Monday, May 21, 2012

Public Schools: National Security Threat?

In a nutshell: A new report on US Education Reform and National Security offers familiar criticisms that reflect not only the biases but also the political and commercial interests of the task force members.

The new report, by Joel I. Klein, Condoleezza Rice, and other members of a task force of the Council on Foreign Relations, is reviewed by Diane Ravitch in The New York Review of Books. The review is well worth reading in full, but I offer a summary with some key excerpts below.

Apparently, this new study is not an example of scintillating prose or a source of sparkling new insights. Ravitch writes:
Despite its alarmist rhetoric, the report is not a worthy successor to the long line of jeremiads that it joins. Unlike A Nation at Risk, which was widely quoted as a call to action, this report is a plodding exercise in groupthink among mostly like-minded task force members. Its leaden prose contains not a single sparkling phrase for the editorial writers. The only flashes of original thinking appear in the dissents to the report.
 Ultimately, it seems, the new study is a plea for privatization of public schools. Ravitch writes:
What marks this report as different from its predecessors, however, is its profound indifference to the role of public education in a democratic society, and its certainty that private organizations will succeed where the public schools have failed. Previous hand-wringing reports sought to improve public schooling; this one suggests that public schools themselves are the problem, and the sooner they are handed over to private operators, the sooner we will see widespread innovation and improved academic achievement. 
What's more, though the study recognizes the effects of poverty on achievement, its authors would rather privatize schools that attack poverty. Ravitch writes:
While the task force points out the problems of concentrated poverty in segregated schools, exacerbated by unequal school funding, it offers no recommendations to reduce poverty, racial segregation, income gaps, or funding inequities.
How does all of this add up to a national security threat? Apparently, the public schools are failing to prepare students for careers as soldiers, intelligence agents, diplomats, and engineers for the defense industry. "This failure," Ravitch writes, "is the primary rationale for viewing the schools as a national security risk."

The authors offer three recommendations for righting the ship of primary and secondary education:
  1. National standards (the "Common Core State Standards")
  2. Privatization through vouchers, charters, etc
  3. A "national security readiness audit" designed to push schools to serve the military industrial complex
As Ravitch explains, the Common Core State Standards, though adopted by 45 states to date, have never been implemented anywhere and there is no evidence as to their effectiveness. "Until they are implemented somewhere," Ravitch writes, "their value cannot simply be assumed. It must be demonstrated. Thus, the task force goes out on a limb by claiming that these untried standards are the very linchpin of defending our nation’s borders and securing our future prosperity."

The report also calls for expanded foreign language instruction in high schools. While this may be a laudable goal, as Ravitch writes, "it is wrong to blame the nation’s public schools for a shortage of specialists in Chinese, Dari, Korean, Russian, and Turkish" to support the nation's future national security needs. For one thing, Ravitch notes, these languages are generally taught in college, not elementary or high school. In addition, how can anyone determine which foreign language will be most critical to the US national security agenda in five to ten years, when today's grade school students will be entering college or careers? And finally, as Ravitch writes, "the effort to expand foreign language instruction in K-12 schools requires not just standards, but a very large new supply of teachers of foreign languages to staff the nation’s 100,000 or so public schools. This won’t happen without substantial new funding for scholarships to train tens of thousands of new teachers."

Ravitch also argues persuasively that there is little or no evidence to support the recommendation for increased competition and choice through wider implementation of vouchers and charter schools. And she notes the disturbing fact that Richard Barth, the chief executive officer of the KIPP charter school chain, was a member of the task force that authored the report. As for the third recommendation, Ravitch writes, "The task force’s proposal for 'a national security readiness audit' is bizarre. It is not clear what it means, who would conduct it, or who would pay for it."

Ravitch goes on to explore three issues not addressed by the report: (1) the negative effects of the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind program and the Obama administration's Race to the Top program, both of which rely on standardized testing to evaluate teachers and schools; (2) the report's "misleading economic analysis"; and (3) the report's "failure to offer any recommendation to improve the teaching profession."

Ravitch then goes on to summarize two dissenting opinions that gut the report's findings on privatization and national security. Finally, she concludes:
Commissions that gather notable figures tend not to be venturesome or innovative, and this one is no different. When a carefully culled list of corporate leaders, former government officials, academics, and prominent figures who have a vested interest in the topic join to reach a consensus, they tend to reflect the status quo. If future historians want to see a definition of the status quo in American education in 2012, they may revisit this report by a task force of the Council on Foreign Relations. It offers no new directions, no new ideas, just a stale endorsement of the federal, state, and corporate policies of the past decade that have proven so counterproductive to the genuine improvement of American education.
I urge you to read the complete review by Diane Ravitch in The New York Review of Books. You may also want to check out this review by Valerie Strauss in her Answer Sheet blog in The Washington Post. I'm looking forward to reading other responses to the report (not sure I actually want to read the whole report myself). You will probably see other posts here on Pedagogishness on the issues raised by this latest high-profile attack on public education.


  1. Ravitch commits one of the most serious errors in trying to solve a wicked problem. She shoots the messengers and uses a quasi-scientific RedHerring that standards are implemented yet and no one knows what they will deliver. She is an educationist - as I am - but our approaches differ. Kids deserve a great education no matter where they can get it - public or private - our job is make the public one the best that it can be and she offers only lament, not help.

  2. Thanks for your comments. Ravitch helps by raising awareness about the political and ideological motives behind the push for privatization, vouchers, charters, standardized tests, accountability for teachers, principals, and schools, etc. The average American, not a professional educator, needs her debunking of the reformist claims. Her analysis and her close watching and careful scrutiny helps.