The Death and Life of the Great American School System
How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education
Basic Books: 284 pp., $26.95
Diane Ravitch, probably this nation’s most respected historian of education and long one of our most thoughtful educational conservatives, has changed her mind -- and changed it big time. Ravitch’s critical guns are still firing, but now they’re aimed at the forces of testing, accountability and educational markets, forces for which she was once a leading proponent and strategist. As President Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, embrace charter schools and testing, picking up just where, in her opinion, the George W. Bush administration left off, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” may yet inspire a lot of high-level rethinking. The book, titled to echo Jane Jacobs’ 1961 demolition of grandiose urban planning schemes, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” has similarly dark warnings and equally grand ambitions.
Ravitch -- the author of “Left Back” and other critiques of liberal school reforms, an assistant secretary of education in the first Bush administration and a committed advocate of rigorous national academic standards -- here tells the story of what she calls the “wrenching transformation in my perspective on school reform.” The educational ideas she had long been enthusiastic about -- testing, accountability, choice and markets -- have been “hijacked,” she writes, by the privatizers, particularly the charter school movement. With their strong backing from government and deep-pocketed foundations, she argues, charters are gradually sucking the best students and most committed parents both from the public system and the good parochial schools (which, in their dependency on tuition, can’t compete with tax-supported charters) and killing both. Ravitch became increasingly concerned “that accountability, now a shibboleth that everyone applauds, had become mechanistic and even antithetical to good education.” Like the liberals she once criticized, “in this case, I too had fallen for the latest panaceas and miracle cures.”
Many of those miracle cures have been written into both the state and federal school reform laws of the last generation, and most notably into George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind policy, which required schools receiving a large share of federal funds to be staffed by “highly qualified” teachers by 2006 and to bring all students -- including those with learning disabilities and English learners -- to “proficiency” in reading and math by 2014. As many pointed out, both were impossible goals and, since each state could set its own standards and definition of proficiency, the policy invited states both to cheat and to dumb down standards to avoid the loss of funds. When No Child Left Behind was first proposed, Ravitch writes, she was “excited and optimistic.” But after five years, she concluded it was a “failure” because it “ignored the importance of knowledge. It promoted a cramped, mechanistic profoundly anti-intellectual definition of education.” Although Obama intends to revise the law (and change the name), he plans to keep the tilt to charters, testing and the threat to close failing schools.
Ravitch is equally worried about the power of big foundations -- backed by the likes of Bill and Melinda Gates, the Walton family, Eli and Edythe Broad -- whose multimillion-dollar grants to school districts and charter school associations deeply influence policy, sometimes on the basis of little more than the whims of their funders and directors. A few years ago, after spending some $2 billion on a program to break up large high schools into smaller ones and establish new schools able to give students more personalized attention, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation realized that small high schools couldn’t provide all the opportunities and resources of larger ones and abandoned it. “With so much money and power aligned against the neighborhood public school and against education as a profession,” Ravitch writes of deep-pocketed school reformers, “public education itself is placed at risk.”
Skeptics, most on the pedagogic left, have been complaining for years about the obsession with bubble tests and the neglect of liberal arts disciplines that can’t be reduced to simple test scores. What is new is that Ravitch is saying these things, and saying them in terms as tough and with a bill of particulars as persuasive as in her dissections of progressive education.
She excoriates the statistical misreading that led to the illusory achievement gains in New York City’s once-celebrated District 2 and slams what she describes as former San Diego Superintendent Alan Bersin’s morale-destroying coercion of teachers and principals to follow liberal departures from direct instruction. Her argument -- that teachers can’t successfully educate if they’re “not treated as professionals who think for themselves” -- is reinforced by the model of Ruby Ratliff, one of her high school English teachers a half-century ago in Houston, who, in being tough, “did nothing for our self-esteem” but would have never been able to inspire her students’ love of great literature if she’d been constantly forced to teach to a test. What Ravitch doesn’t acknowledge is that for every Mrs. Ratliff there were (and probably are) two or three stultifying drones who cared little for great books (or math or science) and killed curiosity as readily as the test-bound.
Ravitch has obviously learned not only from the shortcomings of testing and accountability but also from the union members and liberals who have been saying some of the same things for years. Still, she remains fiercely committed to high standards, including the teaching of good behavior, but particularly to the Western cultural canon, the common vocabulary essential to all good education and the capable, dedicated teachers who can impart it. But beware of panaceas and magic bullets. They’re as likely to kill as to cure.
Schrag, a columnist and former editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee, is the author, most recently, of " California: America’s High Stakes Experiment.”