Diane Ravitch on the U.S. public school system

This article by Diane Ravitch who is in some respects a conservative nevertheless mounts a spirited defense of the US public school system and refuses to engage in teacher bashing a common tactic of critics. She also questions privatization or any other silver bullet as a cure for the ills of the US school system.

Diane Ravitch worked for G.H.W. Bush and is reputed to be a
conservative who supported "no child left behind."]

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.

It turns out that “The Death and Life of the Great American School
System” is 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.

Here 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. [Where's Bob Fitch when we need

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

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, Mr.
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

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 Mrs. 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, Mrs. 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.” Mrs. Ravitch notes that one
state that has a particularly well-regarded curriculum, Massachusetts,
routinely outperforms the other states on national and international

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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