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An Education?

Two recent books take hard looks at the current state of America's public schools

Illustrations by Deanna Staffo

By Michael Corbin | Posted 4/7/2010

In 1968, then-new mayor Thomas D'Alesandro III proclaimed Baltimore "Education City, USA." In March of that year, the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners hired Thomas Sheldon as superintendent of Baltimore City Schools to carry out an ambitious plan of school building and reform. Sheldon, a young leader with a reputation for enacting change, came from Hempstead, Long Island, where he had worked to desegregate that city's schools. Baltimore brought him in with much fanfare to shake up the system, making him the highest paid school superintendent in America. On April 4, 1968, nine days after the board named Sheldon to the position, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

The subsequent riots sealed off with fire the social divisions in Baltimore schooling that opened up 14 years earlier with the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Baltimore schools and public education in America since have became the proxy battleground over the meaning of equality of opportunity in a segregated and stratified nation. The partisans in this battle argue over what program of reform has most fidelity to our belief that all students should be treated equally, that each is endowed with certain inalienable rights. School is the place we think we make ourselves American.

Baltimore schools today are in another round of substantial "reform." A new superintendent has been brought in who speaks passionately about how all kids in Baltimore matter and that what came before did not acknowledge this self-evident truth.

Two new books by important players in the national debate about how and where kids learn have direct relevance to the changes now taking place in Baltimore.

Diane Ravitch's The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (Basic Books) and Linda Darling-Hammond's The Flat World and Education: How America's Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future (Teachers College Press) provide a lens through which to view and judge what is happening to Baltimore kids when they go to school.


On March 9, the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners voted to close down Dr. Raynor Browne Academy. The Northeast Baltimore school was the first charter school ever to be closed in the city. Since 2005, Baltimore has opened 27 such schools, which are given a "charter" to be run by independent, private organizations and still receive public funds to do so. Baltimore has by far the most charter schools of any jurisdiction in Maryland and has become a kind of laboratory in the state for this version of education reform. Many Baltimore kids will grow up and be educated in public charter schools.

In 2001, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation invested $12 million in Baltimore to help break up large, neighborhood high schools into "small learning communities" of 300-400 students, which have become central to the high school experience for many Baltimore kids. In addition to this version of high school reform, Gates--along with fellow billionaire Eli Broad and his foundation and other local and national philanthropists--have invested millions to affect the education of tens of thousands of Baltimore's youth.

Baltimore public school students have also come to share the stress of high-stakes, standardized testing. The late-winter blizzards this year worried many Baltimore elementary and middle school teachers and administrators, for while it was an unexpected vacation, it was also time missed prepping for the Maryland State Assessment, which is given in early March to third through eighth graders. How kids do on these tests can determine the fate of the school, the jobs of its teachers, its administrators, even its janitors. High school kids must now also take the high school version of these tests to graduate.

These changes--the push for charter schools, billionaires investing in public education, and high-stakes testing--have become commonplace across America, and intensely so in urban districts. All were once championed by Diane Ravitch, one of America's foremost policy advocates and education historians--which makes her new Death and Life such an interesting document. In it, she comes to vigorously renounce her previous advocacy of these now commonplace reforms.

Ravitch is research professor of education at New York University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. From 1991-'93 she was assistant secretary of Education for George H.W. Bush. President Bill Clinton appointed her to the National Assessment Governing Board. She was, until last year, a board member of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and the Koret Task Force at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. Each of these previous government and think-tank homes were bull-horns for precisely the changes we are now seeing in Baltimore, and ones that Ravitch now believes are undermining education in America.

Ravitch writes in her book that she changed her mind because what were perhaps good ideas in the abstract simply did not work out in the reality of actual schools, or they produced negative, unintended consequences in the lives of students and their communities. She defends her new thinking with an anecdote: "When someone chastised John Maynard Keynes for reversing himself about a particular economic policy he previously endorsed, he replied, 'When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?'"

Ravitch's title is an ambitious homage to Jane Jacobs' 1961 The Death and Life of Great American Cities--perhaps the most influential book on urban planning of the 20th century. Jacobs criticized planners' hubris, which didn't take into account the human consequences of their social-engineering abstractions, however well-intentioned. Similarly, Ravitch indicts today's education engineers.

The book is a detailed genealogy of where today's education abstractions came from and how they are found wanting in practice. Ravitch looks critically at both New York City and San Diego, which have been incubators of both the "business model" of education reform and wholesale reordering of curriculum and school organization. She traces the history of the idea of school "choice," from its origins in "vouchers" to its contemporary manifestation in "charters." She argues that where charters were once meant to be experiments for the most vulnerable and needy, they have become boutique schools to shield the better off from the vulnerable and needy, undermining both their original idea and the public trust.

Similarly, she writes that the transfer of de facto authority to what she calls the "Billionaire Boys Club" is unprecedented in the history of American public education. With the power given over to the philanthropic patronage of such organizations as Teach for America, New Leaders for New Schools, the New Teacher Project, and Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP)--all of which have a significant presence in Baltimore--she argues that we've left public education to the "whim of entrepreneurs and financiers."

