Diane Ravitch’s latest call-to-arms against the privatization of public schools.


Diane Ravitch is a historian of education who was once a proponent of conservative school “reform.” Starting out in the 1970s as an ally of Al Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, Ravitch moved rightward when she joined the movement calling for national standards and test-based accountability in education. Famously, in the wake of the wreckage created by President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind policy, with its emphasis on high-stakes testing and the policy of punishing failing schools, she changed her mind. And she let people know it with a brilliant broadside, The Life and Death of the Great American School System, aimed at what she now calls “corporate education reform.” [See Featherstone, “Resisting Reforms,” August 12, 2010.] She has since used her popular blog and nationwide stump speeches to rally a fast-growing army of mutineers that includes groups like FairTest and Citizens for Public Schools as well as teachers and parents around the country.

In her new book, Reign of Error, Ravitch attacks the central narrative of corporate education reform, which goes like this: test scores prove that US schools have failed, sinking in relation to measures of aptitude in other countries. High school dropout rates are on the rise, and our economy and security are at risk. At the heart of the problem are lazy, incompetent and undemanding teachers. For this reason, unions and teacher job protection must go. Schools need evaluating so that we can close the failed ones and open charter schools in their place. For-profit charters, along with vouchers and online schools, will provide better education for children at a cheaper price. Business leaders and foundations are helping us move in the right direction, toward innovation and school reform.

Reign of Error is both a manifesto fueled by righteous indignation about this narrative and a policy wonk’s memo crammed with charts and footnotes refuting it. Much like the celebrated statistics wizard Nate Silver, Ravitch is an explainer, someone who is adept at explicating technical data without resorting to geek speak. She extends the arguments of her previous book by claiming that the American public is the victim of a “hoax” in which purported free-market solutions have worked as distractions from the truly pressing problems of poverty and segregation by race and class, which impede learning and therefore should be the actual target of education and social reform. The corporate-reform narrative tactfully avoids using language that smacks of privatization because, while accurate, it would almost certainly make the proposed reforms less popular. “Public education is in a crisis only so far as society is and only so far as this new narrative of crisis has destabilized it,” Ravitch writes. Having explained why student scores on standardized tests cannot reliably be used to measure and assess their teachers’ performance, Ravitch concludes by offering a stinging appraisal: this signature idea of corporate reformers “may even be junk science.”

Ours is an age of relentless testing, corrupted by cooked or deceitful results and widespread cheating scandals. Only one test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, has remained credible, because there are no stakes attached to it. Ravitch cites NAEP results showing that, contrary to the corporate reformers’ talking points, children’s test scores are at the highest point on record. Reading and math have improved over time (the biggest gains occurred, however, before No Child Left Behind—a showing that may reflect the shift in federal policy from equity to test scores). Nor is it true that the United States is falling behind compared with other nations, though its scores have never been very high, and policy-makers should probably worry more than Ravitch does about the stagnation of US college graduation rates. (Severe inequality pulls US scores down in international comparisons.) But the high school dropout rate is at an all-time low, and graduation rates are at an all-time high. Moreover, there is absolutely no good evidence that schools are to blame for the struggling economy. On the contrary, business leaders have succeeded in turning schools into scapegoats for their decisions to export jobs and lower labor costs. Nor is there any basis for the claim that schools will improve if teacher tenure and seniority are abandoned. Likewise, the claim that learning can be improved by a scorched-earth policy of firing principals and teachers, closing schools, and starting anew remains unproven.

Ravitch demonstrates that a key claim of the corporate reformers—that charter schools will be able to produce better results than regular district schools—is not supported by the evidence. Charters “run the gamut from excellent to awful,” she notes, but on average they’re no better than public schools with comparable populations of students. Too many charters obtain their good results by culling students who test well from the public school population, not by taking their share of special-needs and immigrant students and improving their capacity to learn. Ravitch does admire the best charters: top-notch schools that are drawing imaginative teaching talent and doing a brilliant job with kids in poor communities. She would like to see good stand-alone nonprofit charters flourish, but with ground rules that would tether them more closely to public purposes and prevent them from becoming the foundation of a dual school system even more segregated by race and class than our present one. She opposes the growing shift to large charter management chains, which raise serious questions of accountability, quality and public purpose. The well-known Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) schools do an admirable job of selecting smart and determined students, but they are basically a triage operation, not a model for inclusive public education. And despite there being some real promise in technology, Ravitch scorns for-profit virtual and online schools.

