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Ravitch: school firings “mean and punitive”

Speaking to the US Chamber of Commerce on Monday, President Obama praised the Rhode Island school board that dismissed the entire Central Falls High School faculty and staff (93 in total).

This came as he was outlining his proposal to offer $900 million in federal grants to states and school districts that take drastic steps to address under-performing schools. According the New York Times, to qualify for the grants, schools must agree to take one of three steps: "firing the principal and at least half the staff of a troubled school; reopening it as a charter school; or closing the school altogether and transferring students to better schools in the district." 

In the Huffington Post, education historian Diane Ravitch countered Obama's strategy, calling the approach of closing schools and firing teachers "mean and punitive". Ravitch notes that a policy that focuses on low graduation rates ignores the fact that some schools have responded by lowering graduation standards. She asks:

Will it be replaced by a better school? Who knows? Will excellent teachers flock to Central Falls to replaced their fired colleagues? Or will it be staffed by inexperienced young college graduates who commit to stay at the school for two years? Will non-English-speaking students start speaking English because the teachers were fired? Will children come to school ready to learn because the teachers were fired?

I think Ravitch makes sense. Simply setting goals for schools and then punishing the ones who don't make the grade may make the government look pro-active and tough, but it really is an abdication for providing true leadership. And as it happens, the federal government's role in this should be supportive rather than dictating; the academic institution, the community, the local government and others should have a more direct stake. 

There is also an interesting profile of Ravitch in today's New York Times. Ravitch was once a vocal proponent of standardized testing, charter schools and market-based approaches, but she "underwent an intellectual crisis" and now believes that these strategies undermined an all-rounded approach to education. As she told a recent gathering:

Nations like Finland and Japan seek out the best college graduates for teaching positions, prepare them well, pay them well and treat them with respect. They make sure that all their students study the arts, history, literature, geography, civics, foreign languages, the sciences and other subjects. They do this because this is the way to ensure good education. We are on the wrong track.        

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