The Real Problem With Philly Schools

Launching her new book, education activist Diane Ravitch says poverty, not teachers, is what's wrong with public schools.

Two nights after former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee offered her prescription for Philadelphia’s ailing schools during a “Town Hall” meeting at Temple University, her nemesis came to town to set the record straight.

Education historian Diane Ravitch was in Philadelphia Tuesday to introduce her new book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. Speaking to an overflow crowd at the Philadelphia Free Library, Ravitch called Rhee’s platform of accountability and choice a “sham” designed to demonize teachers that, if left unchecked, will destroy public education as we know it in America.

It’s fitting that Ravitch should launch her book tour in Philadelphia, which she referred to as “ground zero for the destruction and privatization of public education.”

Thanks to severe budget cuts enacted by the Corbett administration, the city barely managed to open its schools on time this year; and classrooms across the city are now facing stark shortages of resources like desks and books—not to mention some 3,000 teachers, guidance counselors, nurses and librarians who are still unemployed following June layoffs.

Not surprisingly, Philadelphians are more than a little fed up. The results of a new Pew poll reveal that only 18 percent of city residents have a positive view of public schools, while more than half rate them as “poor.” By and large they blame the government—both city and state—for the failure.

Ravitch would agree with that assessment, but she’d add a third culprit to the mix: proponents of so-called school reform—like Rhee, Joel Klein and school-choice proponent Joseph Viteritti—who she says are anti-teacher and have been selling the American public a bad bill of goods on the problems facing public education.

Ravitch is well suited to level such an accusation. A decade ago she was co-editing books with Viteritti; and, as a former education official in the first Bush administration, she once championed many of the policies she now abhors—including vouchers and accountability regimes like No Child Left Behind. In 2010, she did an about-face with the publication of The Death and Life of the Great American School System, insisting that she’d gotten it wrong.

In an op-ed published that year in The Wall Street Journal, Ravitch explained that once the facts about reform became known, it was impossible to ignore that her way of thinking wasn’t working.

“Given the weight of studies, evaluations and federal test data, I concluded that deregulation and privately managed charter schools were not the answer to the deep-seated problems of American education,” she wrote. “If anything, they represent tinkering around the edges of the system.”

These days Ravitch comes across as more activist than academic. Brash and outspoken, what she lacks in eloquence, she makes up for in passion for her cause. Yet her firebrand style—at times more suited to a street demonstration than a lecture hall—has the effect of undermining her unparalleled knowledge of her subject, and makes it easier for her critics to write her off as a radical. That’s too bad, because Ravitch has an important message; but she has largely limited herself to preaching to the choir.

In her new book, Ravitch attributes the reform movement’s continued survival to a series of myths that have been spoon-fed to the American public. Foremost among these “hoaxes” is the myth that America’s public schools are in crisis and the missing ingredient is accountability.  In fact, data clearly shows that high school graduation rates are higher than they’ve been in decades and fewer students than ever before are dropping out. On the matter of international test scores, Ravitch says that the U.S. is actually performing on-par or better than many of its peers, albeit below test-obsessed cultures like Singapore and Korea. In any case, Ravitch says standardized tests are the wrong metric for gauging student success.

“What has made this country great has not been our test scores, it’s been our creativity, our innovation and our risk taking,” she said.

Ravitch next goes after the reform movement’s obsession with automated teacher performance metrics—which she says are so unreliable as to be counterproductive—and incentive schemes like merit pay, which Ravitch insists treats education in America like a competitive sport instead of the cooperative effort it is in other high-performing countries.

Ravitch is right when she says that offering merit pay to teachers who raise test scores is bad medicine. For one thing, it ignores all the other factors that contribute to student success. And it starts from the premise that teachers aren’t already doing all they can to help kids succeed. In fact, the vast majority of teachers in America are doing just fine. A massive study conducted by the Gates Foundation’s Measures of Effective Teaching Project found that 85 percent of American teachers are proficient, and fewer than 8 percent qualify as below basic competence.

But if teachers are doing all they can, why do so many kids in school districts like Philadelphia struggle to achieve basic educational standards?

Here Ravitch rightly focused on the real problem facing education: an achievement gap tied to income inequality that starts before kids even enter school.

In their 2012 book, Giving Our Children a Fighting Chance, scholars Susan B. Neuman and Donna Celano illustrate this gap by splitting their time between two neighborhoods in Philadelphia. While the residents of Chestnut Hill and West Kensington share a municipal government, a common tax base and a single school district, when it comes to educating their young, they might as well be a world apart. The differences start young, and even when resources are relatively equally distributed, the foundational inequities persist well into high school.  It’s a well-known fact that the biggest indicator of how a student will perform on a standardized test is his or her parents’ level of income and education.

Ravitch offers a series of recommendations, such as providing free pre-natal care to low-income mothers, universal pre-school and wrap-around services for at-risk students—including a medical center attached to schools in high poverty areas.  These are all good ideas, but they will require tackling entrenched inequalities and transferring resources to the students who need it the most—like those in Philadelphia—instead of cutting them out.