Ravitch shakes up reform debate

Diane Ravitch is shaking up the debate on school reform, says the New York Times in a profile linked to the scholar’s new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System.

Once outspoken about the power of standardized testing, charter schools and free markets to improve schools, Dr. Ravitch is now caustically critical. She underwent an intellectual crisis, she says, discovering that these strategies, which she now calls faddish trends, were undermining public education.

Once a supporter of No Child Left Behind, Ravitch “now says its requirements for testing in math and reading have squeezed vital subjects like history and art out of classrooms.”

“School reform today is like a freight train, and I’m out on the tracks saying, ‘You’re going the wrong way!’ ” Dr. Ravitch said in an interview.

Many of her former allies are angry, notes the Times, while backers say Ravitch hasn’t changed her crusade for a strong core curriculum and her belief in the importance of the public schools.

In a Los Angeles Times review, Peter Schrag stresses Ravitch’s fierce commitment “to high standards, including the teaching of good behavior, but particularly to the Western cultural canon, the common vocabulary essential to all good education and the capable, dedicated teachers who can impart it.”

Fordham’s Checker Finn, Jr., writing in Forbes, agrees with Ravitch on the problems but thinks more radical reform is the solution.

Standards, in many places, have proven nebulous and low. “Accountability” has turned to test cramming and bean counting, often limited to basic reading and math skills. That emphasis, in turn, has diverted what was already weak-kneed attention to history, literature, art, etc. Efforts to rectify the “basic skills” problem have led to the folly of “21st-century skills” rather than a solid liberal arts curriculum. Textbooks, by and large, suck. No Child Left Behind has brought as many problems as solutions. Technology has wrought no miracles. Teacher education, with rare exceptions, is still appalling. Charter schools are uneven at best.

But can we trust the public system to tackle these problems?

In the New York Sun, Andrew Wolf focuses on Ravitch’s warnings letting education policy be directed or “captured” by private foundations which aren’t accountable to voters or anyone else.

“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?

The Gates Foundation’s drive to create small high schools is a shining example of failure, Wolf adds.

About Joanne


  1. Like it or not, this book is a must read.

  2. Diane Ravitch has the credentials and length of time in the education world, but I have not been a fan of her views on testing, charter schools, and especially that free markets can improve schools. It’s like health care, not a good free market idea.
    Now that she’s all about high standards, accountability, good teachers, and etc, I wonder if her book talks about schools that have turned around, that can be models for low-performing schools. For instance, the Central Falls school district news might have had a better outcome if models had been out there easy to see and clearly explained.

  3. Diana Senechal says:

    Excellent roundup, Joanne.

    And Diane Ravitch’s website has a page full of readers’ comments.

  4. One book–so much attention! Let’s hope this discussion helps improve public education and put the focus back on teaching and learning for all students.

  5. Diane Ravitch deserves respect for her energy and dedication, displayed in her numerous publications and for the edurance she displayed in wading through volumes of educationese while researching Left Back. Any normally compassionate reader will finish __Left Back…__ appalled at the arrogance of socialists (Dewey, Cubberley, et. al.) who treated other people’s children as their clay. Ravitch laments the abandonment of a rigorous classical curriculum in favor of a succession of fad reforms that reduced system performance and raised costs. While Ravitch criticizes the policies which self-appointed experts prescribed, she does not question the premise that some expert ought to prescribe curriculum.
    In “School’s Out“, his review of the latest Ravitch book, Chester Finn writes:
    “Diane and I go back a very long way–three decades, give or take–and in addition to the personal friendship we have, during that period, shared a basic diagnosis of what’s awry in U.S. education. It boils down to this: Most kids aren’t learning nearly enough of the important stuff that they ought to be learning.”

    That’s not a diagnosis; that’s a symptom. Why do schools fail?

    Finn continues: …”She would undo most if not all of the “structural” reforms that have been put in place in recent years–mayoral control, performance-based pay, charter laws and other choice schemes, reliance on entrepreneurship and market incentives, federal efforts to incentivize and prod the system to change in constructive directions, testing- and results-based accountability and more. She would, instead, look to the “great American school system” and a (somehow) renewed culture and family structure to do right by our children.”

    Umm…”Schemes”? Vouchers and charter choices enhance overall system performance. And when/where has “reliance on entrepreneurship and market incentives” been tried?

    Elsewhere, Finn writes: “Any successful redesign will require a clear-eyed assessment of what has and has not worked in the effort to achieve the last generation’s reform goals, and must open itself to new aims. It will demand long, concerted effort by experts, civic and business leaders, educators, parents, and policymakers. And while it must be realistic about politics and the difficulties of transition, any overhaul of American education must also be informed by an overarching vision of the kind of system it is after. That vision, more than the details of individual reform proposals, may be what is most sorely needed now.”

    Finn does not hide his committment to centralized (expert) control.

    As Neal McCluskey observed, Chester Finn is no fan of market-oriented reforms. Ravitch and Finn may merit the term “conservative”. They in no sense qualify as pro-(school)choice.

    Milton Friedman rejected the label “conservative”. He called his viewpoint “liberal” (in the classical, 19th century sense of the word, meaning pro-freedom).

  6. If the public school system could have changed, then it should have changed. It shouldn’t have waited until charter schools “threatened” to create a two tiered system.

    Successful charter schools deserve to be recognized and emulated, not chastised. Ravitch helped to create the beast that she is now trying to slay. I suppose that is noble, in some sense, but the effort is duplicitous. She says both that charter schools aren’t working and that they will continue to take students from traditional public schools. That implies that parents are stupid and will continue to enroll their students in charter schools even if they are poor performers. In addition, she does not seem to recognize that charter supporters and authorizers continue to make charter schools more accountable.

  7. Doug: “She says both that charter schools aren’t working and that they will continue to take students from traditional public schools. That implies that parents are stupid and will continue to enroll their students in charter schools even if they are poor performers.”

    A similar argument has long amused me. that family background (concerned parents, academic aspirations) explains the difference in performance between government schools and independent schools. This argument supposes that these successfully concerned parents are systematically deluded for if family background makes the difference in performance, then these sucessfully concerned parents just wasted $6,000 (or $10,000 or $15,000) on tuition that, had they left their kids in the NEA/AFT/AFSCME cartel’s schools, they could have used on Sci-Am and New Scientist subscriptions, a Nikon microscope, and piano lessons, and their kids would have done even better.

    I love her scholarship, but Ravitch and Finn never were pro-(school)choice, and their control fantasies affect their judgement when it comes to education markets.

  8. Tom Linehan says:

    I bought the book and read the first hundred or so pages and the last chapter. Most of it I have read before elseswhere. The one thing I agree on so far is the importance of a demanding curriculum although almost any demanding curriculum seems to be effective. Part of Dianne’s agenda is to create a common culture through schools. With today’s media overload that may get lost in the din.

    Like in most of her works, many other aspects of Dianne’s biases are evident. But that does not detract from her work. I accept them. One small example is her reference to Adam Smith’s invisible hand as unknown. In fact it is well understood. Oddly enough, she gave a great example of the invisible hand functioning in real time when she described the flaws and unintended consequences in comparing standardized tests from year to year in Texas.

    More after I finish reading the book. It is a short book and an easy read for anyone who knows anything about education. For those who do not, it is as good as any place to start.