The case for market-driven reforms in education rests on two key premises: The public school system is in crisis, and the solution is to let the market pick winners and losers. Market strategies—high-stakes teacher accountability, merit pay, shuttering “failing” schools—are believed to be essential if public schools are ever going to get better. And these maxims underlie the commitment to charter schools and vouchers. Freed from the dead hand of bureaucracy and the debilitating effects of school board politics, the argument runs, schools are free to innovate.
If you follow education debates, you’ve heard that again and again. Here’s what’s new: A spate of new books undercuts both propositions, simply decimating the argument for privatizing education.
Since The Death and Life of the Great American School System, her 2010 best-seller, Diane Ravitch has been the most prominent critic of the market-minded reformers. Americans love apostates, and the fact that, as assistant secretary of education in the first Bush administration, Ravitch acknowledged that she had “fallen for the latest panaceas and miracle cures and drunk deeply of the elixir that promised a quick fix," has given her considerable credibility. Now she pops up everywhere, keynoting national conventions, urging on teachers at an Occupy the Department of Education rally, being profiled flatteringly in The New Yorker, deluging her supporters with emails, and sparring with ex-D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, the darling of the privatizers, about how to “fix” education.
In her new book, Reign of Error, Ravitch documents how public education’s antagonists have manufactured a crisis in order to advance their agenda. They deploy doom-and-gloom language to characterize the threat. For example, the 2012 report of a blue-ribbon commission chaired by Joel Klein, the former chancellor of New York City’s public schools, and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warns that the failure of public education “puts the United States’ future economic prosperity, global position, and physical safety”—physical safety!—“at risk.” Similar alarms have been sounded since “A Nation at Risk,” a 1983 national commission report, insisted, to great effect, that a “rising tide of mediocrity … threatens our very future as a Nation.”
Exhibit A in the sky-is-falling argument is the claim that test scores are plummeting. Ravitch shows that, quite the contrary, scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the nation’s report card, have never been higher. (The biggest gains in NAEP scores were recorded before the No Child Left Behind Act, with its fixation on teacher accountability and high-stakes testing, was implemented.) Nor do American students perform as badly as advertised on international exams—in 2011 tests of math and science, only a handful of countries did better. There’s no new dropout problem—students are staying in high school longer, and six-year graduation rates have never been higher.
Point by point, Ravitch attacks what has become the conventional wisdom about how American schools are failing and how to save them. Students’ test scores mismeasure the worth of teachers, and so shouldn’t be the basis for rewarding or punishing teachers. Merit pay for teachers has never worked. Neither tenure nor unions undermine the schools. Teach for America recruits, straight out of college, do no better, and often do worse, than teachers with credentials. Poverty isn’t an “excuse” for ineffective teaching but a fact of life that schools must take into account.
Ravitch is both a respected scholar and a gifted polemicist. While she makes a powerful argument for strengthening, not dismantling, the public schools, in a few instances she has soft-pedaled the problems. She gives unions a pass, even though in many districts it’s harder to fire incompetent teachers than to defrock doctors or lawyers. And while Ravitch acknowledges that we’ve slipped from first to 14th in international rates of college graduation, she’s unworried by this relative decline. Yet there is reason to fret: As Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz show, in their 2010 book The Race Between Education and Technology, America became the world’s richest nation during the first eight decades of the 20th century mainly because of our shared commitment to higher education. To remain atop the heap, they argue, we need to do better.