Ravitch Repentant

Peter Cohee

Diane Ravitch certainly deserves respect for her lifetime of hard scholarly work exposing humbug, hokum, and hyperbole in American public education reform[1] and for her service in the cause of public education. But her latest, a partial volte-face, lets down. [2] Much of her new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education, is common sense. The remainder is often self-contradictory. The whole is sententious. Here's the two-minute summary:

Milton Friedman started trouble in 1955 with a libertarian argument for family-based school choice through vouchers.[3] During the 1960s and 1970s school choice was entangled in debates over parochial schools and de facto segregation, white parents opting for private schools to avoid forced integration. A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform appeared in 1983; everybody freaked. Reagan, a Friedman fan, promoted first vouchers (with limits) then school choice. Conservative think-tankers then ran the Gipper's play. 1990 was a watershed year: Chubb and Moe issued an important book;[4] Milwaukee instituted the nation's first voucher system; and the charter school movement took off, largely replacing voucher proposals -- the latter two supported by Republicans, businessmen, and industrialists. Shanker had already proposed charters as in-school labs for helping under-achievers;[5] but he abandoned his support as school choice became overrun by opportunistic anti-union educational buccaneers. Clinton signed Goals 2000 into law in 1994. This meant chiefly outcomes-based policies and exploitation of computer technology.

Jump to 2002. Bush II, with bipartisan support, signs No Child Left Behind (NCLB).[6] This places heavy emphasis on reading and math skills, checked by (state-determined) standardized testing, and mandates sanctions for failure. Two consequences: schools cut back on other academic areas; and charters proliferate. As a result of the former, schools narrow their curricula and teach to the test. Charters have a mixed rep: good if they select the most capable and motivated students and make them do their work; not so good if they can't. This translates into re-segregation. Public schools are left to deal with the problems charters don't want. NCLB unfairly punishes teachers, schools, and school districts. Billionaires are buying American school policy. That darned achievement gap is still not closed.

Ravitch renounces recent attempts to reform American education through quasi-market mechanisms: school choice (vouchers and charters), standardized testing, accountability, business-style management, and the meddling of wealthy men. She does so because she believes these influences and tendencies will weaken that education's ability to shape and keep our democratic society. Apparently this was no free and democratic nation until Horace Mann established Prussian-style compulsory state education (Massachusetts, 1852). And evidently free-market initiative and personal consumer choice are incompatible with a democratic polity and healthy community life.

Ravitch fails to give critical attention to the illogical dogma that a free democratic polity somehow depends on comprehensive state- and union-run public schools. She wants big education – indeed, the bigger the better – pretending that this is possible without the centralized control and standardization that huge bureaucracies require and always tend toward. We read of all the high-level positions she's held and the times she's been at the White House and the Presidents she's met. Ravitch is a true believer in statist management. As such, she herself is as guilty of setting too-high academic, social, and political expectations on public education as NCLB does.[7]

Well, let's rewind and parse Friedman more closely than she seems to have done. "A stable and democratic society is impossible without widespread acceptance of some common set of values and without a minimum degree of literacy and knowledge on the part of most citizens. Education contributes to both." Thus:

widespread acceptance / of certain shared values; 

most citizens have / some minimum literacy and knowledge; 

education contributes to both.

Education (not necessarily public) contributes to these values and forms of knowledge. (But other forces do as well: family, friends, religions, private clubs and associations, daily living and learning.) It contributes, it doesn't guarantee. Further, most citizens have a minimum degree of literacy and knowledge. Not all achieve academic excellence, but most share a foundation. [8] Simply put, education generally preserves and transmits those common values and basic forms of knowledge that make a stable republic more viable. True, if trivial. It's a mighty leap from there to say that universal and compulsory state education is a sine qua non of a free society. Tyrannies, too, have state school systems. And, as Kenneth Minogue has recently argued, our present notions of democracy are hardly those of only a century ago.[9]

People in the U.K. and U.S. got along tolerably well with home-schooling and for-profit schools of family choice until about 1870, through periods of enormous social, political, economic, and technological change. The original "gap" in education, with which the state then first became involved, was that between different forms and qualities of private schooling.[10] As John Derbyshire puts it, "A huge chunk of education theory is about gaps."[11] One might also add, "I always enjoy visiting La La Land, where a gap-free society defines the goal of human striving."[12] More about gaps later.

