The tide is turning


01 December 2020

Australia has been spared the very worst of the movement to “reform” public education that has swept through the United States over the past 20 years. But in some ways, the difference is only a matter of semantics.

There are no charter schools in Australia – privatisation has been largely in the vocational sector. However, the over-reliance on test scores as a way of measuring student achievement sets up public schools to fail and teachers get the blame for low test scores. The answer to this, according to neoliberal politicians and assorted busy-bodies is to turn schools into businesses.

Diane Ravitch was once a supporter of both privatisation and standardised testing. She was assistant secretary of education for research under President George H W Bush, and was invited to the White House in 2001 when George W Bush announced his post-election promise: the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, a major reform based on the premise that setting high standards and measurable goals could improve individual education outcomes.

She changed her mind when results didn’t live up to the hype, and warns that Australia’s affinity for standardised testing could be a pathway to privatisation. “I came to understand that testing and privatisation were really two related movements and one feeds into the other,” says Ravitch.

A prolific author and professor of education at New York University, Ravitch’s new book Slaying Goliath is an exposé of the decades-long education reform movement in the United States and the unmitigated failure by individual billionaires and corporate reformers (‘disruptors’) to replace public schools with charter schools.

Resisting disruption

Ravitch says that the very nature of standardised testing is defective and the people who believe in it have a very limited imagination about what children are capable of.

What the tests teach children is that there’s only one right answer, and if they don’t get that right then somehow they’ve failed. But Ravitch says there’s no way that everybody is going to get it perfect. “This is not like going for a driver’s test.”

In fact, failure is built into the design of the tests to ensure some children will do very well and some will inevitably fail.

“And yet there’s a chorus of people saying only perfection will be accepted. If there’s any failure, the school is failing, the teachers are failing. They’ve created this narrative of failure which is, in my view, a giant hoax.”

The “chorus” Ravitch refers to are who she calls the ‘disruptors’: a “cabal of self-centred billionaires” including the Koch family, the DeVos family (Betsy DeVos is President Trump’s Secretary of Education), the Waltons (who own Walmart), Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Netflix owner, Reed Hastings, who has given millions to create charter schools and reportedly spent US$20million building a luxury 'training ground' for public school teachers in Colorado.

But a far less powerful and decidedly less affluent group of volunteer parents, teachers, students, bloggers and leaders – which Ravitch calls the ‘resistance’ – are fighting back to keep their public schools alive.

They believe universal education, free and open to all, is part of the promise of democracy. And they’re winning: charter schools are no longer growing, now taking in only around six per cent of students in the US, and individual parents and schools are opting out of standardised tests.

Even universities and colleges such as Harvard, Yale and the University of California are rethinking admission tests, looking at other measures – such as cumulative grades and specific skills and talents – to select students.

Reimagining education

Ravitch was moved to write Slaying Goliath after witnessing a wave of teacher strikes that started in 2018 over low salaries and lack of school funding, and rolled across the US winning pay rises and better budgets, even in cash-strapped states like West Virginia.

And in the book’s post-script she presents another oddly positive outcome for the public education sector as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

She recalls that as governments shut down schools and children began distance education, parents suddenly discovered a newfound respect for teachers. “You could hear them saying ‘I’m having trouble doing this with two children, how do teachers do it with 30?!’” says Ravitch.

Australian parents were learning the same lessons and Ravitch advises that now is a good time to stop worrying about NAPLAN and PISA scores, which she says are mostly meaningless for children but end up corrupting education.

“All they do is feed the narrative that our schools are failing, our teachers are failing, when the job of the school is to develop children’s many different talents and abilities and interests,” she says. “So, if you want to know how your child is doing, ask their teacher.”

As we try to imagine what schools will look like after the pandemic, Ravitch is eager to see “a revival of the joy of learning and the joy of teaching”. That would mean public schools with no standardised testing at all.

And she hopes that current economic conditions won’t see a diminution of the arts and humanities.

“It is very bad for the social and emotional development of children not to have the opportunity to be creative, to have the chance for imaginative activities; not to be dancing or singing or learning to play an instrument.

“All those things teach tremendous self-discipline, whereas test taking is a mechanical skill. And when you’re finished with school, no-one will ever ask you to take a standardised test again.”

By Cyndi Tebbel

This article was originally published in The Australian Educator, Spring 2020