American public education has survived many fads over the past century. It may not survive the latest one, which demands that schools operate along the lines of a private business.
Business leaders, such as ex-IBM chief executive Louis V. Gerstner, the Gates and Broad foundations, and the Obama administration want to change the philosophy of public education to make it “competitive.” They believe federal and state policy should emphasize incentives and sanctions and insist that schools adopt strategies of choice and accountability.
Certainly American schools need to improve students’ knowledge of science and mathematics, the subjects most often tested on international assessments, but the business strategies are unlikely to produce better education.
A Limited Picture
Today’s so-called reformers define school success solely as higher scores on tests of basic skills. Basic skills are surely important, but they do not define a high-quality education. Which of these leaders of industry and government would be content if their children learned only reading and mathematics, but had little exposure to the sciences, history, civics, the arts, geography, foreign languages or economics? President Obama sends his own children to an elite private school in Washington, D.C., which has an elegant curriculum in the arts and sciences. But business and political leaders have no such visions for the children who attend our nation’s public schools.
Instead, they insist that schools compete with one another based almost entirely on reading and math scores; that they spend hundreds of millions of dollars on test preparation materials and drill students until their scores rise; that schools with lagging scores should be closed, even though the school may be overwhelmed with immigrant children who barely speak English or who live in dire poverty; that teachers and principals should get bonuses if they raise test scores and negative evaluations if they don’t, possibly even terminated.
They want school districts and states to replace low-performing public schools with privately managed charter schools on the assumption any school run by private management is bound to be superior to schools in the public sector. The overwhelming majority of the nation’s charter schools are nonunion, and the business leaders like that because they think teachers should be hired and fired without due process. They applaud schools that replace seasoned professionals with recent college graduates and newly minted principals who have little or no experience.
None of the world’s high-performing nations follows these strategies. None encourages schools to compete for students and resources. None substitutes inexperienced educators for seasoned professionals. Some have weak unions, but Finland, which regularly tops the charts on international tests, is 100 percent unionized. Japan values professionalism and experience in the classroom.
None of the nations that outperform us has reduced its curriculum to basic skills. Indeed, all have a mandatory balanced program that includes history, science, the arts, languages, literature and physical education.
Schools need good business practices to guide capital planning, budgeting and purchasing. But what is new about the current era is the nearly unchallenged belief that the ideas that guide the business manager also should guide curriculum and instruction. This is dangerous twaddle.
Unleashing thousands of new charter schools will not produce a generation of highly educated students, but a large sector that seeks to skim the best students and leave the rest for the public schools. Unchecked, such schools will seriously undermine the foundations of public education by removing the most motivated families from public schools and creating a constituency for more privatization. Instead of competing with regular public schools, charters should collaborate to solve common problems.
Charters now enroll 3 percent of public students, while regular public schools enroll 97 percent. We must not neglect the system that educates most students.
Similarly, evaluating teachers and schools by test scores will promote teaching to tests that are far from adequate. Producing a generation of good test-takers is not the same as producing a generation of well-educated citizens capable of taking care of themselves and improving our democracy.
And there is very little good to say about closing schools. Closing a school should be a last resort, one that happens after all efforts to improve the school have failed. Most schools are anchors in their community, the place where parents meet on common ground. No one should boast about closing schools. When schools fail, it reflects the failure of those in charge of the district who were unable or unwilling to provide timely assistance.
A Human Element
Businesspeople love the idea of a “race to the top.” But schools should be collaborative organizations, where successful teachers share their secrets and mentor other teachers. Schools, like families, cannot be managed solely by competition and data. Shorn of the human element, professional judgment and an ethos of caring, schools may become faceless corporations. They may produce higher test scores, but they won’t produce better education or better-prepared citizens.
Diane Ravitch is an author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (Basic). E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org