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Editorial: Reformed Reformer Ravitch Defends Public Education

You’ve probably heard about America’s failing schools, and about this reform, that reform and more reform. There’s always a simple new fix for public education — vouchers, choice, charters, standards, testing, accountability, merit pay, the Common Core.

No one knows the long and troubled history of U.S. school reform better than Diane Ravitch, education historian, author and former political appointee under presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. She was in the Upper Valley last week to promote her latest book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, which picks up more or less where her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, left off.

Both are recantations from a woman who once put all her faith and professional energy in school choice, charter schools, standardized testing and accountability for school performance — reforms Ravitch advocated when serving as assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education between 1991 and 1993 and continued to push long afterward.

Then, in 2007, Ravitch had occasion to question her convictions, and after some soul searching and thoroughgoing investigation she came to the conclusion that many favored reforms are misguided.

More to the point, they are ineffectual. Ravitch, once in charge of the U.S. Office of Educational Research and Improvement, looked for evidence that current strategies, such as judging a school’s performance by student test scores, actually improve achievement and the educational experience. She found none. That’s worrisome, because testing and accountability, as well as choice and charters, underpin public policy, including the federal No Child Left Behind law and President Obama’s Race to the Top competitive grant program. Large urban school districts from Los Angeles to New York have allowed privately operated charter schools to proliferate.

Ravitch calls herself a partisan of American public education. Isn’t everyone? Well, no, she says. Today’s influential players in what she calls the corporate reform movement aren’t professional educators interested in bettering neighborhood schools. Rather, they are mainly business types keen to transform public education by making it an entrepreneurial activity. Most of the money for reform is now coming from major foundations backed by large corporations, from Wall Street, from self-interested promoters and, lo and behold, from the U.S. Department of Education, which has fallen in a big way for corporate-style innovation led by the likes of Bill and Melinda Gates.

All the tumult and experimentation in education might be welcome but for the fact that U.S. public schools aren’t failing after all. In fact, test scores — according to the most reliable national measure of student progress — are at their highest levels ever, and the achievement gap between white and black students has narrowed. This is not to say all schools are doing just fine; they aren’t, and Ravitch makes no such claim.

What she claims is that many tried-and-true practices work; many new-fangled innovations now favored by politicians and powerful interest groups do not. Small class sizes demonstrably improve achievement, for instance; merit pay and charter schools motivated by profit do not. In this context, she has high praise for Vermont, calling it the “best education state in the nation” because of its commitment to small neighborhood schools governed by local communities. Other states have been more easily swayed by the promise of charters and by federal money that encourages competition among schools.

But of all the points Ravitch makes, we find most compelling her assertion that corporate money and power threaten the integrity and possibly the very existence of public education. Public schools uphold collective values, break down racial and religious barriers, and are integral to the concept of citizenship. Without them, democracy would be jeopardized. Local communities, not hedge fund managers and entrepreneurs, must remain financially and socially invested in public education. That’s a back-to-basics lesson not to be forgotten.