The Poverty of Education

Treatises on education are often ordeals of blurry thinking, but no such complaint can be leveled against Diane Ravitch’s latest. From the title — Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools — to the final paragraph, Ravitch marshals her arguments and her evidence in clear declarative sentences. Her main target is the so-called “reform” movement that has loomed large in American public education in the past dozen years. These “reformers” claim that public education is irretrievably broken, that American children are falling farther behind the rest of the world, that the main problem is bad teachers and the unions that protect them, and that the solution is to shut public schools, fire teachers and principals, and open up privately owned or privately managed charter schools in their place. Behind this movement stand major foundations — Ravitch names them all — as well as major corporations and billionaire hedge fund operators on the scent of huge profit opportunities, together with politicians in both parties who dance to their tune.

Against these Goliaths, Ravitch is only one individual, but she comes with a well supplied slingshot. She served as a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which runs the National Assessment of Educational Progress, under both Presidents G.W. Bush and Clinton. She has written extensively on the main themes of this book. Her depth of knowledge and passion are all the greater because she was initially a supporter of charter schools and of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) program, which is the national legislative embodiment of the “reform” movement. She articulated her disillusionment in her previous work, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Undermine Education.” Here she unrolls a systematic and comprehensive deconstruction.

Ravitch writes, “Public education is not broken. It is not failing or declining.” Public discourse is filled with so much trash talk about the schools that Ravitch seems to have lifted an impossible burden of proof here. But the historic trend of scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), on which Ravitch served for seven years, support her case. This test is administered at random, no one knows in advance who will take it, there is no prep available for it, no student is graded on their performance, and no stakes for the student, teacher, or school are attached. The test is upgraded yearly, and the current questions in math and science are far more difficult than anything students encountered decades ago. Yet the trend line of test scores over the past four decades in reading, math and science is substantially and significantly upward. The greatest gains took place in the years before the adoption of NCLB. Not only white and Asian but also black and Hispanic students made substantial gains. The argument that public education is stagnant or declining is not based on facts. Even by the measure that the education “reformers” hold up as the gold standard — test scores — American students are making remarkable progress. Educators don’t deserve blame; they deserve credit.

School “reformers”, Ravitch writes, like to pose as civil rights activists, harping on the achievement gap and promising to “save” minority students from public schools. In reality, Afro-American and Hispanic students have made dramatic gains, particularly in mathematics, but white students have also advanced, so the historic gap remains large. In math and reading, the gap actually narrowed a few points during the years preceding the adoption of NCLB, and historically the gap narrowed significantly during the years of the War on Poverty. In the past dozen years, the black/white achievement gap has been overtaken by the income gap. The gap between children of high and low income families is now about 30 to 40 per cent greater than it was a quarter century ago, and is now twice as great as the black/white gap. Educational policy, expressed in budgets, has failed to invest the necessary resources to compensate for the heavy negatives that poverty extracts from its children. Policy “must address the problems of poverty, unemployment, racial isolation, and mass incarceration,” and this has not been done.

A favorite exhibit in the “reformers” case is international comparisons. American kids are getting mediocre scores on international tests, and if this isn’t fixed — so runs the argument — America will fall behind in the race to whatever. Ravitch writes that this is an old bugbear dating back to the Sputnik era, but it was a fallacy then and it is a fallacy today. Despite historically mediocre scores on various editions of international tests going back seventy years, the American economy led the world in growth and technology most of that time. Ravitch cites evidence that test scores have little or no relation to a country’s progress. If anything, the correlation is backward: the higher a country’s test scores were 40 years ago, the worse was its economic performance. American scores have held steady over the dozen years of the current international test, and the scores of American students in low-poverty schools were equal to the best of China, Finland, Korea, Japan and other high scoring countries. If Massachusetts were a country, its students would rank second in the world. Black students in Massachusetts had scores as good as Israel and Finland. Finland, which consistently scores high, does not use standardized testing at all. China, where skill in test taking (mainly rote memorization) was for centuries the gateway to advancement, now considers that system as a guarantee of mediocrity and stagnation, and is moving toward a model inspired by the flexibility and autonomy of American education before NCLB. The quality in which American students led the world, by a long shot, was creativity, initiative, innovation, and problem solving ability — the very qualities that the NCLB regime of standardized testing is in the process of destroying.

