Recently I found myself at a meeting where the discussion starter was the first half hour of a wonderful video that was made here in Ohio about twenty years ago: Children in America’s Schools with Bill Moyers. The DeRolph school funding lawsuit was at the time making its way through Ohio’s court system, and the film portrayed the outrageous disparities in Ohio’s school facilities—that ranged from deplorable buildings covered in coal dust in Appalachian small towns to leaky buildings in the inner cities of Columbus and Cleveland to the gorgeous new school campus out in Perry, where a nuclear power plant had just come on-line to explode the value of the tax base. Watching this old film was an emotional experience for me because I know many of the dedicated educators who appeared including some who are now gone.
But the other thing about the film that affected me is the irony. The DeRolph lawsuit made its way through our courts, and the Ohio Supreme Court found our school funding unconstitutional four times; but the last time, the elected court had now become dominated by a different political party, and the court released jurisdiction in the case. Our legislature was never made to reform our funding system. The film and the DeRolph litigators did accomplish one goal, however. Money was invested in school facilities. That one inequity has now been addressed in Ohio.
In one of the film’s memorable scenes, a stalwart music teacher leads a school orchestra rehearsal—string instruments and classical music, I think—in a rural high school where the music room is directly under the gymnasium and where the basketball team is practicing at the same time. The cameraman stood somehow on the stairway and let the camera catch both activities happening simultaneously. As we hear the music, we watch the ceiling of the band room shake and feel the blows as the athletes’ feet hit the floor and the basketball bounces. Today here in Ohio the facilities would be better, but the school would likely not have a music program. Cuts in state funding in recent years would likely have left the district without elementary school instrumental music, which means that even if the high school tried to have a complete band or orchestra, not enough children would have learned to play the instruments needed to make up a full ensemble. And the pressure to raise test scores in the required language arts and math would likely have reduced the time for music and art.
I thought about the film—which was made years prior to the (2002) No Child Left Behind Act and the (2009) Race to the Top—as I read Diane Ravitch’s profound blog post yesterday, My New Paradigm for Accountability. Ravitch says she wrote the post after watching the band play at Southold Elementary School on Long Island.
About America’s school accountability laws—that all came in the decade between 2000 and 2010—Ravitch writes, “We did not leave no child behind. The same children who were left behind in 2001-2002 are still left behind. Similarly, Race to the Top is a flop…. RTTT has hurt children, demoralized teachers, closed community schools, fragmented communities, increased privatization, and doubled down on testing.”
Her new plan, she writes, would be called No Child Left Out. It would hold schools accountable for expanding opportunity instead of raising test scores. In fact Ravitch would simply eliminate standardized testing. But to please our society that worships counting and measuring, she would continue to count—how many children learn to play an instrument, become part of the band, sing in an ensemble, perform in a play, make a video, do a science experiment, design a robot, write a story, investigate a subject and write a research report. Her list goes on, and she writes, “Setting expectations in the arts, in literature, in science, in history, and in civics can change the nature of schooling. It would require far more work and self-discipline than test prep for a test that is soon forgotten.”
I am certain that Ravitch’s blog post will be dismissed by the advocates of metrics-driven, test-based accountability, but I agree with her that the “paradigm would dramatically change schools from Gradgrind academies to halls of joy and inspiration.”
Her plan is radical in another way. If states were to be held accountable by the federal government for actually creating schools that brought opportunity for all, state governments would have to figure out a way to invest more in enriching educational experiences for children in poverty—the children who attended school in Appalachian coal bins and urban schools with leaking roofs back when Bill Moyers made the film Children in America’s Schools. Restoring the arts and music and libraries filled with enticing books, expanding and deepening academic course offerings, and hiring enough teachers to ensure that all children have a personal connection to an adult would be a lot more expensive than merely making school buildings safe and dry.
School opportunity in the poorest communities would no longer be conceptualized as getting savvy parents to fight their way into a charter school lottery. The responsibility would be on voters and the politicians they elect to spend some money on programs to enlarge opportunity for all of the children who desperately need a chance. I always like to quote the Rev. Jesse Jackson on this particular topic, because I believe he is very clear about what we ought to be striving for: “There are those who would make the case for a race to the top for those who can run, but ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.” “Lift from the bottom” is what Diane Ravitch is advocating in her very profound little blog post. We would all have to be responsible for doing the lifting.