The Death and Life of the Great American School System

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Diane Ravitch. The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (Basic Books, 2011)

If there’s one thing that Americans agree on, despite their division into opposing camps on so many social issues, it’s the importance of education. A well-educated population is believed to be essential to national prosperity and a high quality of life. The decline in the number of jobs that used to pay pretty well but didn’t require much education, such as many manufacturing jobs, has given new urgency to this issue. Everyone agrees that today’s job-seekers need a good education to compete for high-paying positions, and that a country needs an educated workforce to compete for a good slice of the global economic pie. (At the same time, one should not jump to the conclusion that more education is sufficient for either individual or national success. The country must also invest in the kinds of work that require education, and organize work to produce high-quality products as opposed to merely cheap ones.)

Americans also generally agree that American students are lagging behind students of many other nations in academic achievement, and that the nation’s school system is in need of serious reform. What kind of reform, however, is hotly contested. Diane Ravitch’s book analyzes the wave of “market-based” reform that has swept through public education since the 1990s, especially the “No Child Left Behind” mandates signed into law by George W. Bush in 2002. Ravitch, who served as Assistant Secretary of Education in the first Bush administration, supported this approach to reform until 2006, when she concluded that it was mostly a failure.

To get an initial sense of what market-based reform is all about, think of a school as a business. Its product is an educated child. Its consumers are the families with children to educate. Its administration is management, and its teachers are labor. Quality control is accomplished by testing. Market competition exists if families are free to send their children to more than one school, and schools and their teachers are allowed to succeed or fail on their merits. Assume that education consists of a few well-defined skills that children must acquire. Assume that pedagogical techniques for instilling those skills are available, and that the quality of teaching determines whether or not children acquire them. Assume that standardized tests can accurately assess student progress, and that good test scores reflect good teaching. Assume that the quality of education will improve if management is free to reward and promote good teachers, defined as those whose students test well, and terminate or withhold rewards from bad teachers. Quality will also improve if educational entrepreneurs are free to start new schools, children are free to switch to better schools, and new teachers can easily enter the profession to replace those who are more experienced but less effective.

This market-based or business model of education has broad appeal, and it has set the agenda for most of the educational reforms of the past quarter century: frequent standardized testing to measure progress and hold teachers accountable, teacher compensation based on “merit” instead of credentials or seniority, efforts to weaken unions and abolish tenure to make it easier to fire teachers, school choice to give families alternatives to failing schools, and privatization to free school managers from the constraints of public bureaucracies. Conservatives have embraced this agenda most enthusiastically because of their belief in free-market solutions. The movement reflected the “government-is-the-problem; the market-is-the-solution” mood of the Reagan-Bush era. Many liberals have embraced it as well, in the hope that such reforms can expand educational opportunity and close the achievement gaps between rich and poor, white and minority children. In theory, such reforms might create both a freer educational marketplace and a more democratic society.

Ravitch begins her story with the “standards movement” called for by the National Commission on Excellence in Education in its 1983 report, A Nation at Risk. The report documented the poor performance of American students on national and international assessments and attributed much of it to weaknesses in curriculum content. The main solution was to set higher standards for both students and teachers. Some efforts to define national curricular standards followed, but the movement foundered when the attempt to set national standards for the teaching of history got caught up in the culture wars. Liberals proposed a more critical approach to American history emphasizing the struggles of disadvantaged groups for social justice, while conservatives preferred a more celebratory approach featuring the accomplishments of great (white) men. Ravitch feels that the advocates of national content standards gave up too easily when Congress and the media roundly rejected the proposed standards. What we got instead was a narrow focus on reading and math skills, with little regard for any substantive curriculum whatsoever.

In the 1990s, a particular New York City school district, District 2 covering part of Manhattan, got a national reputation for effectiveness in raising reading scores. The district superintendent, Anthony Alvarado, mandated a specific reading program, “Balanced Literacy,” which he implemented with intensive teacher training, close monitoring of instruction, and heavy commitments of class time. The San Diego school system then brought Alvarado in as chancellor for instruction and implemented a similar program citywide, concentrating on both reading and math. This was done from the top down, with heavy-handed tactics by top administrators, demotions and firings for uncooperative principles, and high attrition of teachers. The San Diego experiment in turn became a model for the New York City reform effort launched by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein. “They reorganized the management of the schools, battled the teachers’ union, granted large pay increases to teachers and principals, pressed for merit pay, opened scores of charter schools, broke up large high schools into small ones, emphasized frequent practice for state tests, gave every school a letter grade, closed dozens of low-performing schools, and institutionalized the ideas of choice and competition.”

According to Ravitch, none of these experiments was as clearly successful as its proponents claimed. Rising test scores can mean improved instruction, but they can also mean changes in the tests themselves or their scoring, or demographic changes in the students taking the test. District 2 “was one of the most affluent districts in the city and became even more so during Alvarado’s tenure,” with a rising proportion of white and Asian students. At the time when San Diego’s scores were rising, they were rising just as much or even more in other areas of the state without the same reforms. And in New York City, test scores were “hugely inflated by the state’s secret decision to lower the points needed to advance on state tests.” When students were tested on the more objective National Assessement of Educational Progress, most tests showed no improvement, and the achievement gap among racial groups remained just as wide. Nevertheless, favorable media attention and strong financial backing from private foundations (especially those controlled by Bill & Melinda Gates, the Walton family, and Eli Broad) helped turn this approach to educational reform into a national movement. The centerpiece of that movement was No Child Left Behind.


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