Another bullet in the “reformers”‘ list of talking points is the supposed high school dropout crisis. Ravitch points out that until 1940, fewer than 50 per cent of high school students graduated. Since then, the rate of students graduating in four years has risen to 78 per cent. If students who take five or six years to graduate and who get a GED are added, the high school completion rate is 90 per cent. Gaps between whites, blacks, and Hispanics in high school completion rates remain, but they have narrowed significantly. This is not a picture of perfection. It is a picture of slow, incremental progress. It is not a portrait of national crisis or disaster.

Another gap — the chasm between rhetoric and reality — dominates the picture of college education. Proclamations from President Obama and other leaders set a goal of moving the U.S. to the front ranks in the world in college completion rates. The American rate in 2011 was 32 per cent; South Korea leads the world with 63 per cent. But the investments required to catch up simply aren’t being made. On the contrary, Ravitch points out, public college budgets are being cut, tuition rates have increased dramatically, student loans are looming as a lifetime burden, and growing numbers of graduates are unemployed or working at jobs for which their education is superfluous. Job market forecasts suggest that two thirds of the jobs available when the current cohort of college students graduates won’t require a college degree. Yet, Ravitch points out, “many employers will hire only college graduates, even for jobs that don’t require a college education.” Many students are caught in a cruel squeeze, burdened by a lifetime of debt for an education that benefits them neither in their work performance nor in their pay check. There’s little doubt that the U.S. is sliding further behind in college completion rates.

Ravitch writes that a central argument of the “reformers” is that bad teachers are the cause of enduring poverty. If teachers were great, then all children would get high test scores, go to college and get good jobs, and poverty would be over. But teachers are too lazy or stupid to raise up their classes’ test scores, and so students fail and poverty persists. Lurid anecdotes, real or fabricated, lend this argument currency. The conventional debate then turns on whether we should fix poverty first or fix schools first. That’s a false choice, Ravitch says. Both need to be “fixed” at the same time. The Harlem Children’s Zone organization led by Geoffrey Canada provides a full wraparound of social services, including health care, tutoring, preschool, family support, counseling and whatever else may be necessary to support the children’s education. It can do this because it has raised millions of dollars from corporations and foundations. Nothing remotely resembling this scale of investment in wraparound services is being provided, or is on the horizon, for the 99.999 per cent of children in poverty who are not enrolled in Canada’s schools. What the “reformers” are doing in the big arena outside the Harlem goldfish bowl is “fixing” neither poverty nor the schools. Poverty is not an excuse for poor educational progress; poverty matters. Poverty harms children’s health and well being, their eyes, ears, teeth, digestion, attention span, motivation, emotional balance, and cognitive ability. Excellent schools, excellent teachers, where they exist, can help raise some children to rise up despite all these handicaps and to achieve success, perhaps even fame and wealth. But the great majority succumb. “Most are dragged down by the circumstances into which they are born, through no fault of their own.” The true international scandal, Ravitch points out, is not American test scores, but the American rate of child poverty — higher than what any other advanced nation tolerates. It is about five times the rate of child poverty in Finland, four times the rate of such countries as Denmark, Slovenia, Norway, and the Netherlands; triple the rate of Germany, Austria, and France, and double the rate in the UK, Canada, and Australia. The only “advanced” nation with a higher rate of child poverty is Romania. Ravitch cites extensive research beginning with prenatal care to illustrate the series of heavy impacts that poverty has on people who are born into it, and which underlie the “achievement gap.” Blaming teachers for the consequences of these conditions is the height of unfairness.

