Back Left

Peter Wood

On the subject of American schools, Diane Ravitch is among the most knowledgeable people in the world. Possibly she deserves recognition as the most accomplished scholar in this field. In any case, it is hard to think of anyone whose body of work rivals hers—from What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know? A Report on the First National Assessment of History and Literature (with Chester E. Finn Jr., 1987) to Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform (2000) to The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn (2004) to The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (2011). And these are only some of the peaks in the cordillera of her career.

Ravitch, however, poses a problem. Perhaps in view of her eminence we can simply call it The Ravitch Problem: In observing a career in which she has swung from the political Left to the political Right and back again, it is difficult to discern what one great thought lies at the bottom of her work. As a young woman Ravitch worked as an editorial assistant for the liberal New Leader magazine, and was connected with Teachers College. Her first major work, The Great School Wars (1974), in some ways pre-capitulates her career. In it she traced the to-ing and fro-ing of school reform movements that vexed New York City from 1805 to 1973. It was as though Ravitch had glimpsed her destiny of being a major advocate of one reform after another, in which with each swing of the pendulum she ardently repudiated her former enthusiasm.

The arc swings from vivid concern that students are being shortchanged by forms of public school education that leave them ignorant of many important matters to a no less vivid concern that the public is being shortchanged by school reforms that will strip local communities of their control over public education. Ravitch freely and emphatically declares that she has changed her mind on important matters, so there is no need to insist on a single common thread over her forty-some years of writing on the topic. Yet there may well be a common thread. In the conclusion of Left Back she writes, “If there is a lesson to be learned from the river of ink that was spilled in the education disputes of the twentieth century, it is that anything in education that is labeled a ‘movement’ should be avoided like the plague.”1

Ravitch has an itch to decry the current fashion in education reform. And she commands the knowledge and skill to decry it—whatever it might be—very effectively.

Her new book, Reign of Error: TheHoaxof thePrivatization Movementand theDangertoAmerica’s Public Schools, is a jeremiad aimed at “privatization” and what she dubs “corporate reform.” This is presented as a sequel to The Death and Life of the Great American School System, in which Ravitch denounced the testing fetish and the rise of charter schools—and she continues in the vein of defending the good faith of teachers and the constructive role of teachers’ unions.

Ravitch writes in this new work with a vehemence that doesn’t serve her purposes especially well. Much of Reign of Error contributes to that fabled “river of ink” a purple tint of exasperation. Often this rolls from her pen as indignant repetition:

[E]ducation reformers support testing, accountability, and choice. Education reformers rely on data derived from standardized testing. Education reformers insist that all children be proficient (NCLB) or increase their test scores every year (Race to the Top), or their schools and teachers are failures. Education reformers accept “no excuses.” Education reformers believe that schools improve if they are forced to compete.2

This anaphora continues for six more sentences. Ravitch reaches for this sort of rhetorical overkill again and again. Here, she is caricaturing with parataxis the “corporate reform movement”:

We are the reformers. We have solutions. The public schools are failing. The public schools are in decline. The public schools don’t work. The public schools are obsolete and broken. We want to innovate. We know how to fix the schools. We know how to close the achievement gap. We are leading the civil rights movement of our era. We want a great teacher in every classroom. Class size doesn’t matter. Teachers should be paid more if their students get higher scores… (p. 24)

And this sneer at the clichés of her opponents continues for seventeen more sentences.

Nor are these incidental lapses of tone. Reign of Error is written beginning to end in a voice of indignant authority—something the publisher echoed by wrapping it in bright orange dust jacket and underlining the words in the subtitle—TheHoaxof thePrivatization Movementand theDangertoAmerica’s Public Schools—as if we were getting an irate memo slipped under our door from a slightly deranged neighbor.

The book unrolls in thirty-three short chapters, many of which commence with a terse debunking in the form of a “claim” trumped by a “reality.” For example:

CLAIM: Teach for America recruits teachers and leaders whose high expectations will one day ensure that every child has an excellent education.

REALITY: Teach for America sends bright young people into tough classrooms where they get the same results as other bright young people in similar classrooms but leave the profession sooner. (p. 133)

Note that the supposed “claim” on behalf of the miraculous potential of Teach for America is not attributed to a particular source. Many of the “claims” are similarly straw men:

CLAIM: Poverty is an excuse for ineffective teaching and failing schools. (p. 91)

CLAIM: If parents seize control of their school, they can make it better. (p. 198)

CLAIM: Students who receive vouchers for private and religious schools will experience dramatic success. (p. 206)

In general, these claims sound like Macy’s Parade balloons full of the buoyancy of naïve enthusiasm.

It is not as if education reformers never say such things. Often they do ingenuously overstate their points and there is something to be said for calling them out on such exaggerations. But it would be a considerably greater service to the debate if Ravitch had taken on the best and most serious arguments of her opponents.

Take the “claim” that “Poverty is an excuse for ineffective teaching and failing schools.” Ravitch punctures this particular balloon with this “reality”:

Poverty is highly correlated with low academic achievement. (p. 91)

Surely no one would disagree. Poverty and poor academic performance are close companions and each aggravates the other. Children raised in poverty often lack good nutrition, personal security, books, parents who care about their intellectual development, and other factors that children raised in better circumstances take for granted. But poor schooling and poor academic performance also play their part in perpetuating poverty. The two-way street is easy to see but hard to cross, and it has become prey to those who have simplistic answers such as “First, end poverty” or “First, fix the schools.”

Ravitch acknowledges, “It is a false choice” (92). “Most thoughtful people,” she says, want to do both, or at least try (93). She is surely right about that—but she makes this observation in the midst of an attack on those who prioritize fixing the schools. That seems pretty close to ad hominem in its suggestion that the fix-the-schools advocates are cast out of the circle of “thoughtful people.”

