In 2010, prominent education historian Diane Ravitch published “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” an account of the evolution of her views about public schools. Ravitch, assistant secretary in charge of research and improvement in the Education Department of then-President George H.W. Bush, had been a supporter of standardized, test-based school reform. She was also an early backer of No Child Left Behind, the chief education initiative during George W. Bush’s presidency.
But after seeing the effects of these reforms on students and teachers, Ravitch changed her mind and wrote about her conversion. The book helped start an anti-reform movement of which she has been the titular leader, and which has grown significantly among parents, educators, advocates and others. Now she has updated the book — and changed at least one position she had when she wrote the first edition.
The book discusses Ravitch’s change in thinking about standards-based education, based in part on the troubled development and implementation of the Common Core State Standards and plenty of other issues. She writes that No Child Left Behind was “the worst education legislation” Congress ever passed because, among other things, it “presumed that Congress knew how to reform schools, which it does not” and “assumed that scores on standardized, multiple-choice tests were the end goal of education, but they are not.”
As if NCLB were not bad enough, President Obama then piled on with his $4.3 billion Race to the Top initiative, which was a competition among states for federal funding, with certain stipulations; states (and later districts) had to promise to implement specific school reforms favored by then-Education Secretary Arne Duncan to win the cash. The Gates Foundation awarded millions of dollars to states that sought its help in designing their Race to the Top contest entries.
The program became controversial as some critics said it represented federal intrusion into local education, and though states were not required to participate, the money was being offered amid the Great Recession, and states were looking for any funding source they could find. Critics wondered how a competition among states — which would create winners and losers — could create educational equity. Ravitch wrote:
Worst of all was Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s devout belief in evaluating teachers by student test scores. Social scientists long recognized that home and family, especially family income, had a much larger effect on test scores than teachers. On every standardized test, students from the richest families had the highest scores and students from the poorest families had the lowest scores. Some rich kids got low scores, and some poor kids got high scores, but every standardized test in the nation ultimately functioned as a family wealth index.
Like the Bush administration, the Obama administration ignored the effects of poverty on academic achievement. Indeed, its spokespeople (like Michelle Rhee) insisted that poverty could be overcome if the teachers and school had high expectations and “no-excuses” discipline.
Those who are immersed in the education reform world — on both sides — know a good deal of that history. What they may not know is something that Ravitch discusses in the book that she learned early in her graduate studies. It helps put some context into what is happening today.
This is an adapted excerpt from “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education,” by Diane Ravitch. Copyright 2016. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, a division of PBG Publishing, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.:
When I was a graduate student in the early 1970s, I discovered a surprising secret about American education: in almost every decade of the twentieth century, there was a crisis. In the early decades, critics said the schools were too academic and were failing to prepare students for an industrial economy. Their loud complaints produced the first significant federal education legislation, the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 and the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917, to promote vocational education. In the 1930s, critics complained that the schools were failing to meet the needs of youth or of the economy, and federal programs were created (the Civilian Conservation Corps and the National Youth Administration) to fill the gap.
In the 1940s, critics complained that the schools were underfunded, overcrowded, and unprepared for the postwar economy and the atomic age.
In the early 1950s, critics assailed the schools for their lack of academic rigor. Then, when the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957, public figures and the media blamed the schools for losing the space race and jeopardizing the nation’s security. In response, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act of 1958.
In the 1960s, the nation “discovered” poverty, and the schools were again subject to searing criticism because they reflected the prejudices of the larger society. Congress reacted with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, banning racial discrimination in the schools and other public institutions.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the schools were lambasted by critics who discerned, as author Charles Silberman put it, a “crisis in the classroom” due to “mindlessness” and the routinization of education. In response came a flurry of pedagogical experiments, such as open classrooms and student freedom to select their own curriculum. In 1983, a federal commission declared that the United States was “a nation at risk” because of the failings of our schools. Since the late 1990s, the crisis in education has centered on the achievement gap between children of different races. The gap is not new: it is the result of a long history of racial oppression and prejudice. Nonetheless, critics blame the schools and teachers for the existence of the gap and for the failure to close it.