A core belief in the “reform” mantra, Ravitch points out, is that teachers control their classrooms’ test scores. Good teachers make the scores go up, and vice versa. Ravitch devotes a full chapter to debunking this notion. An extensive body of research demonstrates that family income impacts students’ test performance more than any other factor. True, there are people who were inspired to succeed by an outstanding teacher, but after more than a decade of the NCLB regime, there is no non-selective school or district that provides evidence for the “reform” theory. Studies trying to link student test scores with teacher effectiveness consistently come up with inconsistent data. The same teacher may show big test gains in one year and none the next. Teachers do the same thing year after year with widely different test scores.  Only a tiny minority show large gains for a string of years. The key variable is not the teacher but the makeup of the classroom. Students who are English learners or have disabilities or who live in poverty rarely show high gains. The allegedly “worst” teacher in New York City, by her students’ test scores, had a classroom of new immigrants who left as they learned English; she was rated “excellent” by her principal. (Gifted students already score high and also are unlikely to show dramatic gains.) Ranking teachers by student test scores encourages teachers to avoid “problem” classrooms, which aggravates the difficulties in staff recruitment that schools in high-poverty districts already face. Furthermore, Ravitch points out, it is more than dubious to judge teacher quality by students’ performance on multiple-choice tests. “Nothing about a multiple-choice test is suited to finding the most inspiring and the most dedicated teachers in every school.”

Merit pay — gearing teacher salaries to student test scores — is another “reform” panacea that does not stand up to scrutiny, according to Ravitch. The merit pay notion has a long history with numerous experiments behind it — all of them failures. Merit pay is based on the piecework pay model in industry or agriculture — so many shirts ironed or pounds of cotton picked, so much pay. It does not work in education. Where it has been tried, merit pay results in teachers ignoring students who most need their attention (those at the top and at the bottom) and ignoring subjects that are not on the test. It also destroys the team spirit among teachers that knits a school together and makes it work. It demoralizes teachers, makes them work less hard, and makes the whole teaching profession less attractive to talented candidates. It is not associated with improved student performance. Tellingly, few if any private schools catering to the affluent adopt this scheme. Ravitch cites a series of studies showing that merit pay had no effect on test scores and no positive effect on teacher motivation. It’s ideology, not evidence, that drives the “reform” agenda.

Another “reform” claim Ravitch targets is that teacher tenure and seniority are obstacles to school improvement. Translation: the road to better schools lies over the dead body of teacher’s unions. Again, says Ravitch, the evidence is inconvenient for this claim. In the U.S., the states with the weakest teacher unions — mainly in the South — rank at the bottom in test scores. The highest test scores are in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Connecticut — states with strong teachers’ unions. There are also areas with strong unions and dismal scores, such as the District of Columbia, but these are also areas with high poverty and intense racial segregation in the schools. Having strong unions is no guarantee of high scores, but breaking unions is a guarantee that there will not be a strong voice in opposition to budget cuts for public education. As for teacher tenure, Ravitch points out that teachers fought for and won tenure long before there were unions. The reason for tenure was to curb the dictatorial power of principals and school boards to fire teachers for arbitrary and capricious reasons: their color, their ethnic background, their gender, marital status, pregnancy, or simply to give the job to a relative. Tenure in public schools does not mean the almost ironclad job security of a few professors in universities. It means only due process: the right to have a hearing before an impartial arbitrator, to see the evidence and to offer a defense. It is true that in some districts this process takes too long and is too cumbersome, Ravitch writes; but the answer is to handle the process more expeditiously, not to eliminate it. Contrary to the notion that teachers stay in their jobs forever and need to be booted out, Ravitch shows that the teaching profession suffers from extremely high turnover and attrition; about 40 per cent leave within the first five years, and in high poverty districts the attrition rate is much greater. High teacher turnover is not conducive to student learning. Moreover, teachers who stay see tenure as an asset that makes up for the low pay. Eliminate tenure and the job becomes much less attractive, and fewer highly qualified candidates are drawn to this career. Since the adoption of NCLB, the profession has been hemorrhaging experienced teachers, and in recent years the typical teacher has not been a veteran but a beginner in the first year of teaching.

