Education's Tea Partier

by Ben Wildavsky | March 15, 2010

Almost 20 years ago, as a young editor at The Public Interest, I wrote an admiring review of The American Reader, an anthology compiled by Diane Ravitch. At the time, a battle was raging over multicultural education, and Ravitch joined the fray with a wonderful collection of speeches, songs, essays, and poems spanning the nation’s history. She had a philosophical goal--setting forth a positive version of multiculturalist history that emphasized pluralism rather than identity politics--and also a practical one--creating a content-rich textbook that wasn’t, like so many others, homogenized and excruciatingly boring.

Today, Ravitch tells us in The Death and Life of the Great American School System that she still has a keen desire for students to be taught a rich curriculum in a variety of subjects. And who could disagree? But Ravitch then links this belief with her contention that the two central philosophies guiding today’s bipartisan reform movement--test-based accountability and school choice, both of which she used to embrace--have undermined teaching, learning, and content. It's here that her argument falters.

Indeed, while her closely argued polemic offers some useful insights into the inadequacies of many reform efforts to date, ultimately, she doesn’t deliver the goods. Ravitch fails to make the case that the broad philosophies governing today’s reform movement are off-target.

 

Perhaps most striking to me as I read Death and Life was Ravitch’s odd aversion to, even contempt for, market economics and business as they relate to education. She writes repeatedly, in withering terms of “corporate style superintendents,” the “tycoons and politicians” driving wrongheaded reform efforts, the “managerial mindset” behind experiments with value-added assessment for teachers, and the hopeless inapplicability of such business terminology as “return on investment” for foundations seeking to gauge the educational results of their grant-making. Decrying the “unfettered market” (cautionary tale: Wal-Mart!), she claims that “the problem with the marketplace is that it dissolves communities and replaces them with consumers.” Her populist ire is such that one almost expects her to announce that she will be spearheading a new Educational Tea Party movement. 

Ravitch's rhetoric is so overblown that it doesn’t seem in keeping with her record of analytical gravitas. Who says markets are antithetical to community? Democratic capitalism in the United States, after all, has generally coexisted quite nicely with thriving communities. Moreover, who is to say that businesses and foundations (sorry, make that “mega-rich foundations”) shouldn’t participate in school reform? Are they not part of the civic fabric that Ravitch so commendably wants to nurture?

As for her claim that entrepreneurs see charter schools “as a gateway to the vast riches of the education industry,” that hardly jibes with reality at the most admired charter organizations. As far as I know, nobody at Achievement First, Uncommon Schools, or KIPP, all non-profits, is getting rich from those organizations’ notably successful efforts to help low-income kids learn. But if--if--for-profit charter operators are able to operate good schools, why shouldn’t those educational entrepreneurs get rich? Isn’t the point to make sure kids learn? It is not as if profit is an alien notion in the world of public schools. As Ravitch knows well, a vast industry of contractors, curriculum specialists, and the like was getting rich off public schools long before charters came along. (Ravitch also missed important aspects of the charter movement: its relentless self-examination, eagerness to weed out poor performers, and desire to take to scale those approaches that are really helping kids.)

It is easy to get the impression when reading Death and Life that we had a system of public schools that was doing pretty well until evil corporate titans and their politician henchmen rolled into town to break up neighborhoods, victimize children, and destroy America’s common culture. This just isn’t the case. (And, when assessing who's done damage to education, Ravitch seems uncharacteristically naïve when dismissing teachers' unions' negative effects on schools.) Test-based accountability and choice came in response to a real sense of urgency about American students’ lackluster academic achievement. Nelson Smith of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools says Ravitch is viewing the neighborhood schools she reveres through “a rose-tinged rear-view mirror." 

Ravitch sprinkles a range of “to be sures” throughout the book--yes, testing can be useful if it isn’t relied upon for onerous accountability penalties; yes, some charter schools have been remarkably succcessful--but she still rejects practically the entire enterprise of test-based accountability and choice. Instead, she says she'd like to see “a substantive national curriculum” covering the full range of subjects. But, while “end it, don’t mend it” seems to be Ravitch’s approach to the reform consensus, couldn’t one take the opposite tack and try to improve today’s top-down and bottom-up strategies rather than abandon them altogether?

Like other critics of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), Ravitch overstates the extent to which test prep crowds out all other subjects, even in the troubled urban schools whose students are furthest behind. Even if core skills do receive disproportionate attention at disadvantaged schools, one can make the case that this isn’t crazy: Ravitch herself acknowledges that reading, writing, and math are the building blocks for all other learning. Surely it would be possible to come up with an accountability regime that makes sure kids know the basics, exposes them to a broader range of subjects, and improves on the NCLB model, including removing perverse incentives for states to dumb down their standards.

When it comes to more advanced skills, we already have evidence that test-based accountability, with high stakes, can mix well with the kind of rigor Ravitch seeks. She praises Massachusetts for its excellent curriculum in all subjects and its high performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Last week, Steven Wilson, president of Ascend Learning, asked Ravitch at an American Enterprise Institute forum why Massachusetts shouldn’t be held up as an example for other states to follow. Ravitch said that she is not against accountability, but that Massachusetts is not typical because it has avoided using accountability in a “punitive fashion," instead employing it “in a way that lifts up the performance of students.”

In fact, Massachusetts employs just the kind of big, punitive stick that Ravitch deplores. I happened to be sitting next to Abigail Thernstrom, who was an architect of the standards and accountability regime during her eleven years on the Massachusetts board of education. She explained that, under the framework the board created, students couldn’t graduate from high school without passing the state exams. Moreover, she said, “urban superintendents were totally with us because our emphasis on test results forced teachers to actually teach instead of running videos to eat up the time.”

The Massachusetts standards, it should be noted, are also a requirement for charter schools--charters just have more flexibility in how they prepare students to reach those standards. This arrangement seems to be a great illustration of how choice and accountability can work in tandem. Elected officials (or appointees of elected officials) can create learning standards that, in turn, guide curriculum at the school level. Students’ progress in meeting these standards can then be measured by periodic tests. Both regular public schools and charters (which, of course, are also public schools, although Ravitch won’t say as much) must strive to meet these outcome measures.

 

Despite the imperfections of current reforms, it seems perfectly reasonable, then, to conclude that markets can be harnessed to achieve what society has determined are important learning outcomes for children. Ravitch makes a great case for national standards. If political obstacles could ever be overcome (the emerging state-driven common standards seem like a promising start) one could imagine fabulous nationwide tests written by content guru and Ravitch ally E.D. Hirsch. 

But why should students be prepared for these exams only in the conventional neighborhood schools that Ravitch so admires? Both charters and other public schools could be granted flexibility to find the best way to help their students succeed. Thus, choice, accountability, and serious content could happily coexist.

Ben Wildavsky is a senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation and a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World, forthcoming in May from Princeton University Press.

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