The future of public education
Reading the beginning of Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error over the last few weeks has been almost eerie. As a current journalism student passionate about education, I pitched my idea for an independent study about education journalism way back during the Obama administration. Ravitch’s complex criticism of profiteers calling themselves education reformers — who she calls “corporate reformers” — strike a nerve when considering the early 2017 cabinet confirmation hearings.
The first few chapters of the 2013 book are about topics cycling prominently in this winter’s news cycle: the business ties of many corporate reformers, why to be wary of calls for school privatization and how statistics about America’s public school students are often mangled and misinterpreted by both journalists and news media. Ravitch writes: “‘Reform’ is really a misnomer, because the advocates for this cause seek not to reform public education but to transform it into an entrepreneurial sector of the economy.” Sound familiar?
Flipping through the pages of this book on the day that her hearing was delayed in a moment of temporary joy, Ravitch’s words call someone obvious to mind: newly confirmed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. DeVos’s support of school vouchers and her lack of experience in the public sector have left many wary of her abilities, but it’s not just her history that’s concerning; it’s what she’s been saying just in the past few weeks. In a country where millions of kids depend on free school lunch to make it through the day, her joke at a recent conference that she was “perhaps the first person to tell Bernie Sanders to his face that there’s no such thing as a free lunch” was more than inappropriate. And of course, as Valerie Strauss writes for the Washington Post: “DeVos refused to agree with a Democrat that schools are no place for guns, citing one school that needs one to protect against grizzly bears. (She really said this).”
Someone who thinks it’s casual to joke about a “free lunch” when they’re the brand-new leader of public education demonstrates a clear lack of understanding of how justice plays into the education system. All education reformers, regardless of their true motives, claim to have the same goal of “closing the achievement gap.” That’s because that goal is, hypothetically, awesome. Not just corporate reformers want to close that gap — so do most elected officials and pretty much every educator I’ve ever met. It seems unrealistic to expect DeVos to do any work for justice in her role when she implies a basic ignorance of accessibility to education.
Because, as those who work with children know, the “achievement gap” doesn’t start when a kid walks into kindergarten. For years before that, different children in that same class had different access to healthy food, a stable living environment, educated adults in their family and different enrichment activities. Most of the time, racial and/or class disparity accounts for the varied access.
And yes, there’s still an achievement gap — but as Ravitch enumerates, the gap has gotten slightly smaller since the new millennium, instead of bursting as the media might imply. According to Ravitch, between 2002 and 2011, the reading gap between white and black students went from 30 points to 25 points, and the math gap from 31 to 25 points. There is ample room for improvement, but this also demonstrates that the “achievement gap” can’t be used as proof that our public schools are failing. Statistically, it’s one thing that’s going well.
Systemic classism and racism, Ravitch continues, can’t be fixed by one well-meaning teacher or even a whole determined district. But it can be helped by better resourced community institutions. She paraphrases Thomas B. Timar from the University of California: “What’s missing from reform, he says, is an appreciation for the value of local and regional efforts, the small-scale programs that rely on local initiative for implementation. Without local initiative, reform cannot succeed.”
Top-down policy is seldom effective. And I can’t imagine it leading to community success: How could we expect it to work in local public education, where we’re building our kids, and our communities, from the ground up?
Adapted from a post on the writer’s blog
Alexa Salvato is a fourth-year journalism major who wants her future kindergarteners to have better role models than Betsy DeVos. You can email them at email@example.com