When she delivered a plenary address at the 2011 NJEA Convention, Diane Ravitch had recently published her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. Widely regarded as America’s greatest education historian, Ravitch described her personal transformation from a supporter of test-based accountability and competition in public education to someone who understands the serious limitations of applying a corporate business model to our schools. Hundreds of NJEA members rose in applause when she proclaimed, “The free market has many virtues, but it does not create equity. It creates winners and losers. Education is not a competition. Education is not a race.”
In her newest book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools, Ravitch documents the false narrative that has been used to attack American public education and identifies the major players in the corporate reform movement. She responds boldly to her critics by supplying specific and evidence-based recommendations about how we can improve our schools and our society.
The following excerpts from Reign of Error offer only a smattering of Ravitch’s arguments against privatization and her plan to preserve and improve public education. In the book, she also explains the shortcomings of merit pay, Teach for America, vouchers and other misguided approaches. Meanwhile, the importance of prenatal care, wraparound medical and social services for the poor, and smart charter school policies are among the strategies she identifies that will strengthen public education.
To follow her ongoing work, read Ravitch’s blog at dianeravitch.net.
Taking on the corporate reformers
“The ‘reform’ movement is really a ‘corporate reform’ movement, funded to a large degree by major foundations, Wall Street hedge fund managers, entrepreneurs, and the U.S. Department of Education. The movement is determined to cut costs and maximize competition among schools and among teachers. It seeks to eliminate the geographically based system of public education as we have known it for the past 150 years and replace it with a competitive market-based system of school choice—one that includes traditional public schools, privately managed charter schools, religious schools, voucher schools, for-profit schools, virtual schools, and for-profit vendors of instruction. Lacking any geographic boundaries, these schools would compete for customers. The customers would choose to send their children and their public funding wherever they wish, based on personal preference or on information such as the schools’ test scores and a letter grade conferred by the state (based largely on test scores).
The 'reform' movement is really a 'corporate reform' movement, funded to a large degree by major foundations, Wall Street hedge fund managers, entrepreneurs, and the U.S. Department of Education.
“Some in the reform movement, believing that American education is obsolete and failing, think they are promoting a necessary but painful redesign of the nation’s ailing schools. Some sincerely believe they are helping poor black and brown children escape from failing public schools. Some think they are on the side of modernization and innovation. But others see an opportunity to make money in a large, risk-free, government-funded sector or an opportunity for personal advancement and power. Some—a small but important number—believe they are acting rationally by treating the public education sector as an investment opportunity.”
Ravitch on test scores
“In recent years, reformers complained that student achievement has been flat for the past 20 years. They make this claim to justify their demand for radical, unproven strategies like privatization. After all, if we have spent more and more and achievement has declined or barely moved for two decades, then surely the public educational system is ‘broken’ and ‘obsolete’ and we must be ready to try anything at all.
“This is the foundational claim of the corporate reform movement.
“But it is not true.
“Let’s look at the evidence.
“NAEP [National Assessment of Educations Progress] has tested samples of students in the states and in the nation every other year since 1992 in reading and mathematics.
“Here is what we know from NAEP data. There have been significant increases in both reading and mathematics, more in mathematics than in reading. The sharpest increases were registered in the years preceding the implementation of NCLB [No Child Left Behind], from 2000 to 2003.
- “Reading scores in fourth grade have improved slowly, steadily, and significantly since 1992 for almost every group of students.”
- “Reading scores in eighth grade have improved slowly, steadily, and significantly since 1992 for every group of students.”
- “Mathematics scores in fourth grade have improved dramatically from 1992 to 2011.”
- “Mathematics scores in eighth grade have improved dramatically from 1992 to 2011.”
Ravitch on the achievement gap
No serious social scientist believes that rearranging the organization or control or curriculum of schools will suffice to create income equality or to end poverty. The schools did not cause the achievement gaps, and the schools alone are not powerful enough to close them.
“The achievement gaps are rooted in social, political, and economic structures. If we are unwilling to change the root causes, we are unlikely ever to close the gaps. What we call achievement gaps are in fact opportunity gaps.
“Our corporate reformers insist that we must ‘fix’ schools first, not poverty. But the weight of evidence is against them. No serious social scientist believes that rearranging the organization or control or curriculum of schools will suffice to create income equality or to end poverty. The schools did not cause the achievement gaps, and the schools alone are not powerful enough to close them. So long as our society is indifferent to poverty, so long as we are willing to look the other way rather than act vigorously to improve the conditions of families and communities, there will always be achievement gaps.”
Ravitch on international test scores
“So, contrary to the loud complaints of the reform chorus, American students are doing quite well in comparison to those of other advanced nations. Are the test scores of American students falling? No. Between 1995 and 2011, the mathematics scores of our students in fourth grade and eighth grade increased significantly. In science, the scores did not fall; they were about the same in both years. In reading, the scores increased from 2001 to 2011.
