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The Myth of School Choice: Genuine improvement happens when everyone collaborates for the benefit of the children

Comparisons are often made of school systems in various countries. In Australia, reference, sometimes subtle, is made to the US experience and the policies of the UK government. For the most part these are unhelpful. But, especially in respect of the US, the research is superior! Unfortunately it is largely ignored.

Some really stupid ideas

So we have numerous reports in Australia and elsewhere all saying the same thing: independent schools deliver no better results than public schools. In other words, funding them is largely a waste of time. Yet in the US, England and Australia, they continue to be supported, in the US by substantial private funds, mostly from “philanthropic” foundations and in England and Australia by governments as well as individuals.

In England, we have the ridiculous scene of Prime Minister Cameron and Chancellor Osborne mandating that all schools are to become “Academies”, independent of local authority control but funded by government directly, ostensibly ‘to place education into the hands of headteachers and teachers rather than “bureaucrats’”. The Guardian reported, “Councils reacted angrily to the news. Councillor Roy Perry, chairman of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, said: “Ofsted [which inspects and regulates services that care for children and young people] has rated 82% of council-maintained schools as good or outstanding, so it defies reason that councils are being portrayed as barriers to improvement. Ofsted has not only identified that improvement in secondary schools – most of which are academies – has stalled, but it has praised strong improvement in primary schools, most of which are maintained.” Only 15% of the largest academy chains perform above the national average in terms of pupil progress, compared with 44% of council-run schools.” The former Education Secretary David Blunkett warned that the plans were doomed to fail and could turn into a fiasco.


Lessons from America: What really makes a difference!

Few countries can claim to have made such a mess of funding school education as has the United States. In the face of outstanding research, the politicians at federal and state level of bravely ignore all the advice and all the evidence and plough on in support of standardised testing, teacher bashing, anti-union campaigns, “common core” curriculum reform and school choice. Charter schools are at heart of the “reforms” including ‘Race to the Top’, the Obama administration’s policy, schools supported by rich foundations and funded by governments as well. The extremely strong criticism of the US school system by the OECD in its PISA reports is dismissed with outlandish assertions that the PISA questionnaires are politically biased and that results achieved by the students of some Asian countries are due mainly to an emphasis on out of school tutoring. As with health issues, the experiences of the country to the north – Canada – are ignored!

In a country renowned for its scientific achievements, the battle in the US against the science of climate change has been as vigorous as in any country, reflecting the powerful influence of business lobbies. Despite the inclusion of American history as a core subject in every school, knowledge of American history by the average American citizen is widely acknowledged as extremely limited.

Two recently published books were reviewed by education historian and activist, and former federal education official, Diane Ravitch in the New York Review of Books for March 24 2016. The review (‘Solving the Mystery of the Schools’) includes some summary statements of the most important features of effective school education: these are some of the best statements I have seen.

Ravitch reviews two books, The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools? by Dale Russakoff (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) and Mission High: One School, How Experts Tried to Fail It, and the Students and Teachers Who Made It Triumph by Kristina Rizga (Nation Books). Ravitch introduces the issues with a summary of the last decades of ‘reform’ in the US from the introduction by President George W Bush of ‘No Child Left Behind’, reforms which Ravitch characterises as “swamped by bad ideas and policies”.

In The Prize, Russakoff reports the reforms in Newark, New Jersey where Mayor Corey Booker attempted to “uproot the school system and start over”. With the support of Governor-Elect Chris Christie, Booker planned to transform Newark into the charter school capital of the nation “weakening seniority and tenure, recruiting new teachers and principals from outside Newark, and building sophisticated data and accountability systems…”

“Booker believed that a great education would set every child on the road out of poverty, and he also believed that it would be impossible to do this in the Newark public schools because of their bureaucracy and systems of tenure and seniority. That’s why he wanted to spend money turning the city into an all-charter district, without unions, where like-minded reformers could impose the correct reforms, like judging teachers by test scores, firing teachers at will, and hiring whomever they wanted.”

They gained funding from entrepreneur and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg whose $100 million gift was announced on the Oprah Winfrey show. Booker earnestly believed: “We know what works.” Zuckerberg’s money would give him the chance to prove it.

