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"Poverty Is the Problem" With our Public Schools, Not Teachers' Unions

Education expert Diane Ravitch and New York schoolteacher Brian Jones discuss the real problems with--and real solutions for--our public school system.

 JUAN GONZALEZ: As children across the nation head back to school, we turn now to a number of recent developments in education news. Here in New York, nearly 780 employees of the city’s Education Department will lose their jobs by October in the largest layoff at a single agency since Michael Bloomberg became mayor in 2002. I  reported in today’s  Daily News that those layoffs are going to be hitting particularly hard the poorest school districts in the city. The layoffs stem from budget cuts to schools, which have occurred in each of the last four years. The cuts have cost more than 2,000 full-time public school teachers their assignments and now threaten the job security of more than 400 school aides and 82 parent coordinators.

At last month’s "Save Our Schools" rally in Washington, D.C., education author Jonathan Kozol criticized the drive toward fewer teachers and larger classes.

JONATHAN KOZOL: Class size is soaring in the poorest schools. I walk into classes with 35, 40, 42 children packed into a single room. Originality? Forget it. Creativity? Forget it. Critical thinking, asking questions? There’s no time for children to ask questions. If they learn to ask demanding questions, they might start to question why the people we elect to office will not keep their promises.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, a Manhattan appeals court ruled unanimously yesterday the City of New York should release performance rankings of thousands of public school teachers to the public. Known as "Teacher Data Reports," the rankings grade more than 12,000 of the city’s 75,000 public school teachers based on how much progress their students make on state standardized tests. The teachers’ union opposes the ruling, arguing the reports are deeply flawed, subjective measurements that were intended to be confidential.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The court decision comes just days after the  New York Times reported that annual allegations of test tampering and grade changing by educators have more than tripled since Mayor Bloomberg took control of New York City’s school system. The revelation is the latest in a string of cheating scandals across the nation. In Atlanta, a recent government probe found that 44 schools and 178 teachers and principals had been faking standardized test scores for the past decade.

Matt Batesky, a global history teacher at Lyons Community School in Brooklyn, criticized the emphasis on school testing.

MATT BATESKY: One of the things that we do constantly now is just test prep all the time. Our curriculum is basically, "Here is our test. How can we get our students to pass it?" because it’s so high stakes that if the students don’t pass it, they don’t graduate. And if they don’t graduate, you know, that hurts the student and it also hurts our school.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In other education news, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan plans to use waivers to rewrite parts of the nation’s signature federal education law, No Child Left Behind. The controversial law’s reauthorization has been stalled in Congress.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, to discuss these developments, we’re joined now by a woman who’s long been known as an advocate of No Child Left Behind, charter schools, standardized testing, and using the free market to improve schools. But she’s had a radical change of heart in recent years. I’m talking about the influential education scholar Diane Ravitch. She was assistant secretary of education and counselor to Education Secretary Lamar Alexander under President George H.W. Bush and appointed to the National Assessment Governing Board under President Clinton. She’s the author of over 20 books, a research professor of education at New York University, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Her latest book chronicles how and why she decided to break with conservative education policies she once championed. It’s called  The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.

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