The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education
by Diane Ravitch
Basic Books, 288 pp.

or many years, education historian Diane Ravitch traversed a familiar path among a certain kind of New York intellectualbeginning on the left in the 1960s and moving rightward over time, as she joined the Education Department of George H. W. Bush, endorsed private school vouchers, and became part of an influential education task force sponsored by the Hoover Institution. But as she outlines in her new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, Ravitchs story adds a twist to this clich: over the last few years, she has returned to her traditional liberal home. She has become one of the nations leading critics not only of conservative educational policies like vouchers but of more centrist ideas too, like charter schools, testing, and merit pay for teachers.

She defends her movement away from conservative educational policies by referencing John Maynard Keyness response to a critic after reversing himself on an economic question: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

The new Ravitch exhibits an interesting mix of support for public education and the rights of teachers to bargain collectively with a tough-mindedness that some on the pedagogical left lack; she supports a strong core curriculum and a no-nonsense approach on discipline, while casting a skeptical eye on efforts to artificially prop up student self-esteem. In this respect, she is like the great teacher unionist Albert Shanker, whom she describes in the book as a “mentor.” (Full disclosure: I interviewed Ravitch for my 2007 biography of Shanker, and Ravitch wrote a blurb for my book.)

Ironically, Ravitchs return to the left comes precisely as centrist ideas are consolidating their hold on Washington. Even left-of-center thinkingat the Obama administrations Education Department, leading foundations and think tanks, and the editorial pages of the New York Timeshas galvanized around greater emphasis on charter schools and performance pay for teachers based on test score gains. Teachers unions, meanwhile, are seen, as one union official told me, as the new Sister Souljah, an object to be denigrated in order to show independence. Ravitchs book comes at just the right time, providing a bracing and courageous corrective to the Washington conversation about education reform.

Ravitch says she supported Shankers original proposal for charter schools, publicly funded institutions given flexibility to innovate in order to reach students who didnt perform well in regular public schools. Shankers proposal also called for a strong union role, with joint district-union committees approving charter applications. But Shanker turned against charters, as, eventually, did Ravitch.

Charters do attract large numbers of low-income and minority students, but, Ravitch charges, they recruit fewer special education students and English language learners than regular public schools. A 2008 study of Washington, D.C., charter schools by academic scholars Jack Buckley and Mark Schneider, for example, finds that “the vast majority of charters have proportionately fewer special education and English language learning students.” Because they are schools of choice, charters attract a self-selected group of families motivated enough to apply for a new school. And low performers disproportionately drop out of some of the highest-performing charters, such as the KIPP schools in the San Francisco area, which have a 60 percent attrition ratea rate Columbia University researcher Jeffrey Henig calls “jaw-dropping.” Of course, lots of kids move out of regular high-poverty public schools too, but the difference is that no new students enter KIPP to replace the ones who have left. Regular public schools then have to take in “the students who leave KIPP schools,” Ravitch notes. “They have to find ways to educate even those students who dont want to be there.”

Likewise, instead of being cooperative ventures with unions, the vast majority of charter schools are not unionized, making todays reality closer to the vision of voucher advocates than to Shankers, Ravitch says. Ironically, she writes, “At the very time that the financial markets were collapsing, and as deregulation of the financial markets got a bad name, many of the leading voices of American education assured the public that the way to educational rejuvenation was through deregulation.” In theory, charter schools are more accountable because failing charters can be closed down, but in practice this rarely happens.

Ravitch also grew disillusioned with the student outcomes in charter schools. The media often lavish attention on islands of success in the charter school movement, but a national 2009 study out of Stanford University, funded by charter school supporters like the Walton and Dell Foundations, found that by a two-to-one margin, charters actually underperformed comparable public schools. Smaller, more targeted studies, like Stanford Professor Caroline Hoxbys analysis of charter schools in New York City, show very positive results, but these outcomes have yet to be taken to scale nationally.

Likewise, Ravitch has turned against the No Child Left Behind Act, which she originally supported. The NCLB strategy of shaming and humiliating low-performing schools is built on a false premise, Ravitch argues: that “lazy teachers and lazy principals” are to blame for student failures and just need a kick in the pants. Most absurd, says Ravitch, is the idea that teachers are to blame if 100 percent of students are not proficient in math and reading by 2014. It would be as if, Ravitch says, the nation set a goal that urban crime would be eliminated by 2014, and if it werent, the police would be fired.

Ravitch is especially dismissive of the fashionable idea that superstar teachers, by themselves, will eliminate the achievement gap. Leading economists, backed up by wealthy foundations and facilitated by journalists like Nicholas Kristof and Malcolm Gladwell, have perpetuated a kind of urban myth that giving poor kids excellent teachers for three, four, or five years in a row will eliminate the achievement gap between races and income groups. This, Ravitch notes, “is akin to saying that baseball teams should consist only of players who hit over .300.” And the notion that all-star teachers would gravitate in large numbers to high-
poverty schools is particularly far-fetched. Economist Eric Hanushek has estimated that schools would need to come up with a premium of up to 43 percent of current teacher salaries in order to retain non-minority female teachers (who make up the bulk of the profession) in large urban school districts. Giving out large bonuses is a good idea in theory, but given that personnel costs already constitute the biggest expenditure in education, a 43 percent premium would be prohibitively expensive, and would no doubt trigger a political backlash from suburban parents. Teach for America does manage to draw some superb candidates to tough neighborhoods, Ravitch notes, but 80 percent of them leave urban schools by their third or fourth year.

