From The Atlantic:
The survival of the school-reform movement, as it’s known to champions and detractors alike, is no longer assured. Even a couple years ago, few would have predicted this turn of events for a crusade that began with the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983, gathered momentum as charter schools and Teach for America took off in the 1990s, and surged into the spotlight with No Child Left Behind in 2001. As a schoolteacher, I know I didn’t anticipate this altered landscape. If one person can be credited—or blamed—for the reform movement’s sudden vulnerability, it’s a fiercely articulate historian, now in her 70s, named Diane Ravitch.
That Ravitch helped conceive the movement she now condemns makes her current role even more unexpected. Almost four decades ago, Ravitch emerged as a preeminent chronicler of, as she put it, “the rise and fall of grand ideas” in American education. The author of 11 books, including Reign of Error (out this month), she has traced the past century’s successive battles over how best to deliver a quality education—and to whom….
That year, she published a carefully researched book in which she reflected on the movement she’d helped launch but could no longer support. Surveying the data, she concluded that the reform effort was just another in the parade of high hopes that policy makers and practitioners had promoted through the decades. Their strategies couldn’t transform schools into engines of social mobility, because they did little to address the underlying causes of the achievement gap between white and minority students: entrenched segregation and poverty in America’s urban core. The book was called The Death and Life of the Great American School System, but it might as well have been called The Corrections.
The evidence Ravitch marshaled was damning. Some charters were superb, but most were not outperforming traditional public schools. Recalcitrant teachers unions weren’t a chief cause of failing schools after all; plenty of charters, freed from union strictures, were foundering. Nor had No Child Left Behind generated a substantial rise in student achievement. Now that standardized-test scores determined schools’ fates and funding, the curriculum in many districts emphasized rote prep. Benchmarks got revised downward. Even a few of Ravitch’s conservative former colleagues conceded that she was essentially right on the facts….
Ravitch the counterrevolutionary may be right that the reformers’ cause is primed for derailment. But Ravitch the historian once foretold what typically follows a contentious drive for school improvement: “It was usually replaced,” she observed in 2003, “by a movement called ‘back to basics,’ or ‘essentialism,’ ” which didn’t herald new progress but rather “a backlash against failed fads.” Ravitch herself is the “essentialist” now, urging that we go back not to basics but to a past when issues of equity and adequate funding dominated debates about education. At a time of growing income inequality, this correction is overdue.