How reforming schools can mean deforming education

Maurice Holt's picture
Ever since the high noon of Thatcherite dogma, the English education playbook has been modelled on American practice - because once you embrace neoliberal economics, you are committed to outsourcing, to cutting costs, to outcomes rather than process.  New Labour eagerly followed the canon, rushing to launch its academies along the lines of US charter schools.  And Michael Gove, as a right-wing ideologue not unfamiliar with the “Atlantic Bridge” organisation, has followed the Wall-Street script - throwing money at free schools while encouraging private companies to build chains of them that compete directly with public provision. Bizarre?  Not at all, if you believe that public ownership of public services is inherently toxic. So where will it lead us?

We need no longer wait and see. All the waste and doublespeak that result from handing state education over to private enterprise is unveiled in an invaluable new book by Diane Ravitch: Reign of Error -- the hoax of the privatisation movement and the danger to America's public schools (Knopf 2013). Now in its fourth printing, even E.D. Hirsch (admired by Mr Gove) declares “No citizen can afford to ignore this brave book by our premier historian of education.” And indeed, I made use of Ravitch's excellent historical work in the 1990s when I taught in Denver at the University of Colorado . She was then a supporter of school choice, standards and accountability, and worked in the H.W. Bush administration. What changed her mind was the introduction by George W. Bush of a national programme to improve schools by standardised tests, competition and school choice, called “No Child Left Behind” - a great title, but “No School Left Undamaged” would have been more accurate. Of course it failed, leaving over-tested students in its wake, which led Ravitch back to square one. Now she has discovered the truth, and we are all beneficiaries. Ravitch's book should be on every Labour Party reading list.

So what does it reveal?  Fundamentally, that all commercial forms of standardised testing (John Major's preferred “simple pencil-and-paper tests” and the basis of Ofsted's judgments) are unreliable, and a misleading basis for decisions about school and student performance. The only reliable US measure is the American “National Assessment of Educational Progress” with its independent governing board, random student samples, and separate assessments of knowledge and achievement. The NAEP results show a steady improvement in both aspects by US students since the 1990s: all the talk of failing schools and poor teachers is totally unfounded, since it is based on misleading tests and political artifice. By setting unattainable goals, it's so easy to declare that the US economy will collapse without radical change from the ground up. In reality, US schools and teachers do a good job despite constant sniping from ill-informed critics.

This may sound familiar to English readers, and unfortunately we have no equivalent  of the NAEP tests: it's false economy to waste money assessing every student (far too often) using tests that are inherently flawed. The reality may be very different:  the NAEP tests confirm that the US is a world leader in technological innovation. The real damage is done to weaker students, who need less testing and more teaching, and who are likely to come from disadvantaged  homes - which the US has in abundance. Bad tests lead to educational failure, and  there is a further danger: the glorious American heritage of a public school in every community is being undermined by charter schools. These are at large in Gove's England, with the huge expansion of academies and the hidden menace of “free schools”. Both are direct copies of American right-wing initiatives and offer an easy route to commercial exploitation. We already have chains of charter schools, which in the US are often run by businessmen looking for an easy profit. The trick, as Ravitch explains, is to establish a state-funded charter school, use fewer teachers all on lower salaries, and buy in commercial teaching materials. Parents are suckers for trendy computer-based material, and the state picks up the tab. For-profit academies and free schools could easily emerge here - just another example of Thatcherite outsourcing. But at the root of all these phoney operations are the data - the figures on which accountability can be based. And the data can't be trusted.

Ravitch's magnificent book runs to 400 pages, since she provides detailed scrutiny of the pronouncements emerging from rich industrialists and right-leaning foundations such as that run by Bill and Melinda Gates.  She then examines the claims and the evidence, and offers a conclusion that pulls no punches. Here is a selection, matching claim with reality:

Test scores are falling, and the education system is broken: Test scores are at their highest point ever recorded.

Poverty is an excuse for ineffective teaching and failing schools. Poverty is highly correlated with low academic achievement.

Test scores can be used to identify and reward effective teachers. Test scores are not the best way to identify good teachers.

Charter schools will improve education by their freedom to innovate. On average, charter schools are no more innovative or successful than state schools.

Schools can be improved by firing teachers or a fresh start. There is no evidence to support this.

Teach for America (Teach First in the UK) brings bright young graduates into schools, where they get the same results as other bright young graduates: but they leave the profession sooner.

 Thanks to Ravitch, yet another manufactured crisis is exposed for all to see.



Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


John Mountford's picture
Sun, 16/03/2014 - 23:47

Thank you for this, Maurice. Coming to this late on a Sunday evening, I am unable now to give your piece the time and effort it deserves. As governor of a small primary school (under 100 pupils) and a retired teacher, I scour the columns of this network looking at the many gems that appear, to find succor from the raging madness that is distorting the education landscape in our nation. This is one among the best. It will help expose the garbage that is masquerading as truth at this time.

One comment I would make is that, it would be counter productive to get a copy of Diane Ravitch's: 'Reign of Error' on every Labour Party reading list. They are equal partners with the present government in perpetuating the distorting of truth. I would recommend, instead, that a copy be sent to every news outlet, across all forms of media. Their claim to accurately inform ordinary people about the state of our education system is an even more cynical distortion of the truth. It is time for the lies to be fully exposed and for an honest debate about what can be done to ensure that education is fit for purpose.

I will comment again, more extensively. In the meantime, I repeat what I have said on this site more times than I care to admit. Now is the time to change the national governance of education. The contribution made by all the political parties to education has proved costly and damaging for our young people and our nation. Enough should be enough!

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 17/03/2014 - 09:00

John - you're right that Labour has responsibility for getting the ball rolling. Policy Exchange recognised before the last election when it wrote that Adonis, even Blair, were secretly in favour of for-profit schools ("Blocking the Best").

I'm just reading "No Logo" (Naomi Klein) written just over 10 years ago. She describes how Blair rebranded the Labour party as "New Labour" - it was no longer the Labour party but "labor scented".

You've recommended sending a copy of Ravitch's book to all media outlets. Sadly, most of them would ignore it or distort it just as the Mail did recently with the research into the effects of selection on disadvantaged pupils.

The owners of much of the media (eg Murdoch) are complicit in spreading the "state schools failing" myth. There's billions to be made out of education as Murdoch pointed out. Can't let the truth stand in the way of fiction if the latter means diverting taxpayer money into the pockets of shareholders.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 17/03/2014 - 09:29

Maurice - I completely agree with you about the damage that neo-liberal ideology is doing to state schooling in the USA and in England. As I write in my comment to Janet's post,

"marketisation, choice and competition, that undoubtedly raises standards and reduces prices of peoples ‘wants’, like cars and consumer gizmos, have the exact opposite effect in providing basic needs that every citizen has a right of access to. Here the effect is to lower standards through a race to the bottom (privatised exam boards), distort provision (inequality of access to good schools), degrade curriculum (the vocational equivalent scam and teaching to the test), degrade teaching (resort to long discredited behaviourist repetition, punishment and rewards) and massively inflate the costs to the taxpayer (How much is Academisation and Free Schoolery costing, compared a democratically accountable LA provided school system where all spending is transparently audited and open to public inspection?)."

It is clear to me that privatisation and outsourcing damages the quality of all public services, while raising the costs to the taxpayer. It does not just apply to education.

However one aspect of your otherwise excellent analysis puzzles me. If all this damage has been inflicted onto the education service for all these years, why shouldn't it be showing up in external testing like for example that of PISA? In England GCSE results have been on an astonishing upward trajectory. You are not saying that this reflects the success of the neo-liberal approach are you?

Why wouldn't education standards be seriously falling given your correct analysis of the damage that has been inflicted for the last twenty-odd years?

Maurice Holt's picture
Mon, 17/03/2014 - 15:50

Thanks for your encouragement. Which was New Labour's worst mistake: forging ahead with school league tables, using dodgy data to generate winners and losers: or disrupting an established system with academies? It has to be academies, since the resulting mess will be hard to unscramble. But not impossible, given the votes and the will.

Chris Manners's picture
Mon, 17/03/2014 - 16:43

I'm with you on academies. I give them credit for not just letting schools die in the LA- it was quite convenient to have one school where the rougher kids ended up- but it should have been much more directly overseen by the DfE- no need for Tory businessmen in between.

I've argued before here that league tables, whatever their effects, are information. It's very hard to deny people that.

Brian's picture
Mon, 17/03/2014 - 18:01

Whatever their effect? Surely that can't be right. If league tables are misleading and having a negative effect of what schools offer to their pupils, if they lead to a pernicious narrowing of the curriculum then surely the fact that they 'are information' is far from a reasonable justification.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 17/03/2014 - 22:16

Chris - They don't tell people how good schools are, just how bright on average, the children are that attend. That has no necessary connection with the progress made by each child. They are an invitation to snobbery and drive both social and educational polarisation, which in the end reduces the quality of life for everybody.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 18/03/2014 - 13:39

Chris, Roger - the Institute of Fiscal Studies made the obvious point in 2011 that the ability of a school's intake governs academic achievement. This is usually ignored by those who claim grammar schools are better at educating children because their results (surprise, surprise) are higher than schools with the full ability range or have, like secondary moderns, intakes skewed to the bottom of the ability range.

