THE BLOG
09/19/2013 11:43 am ET Updated Nov 19, 2013

Will the Real Education Reformer Please Stand Up?

If only Diane Ravitch had applied her formidable skills as a historian in her new book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools. No doubt she would have done enough legwork to realize that there is a critical mass of education reformers that bears little resemblance to the testing, pink slip and market-obsessed bogeymen of her book.

Reign of Error indicts education reform and those who support it with sweeping simplicity. Readers are told reformers are ginning up a crisis in public education in service of a right-wing agenda: namely, over-testing our children, punishing their teachers, and privatizing our schools. Reformers as a group are said to believe that markets, competition and the private sector will solve our perceived education ills and, moreover, that poverty is irrelevant to student achievement. So argues Ravitch, who, borrowing a page from the teachers unions' playbook, categorically derides an entire generation of education leaders as "corporate education reformers."

Earlier this year, motivated by concerns about education reform's deteriorating image and possible missteps by reformers that have aggravated it, I interviewed 50 leading education reformers: state and district superintendents, policy makers, directors of national teacher recruitment and training organizations, charter school leaders, academics, and community organizers. None of them sounded remotely like the corporate education reformers Ravitch portrays. Not Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach For America (which Ravitch devotes an entire chapter to denouncing). Not even Michelle Rhee, Ravitch's favorite punching bag.

Consider Ravitch's alleged "Hoax of Privatization." Ravitch claims all education reformers are bent on promoting privatization, vouchers, and for-profit schools. However, most of those I interviewed have little faith in market solutions to improve schools systemically. They won't actively oppose vouchers because they refuse to tell poor parents what they wouldn't tolerate hearing themselves: "Your kids must stay in this failing school while we spend a decade trying to fix it." But many talked about vouchers and for-profits as distractions more than game changers.

Then there is testing and accountability. My interviewees believe (as does much of the pubic, according to recent research polls) that testing can provide important information about student achievement and should be factored into a teacher's evaluation. But far from thinking only test scores matter, most reformers are concerned about over-testing, as well as the current perverse focus on the wrong type of tests.

Finally, having taught in and worked with high-poverty schools for a decade or two, the reformers with whom I spoke have a deep understanding of poverty's effects on student achievement. But having demonstrated what more high-poverty schools can accomplish with existing resources, they refuse to accept poverty and social conditions as reason to stop focusing on what schools can and must do better.

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So why does Ravitch get it so wrong? Does she assume this current generation of education leaders believes exactly what she believed before her oft-discussed conversion from one of the intellectual framers of the right wing's agenda of accountability, choice and vouchers to one of its most ardent opponents -- essentially, that reformers are all who she was and who her most conservative colleagues still are?

The reality is the vast majority of this current generation of education leaders, many who began teaching in our highest-poverty schools in the early to mid-1990s through the Teach For America program, have never embraced this agenda. Having been in the field upon their arrival, I can attest that what has differentiated most of them from their predecessors is the unique, pragmatic, left-right synthesis they have tried to forge since the early years of the Clinton administration.


Indeed, it is impossible to understand the education reformers caught in Ravitch's crosshairs without understanding their origins and the already distorted partisan divide to which they were responding.

At the time, the left asserted that poor students weren't succeeding in school because the U.S. wasn't spending enough -- on buildings, smaller classes, and the social safety net. Refusing to criticize teachers unions, the left accepted existing school governance arrangements, including union contracts, despite dismal outcomes for low-income and minority students. Instead, they sought out more funds and rules expanding the education rights of poor and minority kids.

For those on the right, government institutions -- with their bloated bureaucracies and implacable unions -- could never provide the solution. Buoyed by the publishing of Politics, Markets and America's Schools in 1990, the right advanced market-based solutions, including vouchers. (At the time, Ravitch fell into this camp, serving briefly in the first President Bush's administration.) The first voucher law was passed in 1990; the first charter law passed one year later.

