To say that I admire Diane Ravitch is an understatement. Here is a woman in her early seventies who is zig-zagging her way around the United States discussing her concerns about the current state of public education, to packed audiences, every night of the week. She worked for two presidents, has received numerous awards, has written 20 books (including the bestseller The Death and Life of the Great American School System), and engages in true civil discourse through her monthly blog with progressive school-reform activist Deborah Meier.
There’s gotta be a better word than “admire”, but I’m certain that it’s not “idolize”. To idolize means to worship unquestioningly. With all due respect, I’d like to take issue with two key points that Dr. Ravitch makes throughout her book and during her national speaking circuit:
1. Charter schools were supposed to be for the kids who needed them the most. Ravitch claims to believe that charters, in their original ideal, were good things. She repeatedly references Albert Shanker, former president of the American Federation of Teachers, who believed that charter schools should be run by small groups of teachers with the sole purpose of pursuing innovative educational practices while trying to reach disaffected youth. Ultimately, these schools would help other schools that were also struggling with kids who were having a tough time. The irony that a union guy is credited with being one of the earliest promoters of charter schools isn’t lost on most folks, but it is worth noting (and Ravitch is quick to point this out) that Shanker changed his mind in 1993 and became a major critic once the charter movement evolved into the darling of hedgefund managers and other rich people.
I wonder how Diane Ravitch defines “disaffected”. My hunch, after listening to her talk, is that she is referring to kids who have traditionally not done well within a framework that uses test scores to measure quality. When Ravitch cites Shanker in her Death and Life chapter titled “Choice”, she quotes him as saying “the successful students are the ones who are able to learn in a traditional system, who are able to sit still, who are able to keep quiet, who are able to remember after they listen to someone else talk for five hours, who are able to pick up a book and learn from it…”(122). I’m guessing, therefore, that unsuccessful, or “disaffected” students are not able to do those things, and that they would be perfect candidates for Shanker’s charter school dream.
I’ve been an educator for almost 20 years. I have taught in the poorest neighborhoods in Queens, NY; the richest neighborhood of Tucson, AZ; and in district, alternative, and now a charter high school. In those years, I have met very few kids who meet Shanker’s definition of “the successful student”. This is one of the reasons my colleagues and I opened our own school in the first place.
My takeaway is that Ravitch believes that as long as charters are working strictly with at-risk kids who are on the verge of dropping out of school, that is just fine. But as soon as charters start to attract the “regular” kids, they become the enemies of the public education system. That’s not fair to kids who don’t find success by sitting still, keeping quiet, and listening for five hours.
2. Charter schools do not do as well as their district counterparts. Again, Ravitch uses old metric systems to talk about new forms. When she claims that charters are not doing as well as their district counterparts, she’s talking about test scores. There are other ways of measuring success. The High School Survey of Student Engagement is designed to measure key areas such as engagement, school climate, whether or not students feel connected to the school community, whether or not teachers are seen as accessible and caring, etc. These things may be tough to measure, but someone is trying, and it would be interesting to at least take a look at how charters are comparing to district schools before making big claims about effectiveness.
In her talk, Ravitch said that “good schools rely on collaboration” and that certain qualities of a teacher that include “inspiring, brilliant, and caring are important, but not measureable”. She didn’t exactly say that the most important things about schools and teachers are not measureable, but that’s what I heard. And if this is true, then how does Diane Ravitch, or anyone else for that matter, really know that charter schools are not as successful as their district counterparts?
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