Resisting Reforms: On Diane Ravitch
This past February, when President Obama and Secretary Duncan praised the board of trustees of a Rhode Island public school system for firing teachers and threatening to close a "failing" school, they were following the tough-guy management rulebook favored by neo-capitalist reform ideology and the Gates, Broad and Walton foundations. Instead of cruel political stunts, Ravitch offers detailed blueprints for reform. For example, each state should field inspection teams that visit every low-performing school and diagnose problems. As she wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post, an "inspection team may well find that a school was turned into a dumping ground" for underperforming students by local officials in order to enhance the performance of other schools. (Testism has made this sort of shameful and corrupt gaming of the system epidemic.) Whatever the cause, "the inspection team should create a plan to improve the school. Only in rare circumstances," Ravitch argues, should a school be closed since like churches, schools are among the few "stable institutions" in many poor communities, strands of a thin web of care and humanity that the great recession has stretched past the breaking point.
Ravitch views school choice, too, as a vast policy disappointment, and therefore bad federal policy. She notes that the urban school districts with the most school choice for the longest period—Cleveland since 1995, Milwaukee since 1990—have seen no test score improvement in either their choice schools or their regular public schools. (To my mind, however, Ravitch ignores some of the complex variety of school choice around the country, and the way that strong local school systems can in some places make choice work in an equitable fashion.)
Ravitch also opposes charter schools as a component of a large-scale national strategy for school improvement, and is therefore critical of Race to the Top, which has put much pressure on the states to lift current caps on charters, which now constitute about 3 percent of US schools. There is, Ravitch argues, no warrant in the evidence about charter-school performance for the Obama administration's tactic of pressing states to expand the number of charters, and in particular no good reason for replacing low-performing public schools with charters. Charters have been compared to regular schools on the NAEP since 2003, and have never outperformed them. The biggest and most careful studies of charter schools to date have found that most actually perform worse than comparable public schools.
Charter schools are a complex and rapidly changing little world, hard to generalize about. Like early charter supporters as Albert Shanker and Theodore Sizer, I think that states and localities with high standards for limited numbers of charters (and therefore strong charter schools) have benefited from the new energy and ideas the individual charters bring to education. (Full disclosure: I am part of a group starting an arts charter school in Massachusetts). New charters should meet goals of innovation in either curriculum (science, ecology, arts, and theatre charters, for example) or new methods of reaching poor kids or special populations (bilingual charters, schools for incarcerated kids, teen mothers, boarding schools). Some charters are seedbeds of new practices and ideas for the regular public schools. But, like Ravitch I see no good policy reason for the federal government to promote large numbers of new charters, especially since charters could siphon funding from the budgets of public schools reeling from the great recession. Ravitch thinks that many of the new charter management organizations look and sound far more like chains of anti-union businesses than schools. I agree. Whatever the successes of some individual charters, charters in general have the unintended effect of promoting racial segregation; many take fewer English-language learners and special-needs children than regular public schools.
Teacher unions are one counterforce to the tide of conservative money and influence swamping US education today, and Ravitch is right to defend them. In most other democracies, unions are a customary and accepted part of the political system. Defending classroom teachers in an era of late capitalist reform may turn out to be a vital public service at a time when, despite the Great Crash, neocapitalist values remain triumphant. Unions press for better pay in an underpaid profession; they push for better working conditions—to reduce overcrowding, for example—in a time when the recession is prompting schools to slash budgets and deprofessionalize teaching. "Individual teachers could do nothing to change these conditions," Ravitch writes, "but acting collectively they could negotiate with political leaders to improve schools." True, unions in some cities have been rigid and self-serving, and consequently self-defeating, but this is slowly changing. The unions are certainly right to oppose the Obama administration's push to tie teacher evaluations to the high-stakes test scores of their students, which is likely to worsen the existing culture of testism. Evaluating teachers on the basis of standardized tests overlooks factors outside the classroom that may influence scores; it will surely reinforce the reform pathologies now plaguing the schools. If the new anti-union reformers want standardized test results, they should take note of Massachusetts, which has both teacher unions and good test scores.
The parallel between health care and education keeps coming to mind: both systems are being strained by growing economic inequalities and the insistence of corporate players and their ideological allies on market solutions in a domain where the market has proven to be harmful. Most developed societies agree that the market is not the best way to deliver public services in areas like schooling or health. In the free market the rich and more knowledgeable tend to get richer and the poor get poorer. Just as everybody needs a doctor or fresh water, there should be a decent school near every family, not because of income but as a matter of right and democratic, civilized values. Our society must begin to strike a different and more equitable balance between public and private realms. In health care we have seen how difficult it has been to nudge the system toward the more universal one we need, in which every person has a right to care. In education, we already have the outlines of a universal system, however flawed; this democratic legacy is too important to entrust to the market.
Ravitch and Rose understand that genuine school reform is badly needed. Yet without parallel steps in social policy to lessen inequality, educational reform will strain at very sharp limits. Their books make one skeptical about any single magic solution to the question of school improvement. Both remind me of Theodore Sizer, who was one of the few well-known American reformers in recent decades to insist, first and foremost, on the centrality of good teaching and the importance of the conditions under which teachers work. Sizer puzzled endlessly over the curious American habit of mounting wildly ambitious crusades for school reform that exclude the teachers actually in the classrooms. Ravitch and Rose would agree with Sizer that there can be no short cuts around the challenge of recruiting and educating good teachers and retaining them by providing respect, decent working conditions and real ongoing support for their growth as they season in the profession. (Strangely, Ravitch and Rose omit any discussion of teacher education, which, like the public schools, needs to be saved and reformed.)
Like Sizer, Ravitch and Rose are radicals in their dissent from reforms that drive out the substance of learning, and in their commitment to good schools for the poor and the working class. They are also in some profound way conservatives, standing against the developers busy draining the wetlands of teaching and childhood. They prefer steady improvement over the long haul to the politicized faddism that during the past thirty years has made US schooling a burned over district, littered with the scorched remains of reforms. Ravitch and Rose both prize the deep Emersonian roots of the American educational tradition—the respect for the unique voice and needs and talents of every child and the preference for a broad democratic curriculum that develops the thoughtful citizen as well as the wage-earner. Like Sizer, they dream of schools where every child knows and is known by a significant adult, and learns to use her mind well. And both warn that a race to the top with big winners and big losers has plagued may aspects of American life for too long—and that it has never proven to be the right metaphor to draw out either a child's wonder or the promise of democracy.