Business principles won't work for school reform, former supporter Ravitch says

"The more I saw, the more I lost the faith," Diane Ravitch writes. (New York University)
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By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 26, 2010

For those who believe that performance pay and charter schools pose a threat to public education and that a cult of testing and accountability has hijacked school reform, an unlikely national spokeswoman has emerged.

Diane Ravitch, an education historian, now renounces many of the market-oriented policies she promoted as a former federal education official with close ties to Democrats and Republicans. In large part because of her change of heart, Ravitch's critique of the reform ideas that prevail in government, philanthropies and think tanks is reverberating in the world of education.

"In choosing his education agenda, President Obama sided with the economists and the corporate-style reformers," Ravitch writes in her book "The Death and Life of the Great American School System," circulating in advance of its general release Tuesday.

She stoutly defends teachers unions, questions the value of standardized test data and calls the president's affinity for independently operated charter schools "puzzling."

"Is Arne Duncan really Margaret Spellings in drag?" Ravitch asked in a February 2009 blog item, suggesting that the education secretary's policies are not much different from those espoused by Spellings, who held the office under President George W. Bush.

Many analysts, educators and policymakers have challenged Ravitch's views. Obama and his education officials say they are collaborating with unions even as they challenge them to rethink the status quo. Still, it is a mark of Ravitch's influence that she landed a meeting with Duncan in his office in October, at his invitation.

"I have great respect for her," Duncan said Thursday. "She's a really smart lady. She cares passionately. We have some differences of opinion."

Duncan said he had heard about Ravitch's book but had not read it.

What gives Ravitch unusual standing is her background.

The New York University scholar, who lives in Brooklyn, was an assistant education secretary under President George H.W. Bush, pushing unsuccessfully for national academic standards, and a member of the National Assessment Governing Board in the Clinton and second Bush administrations, helping to oversee testing policy. She initially backed No Child Left Behind, the law that mandated an expansion of testing and sanctions for schools with poor results.

Chester E. Finn Jr., an education analyst at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and longtime friend, recalled sitting next to Ravitch in the East Room of the White House when the second President Bush proposed the law in January 2001. "We were both applauding," Finn said. "It seemed to make sense at the time."

In her book, Ravitch writes: "I wanted to believe that choice and accountability would produce great results. But over time, I was persuaded by accumulating evidence that the latest reforms were not likely to live up to their promise. The more I saw, the more I lost the faith."

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