The Death and Life of the Great American School System, How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education

Diane Ravitch, Basic Books, 2010


Review by Graham Mulligan


Two key ideas are presented at the start of this book, the collapse of communism and its corollary, the victory of the free market and “seeing like a state” policymaking, which is really planning for the future based on a theory of action. The actions involved here are the ‘choice movement’ and the ‘accountability movement’. This view sees schools like a business. If a branch isn’t producing a profit, it should be closed and customers are free to choose where they shop.


The accountability movement started out as a ‘standards movement’ that found its start in the 1983 publication of A Nation At Risk. Key recommendations in this report include stronger high school graduation requirements, higher standards for academic performance, more instructional and homework time, higher standards for entering the profession and better salaries for teachers. It said nothing about choice among schools or privatization, and little about testing.


Ravitch devotes two chapters to describe two high profile reforms, one in New York City, District 2, the other in San Diego. District 2 implemented a program called Balanced Literacy (remember the phonics versus whole language debate) and claimed success. Ravitch digs into the evidence and casts doubt on the claim. Nevertheless, San Diego School District followed suit a few years later with a top-down implementation of the same program, renamed The Blueprint, but without any hint of collegiality or ‘buy in’, a feature that was part of the District 2 program. The San Diego effort was primarily driven by the business community and vigorously opposed teachers and principals, many of who quit or retired early (90% change). Researchers looking at the seven-year reform effort, 1998 – 2005, were divided on its success so Ravitch decided to make her own inquiries. What she found was an absence of a curriculum, replaced by a methodology of teaching. She also found a toxic environment based on “accountability reforms and organizational policies” that “delighted the business community and those on the right who believe that public agencies, especially schools, are overflowing with waste, inefficiency and incompetence and are greatly in need of accountability, competition and choice”.


Getting reform to scale up was the political agenda for Michael Bloomberg when he became mayor of New York City in 2001. He had legislation passed to give him one-man control of the entire system and preceded to implement the same Balanced Literacy and constructivist math programs as District 2 had done but now called Children First. His central office was staffed with non-educators (then Chancellor Joel Klein is a lawyer) ready to implement ‘business principles’ to correct the flaws in the system. The hallmark of Klein’s administration is the creation of Charter Schools (privately managed, publicly funded) numbering in the hundreds. Class sizes are typically smaller, entry is often controlled and funding is frequently augmented from private benefactors or sponsors. Test scores are higher as might be expected given the advantages. Large high schools were broken down into smaller units, often specialize along a theme, and students could choose where they wanted to apply. The unsuccessful went to the next available traditional (and big) high schools, which gradually filled with unsuccessful students. So, along with ‘choice’ came ‘accountability’ and rewards and sanctions. Ravitch recounts however, the ridiculously contrived accountability system that resulted in mass confusion for parents faced with ‘choices’ to make for their children.

Test scores over the period 2003 – 2007 appeared to show an improved system and were celebrated in the business media (Forbes, The Economist, Time, Newsweek, US News & World Report, and USA Today) but in 2007 the federal NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) assessment showed no significant progress. Other mayor-led school systems (Chicago and Cleveland) were among the lowest achievers. Ravitch concludes that governance reform like New York City mayor Bloomberg’s takeover of the system won’t solve the education problem.


NCLB (No Child Left Behind) 2001 shifted the accountability agenda even further making testing regimes paramount particularly in the curricular areas of language and mathematics. Other areas of the curriculum (the Arts, Social Studies) suffered by neglect.


Ravitch devotes a significant chapter to the concept of choices (Choice: The Story of an Idea). The role of choice in education, promoted by Milton Friedman (The Role of Government in Education, 1955; Free to Choose, 1957), was picked up by Ronald Reagan and took the form of the Voucher Movement. Choice was seen as a panacea, having the capability “all by itself to bring about the kind of transformation that, for years, reformers have been seeking to engineer in myriad other ways”. The Voucher Movement evolved into the Charter Movement (1988). Vouchers allowed parents to send their children to private schools whereas charters were considered public schools under private management.


Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) proposed a similar idea for “schools within schools” as a choice model (1988). His idea was that any group of teachers (6 minimum) could set up a school to try out different ways of “reaching the kids not being reached by what the school was currently doing. By 1993, Shanker withdrew his support for the charter idea, seeing how it had become taken over by the education business model dominated by corporations and entrepreneurs. Unionized teachers were not something that the private charter companies liked. Charters in various form proliferated. By 2001 there were 2300 charter schools in the US and by 2009 there were 4600 charter schools. Charters could be opened by anyone who could persuade the State to grant them a charter – social service agencies, universities, teachers, parents, philanthropists, hedge-fund managers, for-profit firms, charter-management organizations, community groups and so on. The theory was that choice would introduce competition and thereby make the public system improve, just like the market model predicts. Ravitch admits that she got caught up in the enthusiasm for choice.


What does the research say about vouchers and charters? “In sum, twenty years after the initiation of vouchers in Milwaukee and a decade after the programs expansion to include religious schools, there was no evidence of dramatic improvement for the neediest students or the public schools they left behind.”


And what of the charter schools? There is a broad spectrum here, from outright embezzlement and fraud to excellent achievement and success. The idea though, that a ‘rising tide lifts all boats’ and that competition will improve the whole system is unlikely. Researchers have found evidence to support whatever they set out to find it seems. In other words, charters have become an ideological issue. Powerful supporters like the Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation as well as President Obama (Race to the Top) have continued the push to increase the number of charter schools. The problem, however, is that those left behind, the low performing, poorest, often immigrant, discouraged and unmotivated are what the public schools must work with. Ravitch concludes that what is surprising to her is the absence of voices on behalf of the democratic vision of public education.


Teacher quality or teacher effectiveness is a high-profile issue in the debate about educational reform. The theory is, again, a free-market idea. Reward the most effective teachers and get rid of the lowest performing teachers. Teacher unions, however, stand in the way. Ravitch points to the difference between the low achieving Southern states, where unions have been weak or prohibited, compared to Massachusetts, where teacher unions are strong and student achievement is high. The difference isn’t unions, its economics. What about the question of tenure and the protection of poor teachers? Teachers can be fired or disciplined but the process has to be fair. Why can’t student test scores be used to rank teachers and then remove the poorest teachers who fail to improve student test scores? This assumes that tests are valid and reliable and ignores a host of other variables (the home, community, the student-self, background and so on) that really make test results no more than a crude measure and subject to ‘gaming’ as clearly happened under NCLB.


The application of statistical analysis to the problem of identifying good and bad teachers has become fashionable. The idea is that loading up the team with statistically proven successful teachers is the way to go. This is like the movie ‘Money Ball’. Yet research shows that teacher effectiveness is not the same year to year. Another scheme to get at the good teacher/bad teacher issue is to by pass the Teacher College step and just hire ‘good people’. The best-known example of this is TFA (Teach For America), begun in 1990 and now with 7500 members working in thirty-four urban and rural settings. TFA members get a short training before going into the classroom for a minimum of two years. Studies of their effectiveness vary but the reality is that 80 percent of the teachers in the program leave teaching by the end of three or four years so its unlikely that this approach will bring about the desired change it seeks, that is, improved teaching.


Ravitch examines the role of philanthropic foundations in education reform. Early efforts at small-scale, targeted reform, by the Ford Foundation, Annenberg Foundation and Carnegie Foundation give way to more recent large-scale interventions by the ‘philanthrocapitalist’ foundations of Gates, Walton and Broad. Ravitch warns readers that despite any good intentions, to relinquish control of education policy to these foundations, is dangerous because it is anti-democratic. The Walton (Wal-Mart) Foundation pushes vouchers and charters. The Gates (and Warren Buffett) Foundation invested two billion dollars for small high schools, although results don’t always warrant it. By 2009 the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation shifted support to charters and teacher effectiveness. The Broad Foundation promotes corporate management techniques for public schools and supports charters as well as longer school days and merit pay. The US Department of Education under Obama now promotes charters and teacher effectiveness (linked to test scores) in the Race to the Top funding initiative. Gates asserts that there is not connection between teacher quality and experience, certification, advanced degrees, or deep knowledge of one’s subject (below tenth grade). The results of these reform efforts lead to the creation of a dual system, one private and with the means to reject the unmotivated, the other public and required to take everyone else.

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