A bad argument

The New York Review of Books seems to have embraced Diane Ravitch’s campaign against public school reform. It has published articles by her in back-to-back issues this year. In the March 8 issue, she argues that

The “no excuses” reformers maintain that all children can attain academic proficiency without regard to poverty, disability, or other conditions, and that someone must be held accountable if they do not. That someone is invariably their teachers.

Nothing is said about holding accountable the district leadership or the elected officials who determine such crucial issues as funding, class size, and resource allocation. The reformers say that our economy is in jeopardy, not because of growing poverty or income inequality or the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs, but because of bad teachers. These bad teachers must be found out and thrown out. Any laws, regulations, or contracts that protect these pedagogical malefactors must be eliminated so that they can be quickly removed without regard to experience, seniority, or due process.

This magazine has been part of the reform movement since 1969. We have criticized the unions for protecting bad teachers. But we have never said that teachers alone should be held accountable for the failures of public education, and we have never contended that poverty and disability have nothing to do with these failures. We have also criticized second-rate administrators and the responsible elected officials. Indeed, Ravitch’s portrayal of the reform movement is close to being false—and is given a smidgeon of truth by the Johnny-come-lately Republicans who have only recently joined the cause of school reform because they are out to destroy the union movement. (I can remember how hard it used to be to get conservatives interested in reforming public education—their favorite solution to its problems was to provide vouchers so students could attend private school instead.)

Ravitch cites Finland’s teachers as being so good that they never have to be fired. This might be true here if we had Finland’s rigorous standards for training and hiring teachers, but in our public schools, hiring has largely been based on “education” credits or degrees obtained, mostly, from second-rate teacher’s colleges (now often called Somethingorother State) where methodology is emphasized, subject matter is not, and passing grades are far too easily obtained. These standards exist because teacher’s colleges and teacher’s unions have advocated and defended them.

Charles Peters

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly and the author of a new book on Lyndon B. Johnson published by Times Books.