Education historian Diane Ravitch is against charter schools, voucher programs – any sort of education “privatization.” And that’s fine. I just wish she would bring more to bear in opposing such measures than accusations about privatizers’ hand-rubbing, dastardly motives, and unsupported assertions about what privatization has or has not done.
Here’s the part that really got to me in Ravitch’s latest writing on privatization:
A quarter century after privatization began in earnest, it is clear that its main effect has been to undermine the public schools. Actually, that has always been the goal of the privatization movement. Their propaganda campaign – which now spans from Kenya to the United Kingdom – blames public schools for the persistence of poverty and for the low test scores of children who grow up in poverty, without adequate food or medical care.
The privatization movement has cleverly and deceitfully branded itself as a "reform movement." As they divert resources and students from public schools, which still enroll the vast majority of students, they congratulate themselves for leading a civil rights movement and introducing market discipline into what has traditionally been a government responsibility.
These are pretty tough accusations. But where's the evidence? Ravitch offers basically none, save attacking the 1983 report “A Nation at Risk” for overinflating the dangers posed to the United States by its education system. (A point, by the way, to which I am sympathetic.)
But demonstrate that the main goal—and effect—of privatizers has been to hurt public schools, not help kids? No evidence. That privatizers have “deceitfully” used the term “reform movement,” as if more school choice weren’t somehow a reform? No evidence. That they blame public schools, presumably exclusively, for the persistence of poverty? No evidence.
I can’t speak to the motivations of others, but my goal in supporting “privatization” is absolutely to reform the system and help not just children, but all of society. Not only do I think the evidence shows public schooling does not work as well as free-market education academically, government schooling is fundamentally at odds with basic American values, forcing social conflict and creating inequality under the law. And Ravitch herself has furnished a significant amount of the evidence that has led me to those conclusions.
Those conclusions have, of course, caused me to believe that the government monopoly over education should go away, and that funding should follow each, unique child to the educational options chosen by his or her parents. The end of government schooling, however, is not my goal, but a consequence of achieving my desired goals: improving education and maximizing liberty.
There is also weighty evidence of the power of privatized—meaning, really, freedom-based—education. As James Tooley’s work has vividly illustrated, private, for-profit schools seem to be providing education, typically better than the public schools, to many of the poorest people in the world. And the cases of Sweden and Chile to which Ravitch points actually furnish far from damning evidence that choice fails.
Of course, Ravitch may not agree with the findings of Tooley and others, but she at least ought to deal with them. Instead, she brusquely dismisses privatization and impugns the motives of “privatizers.” To truly determine what's best for children and society, that’s not a very useful argument.
In this new TEDx video, University of Newcastle (England) lecturer Pauline Dixon takes viewers on a tour of schools serving some of the poorest people on Earth. Private schools ... that charge fees ... that are paid for by the poor parents themselves ... and that outperform local government schools spending far more per pupil. I know. You'll just have to watch it.
If your curiosity is piqued afterwards, check out her colleague James Tooley's wonderful book, The Beautiful Tree, which tells the story of their travels and research. It will blow your mind.
AEI's Rick Hess worries that school choice advocates are moving into the public messaging arena with "brazenly manipulative" flicks that rely on shallow "sound bites." He cites the screening of five documentaries at an upcoming national conference in San Franscisco to argue his point.
I can't comment on them as a whole--I haven't seen them all--but I would like to point out that there will actually be at least eight screenings at next month's conference. Among them will be a brief sample of a proposed six-part documentary series called School, Inc. Taking Educational Excellence from Candle to Flame. This series, inspired by James Burke's Connections and Carl Sagan's Cosmos, would take viewers on a world-wide quest to answer one very important question: why is excellence routinely replicated and spread on a massive scale in every field except education?
The series hasn't been shot yet, and perhaps distributors today won't think viewers are still interested in the kind of challenging, thought-provoking documentary series that so captivated me (and millions of others) in my teen years. But the project's advisory board includes Jay Mathews, Paul Peterson, James Tooley, and Michael Horn, my co-producers and co-writers (Patrick Prentice and Tim Baney) have more than half-a-century of documentary filmmaking experience between them, and I've been studying school systems around the globe and across history for the better part of two decades. We're confident that this series will be both substantive and entertaining, and think that American (and foreign) audiences are very interested in the subject matter. As we start to pitch to distributors in the coming months, we'll find out if they agree.
Tomorrow night at 8:00pm, Fox Business News will air a John Stossel special on the failures of state-run schooling and the merits of parental choice and competition in education. I make an appearance, as do Jeanne Allen and James Tooley.
News of the show is already making the rounds, and over at DemocraticUnderground.com, one poster is very upset about it, writing:
When will these TRAITORS stop trying to ruin this country?
HOW can AMERICANS be AGAINST public education?
Stossel is throwing out every right-wing argument possible in his namby pamby singsong way while he "interviews" a "panel" of people (who I suspect are plants) saying things like preschool is a waste of money and why invest in an already-failing system....
I hate Stossel and I hate all of those who think the way he does.
This poster goes by the screen name "Live Love Laugh." I guess there wasn't enough space to tack "Hate" onto the end.
What this poster--and many good people on the American left--have yet to grasp is that critics of state monopoly schooling are NOT against public education. On the contrary, it is our commitment to the ideals of public education that compels us to pursue them by the most effective means possible, and to abandon the system that has proven itself, over many many generations, incapable of fulfilling them. I wrote about this crucial point more than a decade ago in Education Week, in a piece titled: "Are Public Schools Hazardous to Public Education."
Fortunately, a small but steadily growing number of American liberals have already grasped this pivotal difference between means and ends, as the growing Democratic support for Florida's school choice tax credit program evinces. Giving all families, particularly low income families, an easier choice between state-run and independent schools is the best way to advance the ideals of public education.
Historian Diane Ravitch drives me nuts. She has written numerous, terrific books chronicling the ills of government control of education, including the wrenching social conflict it has caused; the ejection of meaningful content from textbooks and tests it has required; and the dominance of educrats over parents and children it has enabled. She has been, essentially, the official historian of government-schooling's failure. And yet, in a new blog interview with journalist John Merrow, she appears not to comprehend the most important lesson her copious works have to offer: that government education is doomed to fail.
Why the huge disconnect between her historiography and willingness to act on its clear implications? Because, it appears, as much as she knows that government schooling fails, she fears educational freedom even more. “Privatization,” in her mind, is simply too dangerous:
I remember your saying in an interview years ago that you favored public schools but not the public school system that we have. In New Orleans Paul Vallas has called for ‘a system of schools, not a school system.’ What’s your ideal approach? Are we moving in that direction?
If “a system of schools” means that the public schools should be handed over to anyone who wants to run a school, then I think we are headed in the wrong direction. Privatization will not help us achieve our goals. We know from the recent CREDO study at Stanford that charter schools run the gamut from excellent to abysmal, and many studies have found that charters, on average, produce no better results than the regular public schools. Deregulation nearly destroyed our economy in the past decade, and we better be careful that we don’t destroy our public schools too.
Unfortunately, while Prof. Ravitch knows a gigantic amount about education history, she exhibits precious little understanding of freedom or its economic subset, free markets. For one thing, charter schooling – a system by which public schools are given a right to exist and largely held accountable by government – isn’t even close to “privatization,” if by that we mean taking control from government and giving it to free, “private” individuals. Worse, Ravitch evinces a reflexive and, frankly, simplistic fear of free markets in hyperbolically asserting that “deregulation nearly destroyed our economy in the past decade.” I’d strongly suggest that she explore some non-education history – for instance, that of government-sponsored institutions such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; federal laws such as the Community Reinvestment Act; and federal regulation – before making any such over-the-top declaration again.