This is what I have learned after many decades of studying American education: education is a reflection of society. Education is integrally related to the society in which it is embedded. It is intended to improve society by improving the knowledge and skills of the people, but it works incrementally over years, not overnight. The public schools have been one of the primary instrumentalities of American democracy, disseminating knowledge and skills widely and making social mobility possible.
But schools cannot by themselves solve the problems of poverty and inequality. As W. E. B. Du Bois said in 1935, speaking to an audience of African American teachers in Georgia, the only way schools can improve society is to make men more intelligent by teaching them academic skills. If they fail to do that, he warned, the schools will fail in all other functions, “because no school as such can organise industry, or settle the matter of wage and income, can found homes or furnish parents, can establish justice or make a civilised world.”51
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. They cannot create jobs or repair broken families or end neighborhood deterioration or stop crime. The achievement gap begins long before the first day of school.
School reform therefore must occur in tandem with social reform. A good place to start is investing in prenatal care, to ensure that every poor pregnant woman receives appropriate medical attention and nutrition, to avoid the risks of low birth weight and preventable disabilities. Next in an agenda of social reform would be an investment in early childhood education, from birth to five years. Children’s intellectual, emotional, and social development is likely to be impaired if they lack the basic necessities of life during these crucial years, and it may be enhanced if children (and their families) receive appropriate social, medical, and economic support. If they had been spent differently, the billions of public and private dollars devoted to testing and accountability over the past decade might have revolutionized our efforts to improve children’s lives and might have enabled nearly all to arrive at school ready to learn.
When children grow up without the basic necessities, when they live in neighborhoods where violence and physical deterioration are ever-present, when they see incarceration as a normal fact of life, their chances to succeed in school are substantially diminished. Unfortunately, every testing program—be it the SAT, the ACT, NAEP, or state scores—shows a tight correlation between family income and results: children from affluent families have the highest scores, and children from poverty have the lowest scores. On the SAT for math in 2015, students whose family income was in the lowest bracket (under $20,000) had an average score of 455, while students whose family income was in the highest bracket (over $200,000) had a mean score of 587; the gap was also large and regular in reading and writing.52
Poverty matters. An exceptional school here or there may break the pattern for a tiny number of students—usually with the benefit of extra private funding and extended time—but the pattern will persist so long as social conditions remain unchanged, so long as there are districts and schools with intense concentrations of students who are both racially segregated and impoverished. We must set national goals to reduce poverty and increase racial integration.
Schools, too, must certainly improve. The status quo today is intolerable. After many years in which the nation has placed its highest priority on test-based accountability, we have little to show for it other than small increments in test scores, billions squandered on testing and test preparation, and vast numbers of teachers and administrators demoralized by utopian goals and harsh sanctions.
No other high-performing nation in the world tests every child in grades three through eight every year. We should not either.
No other high-performing nation in the world evaluates teachers by the test scores of its students. We should not either.
No other high-performing nation in the world welcomes non-professionals to assume the roles of teachers, principals, or superintendents. We should not either.
No other high-performing nation in the world has abandoned its public school system and turned public dollars over to private entrepreneurs, amateurs, and religious organizations. We should not either.
Never before in our own history have we allowed for-profit corporations to operate schools with public dollars. This must stop.
Never before in our history have investors and entrepreneurs targeted the public schools as profit centers. This must stop.
Never before in our history have public schools been forced to make standardized testing their main mission and purpose. This must stop.
The status quo today is promulgated and funded by the US Department of Education, major foundations, hedge-fund managers, and ideologues at right-wing think tanks. It consists of high-stakes testing, rewards and punishments, and privatization. We must reject the status quo. We must dramatically improve our public schools to meet the needs of all children. We must preserve public education for future generations of children.