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Ravitch: Turnaround is a national failure

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Turnaround is a failed measure that’s led to instability in schools and “massive demoralization” among teachers and school officials, said New York University professor and author Diane Ravitch Monday night in New York City.

Ravitch was the featured speaker along with a dynamic panel of parent activists from across the country in an event sponsored by Parents Across America to launch a new national network of parent leaders.

Ravitch, who has risen to significant prominence in the last year in the wake of her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, remained a sharp critic of current education reform fads, including turnaround, which is a major focus of the Ackerman administration.

She said policies thrust onto urban education – including privatization, school turnaround, standardized testing, and test-based merit pay for teachers – are unproven, while choice for parents is an "illusion."

With their deep pockets, “venture philanthropists” like Microsoft founder Bill Gates and billionaire Eli Broad have driven "corporate reform," she said, creating a “perfect storm” that has resulted in the slashing of education budgets nationwide, the narrowing of curriculum, elimination of enrichment activities and social supports, and, ultimately, privatization or school closure.

“Literally, it’s insane,” Ravitch said.

Ravitch emphasized that such misguided efforts have eaten up billions of dollars in funding and wasted precious resources and time chasing after elusive gains in test scores. She noted that test scores deeply misrepresent what’s happening in schools and with students. For example, while typically unreliable state test scores have increased, more consistent national testing shows much smaller gains for students. A third of U.S. schools don’t make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), a number which will surely rise over time, according to Ravitch.

“They have confused testing with education,” Ravitch said. “To them your child is a datapoint on a graph … We are in the midst of an education frenzy [which] is not based on education or research. [The emphasis on] testing and accountability has corrupted the test and cheapens education.”

Ravitch wasted no time in saying that the notion of restructuring schools through turnaround is “totally unproven” and has made “no difference” in schools other than “massive demoralization of teachers.”

Good schools require stability; therefore introducing instability makes no sense, Ravitch said.

She cited Chicago’s Renaissance 2010, initiated by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan when he was in Chicago. Renaissance 2010 created massive disruption and upheaval without producing academic gains or better choices for displaced students and families, she said. The greatest knowledge gained has been that failing schools have a direct correlation with the number of low-performing students in them, Ravitch added.

The schools’ solution?

“Get rid of the low-performing students,” Ravitch said, noting that many low-performing students were pushed out of schools and became lost in the system.

Ravitch minced no words in declaring vouchers and merit pay as failures, pointing out that Milwaukee’s 20-year voucher experiment has shown no measurable differences in academic gains among the city’s public, charter, and voucher students, with negative impacts on African American students in particular. We are pouring money into a “failed strategy” while at the same time, cutting public education, Ravitch said.

Merit pay for teachers is the latest fad, she said, one in which the federal government and others have poured a billion dollars in the last year despite the fact that recent studies have shown merit pay has little if any impact on school performance.

“Merit pay has never worked,” Ravitch declared. “Good schools depend on collaboration … not on people competing with one another.”

Ravitch said the result of these failed reforms is “massive demoralization” among the teaching force at a time when only 50 percent of teachers stay in the profession. Instead the “corporate reformers” are relying on the deprofessionalization of the industry, relying on “eager amateurs” through programs like Teach for America that provide non-educators with short-term teaching stints.

At the end of this process is the closing of schools, a policy she criticized for "destroying the social capital" in poor communities that serve large numbers of high needs students.

“No school was ever improved by closing it,” she said, adding that waves of school closings reflect the failure of federal, state, and district leadership to provide schools with the necessary support and resources.

Ravitch called upon the audience of parents and education advocates to fight for “what works:" quality education programs, class size limitations, investments in teacher development, and an organized and active parent base.

“Parents are the sleeping giants in this debate,” Ravitch said. “If the sleeping giant awakens, you can take back American public education.”

A follow-up panel featured parent activists from New Orleans, Seattle, Chicago, New York City, and San Francisco, who shared stories about educational struggles across the nation. New Orleans parent Karran Harper Royal, who made news recently when she confronted former Philadelphia CEO Paul Vallas, wrote about the mythology of choice in a school system which has been largely converted to charters.

Sue Peters, a parent and writer from Seattle, denounced the role of the Broad and Gates Foundations in bribing districts to accept their superintendents and high-level personnel and eventually adopt a nationally homogeneous model of "corporate" education reform. Former Philadelphia CEO Vallas and former interim CEO Tom Brady were Broad Fellows. Superintendent Arlene Ackerman lectures at the Broad Foundation Academy and has sponsored Broad fellows in her current administration.

“As parents, we need to ask why do Eli Broad and Bill Gates have more say about what goes on in my child’s classroom than I do?” Peters said.

Parents Across America is a new grassroots organization advocating for a national agenda around positive and progressive educational reforms. PAA advocates for strengthening public schools rather than closing them, providing smaller classes and a well-rounded curriculum, and increasing parent involvement. They oppose the nationwide move toward policies that favor privatization and punitive test-based accountability.

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