Ultimately, it seems likely that Prof. Ravitch fails to grasp – or, perhaps, to intuitively feel – how freedom works, and hence she fears it. Like many people, maybe she’s just not comfortable with seemingly ethereal spontaneous order, and needs to have some higher power pulling the strings to feel safe. Perhaps she fails to see how freedom, by fostering competition and innovation, produces all of the wonderful things we take for granted. Maybe she doesn’t really understand that it is due to freedom that we have an abundance of computers, coffee cups, cars, houses, package delivery services, miracle drugs, and pencils, not to mention religious pluralism, marketplaces of idea, and even happiness.
And then there's the flip-side: government failure. While she has done more than perhaps any other historian to detail government failure and damage it has inflicted in education, Ravitch seems dead set against applying what she knows to public policy. She knows, for instance, that government often works precisely for the powerful special interests it’s supposed to keep in check. She doesn’t, though, seem to know why that is, and why it is the rule in government. She doesn’t appear to realize that the people who would be regulated, or who are employed by government, have by far the greatest motivation to get involved in the politics of their narrow areas, and hence exercise by far the most influence over them. And she doesn’t realize that it is only when special interests control government – not when they are in free markets – that they can exert unchecked power, because it is only then that they no longer have to get others to voluntarily do business with them.
Unfortunately, Ravitch's apparent fear of freedom forces her to deny the only hope for making American education really work: to empower all parents to choose, and to set educators free. Only then would schools be able to specialize in the needs of our hugely diverse children, and would children be able to attend them. Only then would educators have to compete for their money, forcing them to respond to the people they are supposed to serve rather than exercising political control over them. Only then would we see in education the kind of powerful innovation and progress we take for granted in everything from consumer electronics to restaurants.
And yes, freedom works in education, just as it does in almost every field of human endeavor. Despite much of the world having adopted the government-schooling model, we have ample evidence of this. For instance, James Tooley’s hugely important research reveals how private, for-profit schools are educating the world’s poorest children much more effectively than “free” government schools. And Andrew Coulson’s recent review of education research reveals that the more free an education system, the better its results.
Freedom, quite simply, works, and government, typically, does not. Which might be exactly why, after Ravitch has bashed “privatization” and “deregulation,” the only prescription she has left is blind, reality-ignoring hope: “At some point, we will have to get the kind of leadership that can figure out how to improve our public school system so that we have the education we want for our children.”
We should wait, in other words, for a miracle, a healing of that which is inherently broken. It is, of course, no solution at all, but both knowing the history of American education, and fearing real freedom, Ravitch has nothing else to offer.
If so, just pick up a copy of James Tooley's The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey into How the World's Poorest People Are Educating Themselves.
The Tories have looked at the evidence amassed by James and his colleagues (see p. 36 of their new report) and concluded that the best way to advance education in developing countries is to encourage and support existing entrepreneurial schools that are already serving the poor. And if the polls are any guide, that will likely be official government policy in the U.K. before too long.
Congratulations to James, Pauline Dixon, and their wonderful team for bringing sanity to the development policy debate.
The front-page of the Washington Post's latest Outlook section features a review of James Tooley's wonderful book The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the World's Poorest People Are Educating Themselves. From the review:
The officials Tooley encountered in his travels often denied the existence (much less the superiority) of private schools for low-income children. "There are no private schools for the poor," a bureaucrat in China's Gansu province told Tooley, "because the People's Republic has provided all the poor with public schools. So what you propose to research does not only not exist, it is also a logical impossibility."
Undeterred, Tooley spent years surveying private schools across the developing world. He found that, on average, they had smaller class sizes, higher test scores and more motivated teachers, all while spending less than public schools.... Tooley blasts development experts for recognizing the problems with public education and still insisting that more investment in public schools is the way to go. "Why wasn't anyone else thinking that private schools might be part of a quicker, easier, more effective solution?" he asks.
... Tooley, meanwhile, with a Rough Guide in one pocket and an endless supply of exclamation points in the other, drowns readers in local color, detailing every "bright-eyed" school child and every "thin drifting smog" above a shantytown.
Still, Tooley's passion comes off as genuine.