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Is Education on the Wrong Track?

A TNR symposium.

From: Kevin Carey

To: Diane Ravitch, Richard Rothstein, and Ben Wildavsky

Subject: Looking for answers to the problems plaguing education? Diane Ravitch doesn't offer them. 

Apostates always make a good story. So it's been no surprise to see Diane's high-profile repudiation of her ideological fellow travelers, chronicled in The Death and Life of a Great American School System, featured prominently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. The book is selling briskly. But those interested in ideas that might actually move our schools to greatness, or even goodness, should look elsewhere.

Diane, you begin your book by saying you've abandoned the policymaker's perspective you acquired as an official in the first Bush administration and are returning to your roots as an historian. This is welcome news, because history is your strength. The early chapters of Death and Life describing major reform efforts in New York City and San Diego are characteristically lucid and succinct.

But the lessons the book draws from these stories are very strange. You've come to see the totality of American education policy from the late 1980s to the present day as a gigantic failure--despite the fact that you supported and promoted those policies of accountability, testing, and school choice for nearly all of that time. You "jumped aboard a bandwagon," but now you have "lost the faith."

The problem with "I was wrong about everything" as the prelude to an argument is that it doesn't exactly inspire confidence in the repudiator's judgment. And, in this case, the book simply trades one pre-defined agenda for another: the collected talking points of the reactionary education establishment. It is a philosophy of resentment and futility, grounded in the conviction that public schools--and the adults within them--can't really be expected to do better than they currently are.

So, if an outsider comes in and improves results and test scores, as Bersin did in San Diego, then results and test scores "may not be the right question" to ask. If different tests show different levels of improvement in New York City under Michael Bloomberg, we should believe whichever results are worse. Multiple econometric studies from respected academics finding that low-income children would benefit hugely from being assigned to the best teachers are lampooned as an "urban myth," because "this is akin to saying that baseball teams should consist only of players who hit over .300 and pitchers who win at least 20 games every season … no such team exists."

Diane, you live in Brooklyn--haven't you heard of the 2009 World Series Champion New York Yankees, whose nine starters averaged 25 home runs apiece during the regular season? If the teachers in the Bronx were as good as the baseball players, students there would learn much more.

Meanwhile, you say the intensive instructional model used by "high-performing charter chains such as KIPP and Achievement First" is "inherently unsustainable because it discourages teacher professionalism and relies on a steady infusion of newcomers." If the schools are high-performing without teacher professionalism, what does that say about professionalism as you define it? And what's unsustainable about relying on a steady infusion of newcomers? If one thing is certain, it's that our colleges will graduate a fresh batch of them every year.

In addition to discounting the possibility of rapid improvement, you also seem oddly blind to the educational dysfunction that ruins so many young lives. You repeatedly slam Washington, D.C.'s reformist superintendant, Michelle Rhee, for shutting down some of the city's most notorious low-performing schools. Most neighborhood schools, you say, are "laden with traditions and memories … their graduates return and … want to see the trophy cases and the old photographs, to hear the echoes in the gymnasium and walk on the playing fields. To close these schools down serves no purpose other than to destroy those memories." This bizarre hypothetical nostalgia is utterly disconnected from the educational dead zones that blight many impoverished neighborhoods, places that students struggle to forget, if they can.

If not school reform, then what? You give a hint in the book's first chapter, where you describe reviewing your collected writings: "I began to see two themes at the center of what I have been writing about for more than four decades. Once constant has been my skepticism about pedagogical fads, enthusiasms, and movements. The other has been a deep belief in the value of a rich, coherent school curriculum." The problem is that your distaste for faddism and naiveté can be overwhelming--you see these sins in everyone you happen to disagree with about anything.

For example (there are many), the book concludes: "Reformers imagine that is easy to create a successful school. It is not." This is complete nonsense. Nobody thinks it's easy to create a successful school, particularly when at-risk children are involved. I have heard dozens of reformers go on about this subject over the years. They're obsessed with the difficulty of building good schools, to the point, frankly, of being pretty hard to shut up about it.

Throughout the book, you accuse those you newly disagree with of believing in, variously, silver bullets, magic feathers, panaceas, quick fixes, and miracle cures. Can we please retire the insulting declaration that "there are no silver bullets"? You may have believed in them once, but that doesn't mean everyone else made the same mistake.

"What, then, can we do to improve schools and education?" the book asks, finally, with twelve pages to go. The first eight of those pages mount an impassioned and persuasive argument for a rich national curriculum. And in this, you are absolutely right. But curricula are only one part of the equation. We also need great teachers to deliver them, assessments to know if student are learning, schools that have overwhelming incentives to support them, and options for parents in an increasingly diverse world. In other words: a rich curriculum and testing, accountability, and choice. As Ben rightly notes, this is exactly the formula Massachusetts used (along with strong unions and fair school funding) to achieve some of the best student learning results in the world.

Meanwhile, Richard, you write at length about the need to provide students with adequate health care. For years, you've asserted that school reform efforts are distracting from more important social welfare goals. Alas, if only President Obama hadn't been seduced by the promise of "miracle schools," he might have signed an expansion of the S-CHIP program into law and gambled his presidency on a massive effort to provide health care to the poor and uninsured. I guess we'll never know.

In the end, Death and Life is painfully short on non-curricular ideas that might actually improve education for those who need it most. The last few pages contain nothing but generalities: "We must encourage schools to use measures of educational accomplishment that are appropriate to the subjects studied." "When schools are struggling, the authorities should do whatever is necessary to improve them." "Teachers must be well educated and know their subjects." That's all on page 238. The complete lack of engagement with how to do these things is striking.

Diane, your collected writings on the history of American education are invaluable. I have a copy of Left Back on my bookshelf and refer to it often. But, while Death and Life succeeds as history, it fails entirely as analysis. Having fought a good fight, you seem to have left the field in weariness and frustration. Let's hope that others don’t follow.

Kevin Carey is the policy director of Education Sector, a non-partisan think tank in Washington, D.C.


By Diane Ravitch: The education reform "consensus" ignores teachers, the very people needed to carry out change in classrooms.