Teach for America is often cited as a model of “reform,” and (Ravitch writes) it’s hard to criticize it because it attracts such a terrific, lovable set of young people. TFA teachers go to work in high-poverty schools with only five weeks of training, and they don’t bring wraparound services like health care, nutrition, family support, counseling, jobs and justice with them. Not surprisingly, the extravagant claims made by TFA leaders and their political backers haven’t stood up to the research. Careful comparative studies cited by Ravitch show that TFA teachers don’t do significantly better than other new and uncredentialed teachers in the same schools, and do significantly less well than beginning teachers who have obtained teaching credentials. The over-all impact of TFA teachers on schools is mixed. TFA teachers are better than none at all, but more than half of TFA teachers quit the field after two years and 80 per cent leave after three years, so districts face the costs and expense of constant turnover. TFA recruits work 70 or 80 hours a week, often well below the minimum wage, and quickly burn out. The TFA model has huge corporate and politico support because it is anti-union, pro-charter, pro-privatization, anti-professional. But it’s a glaringly unsustainable model that has no evidence to back its effectiveness on a scale larger than a few fishbowl schools, and it exacerbates teacher churn, a well documented depressant of student achievement. In no other profession — health care, law, engineering, business administration, or any other — would reasonable minds accept a model that devalues training and experience and feeds off constant rapid turnover. The nearest analogue is the fast food industry. Is that where we want education to go?

Ravitch also takes on one of the leading missionaries of the corporate “reform” message, Michelle Rhee, formerly chancellor of the D.C. schools. Before Rhee was appointed to that job she had never run a school or a school district. But she has a big mouth and a set of opinions perfectly aligned with the radical right wing of the corporate “reform” movement. By the time Rhee was forced to quit, she had fired nearly half the teachers and a third of the principals in the District of Columbia system. What was the effect on student test scores? We may never know, because investigation by USA Today uncovered widespread cheating on test scores in more than half the schools, cheating of which Rhee must have or should have been aware.  The cheating was especially obvious in an alleged model school that got major praise and staff bonuses.  After its principal quit under fire, scores at that school dropped off the cliff.  Rhee’s own resume has been shown to be shot through with inaccurate claims.  None of these dismal facts softened Rhee’s rhetoric or the corporate support for her agenda.

The idea for charter schools, Ravitch writes, came from Albert Shanker, long the president of the American Federation of Teachers.  He saw it as a way for teachers in public schools to experiment and to innovate so as to better serve students with low motivation in the existing system.  Shanker reversed course after the concept was hijacked by private for-profit entrepreneurs bent on destroying teacher unions, cutting teacher standards and compensation, and smashing the public schools altogether.  Today, corporate money and both federal and state legislation mandate a green light for charter schools.  Charters get taxpayer dollars plus, often, corporate and foundation support, but they are freed from the financial oversight and from nearly all other kinds of supervision that apply to traditional public schools.  Unlike the public schools, which have to accept every kid in their area, charters have the power to cherry pick.  Typically they avoid, or “counsel out” students who are English learners, who have disabilities, or are otherwise unlikely to post high test scores.  On this basis, demonstrating superiority over the public schools should be a piece of cake.  There is a lot of money to be made — taxpayer money — by charter school investors. This is no longer a game for small entrepreneurs.  Nationwide charter chains or franchises now dominate the scene.  Ravitch readily concedes that some charter operators obtain good results and are worth learning from.  But others produce dismal results, and the charter sector on the average posts no better results and shows no money savings over the public schools they replaced.  In many areas, such as Michigan, the charter sector showed bloated administrative overhead and spent less on instruction than the public school sector, with worse educational outcomes.  Charters have also significantly warped school governance.  In many areas, private charter companies control the school boards that initially authorized them.  Where charters are allowed to co-locate in public school buildings, they soon take over the whole space and elbow the public school out.  For-profit charters take public money but assert the privilege of private corporations for exemption from accountability.  Ravitch documents numerous instances of conflicts of interest, nepotism, gouging, cheating, fraud, and other kinds of corruption in the charter sector.  Charter executives typically pull down salary packages several multiples higher than the pay of public school administrators.  Not only public schools but parochial schools, notably the Catholic schools that have traditionally served low-income populations, have been devastated by the charter school movement.  Charters, Ravitch writes, have become weapons for increasing segregation of schools along lines of race and class.

One of the “solutions” in the “reform” agenda is virtual schools or e-learning.   Ravitch readily concedes that students should learn computers and that the Internet can be an invaluable resource for education.  But do virtual schools and online courses produce better educational progress?  Ravitch’s chapter devastates these claims.  Online ed, she argues, is a fat cash cow for vendors, an unprecedented boondoggle — she documents the point in rich detail — but  the educational results are deplorable.  The dropout rates from online classes dwarf those from brick and mortar schools, and the achievement scores of highly touted cyber-schools were worse than the worst of the public schools.

