Ravitch Is Right... and Wrong

05/02/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

I spent part of the last two weekends reading Diane Ravitch's new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. It's part polemic and part confessional.

Ravitch, once an ardent supporter of charter schools, accountability and other market-based reforms, has done a dramatic, highly public 180-degree turn. She now says these approaches will destroy public education if allowed to continue unfettered.

A former federal education official (under Bush I and Clinton) and an influential writer and thinker on education, Ravitch's change of heart is attracting national notice, and with good reason.

Her book, while exhibiting some of the new convert's zeal and bombast, contains thought-provoking stuff. While I don't agree with some of her conclusions, and though she paints some people as villains who don't deserve the abuse, she also makes some compelling arguments that those of us pushing some of the reforms she now abhors would be wise to ponder.

In a nutshell, Ravitch believes that U.S. education went seriously off the rails in the early 1990s and has been heading down an increasingly destructive path ever since.

It was in the early '90s, she says, when a concerted effort to write national content standards fell victim to ideological bickering over history standards and their allegedly liberal/progressive bias. An interesting footnote: The person who led the charge against the standards was none other than Lynne Cheney, wife of our former vice president.

Once the standards movement stalled, and standards writing was turned over to states, Ravitch says, states responded by writing vague, meaningless standards that remain in effect to this day.

"The states seemed to understand that avoiding specifics was the best policy; that standards were best if they were completely non-controversial; and that standards would survive scrutiny only if they said nothing and changed nothing," she writes.

Into this vacuum rode George W. Bush and No Child Left Behind. The revamped federal education law, Ravitch says, made test scores in reading and math the Holy Grail and left everything else in ruins. She contrasts NCLB to the seminal "A Nation at Risk" and finds NCLB wanting:

"A Nation at Risk" envisioned a public school system that offered a rich, well-balanced and coherent curriculum, similar to what was available to students on the academic track in successful school districts. No Child Left Behind, by contrast, was bereft of any educational ideas.

Once test-based accountability became the nation's obsession, a new generation of market-based reformers arrived on the scene to further the agenda, Ravitch says. She heaps particular scorn on Alan Bersin, a former federal prosecutor (and now the nation's border czar), a non-traditional superintendent who ran the San Diego schools from 1998 to 2005, and Joel Klein, New York City schools chancellor, and his boss Mayor Michael Bloomberg. She also takes some swipes at Arne Duncan for his stewardship of Chicago schools.

Ravitch raises red flags about charter schools and the foundations that promote them. While it might not be these foundations' intentional agenda to destroy American public education, she says, their pushing of charters, choice and accountability are doing just that.

Echoing many of the arguments of teachers' unions across the country, Ravitch says that charters drain the best, most motivated students from regular public schools, leaving those schools in a death spiral, for which they are then blamed.

"As currently configured, charter schools are havens for the motivated," Ravitch writes. "As more charter schools open, the dilemma of educating all students will grow sharper. The resolution of this dilemma will determine the fate of public education."

The problem with this argument, of course, is that it implies that 'motivated' students from low-income families should be denied the opportunity for a better education so that the institution of public education, which has served them badly, survives to fail another day.

Here I side with Howard Fuller, who on a recent Denver visit proclaimed: "I am from the Harriet Tubman school of education reform." Every kid who escapes a bad educational environment is one more kid with a better chance at a fulfilling life.

Ravitch excoriates the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation for being unelected policy-making monoliths, utterly unaccountable, that are shaping the direction (or as she would argue, dismantling) of public education.

"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.

...The foundations demand that public schools and teachers be held accountable for performance, but they themselves are accountable to no one. If their plans fail, no sanctions are levied against them. They are bastions of unaccountable power.

I ask Ravitch: To whom, then, should we cede control over public education? An answer as banal as "the people" won't cut it. Elected school boards? Their failures, especially in big cities, are the stuff of legend.

Ravitch argues, in compelling if vague fashion, that the way to "fix" public schooling is not to look for a single answer, but rather to unite in common purpose, to eschew test-driven stripped-down education, to develop a broad and deep national curriculum (she favors something along the lines of Core Knowledge, with top-notch art and music education added to the mix), to find great teachers and support them with training and good pay, to get more parents to read to their kids, and to expect kids to behave in a civil manner when in school.

It's hard to disagree with any of Ravitch's suggested cures, even if her description of the disease is off base. But it's almost impossible to see how we get there from here. While she lays out some of the problems forcefully, in blunt, plain English, she goes fuzzy on us just when we need her most.

Still, this book is a must read for anyone who cares about public education reform. In Ravitch's arguments you will hear echoes of some of the ideological battles taking place right here, right now.

The fact that her book's release coincides almost perfectly with announcements about first-round Race to the Top winners suggests that the battle over public education's future has been joined on a grand scale. Its outcome will not be decided anytime soon.