By Terry Wrigley
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The Death and Life of the Great American School System

This article is over 12 years, 10 months old
Diane Ravitch, Basic Books, £15.99
Issue 354

This new book from the US has exposed the disastrous nature of school privatisation. Surprisingly, its author Diane Ravitch is a pillar of the conservative establishment who, after 20 years promoting the virtues of markets, testing and privatisation, has publicly acknowledged it was a disastrous mistake.

A mania for testing led to a narrow focus on “basic skills” to the neglect of wider knowledge and understanding. Tests were used to punish schools, but people learned how to cheat, including making tests easier so that the privatisers could claim success.

We read about lawyers and entrepreneurs taking over education departments and of bullying management styles which led to 90 percent of school heads being sacked or walking out. Their replacements have management certificates but little experience. Many teachers in England will recognise parallels.

Reforms often begin with a moral panic, a media declaration that schools are “in a state of emergency” and need a drastic cure. A narrow curriculum is imposed in the name of high standards and then a regimented set of teaching methods.

Big claims of success were made for “charter schools” (the equivalent of academies and “free schools”), but this is largely the result of simpler tests. Chicago, for instance, claimed that the proportion passing maths had risen from 33 to 70 percent, but US-wide tests showed no improvement.

The so-called No Child Left Behind testing regime demanded impossible improvements in test scores, so that schools could be failed, closed and privatised.

The chapter “Billionaire Boys’ Club” tells how business giants such as Bill Gates and the Walton family (Wal-Mart) pushed for privatisation, and when the evidence began to disintegrate, they set up “advocacy groups” to lobby politicians and the media.

Privately managed schools keep out harder to teach pupils. For example, only 4 percent of Boston’s charter school pupils are classed as “English language learners” requiring extra help with English, compared with 20 percent in the city’s other schools. Even so, large-scale studies from authoritative institutions in recent years, after controlling for home backgrounds, have shown no overall advantage to charter schools.

Ravitch argues passionately for a broad but flexible curriculum with scope for teacher initiative; for local schools as “anchors of their communities”; and for teachers to “raise questions, provoke debates, explore controversies”.

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