Sometimes the Manichean logic of Ravitch’s claim/reality pairings works well. She hits it exactly right when she sets out:

CLAIM: Our economy will suffer unless we have the highest college graduation rates in the world. (p. 82)

In this instance—though she initially attributes the “claim” mostly to unnamed “policy makers” and “reformers”—she does get to its two most prominent advocates: President Obama and the College Board (82, 84). Ravitch counters their claims by citing OECD data that show that college graduation rates have no positive correlation to national prosperity.

More often, Ravitch sacrifices the opportunity to help us navigate genuinely complicated problems and gives instead a war whoop in favor of her own judgments.

As it happens, I often find myself more or less in agreement with those judgments. Like Ravitch, I believe the Common Core State Standards are likely to be detrimental to American education, especially in further removing schools from local community control. Like Ravitch, I believe the United States has overemphasized standardized testing in schools. Like Ravitch, I am very skeptical of the power and influence of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in the school reform movement. Like Ravitch, I think American students have never been, in the aggregate, outstanding compared to students in other nations that take scholastic performance much more seriously. Like Ravitch, I see the history of American schooling as rife with one declaration of impending doom after another. (And like Ravitch, I can compose whole paragraphs using anaphoric repetition.)

In some of these cases, Ravitch offers syntheses that are at least partially illuminating. Her chapter, “The Facts about Test Scores,” attempts to debunk the distress about the declining performance of American students in mathematics and reading. Ravitch, who served on the National Assessment Governing Board for seven years, lays out some key data with acid lucidity. By her account, in all ages and for all ethnicities, math and reading scores went steadily up from 1973 to 2008. This, she says, is not a matter of test score inflation. The tests that best tell the story are “long-term trend assessments” that examine random samples of students by means of rigorously controlled questions.

But there is trouble even here where Ravitch would appear to have the advantage of deep expertise. As Sol Stern wrote in a scathing review of the book in City Journal, Ravitch’s claims on these points are “definitely new” but “also wrong.”3 Stern points out that the National Assessment of Educational Progress scores on which Ravitch relies actually show “no improvement in their unimpressive scores” from 1971 (when they began) to 2013. Ravitch, he says, creates the appearance of improvements by focusing on modest gains among thirteen-year-olds that are erased in high school.

Be this as it may, Ravitch’s argument on test scores sits a bit awkwardly alongside her attacks on the school reform movement of the last forty years. A large portion of Reign of Error is devoted to saying that this movement has been unsuccessful and destructive. Yet, if we take the test data seriously, the reform movement has coincided with the largest run-up in standardized test scores in American history—a run-up that has included major advances for every minority group. Correlation isn’t causation. Maybe test scores would have risen on their own absent the reform movement, but the circumstantial evidence points in one direction: the public demanded improvements in the schools in the form of better test scores and that’s exactly what happened.

The proponents of further reform, of course, work hard to persuade the public that there is cause for continuing alarm, and to that end they overplay whatever bad news can be squeezed from test scores. Thus the “achievement gap” continues to receive outraged attention despite the remarkable improvement in minority test scores. Ravitch argues on one hand that the news ain’t so bad—witness the test scores—and on the other hand, that test scores are the wrong way to measure educational success. Which is it?

In the last quarter of the book, the staccato chapters switch from claim/reality to eleven “solutions.” These are not exactly tightly-shaped proposals for fixing anything. “Solution No. 10,” for example, is:

Devise actionable strategies and specific goals to reduce racial segregation and poverty. (p. 290)

It is hard to take this as much more than a progressive loyalty oath. Ravitch views the school choice movement not as a dead end but as a diversion. Wealthy foundations in league with profit-minded corporations and unscrupulous politicians are conspiring to “privatize” American K–12 education. Their actions divert resources away from truly public schools and invite us to ignore the twin problems of racial segregation and continuing poverty.

In Ravitch’s eyes, the rise of charter schools and the attempt to create school voucher programs threaten to strand the neediest and most vulnerable children in under-resourced schools. That’s a primary fault, but not the only one. She is concerned as well about the demonization of public school teachers and the opprobrium visited on teachers’ unions.

It is, fortunately, not the reviewer’s task to sort through and evaluate every piece of such a large collection of anathemas and blessings. Is providing “good prenatal care to every pregnant woman” (“Solution No. 1,” p. 227) really where education reform should begin? I don’t know. “Make high-quality early childhood education available to all children” (“Solution No. 2,” p. 230)? Sounds both expensive and unlikely to help very much, but it is a major part of New York mayor Bill de Blasio’s political agenda.

And that phrase is perhaps the key to understanding Dr. Ravitch’s book. It is a work of activist scholarship that aims to rally support for one vision of the good society and diminish support for a rival vision. Reign of Error is an attack on the excesses of “corporate” influence on American education that proceeds by bundling all of the reforms currently being advanced as efforts to improve standards and casting this bundle into the flames. The alternative that Ravitch favors is a hugely enhanced welfare state in which teachers and teachers’ unions, along with other state-supported service providers, would have the dominant voice in deciding what to teach and how to teach it. At the simplest level, Ravitch sees this as a contest between the private sector, which is trying to take over the public schools, and the public sector, where she believes schooling in our republic belongs.

To borrow a phrase, “It is a false choice.” The mixed model of public and private education is as old as—older in fact—than the republic. We are in the midst of some educational reforms that will surely have mixed results. The Common Core, as others have noted, might best be thought of as “a race to the middle.” It lowers standards in some states and some subjects and raises them in others. Privatization is no panacea, but it isn’t hemlock either. Things are complicated.

Behind Ravitch’s too-ardent denunciations and declarations are some points that deserve temperate consideration. The reader’s work is to find them.

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