Hijacking progressive rhetoric, like that of the civil rights movement, is one of the basic moves of the corporate “reform” agenda, Ravitch points out.  Another instance of this linguistic fraud is the movement to promote “parent control” of schools.  A pro-charter group called “Parent Revolution” in California promoted a scheme to “empower” parents, via a petition, to “take control” of a public school and fire some or all of its staff.  There was a catch: the parents had to turn over control of the school to a private management corporation, a charter.  This meant among other things that the management company, in which parents had no say, would take over from the elected school board, where parents had a voice.  Not a single group of parents in California availed itself of this “opportunity.”  In the fall of 2010, the PR group tried to engineer an astroturf rebellion in one school in Compton, which died when tied up in court.  In a second effort, PR manipulated the results to eke out a technical victory.  But there was nothing resembling a genuine parent groundswell to buy this agenda.  Nonetheless, other states with similar educational levels as California — Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana, Florida — wrote similar laws.  Billionaire Philip Anschutz, who funded Prop 8 in California, supports fracking, sponsors the “intelligent design” quackery, and owns the nation’s largest chain of theaters, spent heavily to promote the scheme.  But it has never caught on with parents, and major parent organizations have come out against it.

The school voucher proposal, under the banner of “school choice,” emerged as a form of resistance to the Brown v. Board of Education decision for school integration.  Vouchers, Ravitch notes, were intended as an end-run around Brown and a way to keep schools segregated.  In the nineties, small voucher experiments were launched in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and D.C.  Results in all three places were unimpressive and fell far below the claims made for them.  Private operators pocketed large sums of public funds, that was all.

Under NCLB and its successor, Obama’s Race to the Top, schools that consistently show low performance on test scores can be and frequently are shut down, all their staff fired.  Does this improve the educational outcomes for the children?  Ravitch argues that schools don’t improve if they are closed.  One of the laboratories for this agenda was Arne Duncan’s Chicago.  The results are at best controversial.  Ravitch cites two opposing reports.  One, by supporters of the agenda, found significant improvement at the elementary but not at the high school level.  The other, by critics, asserted that the regular public schools out-performed the so-called turnaround schools (schools that were closed and reopened with new staffs) by large margins.  The regular schools are run by democratically elected school councils.  The turnaround schools are tightly controlled by a contractor or by a branch of the school bureaucracy.  The turnaround schools lagged far behind their predicted gains and behind the regular schools.  They had higher staff turnover and spent more money.  Despite the evidence, and in defiance of huge parent protest demonstrations, city authorities, led by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the foul-mouthed former chief of staff in Obama’s White House, closed even more  schools, including some of its own celebrated “model” turnaround schools, and turned them into charters.  Evidence, experience, logic mean nothing to the “reform” juggernaut.  It is driven by the ideology of privatization.

In the final chapters of her book, Ravitch steps back and looks at possible solutions.  Public schools, she points out, exist to give all children an equal opportunity regardless of their zip code.  But schools are not equipped to remedy the inequities that position some children at a far lower level than others when they first walk in the door.  The poverty gap and the ethnic gaps contained within it begin before the child is born.  A few children survive and excel despite their disadvantages, but these stories are inspiring because they are highly exceptional.  There is no school district that has eliminated the impact of poverty on its children, and the current reform effort is very far from doing so.  Its rhetoric of not leaving any child behind is a hoax.  If we really want a free and just society, Ravitch argues, then we need to improve schools and society at the same time.  We know what works.  We have seen enviable results in other countries that have adopted policies very different from ours.  We even saw it in our own country during the short era of the War on Poverty and the Great Society, when the black/white achievement gap narrowed substantially, schools made progress in desegregation, and college attendance rates among whites, blacks, and Hispanics reached parity for the first (and only) time before or since.  When public policy acts appropriately, public education makes great strides forward.