She concludes of testing in the era of "No Child Left Behind," counter to all the "data-driven" reform in Baltimore and across America, that we are fundamentally lost: "When we define what matters in education only by what we can measure, we are in serious trouble. When that happens, we tend to forget that schools are responsible for shaping character, developing sound minds in healthy bodies and forming citizens for our democracy."

Ravitch is prescriptive about forming those better citizens, and in this she is a consistent education "conservative." She argues for a national curriculum that all Americans should know. She wants politicians and businessmen out of education decision making. She wants charter schools to focus on kids who need the most help and for teachers to be paid a fair wage, not "merit pay" based on test scores. She wants school attached to family, community, and nation in a meaningful, inclusive story of what America is all about.


The "flat world" has become the pop metaphor for America's altered relation to the rest of the globe in the 21st century, and Linda Darling-Hammond wants us to understand how what goes on in places like the schools of Baltimore will determine our country's future in the newly leveled, globalized commons. The Flat World and Education reads like both a policy brief and a piece of legislation, a comprehensive, detailed manifesto of a book filled with charts, graphs, and bulleted lists. Perhaps this approach arises because Darling-Hammond worked on the book while she was education advisor to Barack Obama during his historic run for president. She was rumored to be a top choice for Education secretary in the new administration, but lost out to former Chicago Public Schools Superintendent Arne Duncan. Duncan is closely associated with the kinds of reforms we are seeing in Baltimore.

Darling-Hammond, the Charles E. Ducommun professor of education at Stanford University, hammers her central point that, when compared to other post-industrial countries, what defines American education is its deep and abiding inequality. "We can ill afford to maintain the structural inequalities in access to knowledge and resources," she writes with passion. "Our future will be increasingly determined by our capacity and our will to educate all children well--a challenge we have very little time to meet if the United States is not to enact the modern equivalent of the fall of Rome."

The shorthand for this educational inequality in Baltimore and across America is the "achievement gap." Darling-Hammond provides an anatomy of educational inequality that she says constructs an "opportunity gap" in America that builds upon itself and ramifies through individual students' lives, schools, and communities to produce fundamentally different life chances for citizens.

This educational inequality begins with America's criminally high level of childhood poverty, moves to the differential access to quality pre-K experiences and care, and from there directly into the schools. There the most vulnerable and needy have the weakest and least experienced teachers and administrators. Those schools, as they are in Baltimore, are highly segregated by race, have inconsistently taught a weak curricula, and can often be what Darling-Hammond calls "dysfunctional learning environments."

The standards and testing regimes, she goes on to argue, often reinforce this inequality, since investment in teaching, curriculum, and schools do not necessarily follow the implementation of standards and tests. The achievement gap becomes self-fulfilling as "standards built upon a foundation of continued inequality in education will simply certify student failure with greater certainty."

To define what we need to do, Darling-Hammond looks at three of the world's most successful educational systems in Finland, South Korea, and Singapore. What is striking, she points out, is not only their success, but that each country has fundamentally rebuilt its system from the ground up to change what it had done before. Specifically, all three have funded schools adequately and equitably with incentives for teaching in high-need schools. These systems, counter-intuitively, eliminated examination systems. They implemented a national curriculum that emphasized critical thinking and school-based assessments, built a national teacher-education program, and established goals that would apply to all their citizens and not change with the political winds.

Darling-Hammond has elaborate, detailed proposals for reform, but in substance they are not very different from Ravitch's. She emphasizes the need for investing both resources and prestige in the teaching profession.

While much of the structured inequality that The Flat World delineates aptly describes Baltimore City public schools, she points out that there are a growing number of schools that "have disrupted the status quo by providing opportunities for low-income students of color to become critical thinkers and leaders. . . ." Such schools exist in Baltimore, such as the traditional city-wide Polytechnic, School for the Arts, Western, and City College, that have always produced Baltimore's best and brightest. She notes, however, that such success stories often come at the perpetuation of inequality elsewhere in the system. Without the larger system changes, she writes, these successes will remain "anomalies rather than harbingers of the future."

At the March 9 school board meeting where Dr. Raynor Browne Academy lost its charter, despite many students and community members advocating on its behalf, the struggle over the story of today's urban public schools could be seen. Commissioner George Vanhook Sr. offered that the school system, with its endless reforms and ill-defined ends, can set kids up for failure. The school board, in its however well-intentioned social engineering, was practicing a form of "neo-slavery," he offered dramatically.

Andrés Alonso, the schools chief brought in to shake things up in Baltimore once again, responded with equal drama that the "only thing that matters is outcomes for kids." To get those enigmatic "outcomes," he assured, "there cannot be simply a democratic process." Here, in miniature, is the contemporary struggle--the death and life, the struggle over the definition of equity--in Baltimore's and America's public schools. And Ravitch and Darling-Hammond are necessary guides to the fight over the meaning of educational opportunity.

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