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From issue: Education (Fall 2010)

AQ Feature

The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education by Diane Ravitch

A broad consensus on education policy has emerged over the past decade, with liberals and conservatives alike championing accountability and choice in America’s public schools. Diane Ravitch, an education scholar who pushed for market-based reforms during her tenure in the U.S. federal government (George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations), recently defected from this movement. Her latest book explains why.

With remarkable clarity and authority, Ravitch, now a research professor of education at New York University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, offers a reality check to those with blind faith in charter schools and high-stakes standardized testing. Even her critics will be forced to acknowledge the evenhanded way she approaches the facts. Few will finish The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education convinced that market principles represent the elixir that can transform troubled U.S. school districts. But does the author succeed in showing that these reforms should be largely abandoned? Perhaps not.

One of the impressions left with this reader is, in turning on many of the reforms she helped launch, Ravitch has created a false dichotomy. Market-friendly policy and solid curricula are not mutually exclusive. In fact, simply jettisoning the market ideas that Ravitch once championed may not only be facile, it could also be dangerous, as scholars enthusiastically embrace each new fad, refusing to recognize the merits or lessons of the last.

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In her early scholarly work, Ravitch consistently held that there were “no shortcuts, no utopias, and no silver bullets” in education. Influenced by her colleagues, however, she abandoned this caution while serving as assistant secretary of education during the George H.W. Bush administration. She ultimately bought into the hype that the market’s magic could work wonders for schools. The idea seemed theoretically sound: “Free of direct government control, the schools would be innovative, hire only the best teachers, get rid of incompetent teachers, set their own pay scales, compete for students (customers), and be judged solely by their results (test scores and graduation rates).”

Any honest jury would agree that the results have been disappointing. The book dedicates substantial attention to the “data wars” in the public vs. charter school rivalry, concluding that they have produced no clear victor. Test scores are sometimes viewed as the equivalent of the corporate bottom line. But the book shows how high-stakes testing has resulted in what Ravitch has previously described as “Enron-style” accounting with questionable data and results. Tying funding to scores has encouraged states to dumb down their exams, creating illusory progress to ensure that federal dollars keep coming in. Punitive testing has led educators to focus on basic skills and test-taking strategies at the expense of liberal arts and the sciences.

State scores have steadily climbed since the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001. But this progress proves to be a mirage after a look at the largely flat performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the federal assessment program. Texas, for example, claimed that 85.1 percent of its students were proficient readers in 2007, but NAEP results put the number at only 28.6 percent.

The book offers ground-level accounts of how recent reforms have played out in New York City and San Diego. Alan Bersin, San Diego schools superintendent, worked to “jolt the system” on the basis of three axioms: “1) Do it fast, 2) Do it deep, 3) Take no prisoners.” The massive firing and reshuffling of personnel that ensued recall the corporate raids of the 1980s. Teachers became frightened as pressure to perform mounted. Mega-rich foundations awarded the districts millions of dollars to help finance the reforms. Yet no clear gains in student achievement resulted.

Shortcomings and collateral damage associated with NCLB-inspired reforms led the author to abandon the movement she helped build. Her 180-degree turn is understandable, but perhaps premature. The book’s arguments against no-excuses education policy take aim at poor implementation, but the execution of ideas might be improved without ditching the principles behind them. Ms. Ravitch demonstrates that firebrand reformers are not always effective: test scores can be a dangerous shortcut for evaluation; overemphasizing basic skills diminishes time for history, literature and foreign languages; and education policy must go deeper than simple rewards and sanctions. But solutions to each of these problems might still be found in a market-oriented framework.

It is important to remember that demands for reform sprung from depressing disparities in student achievement. Barely half of African-American and Hispanic students finish high school with a diploma compared to more than three-quarters of their Caucasian peers. These failures cannot be pinned solely on inner-city schools. Other forces associated with socioeconomic status are hugely influential, but the public education system has been complacent to some extent. This is why her proposal to turn back to the status quo—albeit with upgrades that include more resources and better-trained teachers—is suspect.

The odds are against teachers of poor students. The families of such students are more likely to be passive, neglectful or helpless when it comes to their children’s education. Reformers do need to acknowledge this. But even acknowledging the importance of family factors, accountability and choice might still be effective. Waves of no-holds-barred reform are perhaps unproductive, but when cutbacks are necessary, the worst teachers should be pink-slipped, even if they have seniority. This is businesslike, but it is also commonsense.

The book argues that accountability distracts policymakers from what schools need most: “a well-conceived, coherent, sequential curriculum.” A strong curriculum, the author says, sets apart nations that outperform the U.S. on international assessments, such as Finland and Japan, as well as states with exceptional track records, such as Massachusetts and Minnesota.

Recent events show that market-driven reforms can accompany curriculum improvement on the education agenda. In late March, President Barack Obama announced the winners of the Race to the Top initiative, which awards federal funds to states that make reforms promoting choice and accountability. Two months later, the curriculum movement reached a milestone when a consortium of state organizations released the Common Core State Standards to help synchronize educational expectations across  the country.

On charter schools, Ravitch rightly notes that their quality ranges from “excellent to awful.” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who is the bête noire of his field in the author’s eyes, recently acknowledged that about 200 of the nation’s 5,000 worst performing schools are charters. This embarrassment, however, is not evidence of reform going too far, but not far enough. Shutting down subpar charter schools is supposed to be a core component of this system.

Many of the book’s objections to choice and accountability can be met with similar rejoinders. Informed by the problems she documents, policy implementation should be improved before governments prematurely abandon market ideas in education. To ensure that her criticism is addressed, education advocates of all stripes should put this book on their must-read list.

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