“Although the media did not report the improvement, some reformers may recover from the shock of seeing American students performing well on international assessments by claiming credit. See, they might say, all that testing has raised our standing on the international tests. Perhaps the constant drilling in reading and mathematics did have some effect on test performance, but it would be ludicrous to give credit to the reformers’ other strategies. The number of students enrolled in charters and holding vouchers (perhaps 4 percent of American students) was too small to matter, and test-based evaluation of teachers was too new to affect student performance on tests taken in 2011. To what must certainly be the chagrin of our reformers, American public schools produced these strong results.“
Ravitch on poverty
“It is easy for people who enjoy lives of economic ease to say that poverty doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter to them. It is an abstraction. For them, it is a hurdle to be overcome, like having a bad day or a headache or an ill- fitting jacket.
“But for those who live in a violent neighborhood, in dingy surroundings, it is a way of life, not an inconvenience. Children who have seen a friend or relative murdered cope with emotional burdens that are unimaginable to the corporate leaders who want to reform their schools or close them.
“The rate of childhood poverty in the United States is higher than in any other advanced nation. Nearly a quarter of American children live in poverty. The latest report from UNICEF says that it is 23 percent. No other advanced nation tolerates this level of poverty. In Finland, which has an excellent school system, 5 percent of the nation’s children live in poverty. The U.S. rate for child poverty is about double the rate found in such countries as the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. It is triple the rate of child poverty in Germany, Austria, and France. And it is quadruple the rate of child poverty in such nations as Denmark, Slovenia, Norway, the Netherlands, Cyprus, Finland, and Iceland.”
Ravitch on teachers and test scores
“If the goal of teacher evaluation is to help teachers improve, this method doesn’t work. It doesn’t provide useful information to teachers or show them how to improve their practice. It just labels and ranks them in ways that teachers find demeaning and humiliating. [Stanford University Professor Linda Darling-Hammond noted that Houston used a value-added method to fire a veteran who had been the district’s teacher of the year. Another teacher in Houston said: ‘I teach the same way every year. [My] first year got me pats on the back. [My] second year got me kicked in the backside. And for year three, my scores were off the charts. I got a huge bonus. What did I do differently? I have no clue.””
Ravitch on virtual schools
“In the rush to boost enrollments, no one paused to wonder whether it was appropriate for young children to be placed in front of a home computer for their education. Nor to question what children were missing when they had so little interaction with peers or adults. Nor to judge the value of the content that was delivered or the point-and-click assessments. Nor to gauge what was lost when students are not engaged in face-to-face discussions with other students to exchange ideas. Online learning may work well in the military and in industry and in higher education for highly motivated students, but there is no reason to assume that it is right as a full-time means of educating children in kindergarten or third grade or eighth grade or high school. There is no evidence to support this belief, and many reasons to question it based on children’s need for wholesome personal and social development.
“Online technology surely holds immense potential to enliven the classroom. But the story of cyber-charters warns us that the profit motive operates in conflict with the imperative for high-quality education. Given the nature of the political process, the question today is whether education technology can be recaptured by educators to benefit students, not investors and stockholders.”
Identifying viable solutions that work
But getting ready for college is not the central purpose to education. Nor is workforce training. The central purpose of education is to prepare everyone to assume the rights and responsibilities of citizenship in a democracy.
“Thus, those who throw up their hands and say that nothing works are wrong. Those who say that public schools are obsolete and broken are wrong. Those who say that we must abandon public education and replace it with free-market schooling and for-profit vendors are wrong. When the public schools have the appropriate policies, personnel, resources, and vision to achieve attainable goals, they respond with positive achievement.
“If we know where we want to go, we can begin to discuss the strategies that will move us in the right direction.
“We need solutions based on evidence, not slogans or reckless speculation.”
Ravitch on high-quality early childhood education
“By itself, early childhood education cannot completely close the gaps caused by inequality of wealth and inequality of opportunity, but researchers have concluded that it is more successful in narrowing the gap than most other interventions. Early childhood education programs have abundant research to support them, unlike the currently fashionable ‘reforms,’ which have very little or no research or experience to back them up.”
Ravitch on a full, balanced and rich curriculum
“We know that those who can afford the best for their children demand a full curriculum. Another way to judge the importance of a high-value curriculum is to consider what it should be in light of the purposes of public education. Communities and states established public education as a public responsibility in the 19th century to educate future citizens and to sustain our democracy. The essential purpose of the public schools, the reason they receive public funding, is to teach young people the rights and responsibilities of citizens. As citizens, they will be expected to discuss and deliberate issues, to choose our leaders, to take an active role in their communities, and to participate in civic affairs. A secondary purpose was to strengthen our economy and our culture by raising the intelligence of our people and preparing them to lead independent lives as managers, workers, producers, consumers, and creators of ideas, products, and services. A third purpose is to endow every individual with the intellectual and ethical power to pursue his or her own interests and to develop the judgment and character to survive life’s vicissitudes.