Reorganisations wiped out neighbourhood schools, new teacher contracts were signed which included performance pay and a new teacher evaluation system. But Zuckerberg watched while his money was drained away “by consultants, labor costs, and new charter schools. The Newark experiment did not produce a “proof point” or a replicable national model.” Booker moved on to the US Senate and was replaced by an opponent of the reforms and Governor Christie entered the campaign to be Republican nominee for US President.

Mission High in San Francisco, studied by Kristina Rizga, is a different story! It had 950 students with passports from more than forty different countries. Latino, African-American, and Asian-American students made up the majority of the students; 75 percent were poor, and nearly 40 percent were learning English. It was classified as a “failing school” because it had low test scores. When Kristina Rizga first entered Mission in 2009, it was one of the lowest-performing schools in the nation, as judged by standardized test scores. And yet, contrary to the test scores, 84 percent of its graduates were accepted to college, and other indicators were positive.

Ravitch writes, “Rizga devotes chapters to the students she gets to know well, who blossom, as Maria (one of the students) did, as a result of their interactions with dedicated Mission teachers. She also devotes chapters to teachers who devote themselves to their students with intense enthusiasm. What the teachers understand … is that human relationships are the key to reaching students with many economic and social problems.

“What Rizga learned is worth sharing. For one, she discovered that “there are too many politicians, powerful bureaucrats, management and business experts, economists, and philanthropists making decisions about the best solutions for schools.” (my emphasis) In short, the people in charge don’t know nearly as much about schooling as the students and teachers they are trying to “fix.”

“Rizga realized that standardized test scores are not the best way to measure and promote learning. Typically, what they measure is the demographic profile of schools. Thus, schools in affluent white suburbs tend to be called “good” schools. Schools that enroll children who are learning English and children who are struggling in their personal lives have lower scores and are labeled “failing” schools. Hundreds, if not thousands, of such schools have closed in the past decade. Rahm Emanuel, mayor of Chicago, closed fifty schools in a single day, despite the protests of parents, students, and teachers.

“Rizga writes:

Some of the most important things that matter in a quality education—critical thinking, intrinsic motivation, resilience, self-management, resourcefulness, and relationship skills—exist in the realms that can’t be easily measured by statistical measures and computer algorithms, but they can be detected by teachers using human judgment. America’s business-inspired obsession with prioritizing “metrics” in a complex world that deals with the development of individual minds has become the primary cause of mediocrity in American schools.”

This is an extraordinarily important statement not just for its rejection of the current orthodoxy. It refers to several features – resilience and self management – that are more reliable indicators of later success in life that educational achievement factors! They are factors which are strongly developed in early childhood in a supportive and challenging family environment.


[In Finland] Students never take a high-stakes test; their teachers make their own tests. The only test they take that counts is the one required to enter university.

Last week, I went to a luncheon with Pasi Sahlberg, the Finnish education expert. I asked him the question that every politician asks today: “If students don’t take tests, how do you hold teachers and schools accountable?” He said that there is no word in the Finnish language for “accountability.” He said, “We put well-prepared teachers in the classroom, give them maximum autonomy, and we trust them to be responsible.”

Diane Ravitch quoted in How Shanghai topped PISA rankings — and why it’s not big news in China by Valerie Strauss, Washington Post December 14 2010


Ravitch concludes, “The authors of these two books demonstrate that grand ideas cannot be imposed on people without their assent. Money and power are not sufficient to improve schools. Genuine improvement happens when students, teachers, principals, parents, and the local community collaborate for the benefit of the children. But a further lesson matters even more: improving education is not sufficient to “save” all children from lives of poverty and violence. As a society, we should be ashamed that so many children are immersed in poverty and violence every day of their lives.”

What Rizga found, as reported by Ravitch, resonates with many other studies (such as those of schools in south Chicago) and crystallises the most important features of effective school education, features ignored, as Ravitch reports, by all those “experts” with less than minimum knowledge and understanding of the school system, learning and anything else relevant, who are allowed to have a degree of influence sufficient to end up destroying the school system.

Can we look to a time when those influencing and determining education policies will embrace evidence-based decision making instead of ideological personal mythology?