In any case, raw results can be misleading. How far have the results been inflated by the use of equivalents, for example? Or how many Year 11s are educated off-site and removed from a school's roll so their potentially poor results don't bring down a school's headline "achievement"?

John Mountford's picture
Tue, 18/03/2014 - 22:36

Maurice, like Roger, I am puzzled about the apparent contradiction:
"Why wouldn’t education standards be seriously falling given your correct analysis of the damage that has been inflicted for the last twenty-odd years?"

It seems all three of us agree that the damage inflicted on education by the canon of dodgy reforms over several decades has impoverished education, and yet the data appear to contradict this. I wonder how this might be accounted for.

You say that 'NAEP tests confirm that the US is a world leader in technological innovation.' but go on to cite the impact of education reforms on a specific group,

'The real damage is done to weaker students, who need less testing and more teaching, and who are likely to come from disadvantaged homes – which the US has in abundance.'

Roger also confirms, 'In England GCSE results have been on an astonishing upward trajectory.' but is scathing in his condemnation of the prevailing system. He writes of a 'race to the bottom' on standards and of 'inequality of access to good schools.'

Is it possible that there are multiple factors causing this anomaly that don't actually conflict with the data? I am at a loss to explain it myself, but feel Ravitch would have been unlikely to overlook such a contradiction. Perhaps you are able to offer some help?

Roger Titcombe's picture
Wed, 19/03/2014 - 09:51

The irony is that Gove trots out bucket loads of evidence that standards have fallen, forgetting that we have now had 25 years waiting for the Thatcher/Blair 'reforms' to work. My view is that Gove is largely correct about falling standards even if some his data are flawed and/or misinterpreted.

His problem is that he completely misunderstands the cause, causing him to advocate more of what is causing the problem, as his solution. This is true right across all public services that have been degraded and corrupted by privatisation and marketisation. The neo-liberal 'reform' solution is always more privatisation and enforcement of the marketisation culture of competition and performance related rewards/punishments.

It is like the 'bleeding' doctor, applying more and more of the same as they patient fails to recover. The result is the death of the patient.

Maurice Holt's picture
Fri, 21/03/2014 - 15:46

Roger and John: Your points concerning GCSE results and UK performance on PISA tests are important, and highlight the difficulty of deciding what it is that test results actually tell us about students and their schooling. In the case of GCSE, we now know that the results have been, and may yet be, subject to political massage - particularly in English and maths. All high-stakes testing is vulnerable to distortion, and the more political importance given to the results, the less reliable they are as a measure of student capacity. For many students, the final GCSE exams in English and maths will address topics that have already been done to death, and may therefore test recall rather than ability. Hence the preference of some schools for the Cambridge exams and other alternatives.

The PISA tests are a different matter. They can be crammed for if a pattern is established, but only to a limited extent, The current sample PISA maths tests, for example, seem to me to address the application of mathematical concepts to problems rather than coverage of specific topics or algebraic manipulation. So students' understanding matters, as well as their memory. I notice, for instance, that Finland consistently scores high on PISA, even though there are no national tests and the exam at 16 is school-based. So also is the curriculum, which is not driven by testing - as is now largely the case in the UK and US - but by intellectual inquiry. Their teachers are not subject to implicit curriculum protocols, nor by the lurking menace of Ofsted. Even allowing for the statistical difficulties of using one exam across a range of countries, I would regard PISA results as a more reliable guide to national performance than GCSE - though not as reliable as a NAEP -type operation.

John Mountford's picture
Tue, 01/04/2014 - 19:59

Maurice and Roger, this report out today, raises fresh questions around our discussion.

I can't help wondering whether Mr Gove will like what he reads, if he takes the opportunity to bother dong soi. I don't think he would have chosen to write this script as it could well be seen to blow holes in his 'failing schools agenda'.

I have to confess, I find these latest OECD findings rather confusing. It would appear that English student's performance in the PIZA tests somehow does not offer the most accurate reflection of their true potential. We all accept that the ability to use conceptual knowledge in problem solving situations is an indicator of deeper understanding than rote learning and memorisation produce. If the evidence stacks up, the government would have to rethink its attitude to the use of PISA data and its whole approach to teaching and learning and in particular its new National Curriculum. The most intriguing question for me is where this obviously rich cognitive enhancement is happening in our schools? This is where details about the specifics of the schools and pupils represented in the sample would be so helpful.

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.