In examining the education landscape today, Ravitch places much of the blame on large foundations such as Gates, Walton, and Broad, which are driving the national education agenda. Over the past half century, the track record of megafoundations in education has not been good, she says. In the 1960s, the efforts of the Ford Foundation, allied with Black Power advocates, to push “community control” of schools in New York City spawned more turmoil than learning. (Fords support for lawsuits to reduce funding inequities has been more productive.) The Annenberg Foundations $500 million effort to spur school reform beginning in 1993 generated great excitement but few results. Likewise, between 2000 and 2008 the Gates Foundation committed nearly $2 billion to create small high schools, only to admit in 2009 that the effort produced mixed results. Will todays pet projectscharter schools and teacher performance payface the same fate? Ravitch asks. Moreover, she argues, while foundations are very keen on teacher accountability, they themselves are accountable to neither voters nor stockholders. Many academics and researchers are beholden (or wish to be beholden) to foundations, and tread carefully in their criticism. “There is something fundamentally antidemocratic,” Ravitch writes, “about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by societys wealthiest people.”

Meanwhile, Ravitch is far more sanguine than the Obama administration about the role of a group that she sees as a countervailing force to foundations: Americas teachers unions. In todays parlance, Ravitch says, tangling with unions makes you an education “reformer.” Yes, unions in places like Washington, D.C., and Miami have been plagued by scandals, but the representatives of teachers have an important and constructive role to play in strengthening American education, she rightly argues. Unlike in foundations, union leadership is democratically elected and representative of millions of teachers working directly with students every day. Unions promote better pay in a poorly compensated profession, protect the academic freedom of educators, and seek to reduce overcrowding of classes. “Individual teachers could do nothing to change these conditions,” Ravitch writes, “but acting collectively they could negotiate with political leaders to improve schools.” Yes, too often unions protect incompetent teachers, but the most progressive unions have embraced peer review programs to weed out bad teachers, Ravitch notes. On balance, she observes, top-performing states, like Massachusetts, have strong teachers unions, as do top-performing countries, like Finland. So why does the press reserve the term “education reformer” for those who do battle with unions?

Finally, Ravitch is highly critical of choice within the regular public school system. She is, for example, opposed to New York Citys policy of allowing students to choose from among 400 different high schools. “Neighborhoods were once knitted together by a familiar local high school that served all the children of the community,” she writes. Ravitch argues that parents prefer neighborhood schools, and points to the fact that under NCLB, only a tiny percentage of students in schools identified as failing transferred to better-performing schools. “Thus, while advocates of choice were certain that most families wanted only the chance to escape their neighborhood school, the first five years of NCLB demonstrated the opposite.”

But did it really? Under NCLB, choice was constrained to ones district, and in many urban districts there were no good options to transfer into. By contrast, a number of metropolitan areas, such as Boston, Hartford, St. Louis, and Rochester, have long supported highly popular urban-suburban transfer programs that are perpetually oversubscribed. Bostons Metco program, for example, has a waiting list of 13,000 students.

Although most of Ravitchs book is spot on, I think she is quite mistaken in her nostalgic embrace of the neighborhood school. The neighborhood school is a good deal if you live in a nice neighborhood, but what about children stuck in dangerous communities, where the school reflects the economic and racial segregation of the area? Carefully designed public school choice programs can help. To guard against the self-selection problem that skims the most motivated families into charter schools, some communities, like Cambridge, Massachusetts, have universal choice, with the goal of having all schools socioeconomically integrated. More than half the families choose non-neighborhood schools, and the resulting economic and racial mix has proven highly successful. In Cambridge, almost 90 percent of black, Hispanic, and low-income students graduate in four years, some 20 to 30 percentage points higher than comparable groups statewide. Finland, which Ravitch notes has very high academic outcomes, is also the least economically segregated country of some fifty-seven nations that recently competed on an international science exam.

Throughout her fascinating book, Ravitch appropriately defines the promotion of democratic citizenship as a central mission of public schools, an important corrective to the corporate-driven reformers who focus only on test scores and satisfying “consumers.” But realizing that important goal will require not only the rejection of some wrongheaded ideas that now dominate the educational landscape, but also an affirmative vision for recreating the American common school in todays increasingly stratified society.

Richard D. Kahlenberg is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and author of Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy.

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Richard D. Kahlenberg

Richard D. Kahlenberg is an education and housing policy consultant. He is the author or editor of 17 books, including The Remedy: Class, Race, and Affirmative Action, and Broken Contract: A Memoir of Harvard Law School.