To begin making those strides, Ravitch points, out, we have to start by providing good prenatal care for every pregnant woman.  The achievement gap starts in the womb.  We have a dismal record of premature births, ranking with nations in sub-Sahara Africa.  Pre-term birth, combined with substandard infant care, engenders cognitive and emotional learning disabilities that may impair children all their lives.

Number two:  make high quality preschool education available to every child.  Early childhood education, numerous studies show, makes an enormous difference not only in children’s educational achievement, but also in their physical and mental health, their occupations and incomes, involvement with criminal justice, and the stability of their families.  Ravitch observes that he U.S. ranks only 24th among 45 nations in the quantity and quality of preschool education, tied with the United Arab Emirates.  Even where it is supplied, such as in most Head Start centers, the quality of U.S. preschool education, she says,  leaves much to be desired.  If we want to make progress in education, universal quality preschool programs are an essential measure.

Third, Ravitch argues that all schools need to have a full, balanced, and rich curriculum, including the arts, science, history, literature, civics, geography, foreign languages, mathematics and physical education.  Class sizes need to be reduced.  Wraparound social services need to be provided.  The “reform” campaign has inexcusably narrowed the curriculum and stripped schools of resources not devoted to prepping for the standardized tests, and has denied the need to address the impacts of poverty.  The affluent parents who are driving the “reform” movement, Ravitch points out, would not dream of sending their own children to the schools their agenda has created.  They send their kids to private schools that provide a rich and balanced curriculum with small classes and many extracurricular activities.  They would never consider their children’s skill at filling bubbles on multiple choice tests as the measure of their worth; they know better than to reduce a child to a clever bubble guesser.  A number of affluent suburban communities today have public schools that approximate the offerings of elite private schools.  The problem is that the resources available there are not available today in the great majority of public schools, particularly in the inner cities.  “The fact of inequality is undeniable, self-evident, and unjustifiable,” Ravitch writes.  Particularly noxious is the creeping return of school segregation, during a period when the Supreme Court’s rightward tilt has retreated from the clarity of Brown.  There are numerous urban schools today where the percentage of one racial group exceeds 90 per cent, to the exclusion of others, and this segregation is increasing.  The most segregated sector for black students, Ravitch writes, is charter schools.  Despite an African-American president in the White House, neither NCLB nor Race to the Top even mention the growing school segregation disaster, which brings obvious, well-documented, and long-lasting harm to minority children.

An urgently necessary measure, Ravitch contends, is to upgrade the status and rewards of professional educators.  The current campaign of deliberate contempt for teachers — making teachers the scapegoats for society’s inequities — is deeply harmful to the educational system.  Education cannot advance without highly skilled professionals to staff it.

Elected school boards, Ravitch argues, are not perfect but are far preferable governors of education than private corporations.  Ravitch supports federal protection of students’ civil rights but opposes a federal curriculum.  She sees great value in the diversity of educational offerings and argues for retention of the patchwork quilt of educational governance, with responsibilities parceled among federal, state, and local authorities.  She particularly emphasizes community involvement in local schools and would have school districts prioritize the concerns of those who have the greatest stake in the children and the community.

Public schools are supposed to do more than teach basic reading and writing skills, Ravitch reminds us.  They are supposed to develop an informed citizenry that can understand complex issues in many fields, and reach intelligent decisions.  They need social skills, good judgment, and a depth of acquaintance with other people, places, and times, such as comes from literature, foreign languages, and the arts.  They need to develop their innate abilities and to become good at collaborating with others. Public education is an essential thread in the fabric of American democracy.  All this used to be understood as among the fundamental purposes of the public schools.  The privatization movement considers all of this thinking as rubbish and is spending billions in lobbying to discard it and make us forget it.

The current phase of the “reform” movement centers around the Common Core Standards.  Ravitch is, to say the least, skeptical.  She says, “No one can say with certainty whether the Common Core standards will improve education, whether they will reduce or increase the achievement gaps among different groups, or how much it will cost to implement them.”   The Common Core standards, she says, are clearly inferior to standards already in place in Massachusetts and Indiana, and no field tests to assess them have been conducted anywhere.  This is a multibillion-dollar national effort at winging it.  She is not optimistic.

