School Beat: Diane Ravitch, From NCLB Champion to Critic

by Lisa Schiff on April 22, 2010

Diane Ravitch has seen the light. Research Professor of Education at New York University, former Assistant Secretary of Education under George Bush Sr. and enthusiastic passenger on the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and high-stakes testing bandwagon, Ravitch has been converted by the underwhelming data that NCLB has been a failure and that high-stakes testing does nothing more than dumb down education and punish students most in need of support. Please tell me where the line starts to say “I told you so!”

All venting aside, it takes a lot of courage, intellectual and otherwise, to reassess and change a firmly held, publicly proclaimed position and even more so to detail that metamorphosis and actively share it with the rest of the world. But that is exactly what Professor Ravitch is currently doing. To her credit, she has recently published a new book The Death and Life of the Great American School System and is on tour offering in a very accessible way a window into her experience of the policy environment leading up to and encompassing the creation and implementation of NCLB and more importantly the details about how and why it all went wrong.

Ravitch’s book is a veritable guided tour of many of the serious flaws with federal education policy, starting with the presidency of George. H. W. Bush and building up disastrously through the administrations of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and now Barak Obama. Each chapter focuses on a major area of upheaval, including: the stranglehold of high-stakes testing and the related so-called “accountability” efforts; the juggernaut known as NCLB that we are still living with; the various incarnations of the choice movement, from vouchers to charters; and the uncontrollable influence and power of the private sector, particularly in the forms of the Gates, Walton, and Broad foundations.

In each of these areas, Ravitch provides background history combined with an analysis of research done to date on each specific point and illustrative case studies. This blend of context and facts offered within a well-constructed narrative gives public education activists powerful ammunition to use as we go forward into this next phase of defending our children and their schools from entrepreneurs, politicians and pundits who view them simply as producers of test scores.

Throughout her analysis, Ravitch deftly brings to light the incessant desire to impose competitive business models on education efforts. In case after case, she exposes how the logic of markets has been intentionally, almost gleefully, applied to public education by those with no understanding of educational issues beyond their personal experiences. These approaches have never succeeded even according to the skewed and useless litmus test these individuals so admire, the standardized test score. They have been effective though, at perverting the purpose of public education. As Ravitch so accurately states it:

“Business leaders like the idea of turning the schools into a marketplace where the consumer is king. 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.” (p. 221)

By contrast to the marketplace, high-stakes accountability, and choice models she once embraced, Ravitch argues that schools will improve and children will thrive when we refocus on the essential mission of public education and not look to the false promises of new fads or supposed rapid turnaround techniques:

“The most durable way to improve schools is to improve curriculum and instruction and to improve the conditions in which teachers work and children learn, rather than endlessly squabbling over how school systems should be organized, managed, and controlled.” (p. 225)

Ravitch is passionate about schools and their essential place in our society. She argues for a strong liberal arts education for all children that promotes critical thinking and that grounds students in history, science, language arts, math, music, arts, and more. Schools, she argues, are meant to prepare young people to be engaged citizens in our democracy and should ensure that they are “equipped to make decisions based on knowledge, thoughtful debate, and reason.” (p. 226).

If these ideas sound familiar, it’s because they are. This is the vision that teachers, principals and parents have been articulating before and after NCLB was imposed on us. For instance, in terms of concerns regarding narrowing of curriculum, the punitive nature of the testing, and the diversion of the purpose of public education, Letters to the Next President, first published in 2004, with a second “election” issue in 2008, offered an anthology of essays describing very early on not only what was fundamentally corrupt about the NCLB approach, but what successful alternatives should be.

The critique of market-based approaches to education and the unacceptable influence of business interests across the country has also been well-documented for years. One forceful instance came from San Francisco’s own Kathy Emery in her 2004 book Why Is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools? In terms of the distortion standardized testing brings and the need for more rigorous, productive assessments, FairTest has been providing critical analysis, testimony regarding legislation, and promoting assessment alternatives for the past 25 years.

The ubiquity of such critiques (and these represent just a few) and Ravitch’s very credentials as an education historian make her easy seduction into the high-stakes testing, market-force model difficult to comprehend. How could she have been swayed so easily? Ravitch’s efforts to address these questions in her book fall short, but again to her credit, the purpose of the book isn’t to showcase a mea culpa, personal introspection exercise, but rather to provide a coherent analysis that public education supports can use to make change now that we’re in this mess.

So we should be grateful for Diane Ravitch’s honesty and her impressive effort to assemble this material for us. But even with that, her book has some notable and surprising gaps that we will need to supplement in our advocacy efforts. First, there is the relative absence of the voices described above. Education activists need to partner with the steady voices who have been trying to protect and advance public education over the years. We cannot afford to be so unaligned in our efforts.

Second, right from the beginning of her book Ravitch denies the problematic role public schools have played in many communities over time, arguing that schools have never been agents of harm, but have always been forces of good. This is simply a naïve pronouncement made from a position of privilege. To deny the very real harm that individuals have experienced over time in public schools as documented, for example, by Lisa Delpit in Other People’s Children, is not only a morally untenable position, but also one that prevents of from developing public schools that serve all children well.

Third, parents are only incidental characters in Ravitch’s description of education change. Although she strongly encourages parents to lobby for changes, she does not describe a vision of public education that includes parents at the decision making table.

Finally, Ravitch pays scant attention to the paucity of funding for public schools. In her understandable eagerness to prioritize the need for a rigorous, broad curriculum and well-rounded school experience, she neglects to similarly prioritize the funding that will be required to provide such an education. A paragraph or two in her summary chapter are all that appear, as opposed to an analysis of how the problem of adequately funding education at the federal and state levels has also been invalidated by the market logic and business framework that has simultaneously decimated the content of our public education.

Even with these failings, Ravitch’s book, her talks (listen to the KQED Forum interview) and her new form of engagement are very welcome. Her honesty and willingness to change should provide a much needed source of inspiration and energy as we begin to battle out with the current administration what the next phase of federal education policy will look like.

As part of that struggle, Ravitch has a particular message for Bay Area public education supporters—talk to Representative George Miller. Miller’s district spans a large portion of the East Bay and he also happens to be the Chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor. He has been a staunch advocate of NCLB, high-stakes testing, market-based approaches, and simplistic strategies for accountability. He continues to take that line in his most recent statement praising the very similar approach Obama and Duncan are bringing to Congress.

Miller has been and will continue to be a central player in crafting and passing any federal education legislation. Given his proximity, we have both an opportunity and a responsibility to bring our needs and perspective right to his doorstep. We know how damaging the last many years have been, and we can almost predict the level of carnage the Obama/Duncan variation of NCLB will bring to our children and schools. We have the passion and first-hand knowledge; Ravitch has given us the data and analysis, legitimized for NCLB supporters like Miller by her conservative credentials.

Let’s take up Ravitch’s challenge and begin an ongoing, open-ended effort to tell Representative Miller what his local and neighbor constituents want in our schools. Write email messages, send letters and faxes or make phone calls to any one of his offices. Now is the time, before any legislation is passed, to try once more to help our elected officials understand what it really takes to create a great public school system that can provide all children with a quality education.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco and the PTA and is a board member at the national level of Parents for Public Schools.

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