18 Mar

Ravitch Offers Passionate Defense of America’s Public School System


By ANDREW WOLF | March 2, 2010

No silver bullets. This is the simple premise of Diane Ravitch’s new book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” which is being brought out this week by Basic Books. Written by one of our nation’s most respected scholars, it has been eagerly awaited. But it has also been, at least in some quarters, anticipated with a certain foreboding, because it was likely to debunk much of the conventional — and some not so conventional — wisdom surrounding education reform.


Much of the publicity and controversy over the book has to do with changes in public policy positions Ms. Ravitch has taken recently – away from choice and testing. And while she has evolved in her thinking, to my mind she has been remarkably consistent. As she always has, Ms. Ravitch believes in high standards, a rigorous curriculum, treating teachers with respect and never straying from the truth – which is why she has become critical of testing programs that have fostered a culture of lies and exaggeration. And she backs up her positions – old and new – with convincing data and perceptive analysis.

In “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” Ms. Ravitch makes a passionate defense of our nation’s public schools, a national treasure that Ms. Ravitch believes is “intimately connected to our concepts of citizenship and democracy and to the promise of American life.” She issues a warning against handing over educational policy decisions to private interests, and criticizes misguided government policies that have done more harm than good.

Ideas such as choice, utilizing a “business model” structure, accountability based on standardized tests and others, some favored by the left, others by the right are deemed as less, often much less, than advertised. Ms. Ravitch doesn’t oppose charters, but rather feels that the structure itself doesn’t mandate success. As in conventional schools, there will be good ones and bad ones. But charters must not be allowed to cream off the best students, or avoid taking the most troubled, as has been alleged here in New York City.

Her main point, however, is broader. “It is worth reflecting on the wisdom of allowing educational policy to be directed, or one might say, captured by private foundations,” Ms. Ravitch notes. She suggests that there is “something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public educational policy to private foundations run by society’s wealthiest people.” However well intended the effort, the results, in her telling, have not been impressive, in some cases doing more harm than good.

These foundations are beyond the reach of the voters’ will, and they themselves, “are accountable to no one,” Ms. Ravitch writes. “If their plans fail, no sanctions are levied against them. They are bastions of unaccountable power.” Ms. Ravitch questions why we’re allowing the relatively small financial contributions made by the foundations, dwarfed by the hundreds of billions America spends on public education, to leverage the entire investment? And she asks who, when there is no accountability, will take the fall if things go horribly wrong?

My experience, writing about public education in New York City, suggests that many of the prescriptions imposed by the foundations have indeed resulted in spectacular failures. But I can’t recall a single press conference at which a somber foundation head, flanked by the local superintendent and mayor says, “Sorry, pupils, we really bollixed that one.”

The Gates Foundation has pumped billions into the creation of small high schools, facilitating the destruction of hundreds of existing larger high schools. So unsuccessful has this strategy been that Mr. Gates has now abandoned it throughout the nation. Many experts, Mrs. Ravitch among them, could have told Mr. Gates that the problem wasn’t the high schools. It is that the students were arriving at these schools ill prepared to do high school level work.

What of the once-great comprehensive high schools, institutions with history and in some cases a track record of success going back generations? As time moves on, it is fast becoming clear that the new small schools, many with inane themes (how about the School of Peace and Diversity?), can never substitute for a good neighborhood high school, which can become a center of communal life and pride. Ms. Ravitch’s report underscores the fact that the trick is to fix the neighborhood schools beset with problems, not destroy them.

The involvement of charitable foundations in education is familiar ground to Diane Ravitch. She came to prominence as the nation’s leading historian of education with the publication of her acclaimed book, “The Great School Wars, New York City 1805-1973.” The final chapters in that book are an account of the controversy over community control of the city’s public schools that began during the 1960s, facilitated by the Ford Foundation, resulted in a bitter teachers’ strike, and delivered a clunky, partially decentralized restructuring.

Had it not been for these events, her history of New York City’s public education system might have quickly been forgotten, gathering dust on library shelves. But history is not just the distant past, but the news of yesterday as well. By putting events, still fresh in our memories, into relevant context, Ms. Ravitch demonstrated their importance in the larger historical context and made her reputation.