President Clinton (for whom I worked in his Department of Education) was the first high-profile elected Democrat to publically challenge his party's educational orthodoxy by borrowing strategies from the right. Believing schools needed greater freedom to innovate, he funded the expansion of charter schools and promoted greater flexibility for all educators from federal prescriptions (which those in his own party often demanded) in exchange for more meaningful accountability for results.

As President Clinton was making centrist political moves, a new generation of college graduates deeply committed to social justice and educational equity was figuring it out on the ground.

Unsold by the dominant explanations and solutions promoted by traditional Democrats and Republicans alike, these new arrivals charted a novel course to address the myriad problems facing the high-poverty schools and districts in which they worked.

They set out to prove that better outcomes by public schools were possible. Seeing how sclerotic, regulatory bureaucracies stymied innovation, they started public charter schools. They founded organizations to attract new and diverse talent to the highest-poverty school districts.

About a decade ago, they also entered the policy arena. They challenged teachers union contracts, which severely impeded principals' ability to hire based on quality and address shortcomings in teacher performance. They championed Race to the Top to promote the innovative, performance-driven cultures they saw lacking. More recently, they even became district and state superintendents of some of the systems they had been trying to change from the outside.

Most of them were singularly non-ideological, pragmatic, and non-partisan. Unlike those firmly on the left or right, they believed that better outcomes were possible now, with the social conditions and resources at hand, if only we delivered better school experiences. Like the right, however, they believed achieving those outcomes depended on challenging existing structures where necessary. Like the left, though, most were not directly hostile to unions, public institutions, or government solutions per se. (For example, I was one of the early Democrats to document the adverse effects of union contracts; my goal was never eliminating them but making it safe for Democratic politicians and policy makers to challenge their most damaging aspects.)

Ever pragmatists, this generation has been willing to consider any approach -- public, private, for-profit -- if it might dramatically improve the life outcomes of poor and minority children. Advocates for privatization and for-profit schools undoubtedly exist. But the main targets of Reign of Error's vitriol have never championed that agenda.

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At the same time, this current generation of education leaders has made a number of missteps, increasing its vulnerability to misunderstanding, caricature, and challenge.

In trying to create a more results-focused culture, their leaders talked too much about firing teachers and placed excessive emphasis on "objective measurement" as the solution to all problems.

Moreover, they woefully underestimated the union trap. They knew that reforming union contracts was essential to enabling more schools to succeed, but when they tried to change even the most problematic union rules, labor's full-throttled counter-fight succeeded in casting reformers as obsessed with stripping teachers and their unions of power.

Reformers also created political alliances that narrowed rather than broadened their coalition. They relied on anyone who could help them, including politicians and funders with whom they had only a partial overlap of belief and values. Concurrently, by relentlessly talking about what schools could do rather than the enormous effects of poverty and the importance of non-school supports, they failed to build bridges to traditional advocates for poor and minority children and opened themselves up to charges that they didn't think poverty matters.

Finally, in the face of being increasingly misrepresented, they never engaged in the kind of coordinated communication and mid-course correction that would have clarified where they truly stood.

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It is an important story, ripe for historical analysis. Ravitch the historian undoubtedly would have asked such questions as: What led this current generation of education leaders -- a generally left-leaning bunch -- to challenge the teachers unions? What lessons did they take away from many decades of failed district reform efforts? When they tried to improve local teacher evaluation systems, what resistance (or worse) did they get from the teachers unions that led these leaders to opt for the admittedly imperfect federal Race to the Top law to break the stalemate?

But Ravitch didn't ask, appearing to have done only cursory research on this group. As such, Reign of Error signals the completion of Ravitch's shift from historian to polemicist. A brief, distorted section on historical "context" is included only to reassure her loyal audience that there is some basis for their strong feelings. Having long since made up their minds, they won't care if her evidence is true, false, or cherry-picked. To them, she delivers.

The real error Diane Ravitch has made throughout her career -- first from the right and now from the left -- is assuming the solutions to our complex education problems can be found at either pole, rather than in the far messier, nuanced grey zone of the middle. At this critical juncture, the question is whether the rest of us can turn our attention to others who can do far more justice to this subject.

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