The Education of Diane Ravitch
Attending high school in Houston in the 1950s, Diane Ravitch came into contact with a teacher named Ruby Ratliff. A passionate lover of literature and a fierce editor of homework, Ratliff, following Tennyson, told Ravitch “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” The student evidently followed the teacher’s advice. Ravitch, a historian of American education and assistant secretary of education under the first George Bush, has long sought to find out what makes schools work. She has now found what that is, or at least what it isn’t: choice and testing. Her case against both is unyielding.
Ravitch was lucky to have Ratliff as her teacher — and we are lucky to have Ravitch as ours. Education was once considered purely a state and local matter. In the past 30 or so years it has become a national political football, with left and right fighting over various proposals, while nothing ever seems to get fixed. Meanwhile, many schools remain essentially segregated; how much you earn has a great deal to do with where you were educated; and even the best and brightest seem to know less geography and grapple with less history than when Ruby Ratliff discussed “Ozymandias” with her Houston class.
Ravitch’s offer to guide us through this mess comes with a catch: she has changed her mind. Once an advocate of choice and testing, in “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” she throws cold water on both. Along the way she casts a skeptical eye on the results claimed by such often-praised school reformers as New York’s Anthony Alvarado and San Diego’s Alan Bersin, reviews a sheaf of academic studies of school effectiveness and delivers the most damning criticism I have ever read of the role philanthropic institutions sometimes play in our society. “Never before,” she writes of the Gates Foundation, was there an entity “that gave grants to almost every major think tank and advocacy group in the field of education, leaving no one willing to criticize its vast power and unchecked influence.”
The trouble all started, in her telling, with Milton Friedman, whose 1955 article “The Role of Government in Education” advocated the idea that parents should be given vouchers that would enable them to purchase schooling of their choice. In the Reagan administration, Friedman’s essay provided the rationale for efforts to promote what Secretary of Education William Bennett called the three C’s: content, character and choice. Before long, support for school choice became bipartisan when urban public officials, many of them black Democrats, saw in vouchers a way to give minority parents the same options available to middle-class families who could afford houses in desirable school districts.
established in Milwaukee, turned out to offer few if any gains for those who attended them. As for charter schools, they have skimmed off the most motivated students without producing consistently better results than traditional public schools. She is skeptical of the charter movement’s free-market model of competition and choice. “At the very time that the financial markets were collapsing, and as regulation of financial markets got a bad name,” Ravitch points out, “many of the leading voices in American education assured the public that the way to educational rejuvenation was through deregulation.” Instead of treating markets as a panacea, she argues, we should look at the data, the latest of which shows that charter schools as a whole do not do better than traditional schools. Given that result, we should be working harder to preserve the benefits of community and continuity that neighborhood schools offer.
Testing experienced much the same fate as vouchers. Knowing that their students would be tested and that the results would be used to evaluate which schools would be rewarded, educators began teaching to the tests, at the expense of sound curriculum. But educational testing, Ravitch shows, is inexact, roughly the way public opinion polling is. Far from holding schools accountable, testing resulted in massive cynicism. Meanwhile the level of education received by many students remained “disastrously low.” Ravitch points to a 2009 study sponsored by the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago showing that the increases in the performance of the city’s eighth graders in math and reading were due mostly to changes in testing procedures, and that in any case such gains evaporated by the time those students reached high school.
Some may ask whether we should trust someone who was once widely viewed as a conservative but now actually says nice things about teachers’ unions. But for all the attention paid to Ravitch’s change of heart, she has always been less an ideologue than a critic of educational fads, whether the more touchy-feely forms of progressive education popular in the 1960s and ’70s or the new nostrums of choice and testing. Ravitch now supports ideas associated with the left not because she is on the left. She does so for the simple reason that choice and testing had their chance and failed to deliver.
Ravitch ends with a call for a voluntary national curriculum, and believes that a consensus around better education is possible. On this point I do not share her optimism: parents who want creation science for their kids are not going to accept the teaching of evolution, and any push to establish common curriculum is likely to raise an outcry similar to that surrounding the 1994 history standards, drawn up by a panel of left-leaning historians and vociferously denounced by Lynne Cheney, the former chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and other conservatives. (Ravitch writes that she was “disappointed” by the partisan nature of the standards, but “thought they could be fixed by editing.”)
I have always relied on Ravitch’s intellectual honesty when battles become intense. And her voice is especially important now. President Obama and his secretary of education, Arne Duncan, seem determined to promote reforms relying on testing and choice, despite fresh data calling their benefits into question. I wish we could all share Ravitch’s open-mindedness in seeing what the data really tells us. Somehow, I doubt that’s what will carry the day.
By Diane Ravitch
283 pp. Basic Books. $26.95