If Philadelphia is looking to New York City as the exemplar of "best practices" for improving schools by organizing them into support networks, it is looking in the wrong place, according to historian and education analyst Diane Ravitch.
"New York City has not had any great success," said Ravitch, in town Wednesday for the conference of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. "New York used to boast of dramatic test score gains, but they disappeared in 2010."
In that year, the state's Department of Education acknowledged that the cut scores had been dropping on the standardized tests. "All the gains disappeared," she said.
In addition, New York has repeatedly changed how the networks work to support schools.
"They’ve gone through four reorganizations," she said, adding that it's not clear which model the School Reform Commission hopes to emulate. "New York has changed so much I don’t know what version Philadelphia is talking about."
She also pointed out that during this period New York City doubled its spending on education – something that clearly isn't happening in Philadelphia. What improvements there may have been therefore cannot be isolated as the result of the networks as opposed to more resources, she said.
Beyond that, Ravitch said, there is scant evidence in general that school privatization is successful.
Ravitch, who served in the U.S. Department of Education under both President George H.W. Bush and President Bill Clinton, was a big booster of No Child Left Behind and standardized testing and a proponent of market-based reforms including charter schools.
But she did an about-face several years ago when she determined that high-stakes testing has led to gaming the system and a narrowing of education to test prep. She now says that charters and privatization only lead to more social and educational stratification and allow those she termed "right wingers" to avoid paying for strategies and programs that address poverty.
Plus, she said, education should not be privatized; she calls it an "abdication of public responsibility."
Philadelphia's leaders have taken pains to say that they are about creating a system of public schools, District-run and charter, designed to better serve all children and give parents choices. Ravitch said that doesn't work because charters serve a sorting function and often improve scores by shedding the most troublesome students.
Some Philadelphia charter schools – former District schools given to charters for "turnaround" – are required to serve the neighborhood.
Ravitch, who lives in New York and has written extensively about its schools, reviewed Philadelphia's sweeping reorganization plan that calls for the creation of "achievement networks" and continued growth in charter schools – all in the atmosphere of bare-bones resources and relentless budget cuts.
She was not impressed, saying that it largely follows a blueprint of school privatization that she said has little evidence behind it.
"I didn’t see anything that would cause learning to improve, just a lot of rhetoric that schools would achieve more than they used to because we say so," she said. "If you really want to improve schools, you have to do something about teaching and learning. This is just shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic."
More to come from our interview.