A Defender of Public Education Who Spent Time on the Other Side: Diane Ravitch Critiques Corporate-Style Reform

Diane Ravitch is perhaps America’s leading defender of public education. A 76 year-old educational historian, she heads the Network for Public Education (NPE), an organization of parents and educators “to strengthen our public school system.” Ravitch is an indefatigable publicist and author who believes that public education is “an essential institution in a democratic society.” She is skeptical of top-down corporate-style reform, coercive testing regimes, and “school choice” that shunts resources away from public education.

Ravitch has not always been a stalwart advocate of public schools. As she openly admits, she underwent a change of heart. Her mutation, however, was not so much a slide from one position to another as a round-trip journey back to her original starting point. She began as a devotee of public education (she was a product of the Houston public school system), studying and writing about its history and development. Changing course in mid-career, she found herself drawn to a reform agenda that disparaged the “public” aspect of schooling, emphasizing markets, industrial-style accountability, and incentives. Only at the end of her career did she reassess her views and return to her original position as a defender of democratically-based public education.

If  education reform turned out to be a questionable detour for Ravitch, what attracted her to it in the first place?  Certainly the disappointing achievement levels of some American public schools, notably in poor neighborhoods, were hard to ignore. Selective comparisons with foreign education systems often suggested that the United States was falling behind the rest of the world (although the comparisons were often misleading or untrue, as shown recently in Ravitch’s book, Reign of Error). There was also a perception, sometimes fair and sometimes not, that teachers’ unions were self-absorbed and unresponsive to the challenges faced. Ravitch, whose major work was in developing school curricula and standards, was as aware as anyone of the need for improvement.

In 1991, she was asked by Lamar Alexander, George H. W. Bush’s Secretary of Education, to work under him in developing voluntary national education standards. Although she had doubts about working under a Republican administration, the job description seemed generally non-partisan and supportive of traditional public school systems. With that understanding, she took on the assignment.

While at the Department of Education, however, Ravitch became involved in more than just curricula and standards. She was increasingly exposed to the “reform” ideas of her conservative colleagues. It was, as she confesses in the opening pages of The Death and Life of the Great American School System (2010), a subtle kind of co-optation. She began to see market mechanisms as something that could improve education by making it more efficient. Corporate business principles, data collection, incentives, sanctions (“consequences”), along with national standards, seemed to be rational, acceptable means to bring this about.

After her stint with the Department of Education, Ravitch intensified her reform activities. She worked with conservative foundations like Olin, Fordham, and the Hoover Institution to devise ways to “remake” the American school system in market-friendly ways. Education reform became a movement with a cast of committed players, including billionaire philanthropists like Gates, Bloomberg, and Walton, well-funded politicians from both parties, and entrepreneurs eager to make money in the new frontier of prepping, testing, data-collecting, and school administration. Governors George W. and Jeb Bush experimented with new approaches in the late 1990s, paving the way for President Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) program. NCLB introduced testing and tough sanctions for teachers and schools that didn’t measure up to federal requirements. Meanwhile it loosened restrictions on charter schools ready to step into the gap.

Just as the education reform movement was reaching critical mass, however, Diane Ravitch began to feel uneasy. Her qualified reaction to the implementation of NCLB and subsequent reforms was perhaps at first just scholarly skepticism. But it was a skepticism that grew over time as she learned to separate the hype from the less flashy empirical results of the new reform movement. Charter schools, she found, were on average little better, and often worse, than the public schools they were replacing. The same was true in the case of for-profit schools and other “school choice” options being offered. Tests offered by private firms like Pearson, ostensibly to enhance accountability, had become “mechanistic” as she saw it, having little to do with encouraging creative education or even of measuring teacher ability. And standards of accountability that were fiercely applied to public institutions were not maintained for private ones, indicating a double standard.

Ravitch also became troubled by the elitism and lack of transparency that  defined the new movement. Its supporters made little attempt to conceal their disdain for professional teachers and the unions that represented them. Most had never been involved with a public school or taught in a classroom. Whether technocratic like Education Secretary Arne Duncan or brash like Superintendent Michelle Rhee and Governors Cuomo,  Brownback, and Walker, their approach was consistently dictatorial and top-down. Reformers wanted instant results by means that were often not developed in field trials or otherwise empirically verified. Decisions about the fate of schools were invariably undemocratic and opaque, leaving parents, teachers, and local communities voiceless.

Ravitch’s well-argued criticism of the reform movement is not heard in many quarters. The overly positive narrative about education reform continues to be pushed by cheerleaders in the business community, the media, and the political establishment. In pure dollar terms, the vested interests fighting for it are gigantic. Still, for those protesting out-of-control privatization and political high-handedness, there are plenty of green shoots to be encouraged by. There is a growing refusal by citizens to tolerate the over-testing and the corporate-style solutions being foisted on them from on high. And there is increasing appreciation for traditional community-supported schools where parents and teachers play an active role. It needed a truth-teller like Diane Ravitch, who spent years in the belly of the beast, to help provide a vision and a spark.

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