Critics of Diane Ravitch like to say that the education historian talks a lot about what is wrong with the modern school reform movement but doesn’t offer solutions about how to fix anything. Historians, of course, by definition spend their time looking to the past, not making policy pronouncements about what should be. That said, Ravitch, the leading voice in the country speaking out against standardized-test based school reform, does what her critics say she doesn’t in an important new chapter at the end of the new paperback edition of the best-selling “The Death and Life of the Great American School System.”
No doubt those critics still won’t like what she has to say.
The subtitle of Ravitch’s book — selected as the most important education book of the last decade by readers of Education Next, a magazine whose editors generally support reforms Ravitch opposes — aptly sums up the thrust of Ravitch’s narrative: “How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education.”
The book tells how Ravitch, who served as assistant secretary of education in the administration of president George H.W. Bush and was a prominent supporter of No Child Left Behind when it was implemented by Bush’s son, president George W. Bush, came to a profound rethinking of her views on education reform when she looked at data about how reform was affecting schools and realized that NCLB was a mistake.
(Ravitch, who is immensely popular with teachers and speaks to packed audiences across the country, gets attacked for having changed her views, which is, of course, a silly complaint, given that academics are, of all people, supposed to be led by evidence. She gets attacked, incidentally, by opponents for all manner of things, including the frequency of her tweeting; why they are monitoring her tweets is an open question.)
Ravitch clearly details the damage done to public schools when people insist on trying to run them as if they were businesses.
An obsession with standardized tests in reading and math led to narrowed curriculum, a fixation on “choice” led to an expansion of public charter schools without the same “accountability” measures that traditional public schools are being subjected to, and the American fascination with celebrity and wealth allowed people such as Bill Gates, Eli Broad and other billionaires to use their private money to drive ill-considered reform efforts that have had a major impact on public schools.
The new chapter carries the reform narrative forward, telling about the “no excuses” and “get tough” reform approach pushed by the Obama administration. There’s the episode in Central Falls, R.I., when all of the educators at a low-performing high school were fired — and both Education Secretary Arne Duncan and President Obama praised the move. It caused so much bad publicity that the decision was reversed (though what has happened since in Central Falls is no victory for reformers). There’s “Waiting for Superman,” and the damaging new trend to link teacher pay to student standardized test scores.
Perhaps the most important part is Ravitch’s discussion of the biggest problems in public education (which is not to say there aren’t some bad teachers, and some bad teachers education programs, and bad curriculum, etc): “resources matter and so does poverty.”
The mantra of many reformers is that poverty is an excuse (nearly 22 percent of America’s children now live in poverty), and Ravitch shows clearly that it is not, and that efforts to fix urban education without addressing the effects of poverty on students can’t possibly work.
The proof of this, she points out, is in Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone, which is held up by pro-choice reformers because it operates a few charter schools, but which, Ravitch writes, “actually proves that poverty and resources matter a great deal.”
“Canada’s HCZ is an antipoverty program in Harlem that provides a broad array of medical and social services to children and families, such as health programs, preschool, after-school tutoring, and parenting clasess. Its three charter schools are far better funded than nearby regular public schools. Its small high school has classes of fewer than fifteen students with two licensed teachers in each classroom. Because it has a very wealthy board of trustees, HCZ has an endowment of $200 million. Even with the ample resources available to HCZ, its charters had many students in 2010 who did not meet state standards for proficiency in reading: 62 percent in one school, and 38 percent in the other. In the seventh grade, where students were in their third year, only 15 percent met state standards. When Geoffrey Canada first recruited students to his charter middle school, they entered with low scores; after three years, when their scores remained low, he kicked out the entire class. The neighborhood public schools can’t do this.”
This leads into what Ravitch says are necessary requirements for successful reform, the thing critics say she doesn’t do. What are those things?
“Although some school reformers of our own day believe that schools alone can create equality, Du Bois knew this was not possible. Schools can provide a route out of poverty for determined individuals, but schools by themselves — no matter how excellent — cannot cure the ills created by extreme social and economic inequality.... The achievement gap begins long before the first day of school.
“School reform therefore must occur in tandem with social reform.”
That doesn’t mean, she says, that schools don’t have to improve. They do. The teaching profession must get more professional. “The status quo today is intolerable,” she writes.
But billions of dollars spent on standardized test-based accountability measures haven’t done anything to help fix the problems, and have made things worse. Charter schools educate less than 4 percent of the nation’s children, and though all the hoopla about them makes it sound like that figure is higher, they never will be an acceptable replacement for neighborhood schools.
When I first wrote about Ravitch’s book last year, I included a passage that stayed with me. Here it is again, as instructive as ever, but, sadly, just as ignored by reformers:
“Reformers imagine that it is easy to create a successful school, but it is not. They imagine that the lessons of a successful school are obvious and can be easily transferred to other schools, just as one might take an industrial process or a new piece of machinery and install it in a new plant without error. But a school is successful for many reasons, including the personalities of its leader and teachers; the social interactions among them; the culture of the school; the students and their families; the way the school implements policies and programs dictated by the district, the state and the federal government; the quality of the school’s curriculum and instruction; the resources of the school and the community; and many other factors. When a school is successful, it is hard to know which factor was most important or if it was a combination of factors.”
Note: An earlier version of this story inaccurately reported Ravitch’s title at the Department of Education. The story has been corrected.
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