workings of its economy.’
  2. The combination of technocratic policies and the influence private foundations presents a direct challenge to democratic oversight and accountability. Is a post-bureaucratic education system ‘public’?

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  • A former member
    A former member

    I'm sure competition is great in schooling. Look at the independent
    sector, are the higher exam results not higher because kids come from aspirational families, have innate talent and most importantly confidence and belief due to financial status (and therefore psychological confidence) that their families afford to them ? Is there not at outcome goal to achieve academic success within these organisations that is not innate in the state system. I remember a few years ago the voucher idea floated by the previous conservative administration...did this system of giving a voucher - for public funding parents; try to mimic 'private funding' and choice for parents - would this not be a better system`?

    September 2, 2012

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