Further, Ravitch makes the same fundamental mistake as all who do not teach in schools: that a school's quality is independent of its student population. In the bureaucratic mind, a school is "good" if it has the right administrators, faculty, curriculum, paperwork and infrastructure. Take the neediest students through this school and they will succeed, nay, exceed! But it doesn't work that way. Sure, competent personnel, a functioning building, and classroom tools and materials are necessaryfor good education; but they aren't sufficient. Students themselves and their families define the real quality of any school.

When she laments the siltation of the least capable, least energetic, least prepared in public schools (better students having been skimmed off to charters), when she decries the unfair advantages that, e.g., KIPP schools thus enjoy, Ravitch herself almost admits this; but she doesn't follow it to its painful conclusion. Look, remove all students from a "bad" school (i.e. one with an incompetent crew, crumbling edifice, poor attendance and scores) and put them in a "good" school whose regular students have also been removed. Prest-o change-o, the latter will soon be another "bad" school. More talented teachers and administrators will grow increasingly annoyed and frustrated; having better options, they will take them. CNN recently ran a piece about the Raleigh school board's vote to end integration by forced busing, resulting in what protesters considered deliberate re-segregation, "leaving black students in underachieving schools and white students in higher quality schools."[13] Full implications of that phrase are less than pleasant. Definition is our big problem: what do we mean, exactly, by "underachieving" and "higher quality" schools?

There's a rough calculus here: the greater the proportion of the least ready and most unruly students, the lower the overall quality of the academy. I'm going to say, based on nothing else than years of daily, hourly observation and experience, that you can't have more than about five percent of such students in a class or school without diminishing the education of the rest; the greater the percentage, the more deleterious their effect. This might be the flip side of J. Coleman's theory, that a majority of capable students will be intellectual and motivational leaven for the disadvantaged, a version of which Ravitch offers to defend universal public schooling.

Yet she also seems to accept Al Shanker's startling declaration that it's only about twenty percent of students "who are able to learn in a traditional system, who are able to sit still, who are able to keep quiet, who are able to remember after they listen to someone else talk for five hours, who are able to pick up a book and learn from it."[14] Horripilation! Eighty percent of our students can't behave themselves, pay attention, remember what they've heard or read on their own, and need special handling? If we assume for the moment that this wasn't alarmist speechifying, it reveals a problem for Ravitch's argument. For the leaven to work, as she appears to agree, we need a majority of successful students (precise ratio yet to be defined; keep those buses running). But Al's numbers would mean that in a class of 30 students only six would be capable, the rest requiring extra time, attention, energy, and "non-traditional" accommodations. Excuse the six if they and their parents skedaddle out of there, pronto.

Why not let families decide for themselves where their children should be schooled? Parents are choosing charters with other bright and hardworking kids so that their own won't have to endure daily annoyance from the dim and disruptive. Why not take them seriously? Ravitch and her new NEA and AFT fan clubs will have a tough time convincing everyone else that the home- and privately-schooled are less democratic as citizens because of the mode of their education. Ultimately, I suspect, her concern is not for the deep-abiding principles of our cherished way of life per se but arises from the mental reflexes of the educrat and theorist: We're the experts; we know best and will save you from yourselves to make a better society.[15] We'll certainly have to consider the consequences of living increasingly in our doofer culture: "Here, let us do that for you."

Finally, Ravitch complains about the directions that testing is moving in, its effect on curricula, and the uses to which test results are or might be put.

Her criticisms of the narrowing effect of NCLB on the academic focus of schools are mostly just. Much of the rest of what she says on this point is mere common sense. On the other hand, those who toil in the academic vineyard know very well that, if students have lousy reading skills, they will have a very hard time learning history or anything else. If their math skills are zilch, they'll wipe out in physics class. Literacy and numeracy are fundamental; it's not so bad a thing to make those two abilities the most important parts of any public examination system. Back we go to the medieval trivium and quadrivium. Of course you have to go beyond reading and math. But they are the minima. And no one really minds teaching to a good test. A badly-written or a dumbed-down one, the results of which will have no bearing on individual students' grades, is a short mark to shoot at. But Ravitch's discomfort with competition and its consequent inequalities, latent under other headings, is here most patent.

