By Robert Mann
Like so many business leaders, the Indiana ice cream executive was sure he knew what ailed his state’s education system. Schools weren’t being run like corporations. “If I ran my business the way you people operate your schools,” Jamie Vollmer told a group of teachers in 1991, “I wouldn’t be in business for long.”
Vollmer explained that schools, themselves, were antiquated and that educators were loath to accept accountability for their actions. His proposal: ruthlessly operate schools the way he ran his business: “Zero defects! TQM [total quality management]! Continuous improvement!”
In a remarkable new book on U.S. education “reform” — Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Schools — Diane Ravitch tells what happened next.
When he finished his speech, a teacher innocently asked about his company’s method of making the best ice cream. He boasted of its “super-premium” ingredients, nothing but the best. Then she asked a question:
“Mr. Vollmer,” she said, leaning forward with a wicked eyebrow raised to the sky, “when you are standing at the receiving dock and see an inferior shipment of blueberries, what do you do?
“In the silence of that room, I could hear the trap snap,” Vollmer later said. “I was dead meat, but I wasn’t going to lie.”
“I send them back,” Vollmer answered.
The teacher jumped up. “That’s right! And we can never send back our blueberries. We take them big, small, rich, poor, gifted, exceptional, abused, frightened, confident, homeless, rude, and brilliant. We take them with ADHD, junior rheumatoid arthritis, and English as their second language. We take them all! Every one! And that, Mr. Vollmer, is why it’s not a business. It’s a school!”
Vollmer recalled that when the teacher finished, the room exploded. “All 290 teachers, principals, bus drivers, aides, custodians, and secretaries jumped to their feet and yelled, ‘Yeah! Blueberries! Blueberries!'”
From that day, Ravitch tells us, Vollmer changed his tune. Now, reflecting on his epiphany, Vollmer says “the most important thing I have learned is that schools reflect the attitudes, beliefs and health of the communities they serve, and therefore, to improve public education means more than changing our schools, it means changing America.”
There, in that simple-but-compelling story, is Ravitch’s fine book summarized: Schools are not a business. They are a community enterprise. We don’t teach kids because we wish to make a profit from their work; we teach our kids and dedicate ourselves to their schools’ success because educated children create a stronger society. Treating education like a business only undermines that goal.
While it might be wise to close a struggling store and encourage creativity to thrive in the chaos of the marketplace, Ravitch argues, “there is nothing creative about closing a school that is a fixture of its community. If it is struggling, it needs help. It may need extra staff, extra resources, and expert supervision. It doesn’t need to be shuttered like a shoe store. No school was ever saved or improved by closing it.”
Ravitch, a renowned education historian at New York University, was once an U.S. assistant secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush. She does not contend that everything is just fine with public education in America. Schools and teachers always need to improve and adopt high standards.
But Ravitch strongly rejects the notion that U.S. schools are in crisis — at least the kind of crisis the so-called education “reformers” bemoan.
Our schools “are in crisis,” Ravitch writes, “because of persistent, orchestrated attacks on them and their teachers and principals, and attacks on the very principle of public responsibility for public education. These attacks create a false sense of crisis and serve the interests of those who want to privatize the public schools.”
The problem with American education, Ravitch forcefully argues throughout the book, is that the public refuses to confront the poverty that pervades communities across the country. “Our corporate reformers insist that we must ‘fix’ schools first,” Ravitch writes. “But the weight of evidence is against them. No serious social scientist believes that rearranging the organization or control or curriculum will suffice to create income equality or to end poverty.”
In several compelling chapters, Ravitch demonstrates that despite the alarms of the reformers, American schools are doing very well, as compared to the rest of the world. She presents strong evidence that test scores aren’t declining across the board.
The real problem, she proves again and again, is poverty. “American students in schools with low poverty — the schools where less than 10 percent of the students were poor — had scores equal to those of Shanghai and were signficantly better than those of high-scoring Finland, the Republic of Korea, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, and Australia.”
Not surprisingly, Ravitch believes the solution to our education “crisis” is not to remake the schools, but remake the communities from which the students come. “Poverty persists not because schools are bad and teachers don’t care,” she writes, “but because society neglects its root causes. Concentrated poverty and racial segregation are social problems, not school problems.”
Fix poverty — no easy job — and you’ll “fix” our schools, Ravitch is telling us.
While she does an impressive job marshalling the evidence to debunk the corporate reformers spin about public education, Ravitch’s best contribution to the public debate about public education are her recommendations, which make up almost a third of the book. Too many researchers are very good at identifying the problems and the culprits, but never offer solutions.
No so with Ravitch.
She devotes chapters to the need for good prenatal care for every pregnant woman; making high-quality early childhood education available to every child; requiring that every school “have a full, balanced, rich curriculum, including the arts, science, history, literature, civics, geography, foreign languages, mathematics, and physical education”; she suggests reducing class sizes; she proposes banning for-profit charter schools and charter chains; and, she recommends providing medical care and social services “that poor children need to keep up with their advantaged peers.”
Most significantly, she calls for a ban on high-stakes standardized testing, suggesting we “rely instead on assessments that allow students to demonstrate what they know and can do.”
Ravitch, who once strongly supported standardized testing, now believes “[t]he overemphasis on standardized testing in the past decade and more has undermined the quality of education and demoralized professional educators.” But that doesn’t mean Ravitch believes in lowering standards. To the contrary, she believes the testing itself actually represents lower standards.
“Our standards and expectation for our students must be much higher and more complex than the skills needed to pass a standardized test,” Ravitch argues. “If we want students to be creative, if we want them to be ingenious, if we want them to be thoughtful and serious of purpose, then we must realign our means and our ends.”
If you want to be surprised by what’s really the matter with American education today, Ravitch’s excellent book is a very good place to start.
- Diane Ravitch: ‘Schools are not doing well because our society is not doing well’ (tv.msnbc.com)
- 30 Issues: Diane Ravitch on School Reform (wnyc.org)
- Former US ed official rips school reform (wpri.com)
- Diane Ravitch: Dear Reformers: I Didn’t Mean to Hurt Your Feelings (huffingtonpost.com)
- The Ravitch Transformation – an educated awakening (crazynormaltheclassroomexpose.com)