Resisting Reforms: On Diane Ravitch

Resisting Reforms: On Diane Ravitch

In The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch has found a new métier as a critic of neo-capitalist school reform.


Mike Rose’s Why School? is a compact and potent collection of essays about the state of primary and secondary education reform in the United States. It is also a distillation of the key arguments Rose has made during his forty-year career as a teacher and an advocate for students. "For some time now," Rose writes, "our national discussion of education has been dominated by a language of test scores and economic competitiveness. To be sure, a major goal of American education is to prepare the young to make a living. But parents send their kids to school for many other reasons as well: intellectual, social, civic, ethical, aesthetic." Rose has written a primer on the language used to frame educational debates and a warning about the dire consequences of crassly utilitarian values. Purposes is one word he examines. Other words that get scrutinized are intelligence and opportunity, achievement and public responsibility. So does value, the root of the much-abused word evaluation. Each can be framed narrowly or more expansively, which is to say democratically.

Why school? One of Rose’s answers to the question takes the form of a story about Stephanie Terry’s first-grade classroom in Baltimore. Terry has designed a science unit that enables her students to study live hermit crabs with care and passion; they are budding Darwins, thinking and reporting on what they see, forming hypotheses. Rose writes: "you see, you feel something: it’s the experience of democracy itself. The free play of inquiry. The affirmation of human ability. The young person guided to the magnifying lens, the map, the notepad, the book." Against one-size-fits-all formulas, Rose proposes a democratic vision of schooling that rests on plural definitions of intelligence and achievement, and allows for human variety and many different kinds of opportunities for students to develop. Rose demands, among other things, that we respect and reinforce our public education system by giving poor kids the same opportunities—the good teachers, the same curriculum—enjoyed by those more well-off.

Diane Ravitch does not disagree with Rose, which is one of the many surprises in her masterly new book The Death and Life of the Great American School System. Ravitch is a well-known conservative who has played a prominent role in US education since the 1970s. Though she has long backed teacher unions (as a young girl in Houston, she saw right-wing groups harass her teachers), she is more renowned as a flinty critic of multiculturalism and an advocate for a national curriculum, school choice and standardized tests, a vision she defended as Assistant Secretary of Education in the administration of George H.W. Bush. Like her mentor, the great educational historian Lawrence Cremin, Ravitch is also an cultural historian. Her first book, The Great School Wars (1974), remains one of the best political histories of New York City schools. The Death and Life of the Great American School System suggests that like E.D. Hirsch, the conservative reformer whose Core Knowledge Program have put into practice a thoughtful and well-designed version of a traditional curriculum, Ravitch turns out to be a conservative with more faith in democracy than in late capitalism. (The book also demonstrates that she possesses one sovereign quality of an educated mind: revising ideas in response to changing evidence.) For Ravitch the goal of education is inclusive, one that Lincoln might have called democracy’s unfinished work: all students should graduate with a capacity to engage in important civic and intellectual debates.

Toward the end of Ravitch’s Left Back (2000), a historical appraisal of progressive school reform, there is a conclusion that takes a surprising turn. Ravitch praises a small group of reformers she thinks of as intellectual progressives, among them Theodore Sizer and Deborah Meier, who, she warmly concedes, do have humane and intellectually rigorous goals for the kinds of participatory classrooms they favor, and have even put them into practice. "My own children grew up in New York City, where they attended a private progressive school that was academically rigorous and pedagogically venturesome," Ravitch writes. She speaks of teachers who "dreamed up projects that fired their students’ minds and imaginations. If I could wave a magic wand, this is what I would want for all children." Though she doubts that most conventional public schools are capable of offering such instruction, her conclusion hinted she was in the midst of changing her mind about other aspects of education reform. Indeed, Ravitch now writes a blog called "Bridging Differences," for Education Week, with none other than Deborah Meier. Their exchanges amount to one of the most interesting, well-informed and least solemn of the bewildering myriads of commentaries on US education today. Most striking is the extent to which the progressive and the conservative agree.

With The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Ravitch has found her new métier as the great critic of neo-capitalist school reform in our second Gilded Age. The title of her book is a well-earned homage to Jane Jacobs, the critic who celebrated the creative capacities of cities and went toe to toe with urban planners like Robert Moses. Writing with Thorstein Veblen’s talent for pitiless social portraiture, Ravitch skewers the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation for channeling unprecedented sums of money to state and federal governments in support of policies based on a business model of schooling. She attacks the whole array of reforms tied to the model: privatization, merit pay, choice, charter schools. She mocks "The Billionaire Boys’ Club" of conservative philanthropists promoting charter schools and right-wing ideology. She upbraids the neo-capitalist reformers who have dominated national and most state educational policy in both political parties since the Clinton administration. And she singles out President George W. Bush’s signature initiative, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), enacted in 2002, as an example of business-inspired reform hostile to the progressive and democratic traditions of US education. NCLB, she writes,

assumed that reporting test scores to the public would be an effective lever for school reform. It assumed that changes in governance would lead to school improvement. It assumed that shaming schools that were unable to lift test scores every year—and the people who work in them—would lead to higher scores. It assumed that low scores were caused by lazy teachers and lazy principals, who need to be threatened with the loss of their jobs. Perhaps most naively, it assumed that higher test scores on standardized tests of basic skills are synonymous with good education. Its assumptions were wrong. Testing is not a substitute for curriculum and instruction. Good education cannot be achieved by a strategy of testing children, shaming educators, and closing schools.

