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Of all the strange sights to which the Bizarro World of American politics has borne witness of late, perhaps none is as strange as the coming together of Arne Duncan, Newt Gingrich and Al Sharpton as Barack Obama's education musketeers. A more unlikely political alliance is hard to imagine.

Officially, the trio composed of Mr. Obama's earnest Education Secretary (Mr. Duncan), the hard-right Republican (Mr. Gingrich) and the self-anointed voice of America's oppressed (Rev. Sharpton) was dispatched by the President last fall to investigate innovation in the classroom. But their tour of U.S. cities was really a promotional junket for his radically un-Democratic education policies.

The centrepiece of this agenda is the President's $4.35-billion (U.S.) Race to the Top fund, a carrot dangled in front of cash-strapped states to induce them to dramatically expand the role of charter schools and punish, even fire, teachers who fail to lift student scores on standardized math and reading tests. The first $600-million in Race money was awarded this week to the "winners." Delaware will get $100-million and Tennessee $500-million, after both agreed to lift caps on charter schools - which are publicly funded, but privately managed K-12 institutions - and to base teacher pay and advancement on how well their students perform.

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Whether pushing the tough-love triad of choice, competition and teacher accountability will actually raise the woeful performance of American school kids compared with their international peers remains to be seen. What is not in doubt is the groupthink that has seized politicians and policy-makers across the United States - and quite a few in Canada, too - according to which markets are the solution to all that ails public education.

There was a time when only Republicans championed this view. But in the past decade, the pro-charter, anti-union Wall Street Journal has not lacked for reformist Democrats to lionize in its editorial pages. Two of its favourites are Mr. Duncan, the former head of Chicago's public school system, and Michelle Rhee, who took over in 2007 as chancellor of Washington, D.C.'s public schools, possibly the worst in the nation. Like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who gained full control of the city's schools in 2002 after the state eliminated 32 local boards, the reformers have shuttered "failing" schools, sought to reward and penalize teachers based on test scores, and overseen an explosion of charters, largely catering to minority students.

Indeed, Harlem is the nation's poster-neighbourhood for charters. From Geoffrey Canada's Promise Academies to its KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) schools, the long waiting lists for Harlem's charters attest to African-Americans' frustration with a public school system many believe failed them in the past, is failing their children now and will as assuredly fail their kids' kids.

Touting challenging curriculum, envious test scores and uncommonly dedicated teachers, American charter schools have done a good job cultivating their winner image. The truth is that, just like public schools, charter schools come in good, bad and ugly varieties. That alone is telling, considering that charters can count on the most motivated students and "counsel out" persistently low-performing kids.


Nevertheless, American policy-makers have wholly bought in to the charter hype. If they're not replacing public schools with charters, they're implementing charter-like teacher accountability in the public system.

When it comes to teachers, just how do you separate wheat from chaff anyway? Education experts have agonized over this question for decades without resolution. Yet Mr. Duncan, Ms. Rhee and Mr. Bloomberg all share a deep conviction that they know how. If your class improves its scores on standardized state math and reading tests, they figure you're wheat. If it doesn't, well, you're toast.

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This obsession with standardized testing is George W. Bush's lasting gift to American public education. His 2002 No Child Left Behind law made states eligible for extra federal cash if they could show continuous improvement in student scores on state-administered tests.

Unfortunately, the law created a set of perverse incentives for teachers, students and bureaucrats alike. Teachers have increasingly "taught to the tests," diminishing the emphasis on other worthy material and subjects. Students have "learned" what's needed to score better on the tests. And states have lowered standards to raise student scores and get their hands on the federal moola. In other words, everyone is gaming the system. The proof is that students in almost every jurisdiction have shown eye-popping improvement on state tests, even though their scores on the federally administered National Assessment of Education Progress tests have been flat since 2002.

