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Ravitch Reversal: A Turnaround That Could Make A Difference

Well known conservative NYU education historian Diane Ravitch has done a slow, but complete 180º turn in her views on education reform. In her recently published book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, she fully documents her transition from ardent “standardista” and advocate of choice and competition to her current position of opposition to all these cherished notions of market-based reform including NCLB (although she credits the law with focusing on the achievement gap), the proliferation of charter schools, merit pay and the scapegoating of teachers and their unions. She paints a landscape that explains in very compelling terms the stakes for public education if we continue on the present course of reform.

For anyone interested in how we got to the current malaise that is school reform, I commend this highly readable book to you. The timing of the book’s release is important, coming as it does just as congressional insiders are turning their attention to reauthorizing ESEA and the announcement of the first round of winners and losers in the Obama administration’s controversial Race to the Top. It comes also at a time when educators are beginning to doubt that the administration’s commitment to unravel the damage wrought by No Child Left Behind is serious.

Although Ravitch is an avowed conservative, she has always been difficult to pigeon hole,  (she served as an education policy adviser in both the H. W. Bush and Clinton administrations).  Her critique will cause discomfort along the entire political spectrum. She is an expert on the New York Public Schools and the emergence of mayoral control of urban schools and the fairly recent phenomenon of the non-educator superintendent/chancellor/CEO such as Paul Vallas in New Orleans, Arne Duncan in Chicago, Alan Bersin (formerly) in San Diego, Joel Kline in NYC, and, most recently, Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C. She analyzes the unprecedented influence of huge philanthropic foundations in shaping the reform agenda and the accountability movement.

Few books in the education field have generated such broad and immediate reaction as this one, and each reaction has its own spin. Dr. Ravitch has been a critic of the endless assault of fads and glitzy short-term reforms. Her first book, originally her doctoral thesis at Columbia University, was a history of the New York Public School System, The Great School Wars: New York City, 1805-1973.  It was the highly controversial decentralization effort in the 1960’s that inspired her interest in education history.

In a later book, The Troubled Crusade: American Education, 1945- 1980, “[she] analyzed the many fascinating controversies associated with McCarthyism, progressive education, the civil rights movement, bilingual education, the women’s movement, and other social and political upheavals.” Her stature as a prominent education historian continued to grow and in the eighties she was enticed to Washington and gradually “…began ‘seeing like a state’, looking at schools and teachers and students from an altitude of 20,000 feet and seeing them as objects to be moved around by big ideas and great plans.” She also became captive to what President Obama describes as  the “Washington Bubble”:

Market reforms have a certain appeal to some of those who are accustomed to “seeing like a state.” There is something comforting about the belief that the invisible hand of the market, as Adam Smith called it, will bring improvements through some unknown force. In education, this belief in market forces lets us ordinary mortals off the hook, especially those who have not figured out how to improve low-performing schools or to break through the lassitude of unmotivated teens. Instead of dealing with rancorous problems like how to teach reading or how to improve testing, one can redesign the management and structure of the school system and concentrate on incentives and sanctions. One need not know anything about children or education. The lure of the market is the idea that freedom from government regulation is a solution all by itself. This is very appealing, especially when so many seemingly well-planned school reforms have failed to deliver on their promise. [Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. p23]

For me, the most compelling strand in the case she builds is the shift in decision making and influence to a small number of powerful billionaires like Bill Gates, John Walton (and now his successors), and Eli Broad. Prior to 2000, large foundations like Annenburg contributed substantial moneys to worthy ideas, but an important shift has occurred:

The turn of the millennium marked a changing of the guard in the foundation world. In 1998, the top four foundations contributing to elementary and secondary schooling were the Annenberg Foundation, the Lilly Endowment, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. These four foundations provided 30 percent of all the funds given by the top fifty donors. A scant four years later, in 2002, the top two philanthropies were the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation; these two foundations alone were responsible for 25 percent of all funds contributed by the top fifty donors in that year. [Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. p178]

The new titans of the foundation world were billionaire entrepreneurs and corporate “leaders. They were soon joined in education philanthropy by another billionaire, Eli Broad, who made his fortune in home building and the insurance industry; he launched the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation in 1999. Unlike the older established foundations, such as Ford, Rockefeller, and Carnegie, which reviewed proposals submitted to them, the new foundations decided what they wanted to accomplish, how they wanted to accomplish it, and which organizations were appropriate recipients of their largesse.  [Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. p179]

The Race to the Top competition is really a replication of a template developed by the new moguls of “philanthrocapitalism”. Just as there is no public accountability in the new and influential world of educational philanthropy, the same could be  said of these competitions for public dollars. These are not really new revelations, at least to me. What is new, however, is that they come from a highly credible source at a critical time.

Is it remotely possible that we could stop the train (or at least slow it down) to ask a few essential questions about where we want to go with our public education system and how we want to get there?

Our nation’s commitment to provide universal, free public education has been a crucial element in the successful assimilation of millions of immigrants and in the ability of generations of Americans to improve their lives. It is unlikely that the United States would have emerged as a world leader had it left the development of education to the whim and will of the free market. The market has been a wonderful mechanism for the development of small and large business enterprises; it has certainly been far more successful in producing and distributing a wide range of high-quality goods and services than any command-and-control economy. But the market, with its great strengths, is not the appropriate mechanism to supply services that should be distributed equally to people in every neighborhood in every city and town in the nation without regard to their ability to pay or their political power. The market is not the right mechanism to supply police protection or fire protection, nor is it the right mechanism to supply public education.

To be sure, we must respect and value the diversity made possible by private and religious schools. We should see the coexistence of these different kinds of schools as an ecosystem of educational institutions that has developed over many years and has served our nation well. None seeks to destroy or replace the other, and each serves different populations and sometimes the same populations at different times.

As a nation, we need a strong and vibrant public education system. As we seek to reform our schools, we must take care to do no harm. In fact, we must take care to make our public schools once again the pride of our nation. Our public education system is a fundamental element of our democratic society. Our public schools have been the pathway to opportunity and a better life for generations of Americans, giving them the tools to fashion their own life and to improve the commonweal. To the extent that we strengthen them, we strengthen our democracy.

At the present time, public education is in peril. Efforts to reform public education are, ironically, diminishing its quality and endangering its very survival. We must turn our attention to improving the schools, infusing them with the substance of genuine learning and reviving the conditions that make learning possible.” [Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System p216]

For any educator, policymaker, or politician struggling to comprehend the big picture of education reform this book is a must read.

3 Comments
  1. Guy Semon #

    Bob,

    Thanks for the recommendation and astute insight. I will be reading this book very soon.

    Loving it more than ever -teaching.

    Guy Semon

    March 11, 2010

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