The mission of public schools should not be to make money, she insists. Required to educate all citizens, public schools embody hard-won principles of equity and inclusion that are now endangered. The free market always favors those with more money and information, generating inequality. Many who protest the corporate reformers’ fixation on tests and the current efforts to narrow curriculum and pedagogy will agree with Ravitch that public schools also have an obligation to produce a full, rounded and “liberal” education for all citizens. Good schools with such a curriculum should be, like clean air and medical care, available to all families. For all the unfairness and vagaries of local school control and the myriad ways that political arrangements in the United States act as sieves for privilege, many local schools still knit together the common life of a community or neighborhood. Reign of Error is a moving plea to renew democratic principles and justify education not as a consumer good, but as an integral part of democratic society.

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In the second half of Reign of Error, also written in a punchy, data-rich style, Ravitch offers a set of proposals for education, and they are in keeping with the social and educational vision of progressives like John Dewey. Specific policy proposals range from prenatal care for pregnant teens to smaller class sizes. Ravitch has now joined the growing ranks of scholars and educators who, while arguing that genuine school reform is crucial, decry the claims of reform utopianists that schools alone can somehow solve the problems of a radically unequal social order. The quality of teaching at public schools can be improved, she says, but such efforts should march in tandem with progressive initiatives in areas like jobs, housing, healthcare and early childhood education.

Nearly one-quarter of American children are poor. By emphasizing that poverty is the central tragic fact about the nation and its schools, Ravitch is able to explain how, with their false crises and ill-judged solutions, corporate educators have created a world of school “reform” that masks the true forces of deterioration in the public sector: constant school budget cuts and swelling class sizes; the tailoring of the curriculum to what tests easily in a multiple-choice format; and an impoverishment of educational services and vision that erodes the prospects for poor children more than anyone else. The result is a system in which, increasingly, regular district schools become dumping grounds for low-scoring children sitting in decaying buildings that resemble those of a failed state.

It is especially worrying that the federal government, a big backer of corporate reform, seems to be abandoning its role as a defender of equity and social justice. The test score gap between black and white students narrowed in the era of school desegregation, which was enforced by a vigilant federal government and the courts—but in recent decades, segregation by race and income has returned as the new normal in American education. Much of the public, and parts of the government, have shown little interest in countering the exacerbation of racial and class segregation; instead, Republican gerrymandering and the Supreme Court have chipped away at older civil rights advances. The rare, brave and successful efforts at desegregation by race and income, such as in the Wake County school district in North Carolina, are now in retreat under threats from suburban whites, right-wing politicians and cynical profiteers.

Many educators who backed President Obama were shocked when he not only backed major elements of No Child Left Behind but also doubled down on its preference for school “reform” by means of testing and privatization. His Race to the Top program is worse than its predecessor in its insistence that states evaluate teachers on the “junk science” basis of yearly gains in students’ test scores. Its requirements and goals have also triggered a whole new machinery of failure that culminates in the privatization of schools. This may be the first time in history that the federal government has encouraged private sector investors to create for-profit schools.

Ravitch offers an excellent snapshot of the interlocking directorate of the corporate-reform movement, which spans a political spectrum ranging from the Obama administration to the Koch brothers and ALEC, the right-wing legislative outfit, and includes the powerful and little-understood Gates, Walton and Broad foundations. These actors have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in a grand effort to deprofessionalize and privatize public education. The Common Core State Standards, for example, have already been adopted by forty-five states (though few have even heard of them)—rushed through, as Ravitch says, by coalitions of corporate reformers and their allies. When students across New York State did poorly on Common Core–aligned tests last year, some observers began to suspect that beneath its lofty aims, the Common Core could become yet another layer of pointless testing and another means of labeling schools and teachers as failures. The most urgent question posed by corporate education reform, Ravitch says, is “whether a small number of very wealthy entrepreneurs, corporations and individuals will be able to purchase educational policy in this nation, either by funding candidates for local and state school boards, for state legislatures, for governor and for Congress or by using foundation ‘gifts’ to advance the privatization of public education.”

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The school failures and closings sanctioned by Race to the Top cause disruptions in neighborhoods where there is already little stability in children’s lives. When a school is labeled a failing or “focus” school, it must concentrate all the more on test results, but at that point many of the academically ambitious families who can will have fled for better prospects. Federal regulations operate like quicksand: the more schools struggle, the deeper they sink. Increasingly, such schools enroll more and more of the disadvantaged in a downward spiral.

In a high-profile experiment in New York City, then–Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and Mayor Michael Bloomberg closed low-scoring schools and replaced them with charters, but the city still has many strong district schools. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has closed forty-nine allegedly “failing” schools (some of them launched not so long ago by an earlier corporate reformer—Arne Duncan, the current secretary of education—when he was in charge of the Chicago schools). Emanuel claims that the charters have a “secret sauce” for success, not knowing—or pretending not to know—that charter test scores are often the result of pushing underperforming students out. A badly informed public has little idea of the excesses of privatization now unfolding in cities like New Orleans, Cleveland and Philadelphia, or in states like Tennessee, Louisiana, North Carolina, Arizona, Michigan and Pennsylvania. In Pennsylvania, as in so many other states, the election of a radically right-wing Republican governor spells deep trouble for public education. There and in Ohio, wealthy entrepreneurs have created businesses to run charter schools that get terrible results but are never held accountable because the entrepreneurs are major campaign contributors. In Cleveland, the mayor replaced dozens of public schools with charters even though Ohio charters generally perform worse than district schools. In Philadelphia, the Boston Consulting Group—whose well-paid consultants include Margaret Spellings, secretary of education under President George W. Bush—was invited to write a report recommending privatization, even though many Philadelphia schools were privatized years ago and are doing badly.

