Thursday, July 15, 2010

Diane Ravitch has changed her mind

When I was employed during the 1990s working for racial equity in public education, Diane Ravitch was one of the leaders of what we saw as the enemy camp. A veteran of George H.W. Bush's Education Department, we saw her as part of a cabal of "reformers" who wanted to impose homogenous high-stakes testing, privatization by way of vouchers and charter schools, and authoritarian management practices on messy, but democratic, institutions that we too thought needed changes. There were people with good ideas out there like testing skeptics at FairTest, the progressive practitioners at Radical Teacher, and the academic advocates like Linda Darling-Hammond then at Columbia and Christopher Edley, then at the Harvard Civil Rights Project. Ravitch was then a heavy hitter against their ideas.

So when I heard she'd changed her mind on most of that I figured I should read her new book: The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. Her rejection of past enthusiasms is thorough. Some specimens:
  • On the "No Child Left Behind" federal law that sets the framework for education reform: "

    ...To date, there is no substantial body of evidence that demonstrates that low-performing schools can be turned around by any of the remedies prescribed in the law. ...

    Its remedies did not work. Its sanctions were ineffective. It did not bring about high standards or high accomplishment. The gains in test scores at the state level were typically the result of teaching students test-taking skills and strategies, rather than broadening and deepening their knowledge of the world and their ability to understand what they have learned. NCLB was a punitive law based on erroneous assumptions about how to improve schools.

  • On charter schools:

    Charter schools in urban centers will enroll the motivated children of the poor, while the regular public schools will become schools of last resort for those who never applied or were rejected. The regular public schools will enroll a disproportionate share of students with learning disabilities and students who are classified as English-language learners; they will enroll the kids from the most troubled home circumstances, the ones with the worst attendance records and the lowest grades and test scores.

  • On the mania for standardized tests:

    The problem with using tests to make important decisions about people's lives is that standardized tests are not precise instruments. Unfortunately, most elected officials do not realize this, nor does the general public. ...

    The consequence of all this practice is that students may be able to pass the state test, yet unable to pass a test of precisely the same subject for which they did not practice. They master test-taking methods, but not the subject itself. In the new world of accountability, students' acquisition of the skills and knowledge they need for further education and for the workplace is secondary. What matters most is for the school, the district, and the state to be able to say that more students have reached "proficiency."

Most of Ravitch's new views are conventional among progressive reformers, but novel coming from her.

The part of the book from which I learned the most concerned the big foundations that have moved into educational policy in the last 15 years. Ravitch calls Gates, Walton and Broad "the Billionaire Boys' Club" and her attitude toward their interventions is scathing.

Each of the venture philanthropies began with different emphases, but over time they converged in support of reform strategies that mirrored their own experience in acquiring huge fortunes, such as competition, choice, deregulation, incentives, and other market-based approaches. These were not familiar concepts in the world of education, where high value is placed on collaboration. The venture philanthropies used their funds assertively to promote their goals. Not many school districts could resist their offers. ...

And so it happened that the Gates, Walton, and Broad foundations came to exercise vast influence over American education because of their strategic investments in school reform. As their policy goals converged in the first decade of the twenty-first century, these foundations set the policy agenda not only for school districts, but also for states and even the U.S. Department of Education.

There is something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society's wealthiest people; when the wealthiest of these foundations are joined in common purpose, they represent an unusually powerful force that is beyond the reach of democratic institutions. These foundations, no matter how worthy and high-minded, are after all, not public agencies. They are not subject to public oversight or review, as a public agency would be. They have taken it upon themselves to reform public education, perhaps in ways that would never survive the scrutiny of voters in any district or state. If voters don't like the foundations' reform agenda, they can't vote them out of office. The foundations demand that public schools and teachers be held accountable for performance, but they themselves are accountable to no one. If their plans fail, no sanctions are levied against them. They are bastions of unaccountable power.

I have to wonder whether these epiphenomena of our present age of growing inequality will ever mellow in their philanthropic enthusiasms? The residue of the previous Gilded Age (such as the Ford, Mott, and Carnegie foundations) have moderated their arrogance to some degree, noticed a few failures, incorporated some diverse influences. But the new outfits are still feeling their oats, ricocheting around in the enormously complex arena of our kids' education with lots of money and without any need of exercise any of the less dramatic virtues such as prudence or doubt. I pity the kids (and teachers) who are the butt such well-intentioned experiments.

Calling out foundations' autocratic interventions is not something that most policy analysts can afford to do -- literally. Ravitch has the standing to speak truths that would cost less prestigious advocates their jobs. She does the vision of a public education system a great service with this denunciation of destruction passing as reform. Unfortunately, in public education the Obama administration is augmenting the failed policies of its predecessor so such voices are needed as much today as ever.
For all my gratitude for the stance Ravitch has chosen to adopt in this book, I should add that, as in the 1990s, Ravitch subsumes any attention to the lack of racial equity in all phases of the school experience under the category "achievement gap." When many children of color are still (within the law) relegated to schools without textbooks, enough chairs, or even heat in winter, while white students attend gorgeous modern facilities and meet less harried, better paid teachers, race still matters in public education. She must know this, but it still doesn't seem to have penetrated to the center of her educational concerns.

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