Nothing inherent in competition guarantees that students will learn about history and government or the principles of democracy, nor will it assure that young people are prepared to vote wisely or to assume the responsibilities of citizenship.
“Today, policy makers think of education solely in terms of its secondary purposes. They speak of children as future global competitors. They sometimes refer to children in rather ugly terms as ‘human assets,’ forgetting that they are unique people and they are not fungible. They want all students to be ‘college and career ready.’ They tend to speak only of preparation for the workforce, not education for citizenship. But this is misguided. Workforce training may take place in schools; it may take place in the workplace. It is not unimportant. Nor is college preparation unimportant. But getting ready for college is not the central purpose of education. Nor is workforce training. The central purpose of education is to prepare everyone to assume the rights and responsibilities of citizenship in a democracy.”
Ravitch on class size
“It is odd that so many prominent business, political, and foundation leaders think that class size is not an important element in school reform. When they select a public or private school for their own children, they invariably demand schools with small class sizes. The catalogs of the best private schools seldom fail to mention their 12:1 ratio of students to teachers, or even 8:1. The best suburban public schools seldom have classes larger than eighteen. And yet those who would accept nothing less for their own children find it hard to imagine the same conditions for poor and minority children.
“Critics complain about the cost of reducing class size. But it is even more expensive to continue to have large classes, especially for disadvantaged and at-risk students who benefit the most from class size reduction. Whatever may be saved today by laying off teachers and increasing class sizes will be offset many times by the costs of remediation and special services for children who fall behind and suffer the consequences of high dropout rates and unemployment that result. If as a society we really want our schools to improve and all children to succeed, we will guarantee that they are provided with the benefits of small classes that are now reserved primarily for the children of the wealthy."
Ravitch on high-stakes testing
“Tests may be useful when they are used appropriately. They should be used to gather information about schools and districts so that programs may be assessed. They should be used for diagnostic purposes, to determine which students need more help with specific problems. They should be used to establish trends. The best tests have no stakes attached to them. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is an exemplar. It tests samples of students. No one knows who will take it. No one can prepare for it. No single student takes the entire test. No individual or school is punished or rewarded because of the scores on NAEP.”
Ravitch on strengthening the profession
Genuine school reform must be built on hope, not fear: on encouragement, not threats; on inspiration, not compulsion; on trust, not carrots and sticks; on belief in the dignity of the human person, not a slavish devotion to data...
“All past efforts to make schools “teacher-proof” have failed. Schools should not operate like factories that turn out identical products. Good schools are akin to families, in which every member of the family is different and every member of the family matters; they are akin to orchestras, a cooperative effort that requires skilled performers in every role, guided by a skilled conductor.
“Teachers must be free to express their concerns without fear of reprisal. Principals should be free to question district policy when they believe it is harmful to students and staff morale. Superintendents should be free to challenge the school board. There should be healthy dialogue about education issues. No one should fear to speak openly about issues of concern to all.
“In a healthy profession, all those who engage in its practice are professionals. They are well prepared. They are responsible to do their best and to adhere to the expectations and the ethics of their profession. To have a great educational system, we must build a respected profession. And politicians should stop telling educators how to do their work."
Ravitch on protecting public education
“The principles of competition and choice sound good, because they echo what we expect when we shop for clothing or automobiles. Competition is expected on the sports field or in science fairs and debates. But competition among schools for students does not improve the quality of education. Nothing inherent in competition guarantees that students will learn about history and government or the principles of democracy, nor will it assure that young people are prepared to vote wisely or to assume the responsibilities of citizenship. Competition and choice erode trust and community. Competition and choice exacerbate inequality and segregation by race and class. “Creative disruption” is certainly disruptive, but it is not creative. It is not what children and adolescents need. It is not what families and communities need. It sacrifices social and human values that are more important to children and to society than consumerism, competition, and choice."
Ravitch, In conclusion
“When public education is in danger, democracy is jeopardized.
“We cannot afford that risk.
“The way forward requires that education policy be shaped by evidence and by the knowledge and wisdom of educators, not by a business plan shaped by free-market ideologues and entrepreneurs.”
“Yes, we must improve our schools. Start now; start here, by building the bonds of trust among schools and communities. The essential mission of the public schools is not merely to prepare workers for the global workforce but to prepare citizens with the minds, hearts, and characters to sustain our democracy into the future.
“Genuine school reform must be built on hope, not fear; on encouragement, not threats; on inspiration, not compulsion; on trust, not carrots and sticks; on belief in the dignity of the human person, not a slavish devotion to data; on support and mutual respect, not a regime of punishment and blame. To be lasting, school reform must rely on collaboration and teamwork among students, parents, teachers, principals, administrators, and local communities.
“Despite its faults, the American system of democratically controlled schools has been the mainstay of our communities and the foundation for our nation’s success. We must work together to improve our public schools. We must extend the promise of equal educational opportunity to all the children of our nation. Protecting our public schools against privatization and saving them for future generations of American children is the civil rights issue of our time.”