The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, by Diane Ravitch, Basic Books (2010)
Mention the name Diane Ravitch to anyone involved in American education and you are sure to get a visceral response. Folks either love her or hate her. And in the last year the sides have shifted radically. Since the 1960’s, this historian of education has considered it her role to provide a usable past that informs contemporary educational policy. Educational historians have always been a special breed. Their perch is usually in education schools, where their research (case studies) is meant to have utility—i.e., no ivory tower scholars they. Ravitch has had a remarkable career, part star scholar and part national policy wonk. But she has always seemed more comfortable writing, researching, and pontificating. Her new book is no exception. And what is, is what appears to be: a 180-degree shift in political message of her recent work. She seems to be tearing down a system she once supported.
Ravitch’s career had previously conformed to what is now seen as the classic left to right political journey, from wild-eyed liberal reformer to practical conservative. She once railed against educational machines and worshipped the small “d” democratic impulses of reformers. In the 1980’s she drifted to conservatism and into the administration of George H. W. Bush as Assistant Secretary of Education, where she pushed an agenda of choice and accountability. Today she has reversed course, rejecting her once ideologically driven position. This political shift should not be a surprise to those who have followed her career recently. She has been participating in a dual blog with radical educational reformer Deborah Meier at Education Week, where these once fierce opponents have become almost allied. Reviewers have pointed out this flip-flop and have either celebrated it as proof of their own righteousness, or, if they disagree, they see Ravitch as a traitor to the cause. But Ravitch has never been easy to compartmentalize.
I would rather ignore the politics and discuss what Ravitch found that caused her to rethink much of her position. This is a rich book and a deep topic, and in a short review all I can hope to do, at best, is be suggestive. Ravitch is deeply worried, troubled even, by the market-based reforms and high-stakes testing that are dominating education today. Her fear is that all this “reform” reduces teachers to mere functionaries. Early on in her book she recounts her own history as a teacher, explaining what motivated her. She also opines for the liberal arts in a way that is reminiscent of W.E.B. Du Bois, celebrating the joy and liberating potential and transformational ability of knowledge and learning. A gifted teacher, trained fully in a subject and guided by passion, is the best hope for democracy. She is worried that in the current reform ethos, the public value of education is being lost. Education itself has been devalued and there is frankly less public about it.
The initial ideas behind many of the reforms were good, Ravitch tells us, and she was often an early supporter. Charter schools were first proposed to free teachers and parents from the mindless bureaucracy of the education apparatus. Now charters are little more than teacher management schemes with philanthropic venture capital behind them. Rather than nurtured, teachers are now vilified. Foundations like Gates seem unaccountable to anyone but themselves (a criticism once leveled at the Ford Foundation in the 1960’s). All this is not new to opponents of No Child Left Behind and the Obama administration’s Race to the Top efforts. But in Ravtich’s retelling there is a melancholy that is rich. Here is a fierce advocate now wise and sad for the fight and the time lost.
Much of what has driven educational reform, testing and accountability, has, to Ravitch's mind, cheapened education. No Child Left Behind, she writes, effectively dumbed down the curriculum—“bereft of any important educational ideas…it ignored the importance of knowledge.” In the process the new vision offers little hope for a democratic culture. Ravitch has thus returned to some of her earliest writing where she had a cherished place for teachers, affirming their dignity and even their professionalism. What is remarkable is that now we live in a time when many others are seeing them as obstacles to reform.
How did we get here? Ravitch offers an interesting narrative, a micro history of policy migration. In her telling, reforms initiated by Tony Alvarado in New York City’s District 2, which focused on balanced literacy and constructionist math, became policy darlings in educational circles. When Alan Bersin became San Diego’s chancellor and needed to make a big splash, he imported Alvarado and his curricular plans, causing a sensation. And when Joel Klein came to New York City he imported San Diego’s system back to New York City.
In this story we learn two important facts. First, what Alvarado’s plan had was a real sense of politics as it placated both the pedagogical left and right. Second, it didn’t work. The pedagogical left loved the instructional programs, while the right loved choice and accountability. These efforts left to the increasing centralization of educational authority, which for Ravitch must be déjà vu since that was the subject of one of her first books, The Great School Wars. Both in District 2 and in San Diego, central administration fired noncompliant teachers and fought the union. They undermined local structures and the principals’ authority and ruled with an iron fist. One principal described the new management style as one of “comply or be destroyed.”
How did the reform efforts get so mired in testing? The culture wars of the 1980’s/90’s made it difficult and even impossible to develop agreeable curricular standards. The original goal was to develop a national curriculum. But the effort became helplessly politicized. If there is a villain in Ravitch’s book it is clearly Lynne Cheney, who in attacking history standards during the culture wars so thoroughly closed off the standards discussion. Standards were thus punted to the state and instead the focus became outcomes, or testing. States could have developed their own standards, but never did so out of political fear. Here was that important fork in the road and along with Ravitch, one wonders what might have happened if the other path had been taken.
Ravitch reminds us of the importance of remaining in the fight. “American education has a long history of infatuation with fads and ill-considered ideas,” she writes. “The current obsession with making our schools work like a business may be the worst of them, for it threatens to destroy public education. Who will stand up to the tycoons and politicians and tell them so?” Ravitch has—now who else will join her?
Richard Greenwald is Dean of the Caspersen School of Graduate Studies and Professor of History at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey.