Ravitch could have written more extensively about how reform is dumbing down the teaching profession. The attractive face of Teach for America—drawing elite college graduates into education—masks the fact that students taught by TFA graduates score no better than comparable teachers with comparable kids. But TFA does provide cheap staffing for the new charter-management chains. (Just under half of TFA instructors continue to teach past their two-year commitment, however, and they are often very good.) The Broad Foundation has been credentialing professionals with no teaching experience to work as principals and superintendents. The Obama administration has provided incentive for states competing for Race to the Top funding to promote often dubious alternative-certification programs. And now it is taking aim at education schools, armed with the same “junk science” used to shutter public schools. Who doubts that the machinery of privatization will follow? Granted, much of teacher education could be improved; teaching credentials in many places are suspect. Any defense of teacher education needs to accept that many education programs do not produce teachers or administrators with the skills necessary to create the schools needed most. By contrast, the world’s leading school systems—from test-heavy Singapore to progressive Finland—go to great lengths to support and strengthen teachers as professionals. The reformers say that teaching is the heart of the matter, and the public agrees. Yet these same reformers oppose various proposals to strengthen teacher education and cultivate good teaching in schools, or to guarantee decent working conditions in order to attract and retain talented teachers. It’s a scandal that many of the new privatized schools supposedly offering “great teachers” are staffed by low-cost, untrained instructors with no rights. Nor is it any surprise that they have considerable staff turnover.
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Ravitch can sometimes sound as if she thinks all teachers are irreproachable, but of course she knows they’re not. What to do about incompetent or abusive teachers and those public schools that operate like safe houses? Ravitch points to the excellent peer review system in places like Montgomery County, Maryland, which provides assistance to struggling teachers and fair processes by which they can be evaluated and, if necessary, dismissed. Teachers unions too often stonewall such reforms, but they have also made it possible for teachers to have careers rather than short-term jobs. Unions are more necessary than ever to defend the rights of teachers in a new world of corporate bosses—and to defend public education against the privatizers. Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey—three states with test scores that compare favorably with the best in the world—all have reasonably strong teachers unions. Apart from the “bad apple” problems, however, national education policy in the long run should aim for the complete opposite of what the corporate reformers want: promoting teacher professionalism and finding ways to attract, retain and promote talented teachers in public schools.
Those like Ravitch who defend public education need to concede—more than they have been willing to do thus far—that the US system as it stood before the current wave of corporate reform was not effective at cultivating good teaching or developing teachers skilled at reaching children in struggling communities. Good teachers always exist in numbers, but they are rarely developed by the system. The depths of racism, poverty and segregation that still exist in this country strike at families and children in ways that only highlight the inadequacy of the lazy old bromides about public education. Many classrooms are not working well for children of the poor (the phrase “failure factories” comes to mind). Changing this will require, as Ravitch insists, initiatives against poverty and segregation. We also urgently need educational resources and—if the word is still permitted—reform that involves ongoing teacher development. Similarly, to create, as Ravitch proposes, good universal preschools will require teachers, schools and professional development programs of very high quality that we do not now have in any great number.
David Kirp has recently written in his fine book Improbable Scholars of the ongoing development of principals and teaching staff in Union City, New Jersey, who have reformed an entire school system that now does remarkably well by its population of immigrants and the poor. Union City offers no “secret sauce,” but it is a good example of how the performance of school staff can improve in a district without corporate reform. Union City has no charters, no TFA teachers and no school closings—although one catalyst for change was a warning from the state that the schools were in trouble. Kirp details the way that teachers and administrators have concentrated collectively on developing mutual respect, the emotional and character-building aspects of education, the skills of the teacher, the engagement of students, parental involvement and the rigor of the curriculum. Everyone involved is working toward a truly complex—yet achievable—common goal: “To succeed, students must become thinkers, not just test-takers.” (Among its other reforms, the district offers two years of pre-K education.)
It may be easier to fight the corporate reformers than to reimagine and enact the kind of public education that really does leave no child behind—let alone to reinvent our broken political and economic systems. But Ravitch’s critique of the corporate reformers’ manufactured agenda, along with the truly progressive alternative she offers, shows us a way to begin the long haul toward improving democracy’s classrooms.