Diane Ravitch’s ideas on school policy are worth listening to, even if you disagree

January 12

I’m a fan of school policy pundit Diane Ravitch. On the jacket of her latest book, “Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools,” I say she is “our best living historian of education.” Her passion and intellect are a great national resource.

Yet we often disagree. I think the growth of charter schools is the best thing that has happened to American education in the past 20 years. Ravitch would shudder at that. She was once, like me, a strong supporter of charters and assessing schools with standardized tests. But she changed her mind.

We Americans have mixed views of apostates. We tend to like Ronald Reagan, but not Benedict Arnold. Ravitch’s switch is a plus, I think, because she appreciates the desire for change shared by her old friends on the other side of the argument. In “Reign of Error,” instead of just tearing into current reform leaders, she offers positive suggestions for making schools better.

Her proposals read like New Year’s resolutions, perfect for this time of year. We need some fresh thinking. Ravitch seems to me as smart and creative as she was when I agreed with her on almost everything, even if her arguments sometimes lose touch with the facts. Here are what she calls her solutions, some not to my taste, but others rather good.

1. “Provide good prenatal care for every pregnant woman.” This reveals Ravitch at her most insightful. The prenatal issue has enormous importance for schools but is rarely mentioned in education debates. The Affordable Care Act might give action on this a boost.


“Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools” by Diane Ravitch. (Knopf /Handout)

2. “Make high-quality early childhood education available to all children.” This also makes sense, if educators can create programs that make sustainable gains for children. The research shows that so far they have rarely done so.

3. “Every school should have a full, balanced, and rich curriculum, including the arts, history, literature, geography, foreign languages, mathematics and physical education.” You bet. She shares this view with many of the staunch conservatives who remember her as a colleague in the George H.W. Bush administration.

4. “Reduce class sizes to improve student achievement and behavior.” Here, sadly, she ignores reality. Getting class sizes down to 17 or fewer students, the level at which research shows the change can have significant impact, would leave little money for any other reforms. An attempt at this in California created a rash of vacancies that were filled by inexperienced teachers, doing little for achievement.

5. “Ban for-profit charters and charter chains and ensure that charter schools collaborate with public schools to support better education for all children.” Sounds good. The best charters I know are all nonprofit. But case law and politics might doom any effort to cut private business out of this market.

6. “Provide the medical and social services that poor children need to keep up with their advantaged peers.” This fine idea, like solution No. 1, might be buttressed by the Affordable Care Act.

7. “Eliminate high-stakes standardized testing and rely instead on assessments that allow students to demonstrate what they know and can do.” Ravitch relies too heavily on Finland, so different from the United States, as her model for this change. She also doesn’t deal with student portfolio experiments that produced the same assessment results as standardized tests, but at much greater cost.

Ravitch offers four more solutions, general pleas for professionalism, democracy, de-segregation and public responsibility. All of her resolutions are worth discussing. Some might even unite us faction-ridden education wonks to force some progress, here and there, while we continue the useful arguments of which Ravitch is a big part.

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years.
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