The reaction of states, students and teachers to No Child would not surprise experts in behavioural economics. But somehow it has not deterred Mr. Obama. His proposals for updating the No Child law, unveiled by Mr. Duncan on March 15 and subject to approval by Congress, would shift the objective of federal education policy from making all students "proficient" in math and reading by 2014 - an illusory goal since only a third currently make the grade on NAEP tests - to ensuring that every high school graduate is "college- or career-ready" by 2020. Though meeting the new goal is not any more likely than reaching the old one was, the fate of teachers and entire schools would nevertheless rest almost entirely on their test scores. To be eligible for federal cash, states would have to take corrective action with respect to their lowest-scoring 10 per cent of public schools, from moving or firing their teachers to closing them down.

Criticism of the President's plan has been sparse. After all, Mr. Duncan, with his hard-knocks Chicago accent, and Ms. Rhee, the ambitious daughter of South Korean immigrants, are media darlings. They express the kind of "Yes we can" confidence that pleases Obama Democrats. Their get-tough-on-teachers tactics cheer Republicans. And the education unions long ago ceded the public relations war.

Under the circumstances, Diane Ravitch stands out like a rebel voice in a schoolyard full of conformists. In reality, she's the conservative one. Her newly published Death and Life of the Great American School System offers up an indictment of the "pedagogical fads" of the Bush and Obama eras, adapting the title of Jane Jacobs' famous book on 20th-century crazes in urban planning.

As an education historian at New York University, Prof. Ravitch has chronicled every "big idea" that has shaped (mostly for the worse) American public education in the past century. She also had a hand in spawning a few of them. As assistant education secretary in the administration of George H.W. Bush, and as a member of the National Assessment Governing Board under Bill Clinton, she played a role in creating the testing infrastructure that gave life to No Child. She admits to having once "drunk deeply of the elixir that promised a quick fix to intractable problems." She now warns that testing and charters - the twin pillars of Mr. Obama's education policies - are destroying public education and all it should accomplish. (Hint: It's not just about passing tests.)

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"The big idea now is that we all have to run [schools]like a competitive business," Prof. Ravitch lamented over the phone from New York this week. "If you look back to the [financial]debacle of 2008, you wouldn't think this was a model for American education."

Nor does it make for well-rounded students. "States and districts are now gearing everything to getting the right [test]numbers and nobody is learning anything [more] They may even be learning less overall, because there is no incentive to teach anything except reading and math."

Prof. Ravitch is no apologist for tenured teachers. But she insists that relying on test scores - even if they could be trusted - is a haphazard way to evaluate educators. There is almost no empirical evidence to back it up. "No teacher has randomly assigned classes," she noted. Yet that is what would be required to fairly compare teacher performance. "There are bad teachers, and they should be fired after due process. But even if we fire every single bad teacher in America, we would not have 100-per-cent proficiency [in math and reading]and we probably wouldn't have better performance on the whole because of all the demographic issues."


Income inequality is the elephant in the room of U.S. education policy. It goes almost entirely unmentioned as a causal factor in the low test scores of black and Hispanic students, though the efforts to single-mindedly "lift" math and reading scores are focused squarely on minorities. In Washington, where blacks and Hispanics make up more than 90 per cent of the student body, fully 56 per cent of fourth-graders lack "basic" reading skills as defined by NAEP. Minorities are no better served than any other group by a system that privileges narrow testing in math and reading to the detriment of literature, art, music, science and geography. How does a mechanistic emphasis on teaching to the tests inspire them to learn, much less equip them to be productive 21st-century citizens, workers and human beings? If it doesn't, what is public education for anyway?

Ruby Ratliff knew the answer. She was Prof. Ravitch's homeroom teacher at San Jacinto High in Houston in the 1950s. At graduation, Ms. Ratliff hand-picked two lines of poetry for each of her students. Prof. Ravitch got Tennyson's "to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield" and "among them, but not of them" by Byron.

"Would any school today recognize her ability to inspire her students to love literature?" Prof. Ravitch asks in her book. "She would be stifled not only by the data mania of her supervisors, but by the jargon, the indifference to classical literature and the hostility to her manner of teaching that now prevail in our schools."

In Arne Duncan's America, she might also be fired.

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