We’ll Take ‘Relentless & Right Now’ over the ‘Ravitch Reforms’

Diane Ravitch’s new book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, asserts that education reformers are trying “to dismantle public education and divert public funding to privately managed schools and for-profit vendors.” This is mostly conspiracy theory and exaggeration.  Through an avalanche of data she contends that public schools are improving, except for children in poverty.  While education reformers assert that education is the solution to poverty, Ravitch takes a longer view and suggests a number of large scale social reforms to combat poverty, such as universal prenatal care and early childhood interventions, as well as a focus on teacher preparation and a scaling back of standardized testing.  Her solutions are not new and are mostly strong.  The problem, though, is that they rely on action in many public arenas that could take over a generation to implement, at best, and at worst, might never come to fruition given the politics and costs involved.  We should pursue these solutions, especially the push for universal prenatal care and early childhood intervention, as well as an overhaul of undergraduate teacher preparation.  In the meantime, though, the most immediate solution for the millions of school-aged children in the United States right now and in the foreseeable future, is a rigorous education that prepares them for success in college.

One big takeaway from all of the data that Ravitch puts forward is that the achievement gap has persisted for decades and that low-income children in the United States continue to under-achieve.  Strangely, this is stated by Ravitch as an immutable fact; something that always has been and always will be.  She promotes a feeling of helplessness in education, that teachers and schools don’t have control over the impact they can have on students living in poverty.  She does admit that there are great teachers who have prompted incredible gains in their low-income students, but dismisses it easily with, “Perhaps such “great” teachers exist, but there is no evidence that they exist in great numbers or that they can produce the same feats year after year for every student.”  She goes on to say that “some children are able to rise above all the burdens imposed upon them by poverty…some graduate from high school.  Some go to college.  A few will become highly successful professionals.  Most don’t.  Most are dragged down by the circumstances into which they were born, through no fault of their own.”  Ravitch’s view is a convenient way to dismiss the fact that we haven’t found a large scale solution to educating our poorest children.  This viewpoint is incredibly insulting and crippling to the students, teachers and leaders in urban schools.  If we didn’t feel we could be impactful and that our students could be successful, then why are we here?  What’s the point?  It seems we should just throw up our hands and wait for the federal government to solve the problem.

But for those of us who choose to work in urban education, whether in charters or large districts, seeing poverty as insurmountable isn’t acceptable.  While Ravitch continually points out that overcoming poverty is not in control of the schools, we are committed to working relentlessly in what we consider our very clear locus of control: the classroom. 

While Ravitch looks at the data and sees only that poverty must end before public schools can improve, we look at the data and those pockets of excellent exceptions and see the very real possibility that education is actually the most direct and immediate solution to poverty and the achievement gap.

At the same time, many of the solutions Ravitch offers to combat poverty are promising and should be vigorously pursued.  But in the realm of education reform, our focus is on education.  She quotes the research asserting the number one early predictor of a child’s future achievement is the education of his or her parents – not prenatal care, not the training of their teachers, but their family’s education.  If education is the gateway, then education also must be the solution. 

Countless educators in large urban school districts and charters alike have dedicated themselves to searching for innovative ways to combat poverty through education.  We are not thinking about our pocketbooks or attending secret society meetings about dismantling the public education system through privatization – we wouldn’t have the time.  We are working with students and communities every day to provide them a path to educational success, a college degree, and the ability to overcome poverty.  We are working to help drastically improve the trajectory not only of their lives, but the lives of their children and their children’s children, as well, knowing that as soon as they have a college degree in their hand, a vicious cycle is broken. 

And we are no longer a rare breed.  Many of us work across the country in charters like YES Prep, Uncommon, Aspire, KIPP, Achievement First and many more.  We weren’t attacked in Ravitch’s book because we don’t fit the politically motivated and miniscule subgroup of for-profit privatizers she wants the public to see.  We are working in the way she says charters should work.  She holds that charters should be “a way to empower public school teachers to devise their own curricula and methods and to free them from excessive regulation and bureaucracy…Charters should become collaborators with public schools in a shared mission to serve the needs of all children…self-governing schools, liberated to find new solutions to pedagogical problems.”  We agree with Ravitch and the charter forefathers she references.  At YES Prep we’re partnering in new and deeper ways with large school districts to make sure it’s not a competitive, but a collaborative venture.  And all of the charter organizations we refer to above work together to share best practices about what’s working and how we can improve our practices to make our models work best for our students and teachers, not so that we can make a profit or end the public school system.

There are definitely social reforms that can reduce poverty and improve outcomes for children in the long run.  But we have millions of students in our classrooms right now who only get one shot at school and we need it to count.  No amount of prenatal care, early childhood interventions, or proposed changes to schools of education can help the children who are sitting in our schools right now, so it doesn’t make sense that the only solutions are ones that can only benefit future generations and sacrifice the millions of low-income students who currently need to be served.  Our plan is to continue working to break the cycle of poverty for this and future generations through education because right now it’s the best chance our students have.  If there comes a day when poverty has been successfully extinguished and all of our public schools are equipped to educate all schools well, we will happily raise a glass and close our doors.  Until then, our work continues.

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