Letters | How to Reform Public Education

Reviewing the Ravitch Reviewer

I was disappointed by Jackson Lears’s uncritical summary (“Reform of the Reform,” November 15) of Diane Ravitch’s new book criticizing the education-reform movement, Reign of Error. Some of her points have merit. She’s right to draw attention to the troubling proliferation of online charter schools. And Ravitch rightly questions the value of standardized testing models. One would be hard-pressed to find an education reformer satisfied with the quality of standardized testing. On the whole, however, her arguments are flawed for the same reasons she claims education reformers are wrong.

First, Ravitch criticizes reformers for using data to posit an education crisis, yet it is her use of statistics that is incoherent. She seems to suggest that we have nothing to worry about: assessment data and graduation rates have been steadily improving, and schools alone can’t change economic outcomes. But she doesn’t account for the vast racial and socioeconomic gaps reflected in the data, nor does she take stock of the different quality of education received by students in under- and over-supported districts. We agree that there are “better” and “worse” schools—should we stop trying to make the worse schools better? Ravitch also fails to consider that these improving metrics may flow from the work of the reformers she criticizes.

Second, Ravitch fails to engage with the actual goals and policies of the reform movement. Lears praises the “risibly easy” job Ravitch does knocking down the purported myth that “poverty is an excuse for ineffective teaching and failing schools.” We don’t need Ravitch’s “mountain of studies” to intuit that poorer students face far greater obstacles in education, and no reformer, even the bogeyman herself, Michelle Rhee, believes that poverty has no effect on schools. Reformers agree that “poverty is highly correlated with low academic achievement.” What are we supposed to do with this knowledge? Reformers say we must demand that teachers and administrators have the same expectations for poorer students that they have for privileged students. That isn’t too much to ask. Plenty of teachers and schools—even charter schools—have met this challenge. Is it really “depriving teachers of professional dignity” to make rigorous professional demands instead of worrying about hurt feelings?

Ravitch invokes “privatization” to scare off supporters of reform. Privatization and the education-reform movement are not one and the same. Ravitch’s accounts of under-the-table deals and corrupt handouts to profit-seeking education “entrepreneurs” are very troubling. But charter schools have been a useful part of the reform agenda. At their best, charter schools are incubators of teacher talent, they can adapt quickly to experiment with new ideas in education, and they can be regulated just as easily as district schools. Where corruption is found, charter schools can easily be closed or put under new management. After all, charter schools are, legally and practically, public entities.

So: Are public schools in great shape or should we improve them? Are things getting better in spite of, or because of, the reforms Ravitch criticizes? Should schools serving poor students set the same academic goals as they would for other students or not? Should we keep working to improve assessments and data; ensure that curricula and classrooms are rich places of learning, not “test prep” factories; increase oversight of all public schools; and demand that teachers be held to the same standards we demand of any other professional—or not? These are questions I wish Lears asked, and Ravitch answered.

Tom Mcsorley

Washington, D.C.

 

The Reviewer Responds

I wish Tom McSorley had read my piece a little more carefully. I make it clear that if students can graduate from high school and even attend college without knowing how to put a sentence together (and we know they can), then there are definitely problems with public education that cannot be concealed by rising high-school graduation and college-admission rates.

Of course, there have always been problems with public education, and since the days of Horace Mann, most reformers have tried to address them without reference to the larger social context of economic inequality, promising utopian transformation through schooling alone. The single exception to this pattern was the Great Society era, when reformers did try to address the larger context (however inadequately) through such programs as Head Start.

But that was fifty years ago. Now the people who call themselves reformers are part of a much broader neoliberal movement that is hostile to any government-sponsored efforts to alleviate inequality, a movement that seeks to import market models and quantitative standards into areas—such as education—where their impact can only be destructive.

To be sure, McSorley is correct that education reform is not reducible to privatization. Many decent people are alarmed by mediocrity or worse in public education, and are trying to do something about it. Sometimes their efforts pay off. Charter schools (for example) can be genuinely public entities, and can provide excellent learning experiences, especially for brighter and more fortunate students. Diane Ravitch and I both acknowledge this quite explicitly.

What Ravitch also sees, and what so few of her critics seem able to acknowledge, is that the wealthiest and most powerful supporters of education reform are also part of the broader neoliberal effort to hollow out the public sector and refill it with managerial groupthink. However citizens may define school reform at the local level, the monied interests at the top do seek to reduce it to privatization. And with the aid of ignorant and ideologically driven state legislators, they are succeeding. If we are not more careful to distinguish between genuine reformers and privatizers deploying the rhetoric of reform, we will end up turning education over to a bunch of pinheaded technocrats. Ravitch sees how high the stakes are in this struggle, and for that we owe her a debt of gratitude.

Jackson Lears

Published in the December 20, 2013 issue: 
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