More clearly and cogently than anyone in recent memory, Ravitch makes the case that our dismal public education system isn’t the problem, it’s merely a symptom — and it’s something we can’t fix, until “root causes” are fixed first.
“Why are our international rankings low?” she asks. “Our test scores are dragged down by poverty… Family poverty is the most reliable predictor of low test scores.
How can we compare ourselves to nations like Finland where less than 5 percent of the children live in poverty?”
Poverty isn’t just an excuse for low test scores; it’s the reason, she claims.
“Children who are homeless, who have asthma, who have vision problems or hearing problems will have trouble concentrating on their studies,” she says. “Children who have a toothache may not do well on testing day. Children who don’t see a doctor when they are sick will not be able to perform well on tests.
Children who live in squalor will be distracted from their schoolwork.”
“If reformers really cared about children, they would build a health clinic in every school,” Ravitch says. “That would do more to improve test scores than all the teacher evaluation schemes and merit pay plans that the reformers are now imposing, without a shred of evidence. We can improve our schools. We can improve our society. We must work on both at the same time.”
Now, let’s be clear. Every statement she made about children is true.
Health issues, homelessness and hunger obviously do distract students and can make a teacher’s job more difficult. Poverty does, statistically, drag down test scores.
That’s a trick question, because she’s actually making two points. First, she believes that low tests scores are so directly tied to socioeconomic problems that they can’t be extricated. Second, she implies it’s the role of the public schools to solve those problems.
Her first point is demonstrably false. Every high-performing inner-city school indeed, every high-scoring inner-city child refutes this. Those students can all point to a teacher, a program, a parent, that demanded their best efforts.
And there’s a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg issue here, too; defenders of public education rightly say it’s been the best way out of poverty throughout our nation’s history. If we give up on making it better, then, how will it continue to be so?
Her second point is also false. Certainly the role of the public schools has increased over the years; schools no longer merely educate, they also now feed our children, counsel our children, entertain our children after school and, in too many instances, teach our children the values they’re not getting at home.
But public schools can’t be everything to everyone. We don’t need them to be jacks of all trades. We need them to be masters of one.
Yes, there are many problems in society that hold many children back. But we can’t give up on solutions, just because they’re partial fixes. That’s not fair to our children.