This is the tale Diane Ravitch alludes to with her title, “Slaying Goliath,” and the choice is apt. She has written a thought-provoking, painstakingly researched account of those who have sought to privatize and monetize America’s schools. She calls them the “Disrupters,” and they are indeed a foe with all the intimidating strength of Goliath. Confronting this opponent is the “Resistance”: the ordinary teachers, parents and citizens who are fighting back and winning.
Ravitch exposes the self-serving motivations of the Disrupters — many of them among the richest people in America, such as the Walton family, Bill Gates, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the Koch brothers and Mark Zuckerberg. Their belief that schools should be operated as businesses, with private ownership and data-driven decision-making, has resulted in dismal standardized test scores, the closure of public schools and the demonizing of teachers. The charter schools they have championed and have been enriched by have not resulted in promised improvements, but instead have drained much-needed funds from struggling public schools. The Disrupters are not supporters of education, Ravitch argues; rather, they pursue the money to be made not only by running charter schools but also through involvement in such lucrative industries as student testing, educational hardware and software, curriculum development, and consulting services.
The book takes the reader through the history of the school “reform” movement, offering an insightful examination especially of the harmful and reverberating effects of George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, passed in 2002, and later, Barack Obama’s Race to the Top program, begun in 2009. The high-stakes student testing imposed upon schools as a result of these efforts has had an insidious effect. The bar was set so high (the NCLB timetable mandated 100 percent proficiency of public school students by 2014) that failure was inevitable. And yet schools struggled to do the impossible, channeling more time and funding into test prep and cutting back in such areas as the arts, physical education and recess.
The stress and anxiety that these measures have caused students over the past two decades is incalculable. Ravitch mentions a 2009 documentary produced by Vicki Abeles called “Race to Nowhere” that highlights heartbreaking stories of students pushed to the brink by this unrelenting pressure to achieve. The documentary was shown in schools across the country, including mine, and its message was hard-hitting and difficult to discount; I vividly recall watching one colleague who had school-age children dissolve into tears and leave the room.
Ravitch focuses on a number of specific school districts especially hard-hit by the reform movement, one of them in Washington. Michelle Rhee attracted a great deal of attention during her tenure as D.C. schools chancellor from 2007 to 2010. She appeared on national magazine covers and on television shows, including “Oprah,” and was hailed as the savior of American education as she berated teachers, principals and unions, and lifted up standardized testing and privatization. However, her glory days were numbered. In 2009, 40 D.C. schools were flagged for a suspiciously high wrong-to-right erasure rate on their tests. Rhee ignored the allegations of cheating, so it took years for the entire scandal, which implicated more than 100 schools, to come to light. Rhee moved on, though her career fizzled. The damage she inflicted on Washington’s schools and students could not be so swiftly swept aside.
The stranglehold that the charter movement had on D.C. schools persisted. A recent independent audit of the entire district exposed more coverups, destroying the Disrupters’ boasts about the transformation of the district they had controlled since 2007.
Ravitch also examines in detail similar scandals that have played out in Chicago, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida, Massachusetts and Connecticut. Her insights into the dirty dealings and dark money behind what happened in these districts are eye-opening and disturbing.
Though the history of the school reform movement and its impact on schools and students are alarming, the story Ravitch sets out to tell is not one of hand-wringing despair. Rather, it is a heartening account of how teachers, parents and union leaders across the nation have been fighting against the damage caused by the Disrupters. The Resistance opposes privatization and misuse or overuse of standardized testing, and seeks adequate compensation for teachers and funding for public schools that has too long been diverted to charter schools.
Ravitch focuses on inspiring stories of the Resistance, including parents who led a successful opt-out movement in New York City, students who fought against high-stakes testing as a graduation requirement in Providence, R.I., and Seattle teachers who boycotted an unnecessary standardized test. She also highlights the powerful impact of statewide teacher walkouts in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona, which demonstrated dramatically that in unity there is strength.
Ravitch’s message is not one of gloom and doom, but rather a rallying cry that shows how people everywhere are wising up and fighting back. “The great lesson of this story is that billionaires should not be allowed to buy democracy, although they are certainly trying to do so,” Ravitch writes. “The power of their money can be defeated by the power of voters.”
There is much to learn from this book, and much inspiration to be found. The book is not written as a how-to guide for the Resistance. It is a scrupulously thorough study of a tumultuous period in American education. However, the conscientious reader who seeks strategies to combat the pervasive damage done by the Disrupters will find useful information here, along with affirmation that fighting back is possible. To paraphrase one of the chapter titles, Goliath has stumbled. The reign of terror is not yet over, but the giant has been brought to its knees.
The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America's Public Schools
By Diane Ravitch
Knopf. 336 pp. $27.95