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Is Education on the Wrong Track?

A TNR Symposium.

From: Andrew J. Rotherham

To: Diane Ravitch

Subject: Death and Life is being debated as a policy prescription. That's a problem, because it doesn't offer an agenda.

My e-mail inbox contains missives from people claiming your book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, is the most important written work about education in decades. They’re right next to other ones from people urging me to use it for kindling. Like too many debates in education, the one stemming from your book is turning into a Manichaean affair, in the eyes of too many a battle of good versus evil. Close observers of education policy debates increasingly wonder if the field knows how to debate any other way.

The stridency is unfortunate because The Death and Life of the Great American School System is not without its merits. But it’s also not without its problems.

The merits are straightforward. Diane, your stature as arguably the most important educational historian of the twentieth century gives your opinions weight. You make some imperative points, in particular about the importance of a high-quality curriculum if we’re truly going to transform American education into a higher-performing system. That’s an issue you championed long before it was fashionable.

More generally, the seriousness of our educational problems amply demonstrate that no one has a monopoly on good judgment or ideas about educational improvement, so we should welcome a lively debate about where the country is, where it needs to go, and why. The school reform experience of the past two decades offers many cautions and lessons so scrutiny is essential to progress.

Unfortunately, while it’s heavy on scrutiny, Death and Life doesn’t add up to a whole in terms of where you want us to go based on your analysis. In other words, outside of a call for better curriculum, this book falls short as a policy agenda. And make no mistake: Despite your protestations that you don’t want to view things through the prism of policy, given the state of play in the education debate today, your work is being taken as a policy prescription.

More specifically, it’s being taken as the antidote to the Duncan-Obama direction on education policy and the ideas taking hold in an increasing number of states and localities. Yet, while it’s a powerful cri de coeur, it is neither granular nor forward-looking enough to serve as a blueprint for policymakers.

For instance, you are selective about the evidence on charter schools, ignoring the contributions from the many high-performing charters across various geographies. Today, there are clear inferences that can be made about why some charters outperform others. It’s not by chance that charter schools in some locales are substantially better than charters elsewhere, and the differences can be traced to public policy. Figuring out how to more broadly incorporate those inferences into public policy is where the action is on the charter issue.

Likewise on testing and accountability. You paint a broad portrait of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) as “test and punish” but ignore the complexity of the policy and its implementation. States, for example, have made an astonishing number of poor implementation decisions that have done more to turn the law into a caricature than anything in the statute has. Meanwhile, after two decades, the experience of states and school districts with standards, testing, and accountability is highly varied As with charter schools, these policies are not monolithic, and there are clear inferences policymakers can draw, particularly about the experience of poor and minority youngsters.

And the same is true, of course, of philanthropy or school leadership. In both cases, the experiences, outcomes, ongoing learning, and changes are highly varied and complex.

I could go on, but the point is obvious: The book offers plenty of legitimate critiques in all these reform areas, and others. Yet painting with a broad brush does much to arouse the passions of advocates, and little to shed light on the issues. It merely fans the flames of today’s mostly unproductive debates.

You write that:

It is time to get serious. We need better teachers, a solid curriculum that includes the full range of arts and sciences, and assessments that reflect the skills and knowledge that society values. Schools must impose standards of behavior, so that learning may proceed unhindered. We need to pay attention to the health and well-being of students, so that they arrive in school ready to learn.

There are few who would disagree. But the challenges of achieving these goals are enormously complex--especially so in a radically decentralized system like U.S. K-12 education. And the solutions are multifaceted. For example, high-performing charter schools struggle to find enough teachers to achieve substantially greater scale but have little trouble filling existing positions. It’s reasonable to assume that this is at least in part because they are desirable workplaces, especially relative to the dysfunctional schools that often surround them. So what role does creating more environments where teachers want to be play into efforts to attract and retain “better teachers?”

Similarly, given what we know about the tortured politics of our education system absent a robust accountability regime, how do you expect to see change enacted? Regulatory capture--meaning that the ostensibly regulated actually control the regulators--is more rampant in American elementary and secondary education than in any other policy domain.

You couldn’t be more right that there are no panaceas. Unfortunately, though, Death and Life offers too many panaceas of its own. So, while your change of heart on some key issues and your criticism of many of today’s reforms and reformers is a soothing balm for those resisting radical changes to our low-functioning system of education, it is not a way forward from where we are today.

Andrew J. Rotherham is co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education and writes the blog


By Diane Ravitch: We don't yet have all the answers for fixing American education, but we know current reforms aren't working. So why keep supporting them?