Diane Ravitch, June 29
In a four-part series on AOL News last week, Dana Chivvis told the story of a small high school in Brooklyn that is slated to be closed for poor performance. Its graduation rates and test scores are low, yet district officials never gave the school the facilities or resources to improve.
Today, federal policy requires districts to take harsh action against "failing" schools. The No Child Left Behind law, adopted in 2002, says that officials must close them; fire all or half their staff; or hand control over to the state, to private charters or to private management. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has endorsed the same strategies.
The federal law set a Utopian goal that all students must reach proficiency in reading and math by 2014. Currently more than 30,000 public schools -- almost a third of all public schools -- are not on track to meet that goal. Social scientists in California predicted that almost all of that state's elementary schools may fail to reach their federal targets by 2014.
Duncan says it takes "courage to do the right thing by kids." But closing or privatizing public schools is not the right thing.
Today's business-minded policymakers look at public schools as if they were a franchise that can be closed and relocated if they fail to get the right data. Or as if they were a stock portfolio, where the investor holds the winners and dumps the losers.
But public schools are not a business or a stock portfolio. They are an essential public institution. They are a key component of our democratic society, and we can't take the risk of losing them. The public school is often the anchor of its community, the one stable institution that families and children can rely on.
And none of the government's preferred strategies has a consistent record of success. Charter schools on average are no better than regular public schools. State education departments have no track record in turning schools around, nor do private management companies.
It is easy to close schools, disperse the students and claim victory. But no school is improved and no student is helped by closing schools. Choice policies enable schools to avoid the students who are likely to lower the school's test scores.
These kids tend to get bounced from one "bad" school to another until they drop out. In Chicago, where many schools have been closed, most students were reassigned to other low-performing schools and gained nothing from the change.
What's more, no nation with high-performing schools is pursuing the same policies as our government. None has a program to privatize large numbers of schools, and none relies on tests of basic skills to close schools and judge teachers.
Other nations recognize that high-stakes testing undermines education. When test scores lead to rewards and punishments for staff and schools, it promotes cheating, teaching to inadequate tests, gaming the system, narrowing the curriculum and inflating scores.
Instead of closing schools, every state should enlist a team of evaluators to visit every struggling school, document its problems, make recommendations and stay involved to make sure that the school gets the resources it needs to improve.
Schools "fail" because they serve large numbers of students who are non-English speakers; live in poverty; or are homeless, transient or disabled. The staff in schools with disproportionate numbers of low-performing students may be doing a heroic job. Everyone should be individually evaluated, not subject to collective punishment.
When schools have low test scores and low graduation rates, it is often because of conditions beyond the control of educators. Most so-called failing schools enroll disproportionate numbers of students in economically depressed communities, where families struggle for daily survival.
It may take courage to close schools, but it takes experience, wisdom and persistence -- as well as courage -- to improve them and to strengthen families and communities.
Diane Ravitch was assistant secretary of education during the George H.W. Bush administration and was appointed to serve on National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees federal testing, during the Clinton administration. She is author of "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education" (Basic).