No one can read Ravitch’s book, I think, without being moved by it.  The arguments are clearly put, finely meshed, and broadly and deeply supported.  This is not merely a passionate cry in the wilderness, though it is also that.  It is an example of the very highest kind of persuasive writing, rare and precious in the current climate, where demagogy, invective, and mindless screaming set the tone.  Her achievement is all the more remarkable because she does not speak meekly and advance baby-step measures.  She says that the corporate reform movement is a hoax on the public and that it constitutes educational malpractice.  She speaks truth to power, loud, clear, and hard.

I am not an education expert and can’t pretend to engage with Ravitch on the details of her argument.  I know that some controversy surrounds a number of the issues on which she takes stands.  Educators I know tell me that Common Core is a more positive, hopeful development than Ravitch imagines.  I would allow myself only a couple of comments.

(1)  Ravitch’s defense of educators is on the whole well grounded.  They don’t deserve the public derision that the gaggle of billionaires who set the tone have unleashed against them.  The teaching profession needs to be upgraded in respect, training, and compensation; such an upgrade was the beginning of Finland’s turnaround to excellence a decade ago.  What Ravitch glosses over, if I have read her attentively enough, is that there remains a large stain of racial injustice within and at the boundaries of the profession.  There are  teachers who are models of equity and empathy in dealing with all ethnic groups, but it’s not unusual to find others who are the opposite.  Black and Hispanic teachers don’t seem to be represented in the teaching profession in anything approaching student ratios. [Update 5/10/14:  A recent report from the Center for American Progress underlines this point: the gap between the ethnic makeup of the student population and the teacher workforce is large and growing; see report.]  As one goes higher in the educational hierarchy, the proportion of minorities dwindles.  In California, for example, among the 58 county superintendents of schools, the number of blacks can be counted on the fingers of one hand, with digits to spare.  The racial imbalance among educators very probably impacts the quality of educational services delivered in the entire system.  I would like to have seen Ravitch address this issue more extensively.

(2)  Ravitch asks, “Why do the elites support the increased stratification of American society?”  Ravitch knows and writes with perfect clarity that the driving force behind this fraudulent educational “reform” movement comes from the uppermost echelons of the corporate, financial, and nonprofit elite, the one tenth of one per cent that owns a vastly disproportionate share of all wealth.  She has no hesitation in naming names both of organizations and, where known, of the individuals behind them — America’s own oligarchs.  To my mind, the reason why these elements support an educational agenda that exacerbates the increasing stratification of American society is obvious, and perhaps Ravitch’s question is rhetorical.  They support this agenda because public education is the foundation of democracy, and democracy is anathema to the oligarchy.  They don’t want the mass of students to graduate with a knowledge of history, civics, the arts, foreign languages, and so forth, because those skills may expose the oligarchs to criticism and opposition.  A bit of reading, to absorb the trash that passes for most of print journalism, and a bit of arithmetic, to fill out their time cards, is enough.  They’re going to be driving trucks, changing bed pans, serving burgers, holding doors open.  Anything else they may need, they can get from TV.  As for the jobs that require high cognitive skills, innovation, creativity and the like, the oligarchs can either import the talent from India, Russia, China and elsewhere, or they can hire their own children.  For their own children, no expense is spared.  Lessons, tutors, test prep, private schools, and the alumni donor’s influence with college admission committees will usher their kids, no matter how dimwitted they may actually be, into their appointed careers in the sanctums of the elite.

It seems to me that Ravitch’s argument, while very strong, could be made stronger still if she were to follow the law of unintended consequences: consequences which persist over time are fully intended.  Our oligarchs are destroying public education not because they fail to realize the error of their ways, not because they are unaware of the resulting harm, but because they fully and consciously intend the hurt they are causing.  The destruction of public education and the monopolization of education in private hands creates the kind of society in which our oligarchs thrive and prosper.  The one element that needs to be added to the set of solutions that Ravitch proposes, therefore, is to cut these oligarchs off the public dole, confiscate the excess wealth with which they buy their political power, and, if necessary, throw them in jail.  Only then can the reign of error in education be stopped.

Ravitch’s excellent book is available for loan from the Berkeley Public Library, or you can purchase it from your independent bookseller, or from

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