Ravitch offers a stinging account of the unintended consequences and collateral damage produced by high-stakes standardized tests of basic skills in math and reading, as well as by many of the more general state tests. The social-minded will note, accurately, that the Bush administration’s focus on test scores kept alive through a nasty conservative time the pressing question of the quality of US schools for the poor. But test experts and professional organizations have for some time warned (to little effect) that the practice of "testism" endorsed by NCLB—using any single test to make any consequential decisions about a child, a teacher, a classroom, or a school—is actually a form of educational malpractice. No tests were designed for such purposes; evaluations of a student’s or school’s progress, or need for remediation, require evidence in multiple forms. Ravitch opposes testism, not testing itself. Like many in education, she favors an intelligent use of assessment to help children and teachers improve at the decisive local school and classroom level. She is a strong supporter of the useful and informative federal National Assessment of Educational Progress test (NAEP), which samples students in fourth, eighth and twelfth grades in math, reading and writing, and which does not provide scores for individual students and schools, though it can offer results for some selected large urban school districts. NAEP is reliable because its sampling design resists the workings of Campbell’s Law, "The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor."

Testing should be a means to better education, not the goal. The tests are volatile; slight changes can shift scores a lot. Test prep, for example, can make a great difference. Since the tests rely on a very few items, one or two words remembered or coached from a past test can shift the results greatly. One or two kids taking a test can change a school’s fate. (Pushing out low-performing kid can improve a school’s scores.) These tests have nothing like the solidity of your grandmother’s spelling tests. They have become, as Ravitch says, a costly distraction from true educational substance: they are teaching kids that the point of school is test-taking, not serious academic achievement, that it is a worthy endeavor to guess shrewdly and pick well from among four canned and context-free answers. No wonder the best teachers are stricken with reform fatigue, fed up with NCLB and dreaming of leaving the profession.

When high stakes are attached to standardized tests of basic skills in math and reading, the incentives for schools to narrow the curriculum are irresistible. Thanks to testism, in math and reading more complex and ambitious understandings and practices are being undermined. In reading, for example, comprehension, making use of ideas and grappling with books and writing for genuine purposes are sacrificed to drills in skills. Kids are less likely to love books, use them well and become life-long readers, crucial goals of any decent literacy program. Across the curriculum, areas of knowledge not subject to a high-stakes test are scaled back or eliminated. Testism is decimating sound educational practices in preschools and classrooms for younger children, who now lack time for imaginative play and the kind of free choices that are the developmental dress rehearsal for human culture outside school. Testism has also accentuated the rigidity of schools, especially at the elementary level; the efforts of central offices and principals to script both novice and veteran classroom teachers have impeded efforts to serve families and children flexibly and with individual attention. Immigrants and the poor are not benefiting from the sort of acceptance that schools often provided newcomers during previous hard times and periods of mass migration. The narrowing of aims and content is always serious for the disadvantaged kids in vulnerable schools whom federal policy is supposed to help most.

Even by the flickering lights of testism, NCLB is a flop. NCLB has not produced large gains in reading or math tests. Recent national tests show that US eighth graders have actually made no improvement in reading since 1998. Ravitch tells the story of New York City, where neo-capitalist reformers have touted test scores to legitimize their reforms, and now would like to use them to close public schools and grow charters. NAEP scores in New York City, however, remained mostly unchanged in 2003–07. The results are equally unimpressive across the entire United States, and even in Chicago, where mayoral control and Arne Duncan (previously the superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools and now President Obama’s Secretary of Education) were once thought to have performed miracles. By mandating a weirdly utopian, even Biblical, end-time of "100 percent proficiency by 2014," NCLB has encouraged states to lower their standards and make false claims of progress. Worse, it has vilified schools that cannot meet its unrealistic expectations. These "failing" schools are now targeted for closing and privatization by the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program.

With the Obama initiatives very much in mind, Ravitch argues that the term "failing schools" should no longer be used to describe schools with low test scores. Historians of the future will shake their heads in sorrow at the way a generation of politicians and reformers had the nerve—or blindness—to evaluate and punish resource-starved schools and teachers that serve poor communities according to the exact same measures used to assess lavishly appointed schools in wealthy communities. No business-minded school reformer, they will sadly note, ever admitted out loud what, as Leonard Cohen would put it, "everybody knows": the test scores closely mirror US socioeconomic status. If a school scores low, Ravitch writes, it is often because many of its students may speak or read English very poorly, if at all; they miss school frequently because they baby-sit siblings while parents look for work or have disabilities that interfere with learning. To note these extracurricular circumstances, she says, is not to excuse low scores or to dodge school reform but to stress that a school’s "failure" is also linked to inequalities outside the school’s walls.

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.

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