Diane Ravitch's change of heart on testing and charter schools

The Death and Life of The Great American School System:
How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education

By Diane Ravitch
New York, Basic Books, 283 pages

diane ravitch is the preeminent historian of American public education. For decades she has played Cassandra, challenging the received wisdom and questioning trendy notions of what does and doesn’t help young people learn. Her willingness to resist fads and question the cant too often generated by educational elites—particularly schools of education—has earned her a reputation as a courageous and thoughtful maverick.

Although a lifelong Democrat, she served in the Bush I administration as Assistant Secretary of Education. In that capacity, she became one of the nation’s fiercest champions of standards measured by testing and of choice in education through charter schools.

In The Death and Life of The Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Under­mining Education, she announces an about-face, abandoning her support for charter schools and criticizing the use of testing in many public schools. Was this apostasy, as some of her erstwhile allies would have it? Or, as Ravitch claims, was she acting in the intellectually honest tradition of John May-n­ard Keynes who, when accused of flip-flopping on monetary policy during the Great De­pres­sion, replied, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

To try to find out for myself, I went to the Boston Teachers Union headquarters in early April to hear Ravitch speak about her new book. The atmosphere reminded me of a political rally. The teachers were energized by Ravitch’s opposition to charter schools and to evaluating teachers based on student test scores. She was welcomed as the prodigal daughter returning to her senses.

Ravitch skillfully played to the crowd, including attacks on President Obama for uncritically adopting Republican orthodoxy on education policy generally and, in particular, for praising the mass firing of the teachers in Central Falls, Rhode Island. When she concluded her remarks, Ravitch received a standing ovation. A long line of teachers snaked around the room to purchase her book. I bought one, too.

The Death and Life of the Great American School System makes a number of important contributions to our understanding of what is going on in K-12 public education. Ravitch makes a convincing case about the positive role teachers’ unions play in protecting teachers’ dignity and their freedom of speech. She also provides a trenchant criticism of the influence that large private foundations are exerting to shape education policy. But such matters are tangential to the core issues that Ravitch’s book is meant to answer: how she came to reverse her position on testing and charter schools.

With regard to these issues, the book is considerably more nuanced than her remarks at the teachers’ union hall. In print, Ravitch heaps accolades on Massachusetts, praising our high standards and achievement, and repeatedly citing the Com­monwealth as the rule-proving exception to the underperformance of public schools in other states. Accordingly, it is questionable how much of her critique of American education is applicable to Massachusetts.

Ravitch dates contemporary education reform to 1983 and the publication of the federal report A Nation at Risk, with its insistence on a rich curriculum with commensurate standards. To her, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act passed nearly two decades later degraded and deformed A Nation at Risk, while often borrowing its language. For Ravitch, NCLB was doubly flawed at its core: First, it failed to appropriate the funds which would be needed to support our schools’ great leap forward. Secondly, she writes, NCLB “required the states to set their own standards and to grade their own progress. This led…to confusion about standards with 50 standards for 50 states.”

It was also an invitation to game the system. Mississippi is the poster child for this practice, self-reporting that 80 percent of its students are proficient in math and English. When the same students take the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), fewer than 20 percent achieve proficiency. Ravitch advises, “In a choice between the state’s self-appointed scores and [NAEP], the public should trust [NAEP].”

For Ravitch, Massachusetts stands apart from the empty standards and grade inflation practiced by many states under NCLB: “Most state standards were windy rhetoric, devoid of concrete descriptions of what students should be expected to know…One exception was Massa­chusetts, which produced stellar standards in every subject.”

She is equally complimentary of the Commonwealth’s curriculum, calling us “[o]ne of the few states with excellent curriculum in every subject.” Ravitch goes on to note that “students in Massachusetts have the highest academic performance in the nation on the NAEP and rank near the top when compared to their peers in other nations,” as measured by the TIMMS international assessment.

It is telling that she relies on standardized test results to demonstrate Massachusetts’ primacy in educational achievement. Those who are reflexively antipathetic to any form or objective measurement of student performance find no friend in Diane Ravitch:

“The information delivered from tests can be extremely valuable if the tests are valid and reliable. The results can show students what they have learned, what they have not learned and where they need to improve. They can tell parents how their children are doing compared to others of their age and grade… They can inform educational leaders and policy makers about the progress of the educational system as a whole.”

