Diane Ravitch, School Reform, and Changing Her Mind

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.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Jon Weatherly

    We can reform “schools”–teacher-training, assessment, methods, administration and governance. But we can’t reform homes, families, environments–the other factors in student learning. Reform movements generally aim for more than they can deliver given their inability to change all the variables in the formula.

  • Scott Gay

    Always back to equity with the liberals, and me bringing that up leads them to believe I’m not for it. Not once a hint of what Jonathan Haidt says… that it is the one foundation morality that is the problem. There is so much more balance needed. Incorporating loyalty, authority, and sanctity back into the schools is appropriate, with much moral psychology research to back it up. It’s never brought up, or to be real, these foundations are seen as harmful to many in today’s educational ethos.

  • Susan_G1

    So what now do we do?

  • Tom F.

    Hmm, I know of no studies linking school achievement to multiple foundations of morality. For example, I believe Haight suggests that conservatives use more foundations than liberals, so that would suggest that more conservative states would have better results than liberal, no? I think that the political stance of a state predicts very little in terms of education results, at least as I remember.

  • Randy Gabrielse

    No, the reformers have not been able to address inequality in our urban cores. But there is one more thing that the reformers have utterly failed to do, which more than anything reveals their unclothed state: They never asked the teachers while passing their newfangled “reforms.”

  • Scott Irenaeus Watson

    Well, the states with the most problems are in the “Bible Belt” with the lowest SES indicators and the historical markers that confirm the point that Ravitch is trying to make. Of course, these are the seat of conservative Republicanism in the US.

  • Mark Kennedy

    Thanks for this post. I seem to see only pro-privatization, neo-liberal viewpoints on Christian blogs; it seems the majority of the church is the enemy of the high-risk kids I’ve taught for 24 years. So this piece is refreshing.

  • Tom F.

    Do you think that after controlling for poverty that political orientation will make a difference? I would guess that schools dealing with poverty in liberal California are about as bad as schools dealing with poverty in conservative Alabama. (And isn’t that Ravitch’s point?) Still, I think that it would be pretty easy to show that the relative conservativeness of a district does very little to predict achievement. (Negatively or positively).

    And thank God: how hard would it be to change things if improving schools meant convincing one half (or the other half) of the population that they are basically and fundamentally wrong politically? Very hard, I would think, and that’s why I answered Scott Gay in the first place. Using multiple foundations, at least in Haight’s terms, is a conservative tendency.

  • Barry_D

    “Always back to equity with the liberals,”

    Those evil liberals, always thinking about equity :)

    This is because research has proven that the overwhelming factor in student success is SES. Poverty causes major problems for learning; schools in bad areas are trying to fix massive problems.


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