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.