2010-05-07 / Columnists

The Rockaway Beat

The Truth About Our Schools Under Mayor Mike (Part I)
Commentary By Howard Schwach

Author Diane Ravitch. Photo by Jack Miller. Author Diane Ravitch. Photo by Jack Miller. There are books that need to be read by anybody who is interested in the forces that impact their life.

“The Looming Tower,” about the lead-up to September 11 was one of those books.

“The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education,” by educational historian Diane Ravitch is another.

I have written about Ravitch in this space previously. She has become something of a hero for those who look at the current national move to do away with education in the name of accountability and who want to privatize the schools and destroy teacher’s unions.

It was not always thus.

Ravitch worked in the federal education department under Bush One and was instrumental in pushing for standardized testing and charter schools.

She has taken a long, hard look at what has happened to American education in the past ten years, however, and come to the conclusion, as have I, that there is little education going on in today’s schools.

I am going to let Ravitch speak for herself. What follows are quotes directly from her book.

This will be a multi-part column, and I am not sure how many columns it will take for her to tell her story.

Read it, and at the end, you will be convinced that everything going on in the New York City public schools today is smoke and mirrors, designed to look as if the mayor had really done a splendid job with the schools, when in fact he and his management team have destroyed education.

On her change from supporting high-stakes testing and charter schools (page 12):

I grew increasingly disaffected from both the choice movement and the accountability movement. I was beginning to see the downside of both and to understand that they were not solutions to our educational dilemmas. As I watched both movements gain momentum across the nation, I concluded that curriculum and instruction was far more important than choice and accountability. I was also concerned that accountability, now a shibboleth that everyone applauds, had become mechanistic and even antithetical to good education. Testing, I realized with dismay, had become a central preoccupation in the schools and was not just a measure, but an end in itself. I came to believe that accountability as written into federal law, was not raising standards but dumbing down the schools as states and districts strived to meet unrealistic targets.

On how the standards movement turned into a testing movement (page 15):

As NCLB [the federal No Child Left Behind act] was implemented, I became increasingly disillusioned. I came to realize that the law bypassed curriculum and standards. Although its supporters often claimed that it was a natural outgrowth of the standards movement, it was not. It demanded that schools generate high test scores in basic skills, but it required no curriculum at all, nor did it raise standards. It ignored such important studies as history, civics, literature, science, the arts and geography.

Though the law required states to test students eventually in science, the science scores did not count on the federal scorecard. I saw my hopes for better education turn into a measurement strategy that had no underlying educational vision at all. Eventually, I realized that the new reforms had everything to do with structural changes and accountability and nothing at all to do with the substance of learning. Accountability makes no sense when it undermines the larger goals of education.

On No Child Left Behind in relation to curriculum (page 29):

No Child Left Behind had no vision other than improving test scores in reading and math. It produced mountains of data, not educated citizens. Its advocates then treated the data as evidence of its success. It ignored the importance of knowledge. It promoted a cramped, mechanistic, profoundly anti-intellectual definition of education. In the age of NCLB, knowledge was irrelevant.

On the Balanced Literacy Program, which is used in most of Rockaway’s schools (page 35):

Balanced literacy was supposed to bridge the gap between [the whole language approach and the phonics approach]. It focuses on reading strategies and teaching children to identify and practice them. It places a premium on children’s mastery of certain prescribed techniques (predicting what they will read, visualizing what they will read, inferring the meaning of what they have read, reading alone, reading with a group, etc.). Large blocks of time are set aside each day for literacy instruction in which children engage in structured reading, shared reading, guided reading, independent reading, word study, writing and reading aloud. During this time, the teacher functions as a facilitator, moving from group to group and conferring with students. Direct, wholeclass instruction is generally limited to a mini-lesson at the start of the literacy block.

Each classroom has its own library, with books for different reading levels, and students choose the books they want to read or are assigned books to read in small groups. Children participate in cooperative learning activities in classrooms decorated with student work. Each classroom typically has a rug, where children can sit together, interacting with each other and the teacher. Balanced literacy has a welldefined structure and methodology. The teacher is not supposed to stand in front of the classroom and instruct the entire class beyond the mini-lesson. Children are expected to teach one another.

Now, with budget cuts coming and more than a thousand classroom jobs on the line, Bloomberg plans to spend millions on a consultant to recruit new teachers. We indeed live in Wonderland. More reason to read this book.

More on the phony test score results next week.

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