Ravitch could have written more extensively about how reform is dumbing down the teaching profession. The attractive face of Teach for America—drawing elite college graduates into education—masks the fact that students taught by TFA graduates score no better than comparable teachers with comparable kids. But TFA does provide cheap staffing for the new charter-management chains. (Just under half of TFA instructors continue to teach past their two-year commitment, however, and they are often very good.) The Broad Foundation has been credentialing professionals with no teaching experience to work as principals and superintendents. The Obama administration has provided incentive for states competing for Race to the Top funding to promote often dubious alternative-certification programs. And now it is taking aim at education schools, armed with the same “junk science” used to shutter public schools. Who doubts that the machinery of privatization will follow? Granted, much of teacher education could be improved; teaching credentials in many places are suspect. Any defense of teacher education needs to accept that many education programs do not produce teachers or administrators with the skills necessary to create the schools needed most. By contrast, the world’s leading school systems—from test-heavy Singapore to progressive Finland—go to great lengths to support and strengthen teachers as professionals. The reformers say that teaching is the heart of the matter, and the public agrees. Yet these same reformers oppose various proposals to strengthen teacher education and cultivate good teaching in schools, or to guarantee decent working conditions in order to attract and retain talented teachers. It’s a scandal that many of the new privatized schools supposedly offering “great teachers” are staffed by low-cost, untrained instructors with no rights. Nor is it any surprise that they have considerable staff turnover.

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Ravitch can sometimes sound as if she thinks all teachers are irreproachable, but of course she knows they’re not. What to do about incompetent or abusive teachers and those public schools that operate like safe houses? Ravitch points to the excellent peer review system in places like Montgomery County, Maryland, which provides assistance to struggling teachers and fair processes by which they can be evaluated and, if necessary, dismissed. Teachers unions too often stonewall such reforms, but they have also made it possible for teachers to have careers rather than short-term jobs. Unions are more necessary than ever to defend the rights of teachers in a new world of corporate bosses—and to defend public education against the privatizers. Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey—three states with test scores that compare favorably with the best in the world—all have reasonably strong teachers unions. Apart from the “bad apple” problems, however, national education policy in the long run should aim for the complete opposite of what the corporate reformers want: promoting teacher professionalism and finding ways to attract, retain and promote talented teachers in public schools.

Those like Ravitch who defend public education need to concede—more than they have been willing to do thus far—that the US system as it stood before the current wave of corporate reform was not effective at cultivating good teaching or developing teachers skilled at reaching children in struggling communities. Good teachers always exist in numbers, but they are rarely developed by the system. The depths of racism, poverty and segregation that still exist in this country strike at families and children in ways that only highlight the inadequacy of the lazy old bromides about public education. Many classrooms are not working well for children of the poor (the phrase “failure factories” comes to mind). Changing this will require, as Ravitch insists, initiatives against poverty and segregation. We also urgently need educational resources and—if the word is still permitted—reform that involves ongoing teacher development. Similarly, to create, as Ravitch proposes, good universal preschools will require teachers, schools and professional development programs of very high quality that we do not now have in any great number.

David Kirp has recently written in his fine book Improbable Scholars of the ongoing development of principals and teaching staff in Union City, New Jersey, who have reformed an entire school system that now does remarkably well by its population of immigrants and the poor. Union City offers no “secret sauce,” but it is a good example of how the performance of school staff can improve in a district without corporate reform. Union City has no charters, no TFA teachers and no school closings—although one catalyst for change was a warning from the state that the schools were in trouble. Kirp details the way that teachers and administrators have concentrated collectively on developing mutual respect, the emotional and character-building aspects of education, the skills of the teacher, the engagement of students, parental involvement and the rigor of the curriculum. Everyone involved is working toward a truly complex—yet achievable—common goal: “To succeed, students must become thinkers, not just test-takers.” (Among its other reforms, the district offers two years of pre-K education.)

It may be easier to fight the corporate reformers than to reimagine and enact the kind of public education that really does leave no child behind—let alone to reinvent our broken political and economic systems. But Ravitch’s critique of the corporate reformers’ manufactured agenda, along with the truly progressive alternative she offers, shows us a way to begin the long haul toward improving democracy’s classrooms.

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