Diane Ravitch was the Assistance Secretary of Education under George Bush Sr.
Diane Ravitch, Historian of education, NYU and Brookings :
David Brooks wrote an intriguing column in the New York Times, which he called “The Harlem Miracle,” about the Harlem Children’s Zone charter schools. He says that these schools completely eliminated the black-white achievement gap. This startling result, he says, validates “an emerging model for low-income students,” known as “no excuses” schools, where students learn how to behave and are inculcated with middle-class values.
Students in these successful schools spend 50 percent more time in school and their students are continually tested. The suggestion here is that any city can achieve the same remarkable results by following this pattern. But parse it. On the one hand, there is the very sound idea that schools should teach traditional middle-class values, an idea that got squashed in the 1960s and 1970s during the culture wars, as it was considered “white imperialism” and middle-class hubris to impose such values on children who were not white or middle-class. So to the extent that schools can reclaim their role as institutions where children learn the behavior and attitudes that will help them succeed in life, that is great. But the example of Harlem Promise Academy may be hard for whole cities to emulate. For one thing, there is the cost involved in increasing the school day and year by 50 percent. That means increasing education spending considerably to pay teachers to work longer days and weeks. And then there are the specifics of Harlem Promise Academy. In Paul Tough’s book about the school, Whatever It Takes, he describes how Geoffrey Canada, the CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, tried everything to get the scores up for the first class of students. Nothing worked, so he called in the entire class of students and told them he was closing down their grade and they should leave and go to another school. Class dismissed. Well, that’s tough love! So, now we have the miracle school itself. The Harlem Children’s Zone raises some $36 million in private funding every year, according to a story on 60 Minutes, some portion of which helps to give the charter school first-class facilities and extra funding to reduce class sizes. The charter school has 600 students in kindergarten through eighth grades. It has 76 staff–or about one adult for every eight children–as well as “state-of-the-art science labs, a first-class gym, and a cafeteria that looks more like a restaurant.”
According to the school’s data on the 2007-8 school report card, the Harlem Promise Academy that David Brooks describes as miracle has small classes: 18 in K-6th grade, and 12 to 20 in the middle school. The school enrolls only 1% “limited-English-proficient” students. Did the school eliminate the achievement gap, as the column insists. Aaron Pallas found that the school reports its scores on other tests (not just the New York State tests), and the gap remains. To be sure, the gap is not as large for this school as for the surrounding public schools, but the surrounding public schools do not have the fabulous resources and small classes that the charter school has.
A deeper analysis would ask why our regular public schools are unable to maintain discipline, as the Harlem Promise Academy does. If we are serious about learning the lessons of the success of this school, we would do two things: One, spend much more money on schooling, as Harlem Promise Academy does, to provide much smaller classes, beautiful facilities, and social services; and Two, take a hard look at a generation of court rulings that have made it impossible for regular public schools to be orderly and disciplined environments.