Course Correction

In her perceptive new book, Diane Ravitch makes a strong case that the national education “reform” agenda, driven by billions of dollars in funding from foundations and the federal government, is a sham.

She opens the book by acknowledging that she too was drawn in by the appealing idea that schools would flourish if freed from government bureaucracy and punished or rewarded according to their performance. In one chapter after another, she provides persuasive evidence to show why she now rejects the test-based “accountability movement,” charter schools, and other so-called reforms that take a corporate, market-oriented approach to education.

Beyond the damage being done to public education, Ravitch laments the overlooked impact education reform has had on Catholic schools. They often provide a better civic education than public schools, she says, because they have resisted educational fads and relativism. She writes that competition from tuition-free charter schools, which are supported with public and foundation money, has contributed to the closing of Catholic schools.

“Catholic schools have a wonderful record of educating poor and minority children in the cities,” she writes. “It is a shame that the big foundations have not seen fit to keep Catholic schools alive. Instead, they prefer to create a marketplace of options, even as the marketplace helps to kill off highly successful Catholic schools.”

This is an issue that advocates of charter schools—including President Barack Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan; philanthropists Eli Broad and Bill Gates; Washington, D.C. school chancellor Michelle Rhee; and New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and his school chancellor Joel Klein—should address. The nation’s foremost education historian says the agenda they promote is helping to destroy Catholic schools. The Catholic bishops who are cooperating with the charter-school movement should also heed this warning.

Ravitch’s admiration for Catholic schools is one constant in a book that reveals a startling reversal of her onetime advocacy for testing, school choice, charter schools, and the federal No Child Left Behind law. One reason to appreciate Catholic schools is that they have not fallen into the trap of aiming the entire school year at getting students to pass a single high-stakes test.

According to Ravitch, exaltation of annual reading and math tests over all else is causing more harm than good in public schools, crowding out the study of history, geography, literature, art, and science. Ravitch points to New York City: In 2008, nearly all of its school districts placed in the bottom tenth percentile in the state when students were tested in social studies and science.

Even where test scores in reading and math appear to have increased, Ravitch writes, the improvement is often illusory or short-lived. Under the No Child Left Behind law, states set the standard for proficiency. Because they are required to meet it for all students by 2014, many states have set a low standard or in some cases loosened the standard in a way that raised the number of passing students. In Mississippi, the state reading test found 89 percent of fourth graders proficient—but a federal test that doesn’t “count” found only 18 percent proficient.

In New York state, Ravitch writes, the education department quietly changed the scoring of the state tests in math and English language arts, leading to big gains in the number of students passing. Even as their students were doing terribly in social studies and science, New York City school officials were able to boast of a huge increase in the number of students proficient in math, with a jump from 57 percent in 2006 to 82 percent in 2009. “To an unknowing public, these breathtaking increases were solid evidence that the schools were getting better and that more students were meeting high standards,” Ravitch writes. “But in reality, state officials made it easier to pass the tests.” In 2006 a seventh-grader needed to get 59.6 percent of the points on the math test right to be considered proficient; in 2009, a student needed to get only 44 percent to “pass.” Since No Child Left Behind was enacted and embraced by elected officials from both major political parties, the rate of improvement in reading and math scores, according to Ravitch, has actually slowed.

The best chapter in the book, “The Billionaire Boys’ Club,” provides a much-needed critique of the role of major foundations. According to Ravitch, the Gates, Broad, and Walton foundations have a huge influence in American education because of the large amounts of money they’ve spent to engineer and promote their agenda for it. “There is something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public-education policy agenda to private foundations run by society’s wealthiest people,” she writes, adding that just about everyone connected with education is afraid of offending the big foundations.

The agenda favored by these powerful businesspeople is essentially that business knows best—that schools need to emulate the corporate world by encouraging competition, assessing outcomes, rewarding the success of annual progress in test scores, and firing incompetents. The problem, of course, is that this hasn’t worked so well—even on Wall Street. “Deregulation contributed to the near collapse of our national economy in 2008, and there is no reason to anticipate that it will make education better for most children,” Ravitch writes.

Ravitch takes the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to task for its $2 billion campaign to close large high schools and reopen them as smaller ones. Many schools across the country were closed as a result, but even Bill Gates had to admit in 2009 that the plan didn’t work. Unchastened, he moved on to support charter schools as the new solution. This leads Ravitch to ask whether educational advocacy groups, which rely heavily on Gates Foundation funding, would have the nerve to tell him he is wrong there too.

With the title of her book, Ravitch picks up the mantle of Jane Jacobs (1916–2006), whose influential 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities challenged Robert Moses’s bulldozer approach to city planning. Ravitch is an unlikely successor to Jacobs, who was an outsider, a journalist, a nonexpert. Ravitch is very much a part of the world she critiques: a respected academic expert and a former assistant secretary of education in the Bush administration.

The connection to Jacobs is clearer, though, when Ravitch becomes a lone voice in defense of the much-maligned traditional neighborhood school. She writes that charter schools were initially intended as demonstration projects where methods could be found to improve neighborhood schools—not as competitors that undercut them by siphoning off the most motivated students and leaving behind those most difficult to teach.

As Jacobs did, Ravitch focuses on the importance of achieving a sense of community. Neighborhood schools do this, she says, and have been doing it for a century. “Business leaders like the idea of turning the schools into a marketplace where the consumer is king,” Ravitch writes. “But the problem with the marketplace is that it dissolves communities and replaces them with consumers. Going to school is not the same as going shopping.”

Ravitch lays out a devastating critique of the conventional wisdom, much as Jacobs did. She shows that bulldozers work no better for education reform than they did for urban renewal. Ravitch writes concisely and with authority, offering an easy read even while presenting a mass of research and data. She uses both historical and personal narrative—she tells the story, for example, of her favorite teacher, Mrs. Ruby Ratliff—to humanize the discussion of education policy, which could otherwise induce an acronym-addled stupor. It’s an excellent book that deserves the broad attention it is receiving.

The solutions discussed in the final chapter are the book’s weakest point. Ravitch focuses on improving the curriculum, which makes sense given the poor understanding many first-year college students have of history, science, computation, and grammar. Parental involvement, well-qualified teachers who love their work: these are all ideas that have been discussed many times. It’s understandable that Ravitch, having decided she was wrong in the past, would now decline to give a more specific blueprint for how to proceed. The lesson to be learned from her book is that there is no single Northwest Passage to good schools. Moderation trumps educational ideology.

In this sense, Catholic schools stand out from the pack. Largely overlooked by foundations, not funded by government, and covered by education journalists only when they close, they’ve avoided generations of faddish nonsolutions while retaining a strong sense of community. If Ravitch is right, the new generation of reforms won’t be a solution for public education, either. But next time, Catholic schools may not be there to offer an alternative.


Related: The Public Option: Will Catholic Schools Become Charter Schools? by Paul Moses
A Gamble: Can Charter Schools Fix Public Education? by Bruce Fuller

Published in the 2010-09-24 issue: 

Paul Moses is the author, most recently, of The Italian Squad: The True Story of the Immigrant Cops Who Fought the Rise of the Mafia (NYU Press, 2023). He is a contributing writer. Twitter: @PaulBMoses.

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