A Reformer’s Change of Heart

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By William J. Rees

(A review of The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education by Diane Ravitch, published in 2010 by Basic Books. This review appeared in Science, May 28, 2010 and is available on-line, subscription required.)

Over the past generation, few institutions in American society have received closer scrutiny and more condemnation from politicians and reformers of every stripe than the public schools. While most institutions-banks, insurance companies, and corporations come to mind-seem far removed from public control, schools attract special attention because of their expansive social reach and ostensible capacity for reform. Reformers on the left expect schools to level the playing field for the poor and disadvantaged; those on the right complain about taxes and pupils’ low performance on standardized tests. Legally established by the states but controlled by over 13,000 independent districts, public schools number in the tens of thousands and enroll around 50 million pupils. Their abundance generates a surfeit of anecdotes about their nature and statistics on achievement for the reading, blogging, and viewing public. Much of the news is critical and unkind to pupils and teachers, who seem unable to address America’s many deep-seated problems, from racial segregation to the anemic state of academic achievement.

Since their origins in the pre-Civil War North, politicians and educators have viewed public schools as a panacea for the ills of society. The greatest early advocate of tax-supported schools, Horace Mann of Massachusetts, claimed in 1848 that the schools were the “great equalizer of the conditions of men-the balance wheel of the social machinery.” Expected to assimilate immigrants and teach Christian morality and basic subjects, the schools have long been a basic part of American society, still enrolling around 90% of all eligible youth from kindergarten through high school. But, as Diane Ravitch explains in her feisty analysis of contemporary market-based educational reforms, the schools that long stood the test of time are at a crossroads. Greater privatization of the system seems imminent.

A prominent historian, policy-maker, and public intellectual, Ravitch long aligned herself with conservative school critics but has had a change of heart. The Death and Life of the Great American School System is part memoir, explaining her shifting position on market solutions to educational problems, and part jeremiad, warning readers about the ill effects of “No Child Left Behind” (2002), landmark federal legislation endorsed by Kennedy liberals and George W. Bush Republicans alike. With the appointment of Arne Duncan as the Secretary of Education, the Obama Administration has swallowed whole the prevailing ideology about the salutary influence of markets and choice, originally concocted by libertarians, neoconservatives, and Republicans.

Ravitch’s engaging book documents her own political odyssey. A lifelong Democrat, she joined the administration of George H. W. Bush in an important post in the Department of Education and affiliated with activists enamored with various forms of “school choice.” The collapse of communism and end to the Cold War made market ideals alluring across the political spectrum. By the 1990s, she notes, Bill Clinton’s Democratic Leadership Council embraced more market-based reforms, especially charter schools (privately managed “public” schools funded with taxpayer dollars), to address woefully under-performing public schools, particularly in the cities. In theory, deregulation would work wonders, lifting test scores like a bull market. Reflecting the notion that standardized tests and quantitative assessments best judged a school’s worth, No Child Left Behind required (under the threat of severe sanctions) that every pupil attain “proficiency” in mathematics and reading by 2014, an impossible goal. But the logic of deregulation by creating more charters seemed irresistible: if schools were free from local bureaucratic rules and forced to compete like McDonald’s, scores would rise. Nothing of the sort happened. The law allowed each state to create its own definition of “proficiency,” creating laughable claims about rising scores not substantiated by the exam results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

A funny thing happened on the way to the revolution. Despite the recent expansion of charter schools, test results did not generally improve-either there or in the regular public schools, which increasingly enrolled more disadvantaged pupils, special education students, and the troublesome and inattentive, all unlikely to lift scores. “No Child” only required testing in mathematics and English, so art, music, history, social studies, and science classes were cut in many school systems. Teachers taught a narrower range of topics even within the tested subjects, undermining learning. Without any evident improvement in test scores, the curriculum narrowed and teaching to the test on the truncated basics became more prevalent.

Through case studies on the fate of market-oriented school reforms in several cities, Ravitch documents the arrogance and naïveté of the new wave of school managers. Largely drawn from the corporate sector, the legal profession, and so forth, these believed they, like corporate CEOs, needed arbitrary power and authority to crack down on teachers, principals, and students. Often flush with huge donations from mega-donors, including the Gates and Walton foundations (themselves accountable to no one), these managers often knew little about teaching or the curriculum but generally blamed teachers’ unions for any failures in the schools. They insulted and intimidated teachers and often closed functioning if imperfect neighborhood schools, weakening community ties without doing much to lift school achievement.

The Death and Life of the Great American School System is a sobering narrative by a former advocate of choice and market-inspired educational reforms who had the courage to change her mind. That deregulation of the economy produced the “great recession” and led to massive government bailouts has shaken some citizens’ faith in unfettered markets. Unless the current administration changes its educational course, however, America’s often-mindless fixation on raising test scores seems likely to continue into the foreseeable future.

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