According to Ravitch, NCLB has not encouraged an intelligent use of assessments based on a robust curriculum. Instead, the federal law too often reduces testing in the states to a drill-and-kill exercise in math and English, while crowding out instructional time for other subjects. It is less than clear where Ravitch stands with regard to our assessment system, MCAS, because she does not explicitly address it. Nonetheless, given her generous praise for our curriculum and education outcomes, it is hard for me to imagine how she could logically condemn the way we measure the results.

What is clear is Ravitch’s insistence that tests not be the exclusive basis for evaluating teachers. Ravitch observes that test developers are quick to caution against using their products for purposes for which they are not designed and student assessments are not designed to measure teacher effectiveness. Clearly, many variables affect student performance from year to year, but to me Ravitch goes too far with her insistence that factors other than student performance provide most of the basis for teacher reviews. Tests may be an imperfect means of measuring an educator’s performance, but how can we abide a teacher, school, or district that fails year after year to educate the children entrusted to them?
Why should poor kids be the only ones denied a choice in education?
This is not to celebrate the collective punishment (later withdrawn) meted out to the Central Falls teachers, some of whose only sin may have been to try to teach poor kids. At the same time, it is not enough for Ravitch to identify a problem without offering a solution. In practice, I fear that refusal to evaluate teachers based on their students’ performance—over time—tends to default to laissez-faire acceptance of the status quo.

Ravitch said something at the Boston Teachers Union hall that reinforced my concern. When asked what it would take to make equal educational opportunity a reality, she replied, “Income equality.” Income equality may well be a consummation devoutly to be wished, but if this is the precondition to fundamental reform of public education, our great-grandchildren will still be awaiting real change when they send their kids to school.

While Ravitch’s critique of some of the misuse of tests in some states under NCLB is withering, and at times, spot on, her failure to identify a politically viable and intellectually realistic alternative marks the absent center of her analysis.

With regard to charter schools, Ravitch writes that she initially came to support them when she asked herself a question she couldn’t answer: “Since affluent families could choose their schools by moving to a better neighborhood or enrolling their children in private schools, why shouldn’t poor families have similar choices?”

But Ravitch has grown disillusioned with charter schools because she believes they would create “a two-tiered system of widening inequality.” She sees motivated poor students deserting the regular public schools for charters, leaving the traditional system with a population of largely unmotivated poor pupils.

Whether this specter has come to pass in school districts like New Orleans (where a majority of the students are in charters) or in Washington, DC (one-third in charters), I do not know. But we are a long way from this threat being realized in Massachusetts (3 percent in charters) or even Boston (9 percent).

Ravitch’s worry about charters is based on her experience chronicling the history of American public education: “If there is one consistent lesson that one gleans by studying school reform over the past century, it is the danger of taking a good idea and expanding it rapidly, spreading it thin.”

Ravitch has real authority on this score, given her lengthy career debunking trendy but ineffectual teaching approaches. With regard to charters, however, the most her warning counsels is prudent restraint in expanding the number of charters granted. As it happens, admittedly as a function of politics and not conscious policy, the cautious path has been followed in Massachusetts.

There remains a principled reason to reject Ravitch’s rationale for opposing charters, and it goes back to the question that prompted her support of them in the first place. Why should poor kids be the only ones denied choice in education?

Ravitch well describes the way privileged families “make sure to enroll their children in schools that have small class sizes, a broad curriculum in the liberal arts and sciences, well-educated teachers and well-maintained facilities.”

It would be politically unthinkable to broach depriving upper class parents of this freedom of choice even if their children’s departure from the regular, neighborhood school would disadvantage the unmotivated poor kids remaining behind. How can we, then, justify holding only poor kids hostage in schools they would prefer to leave? Until Ravitch answers that question, the modicum of options charter schools provide kids whose parents can’t afford to buy school choice is for me reason enough to support their continuation.

Meet the Author

Tom Birmingham

Guest Contributor, Pioneer Institute
With her willingness to stand against accepted wisdom, Ravitch remains a strong and important voice in the ongoing education policy debate. But with the zeal of a new convert, she goes too far in her opposition to charters and testing, threatening some of the reform principles she previously did so much to advance.  

Tom Birmingham is senior counsel at Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge. He is a former president of the Massachusetts Senate and was co-author of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993.