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Schools, Inc.

With school taxes the hot-button issue of local politics, I’m surprised we haven’t heard more about “school reform.” That is, bring a bottom-line-focused, data-obsessed corporate management style to our local public schools. Make taxpayers the “customers,” student achievement the “product” and the district superintendent the CEO (that’s Chief Executive Officer, not Chief Education Officer). “Profit” comes in the form of cutting costs and boosting “production” (i.e., test scores).

But according to some area educators, we are approaching this scenario at an alarming rate.

“You are being treated as though Long Island is part of a failing school system,” Diane Ravitch told a recent gathering of Take Action Long Island!, a group of educators, administrators and community members who see the New York State tax cap taking “a terrible toll on school districts on Long Island.” Such limits, along with new state testing requirements and the fact that students’ test scores will determine whether or not a teacher is doing a good job, are seen by many as foreshadowing a corporate-style future for our schools.

A former Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education, educational historian, best-selling author (The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education) and a leading voice in the battle to prevent reform from wrecking our schools, Ravitch knows the perils of putting efficiency ahead of education.

“The corporate reform movement is about carrots and sticks, whips and chains,” said Ravitch, pointing to policies that tie student test scores to teacher firings or incentive bonuses.

Although there is a commonsense ring to rewarding teachers whose students succeed and punishing those whose students fail, time and again, throughout the country, this idea hasn’t worked.

Competition is a great tool for managing salespeople, but not the people educating our children.

“If you ask kids who is responsible for your test scores, they say ‘me’ [not the teacher],” Ravitch noted.

The goal of corporate reformers, said Ravitch, is to shatter the traditional model of the public school, and ultimately privatize education. It’s part of a notion that government can’t do anything right or anything as efficiently and effectively as the free market can. The thinking goes, “Give entrepreneurs your tax dollars, and watch those test scores soar.” Perhaps privatizing such municipal services as garbage collection and street sweeping is a good idea. But K-12 education?

“More important than high test scores are character, integrity and citizenship. But we are in an era where we don’t hear that anymore,” said Ravitch. “It should be about educating children, not standardizing children.”

To Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg and numerous Wall Street hedge-fund managers who have made their fortunes in gathering, crunching and manipulating data, there is something so “old school” about our public education system. As they see it, data can and must precisely quantify every student’s, teacher’s, principal’s, school’s and state’s success and failure. Hence the push for more and more testing.

“They believe that the more you test, the smarter kids become,” said Ravitch.

And teachers?

“Today’s supposedly ‘ideal’ teachers come to the classroom with five weeks of training and high expectations,” said Ravitch, referring to Teach For America and other “instant teacher” programs that cycle beginner teachers in and out, so that few ever get beyond low starting salaries and never get vested in a costly pension plan.

Efficient? From a balance-sheet perspective, yes. Effective? Usually not. Teaching experience counts. And until the reformers determine local personnel practices, many Nassau County school districts won’t hire a teacher who doesn’t already have several years of experience. Typically, the overnight, short-term teachers are consigned to our poorest neighborhoods.

Despite tight budgets, the obvious pain of high property taxes and the almost messianic promises of corporate reformers, Ravitch isn’t losing hope.

“This time will pass,” she said confidently. “It will go away because it is so wrong.”