One suspects that she defends the melting-pot mythology so vehemently because, as the "collaborative learning" so adored by progressive-ed theorists, public schools (as she imagines them), if they can maintain the right ratios of capable students with the less so, will present acceptable averages and conceal embarrassing intellectual differences—or, in edspeak, disparities—between the best and the worst. How we will keep those distributions of ability in compulsory neighborhood schools without denying families some fundamental freedoms she does not answer.

Was there ever a Great American School System? I don't think so. There was a dynamic young nation whose energies, opportunities, and ambitions once appeared in schooling as in so many other endeavors. Much of that has dissipated, along with the family and social bonds that held it together, gone with the one-room schools of fable and fond memory.[16] I do think Ravitch has missed an emerging opportunity for American education, though, one staring her right in the face: why not support public schools to accommodate special student conditions and let charters proliferate for the sake of those who desire and are ready for more strenuous learning? And readers, take note: special needs students are or very soon will be the new focus of "achievement gap" concern.[17] That might make it politically easier to justify some rejigging of NCLB's strictures and relieve some of the testing-for-dollars pressure. I'm not sure how many of her new NEA and AFT fan club members will warm to this suggestion, but in fact it's just Al Shanker's idea on a bigger scale.

"People's second thoughts are better somehow."[18] It seems a useful motto. But context matters. This bit of deceptive sophistry by her well-intentioned Nurse brought destruction on Phaedra and her whole household. Diane Ravitch's second thoughts of late are certainly well-intended, nor are they deliberately deceptive, tragic, or catastrophic. But neither should we fall for them.[19]

Peter Cohee teaches in the Classics program at Boston Latin School in Boston, Massachusetts.  


[1] esp. Left Back. A Century of Failed School Reforms. Simon & Schuster, 2000.
[2] The Death and Life of the Great American School System. How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education. Basic Books, 2010.
[3] "The role of government in education," in Economics and the Public Interest, ed. Robert A. Solo, Rutgers Univ. Press. 
[4] Politics, Markets, and America's Schools. Brookings Institute.
[5] National Press Club Speech, March 31, 1988 (cited by Ravitch, p. 122).
[6]Personal bias alert! on 8 January 2002, after signing NCLB into law, President Bush, together with the late Sen. Kennedy, appeared at Boston Latin School -- where I've worked since 1999 -- to proclaim the good news to the world. I had an invitation to attend the tightly-secured celebration (four months after September 11). I declined. I didn't like the law then and I still don't, though generally for reasons other than Ravitch offers.
[7] see C. Murray, Real Education. Four Simple Truths for Bringing America's Schools Back to Reality. Crown Forum, 2008.
[8] Friedman goes on to distinguish between a modest general education for citizenship and a much more rigorous vocational/ professional training for a few -- a crucial distinction now ignored. Now everyone has a right to a four-year college education, and the nation will cease to be strong and competitive if they don't all get one.
[9] "Morals and the servile mind. On the diminishing moral life of our democratic age," The New Criterion 28 #10 (June 2010).
[10] E. G. West, Education and the State: A Study in Political Economy. 3rd ed. Liberty Fund, 1994 (1st ed. 1965).
[11] We are Doomed. Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism. Crown Forum, 2009, p. 98.
[12] 'Prodigy' in "The Math Sex Gap Revisited: A Theory of Everyone," La Griffe du Lion, 10.1 (2008) http://www.lagriffedulion.f2s.com/math2.htm.
[13] "Arrests highlight education busing issues," 21 July 2010: http://www.cnn.com/2010/US/07/19/ncschools.resegregation.rally/index.html.
[14] in the 1988 National Press Club speech noted above.
[15] Julian Le Grand, Motivation, Agency, and Public Policy. Of Knights & Knaves, Pawns & Queens (Oxford 2003) and The Other Invisible Hand. Delivering Public Services through Choice and Competition (Princeton 2007).
[16] Jonathan Zimmerman's Small Wonder. The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory (Yale 2009), though disorganized and repetitive, is a fresh assessment.
[17] E. g., Boston's Education Pipeline. A Report Card (The Boston Indicators Project 2008), on almost every page.
[18] Euripides, Hippolytos 435-436: κ?ν βροτο?ς α? δε?τερα? πως φροντ?δες σοφ?τεραι.
[19] See the review by Peter Wood,"Is Our Children Learning?" on 04/01/2010. 

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