Stories & Grievances
Education Historian Diana Ravich Blasts Mayor Bloomberg's Reform of NYC Public Schools
Ms. Ravich adds her voice to the protests against NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg's "Children First Initiative" by accusing him of politicizing the school system, driving out veteran teachers and principals, and providing no meaningful channels for public engagement.
Ravitch: Mayor has botched school control
by Deidre McFadyen, NY Teacher, March 31, 2005
Education historian Diane Ravitch leveled a blistering attack on Mayor Michael Bloomberg's stewardship of public schools on March 10, accusing him of politicizing the school system, driving out veteran teachers and principals, and providing no meaningful channels for public engagement.
"The present system with its concentration of power and its lack of transparency is simply wrong," Ravitch told an audience of several hundred educators and students at Brooklyn College.
Ravitch - who has been named this year's winner of the John Dewey Award for Excellence in Education, the UFT's highest honor - spoke with sadness of how the reorganization has prompted an exodus of experienced teachers and principals who she said make up the "bedrock" of a school system.
"These men and women are part of a culture of dedication and service to children that is rapidly disappearing," she said. "We are now moving toward a system where preference seems to be for people coming in as short-termers."
Over the past year, Ravitch, a research professor of education at New York University whose books include "The Great School Wars: New York City, 1805-1973," has emerged as one of the most articulate critics of Bloomberg's overhaul of city schools.
As the foremost expert on the history of the New York City public schools, an assistant secretary of education under President George H. W. Bush and an appointee to the National Assessment Governing Board by President Bill Clinton, Ravitch is a formidable adversary whom the city's political establishment cannot easily dismiss.
Ravitch vigorously supported the mayor's campaign to take control of the city schools, but she quickly grew disenchanted with the secrecy of the new regime, its exclusion of the public from decision-making, and its embrace of unproven teaching methods that she argues hurt the least advantaged children the most.
In an hour-long speech at Brooklyn College, Ravitch contended that Bloomberg is running the city school system like a tightly controlled, top-down corporation, but unlike a typical corporation, she noted, the mayor does not have to answer to an outside board of directors or auditing committee.
"They've created this monolith where all wisdom resides at the top of the pyramid," she said.
Ravitch said that the central board and local boards that the mayor set up are toothless.
"Decisions are made behind closed doors with no opportunity for the public to weigh in or even to get explanations until after the decision is a fait accompli," she said.
Under the old Board of Education, all contracts over a certain amount were discussed and approved in a public session. In the new structure, she said, there is no oversight of spending decisions.
Since the mayor took control, Ravitch noted, the number of no-bid contracts has mushroomed. In 2001, the final year of the old board, there were eight no-bid contracts totaling $1.3 million; in 2003, there were 69 no-bid contracts totaling $56 million.
Every issue involving city schools has become politicized, Ravitch argued, because Bloomberg is running for re-election as the "education mayor." The chancellor, who reports directly to the mayor, has a partisan duty to make Bloomberg look good, she said.
"The public is treated to a steady diet of press releases claiming that everything is great," she said.
Meanwhile, Ravitch said, objective information about the true condition of the schools has dried up. Secrecy is the new modus operandi. She noted that reporters must file Freedom of Information Act requests to pry information about the schools that used to be available to the public as a matter of course.
"There does not appear to be a research division at the Department of Education; there is only a public relations team," she said.
A culture of intimidation and fear prevails, according to Ravitch. "People both inside and outside the school system are afraid to raise questions or acknowledge problems for fear of offending a very powerful mayor," she said.
Ravitch reserved some of her sharpest criticism for the new privately funded leadership academy that Klein has touted as a national model for training principals. She argued that the academy was inordinately expensive (at the current rate, she said, the city spends $300,000 per graduate), while producing enough graduates to fill only half the new principal vacancies at the current rate of retirement.
She was also deeply skeptical that a one-year training program led by corporate executives could turn out qualified principals. She lamented the erosion of the traditional career ladder in which an experienced teacher spends years learning the ropes first as a teacher and then as an assistant principal before climbing to the top spot.
"No one-year training program can compare to on-the-job experience," she said.
Ravitch echoed the complaints of many teachers with the workshop model and the new teaching methods - common curriculum, she said, was a misnomer - in reading and math.
"There are so many complaints of micromanagement because teachers are told how to teach, but there is no curriculum as to what is to be taught," she said.
Beyond her misgivings about the favored pedagogy, Ravitch ridiculed the notion of ordering all teachers to teach in precisely the same way.
"You can't micromanage a professional," she said. "It is the essence of professionalism that you are able to make decisions about what is needed for this child at this particular time."
Ravitch predicted that the state Legislature, sharing her concerns about the lack of checks and balances, would rewrite the school governance law in 2009, when it comes up for renewal. She argued that the school system should have an independent central board whose members are appointed by the mayor to fixed terms. That board, in turn, should appoint the chancellor and hold regular hearings on budget and major policies before they are enacted, she said.