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Ex-U.S education official knocks school closings as ‘destabilizing’

Diane Ravitch nationally respected educatiexpert speaking City Club Chicago Monday October 15 2012. I John H. White~Sun-Times

Diane Ravitch, nationally respected education expert speaking at City Club of Chicago, Monday, October 15, 2012. I John H. White~Sun-Times

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Updated: October 15, 2012 6:54PM

Shuttering public schools to reopen new ones won’t fix Chicago’s schools, but it will destroy communities, education historian and New York University professor Diane Ravitch said Monday during a post-strike visit to Chicago.

And charters are no silver bullet, she told members of the City Club of Chicago at a gathering that included Gov. Pat Quinn, UNO Charter head Juan Rangel, CTU president Karen Lewis and Chicago Public Schools Board Vice President Jesse Ruiz.

“This whole approach that you can fix the schools by closing them sounds a lot like Vietnam: You can save the village by bombing it,” she said. “What’s so destabilizing is the idea you can keep closings schools and opening schools, closing schools and reopening schools.”

Chicago Public Schools must publicize its list of proposed schools to close by Dec. 1, rumored to number around 100. CPS officials have conceded that they want to “right-size” district buildings, which hold 200,000 more seats than kids. Yet local charter networks still plan to expand their number of campuses.

An assistant secretary of education under George H.W. Bush, Ravitch was once an early advocate of expanding school choice through charter schools and of testing students under No Child Left Behind. She’s since become a critic of those policies, now identifying schools’ real enemy as poverty.

“Chicago has been reforming its schools for nearly 20 years,” she said Monday, referring to the 1995 decision to hand the nation’s third largest district over to the city’s mayor. “Nothing that Chicago has done for the past 20 years has reduced racial segregation, or poverty, or youth violence. You might even say that the constant closing of school has actually intensified youth violence by destroying communities and destabilizing neighborhoods.

“At what point do you say this doesn’t work?”

Charter schools began as a novel approach to motivate failing children, she said. They’ve since moved into wealthier areas and are skimming smart students from the public schools rolls, leaving neighborhood schools to become what Ravitch fears could become “dumping grounds.”

Student standardized test scores should be like medical records, she said, used to diagnose and help, not to punish children or teachers. No other country uses test scores to rate teachers, she said.

“Tests are not the purpose of education, developing young people’s character is the purpose of education,” she said, garnering one of the morning’s few spontaneous bouts of applause in the club that typically hosts captains of industry and government ­— not iconoclasts. Lewis said at a later appearance with Ravitch at CTU headquarters that the governor was “very instrumental in bringing Diane to the City Club.”

Ravitch also questioned how CPS officials can be trying to add more charters at the same time they say they want to downsize the number of school buildings — a point more than 30 Chicago aldermen made recently in a resolution demanding a City Council hearing on school closings.

“Why is [CPS] opening charter schools if they have too much excess capacity?” Ravitch asked during her appearance with Lewis.

Despite Ravitch’s digs at his schools, UNO’s Rangel said he respects Ravitch from their shared time serving on a national Common Core board that championed a liberal arts education for children: arts, music, PE.

“All kids ought to be able to have that,” Rangel said, “but at some point you do have to evaluate the performance of a school, you do have to evaluate the performance of a teacher.”

Brand new Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett also served on the same board.

“I think she’s very smart,” Ravitch said. “My advice to her would be to stop the school closings, to use her influence to stop these destructive policies.”

Because Ravitch met Mayor Rahm Emanuel once in Washington, D.C., when he was White House Chief of Staff:

“I don’t think he understands anything about public education,” Ravitch said. “The only question he asked was, ‘What can public schools learn from Catholic Schools?”

Contributing: Rosalind Rossi

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