An article she wrote more than 40 years ago, entitled “Foundations: Playing God in the Ghetto,” sounds like something from the front pages of today’s news. No other observer of the events surrounding our schools brings such a deep perspective to the events of today in our schools, always different but so much the same.

If the Broads, Waltons and Gates really want to fix America’s schools, a good place to start would be by purchasing a copy of Ms. Ravitch’s book for every Washington bureaucrat, senator, representative, state legislator, mayor, school superintendent, school board member, and principal. That could set the whole system moving in the right direction.

It is not only the foundations that Ms. Ravitch blames for the current crisis: government has also failed in the attempt to reform the schools from above, lacking a clear perspective of how schools work on a day-to-day basis. Thus, the major federal initiative, No Child Left Behind, well intentioned as it may have been, ended up damaging the quality of education, not improving it.

While the federal government declares schools as “failing” and prescribes sanctions for schools not meeting its goal of “annual yearly progress,” it is the states that are allowed to write and administer the tests. This has led to a culture of ever easier tests and more test preparation rather than real instruction. More ominously, it led to such scandals as the New York State Education Department lowering the “cut scores” that define the line between passing and failing.

Ms. Ravitch suggests that the proper roles of the states and federal government have been reversed under NCLB. Maybe the standards for achievement should be set in Washington, which, after all, administers the National Assessment of Educational Progress , and the solutions found at the local level, using the accurate data provided by Washington. Instead of moving in a different direction from the failed NCLB model of the Bush Administration, the Obama administration has adopted and expanded on them.

When appointing Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the president cited Mr. Duncan’s record of “improving” test scores in Chicago. Ms. Ravitch points out that these improvements were rejected as exaggerated and “not real student improvement” in a study by the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago. She notes that the Obama administration is linking increases in federal funding to mandated adoption by other districts of the same programs that have already failed Mr. Duncan and the children of Chicago.

Teacher-bashing, so in vogue among the “reformers” dominating the national discussion, is rejected by Ms. Ravitch. How could the unions be responsible for so much failure when, she asks, traditionally, the highest scores in the nation are posted by strong union states such as Massachusetts (best results in the nation) and the lowest scores in the south, where unions are weak or non-existent?

The mania for closing “failing” schools also comes under the Ravitch microscope. To her mind, closing schools should be reserved for the “most extreme cases.” Virtually alone among those discussing educational policy, Ms. Ravitch appreciates the value of schools as neighborhood institutions. To her mind, closing schools “accelerates a sense of transiency and impermanence, while dismissing the values of continuity and tradition, which children, families and communities need as anchors in their lives.”

I saw this at work recently with the closing of a high school in my old Bronx neighborhood, a school from which both my mother and wife were graduated. Will the replacement hodge-podge of a half dozen unrelated “theme schools” drawing conscripted students from all over the city, ever mean as much to the local community, or have the potential to contribute to its renaissance?

If there is no silver bullet to fix the schools, Ms. Ravitch reassures us that the public schools can be greatly improved, even without miracles, the heavy hand of government or direction from the mega rich and their powerful foundations. What does Ms. Ravitch suggest instead?

She advocates a clear vision of what we should expect our schools to accomplish for our children, and a “well conceived coherent and sequential curriculum” designed to fulfill that vision, declaring our intention “to educate all children in the full range of liberal arts and sciences and physical education.” Ms. Ravitch notes that one state that has a particularly well-regarded curriculum, Massachusetts, routinely outperforms the other states on national and international measures.

Once a quality curriculum is in place, we can recruit and train teachers who fully comprehend what is expected of them, and develop programs to overcome the real deficits that many students in our most at risk communities bring to their academic careers. Similarly students must understand what standards of behavior and academic commitment are demanded of them. Testing should again be used as a device to help students in a diagnostic way, not to punish adults or stigmatize schools.

Public education is a tough enterprise. It won’t be fixed overnight. But if we stick with a back to basics approach, saturated with the solid American democratic values that Ms. Ravitch advocates, we won’t be so prone to fall for the silver bullets that never seem to find their mark.

Mr. Wolf is a contributing editor of The New York Sun.

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