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What Ravitch Gets Wrong, Part II

Ravitch_coverIn the first installment of this two-part review of Diane Ravitch's book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education, I gave credit to Ravitch for raising many important questions about the misuse of standardized testing and its impact on classroom practice.  While educators perpetuate many myths about the evils of testing, Ravitch makes a good case that we have indeed gone overboard in this respect, with many negative consequences for our schools and students.

But Ravitch makes a mistake in equating testing and accountability with the movement for school choice.  While there is considerable overlap between the two camps, they are not the same and conflating the two distorts the basic case for both.

As I noted in my first post, the case for school choice is based, in part, on the argument that public education as we know it is fundamentally flawed.  Not that it has no redeeming qualities.  There are many excellent public schools throughout the U.S.  But Ravitch and defenders of the educational status quo seem blind to the fact that millions of children are being grossly underserved by government-run schools, which are the only option for most families of modest means. 

History attests that monopolies - especially government monopolies - are not capable of the kinds of innovation, efficiency and improvement necessary if we are going to prepare future generations for the economic realities of the 21st century.  There is no reason to assume that the "great American school system" of Ravitch's title ever existed, or that throwing more money into the system with no mechanisms of accountability as Ravitch suggests will garner different results.

So while I share Ravitch's concerns about the misuse of testing, I heartily disagree with her proposed solutions and her emphatic mischaracterization of school choice, which she repeatedly frames as a "corporate" approach to education.

Ravitch and her allies must have done market research revealing that Americans have a basically negative attitude toward "corporations" (however they conceive of this word), and use this term to demonize those who advocate for school choice. 

Depending on how the enabling legislation is written, some schools of choice might indeed be run by for-profit entities, but just as many might be operated by churches, non-profits, or independent agencies.  Ravitch herself expresses admiration for Catholic schools, and in many communities (see Indiana's recent voucher program), Catholic schools - not for-profit corporations - are the leading providers for schools of choice.  It is reasonable to assume that in a genuine choice environment, a wide variety of schools offering a plethora of learning environments and approaches -- Montessori, career-based, STEM-focused, classical education, etc. - could be available to all families.  Some might be operated by corporations, but many would not.

Not that there is anything inherently wrong with for-profit outfits providing educational alternatives.  Innumerable for-profit vendors already provide a myriad of products and services to our schools.  The fact that education is a human service does not automatically mean that people who seek profits cannot provide high-quality schooling options.  (My doctor makes a healthy profit every time I see him, and I do not begrudge it as I value the service he provides).  The real measure is whether the school's client families feel they are getting a good value.

And this is another fundamental point that Ravitch and many other school choice opponents seem to miss.  Just like traditional public schools, some schools of choice will be successful, while others will fail.  The difference is that schools of choice that fail to satisfy their clients will go out of business, whereas failing public schools will continue to drain millions of dollars of taxpayer money forever.  School choice is not a panacea for all of education's problems, but it gives many families something they can only dream of under the current system: an option.

Ravitch's tendency to associate all choice advocates with the push for standardized testing and paint them all with a "corporate" label grossly oversimplifies the great diversity in the education reform movement and among school choice supporters in general.  Anyone even remotely familiar with choice proponents like Michelle Rhee, RiShawn Biddle, Neal McCluskey, Michael Petrilli, and Rick Hess will know that, while all of these scholar/activists might accept the label "reformer," they represent an array of different perspectives and frequently spar with one another over policy, strategy, and goals. Lumping them all together serves Ravitch's rhetorical purpose of painting school choice in the most negative light possible and represents one of the most potentially destructive aspects of her work. 

One of the things that struck me about The Death and Life of the Great American School System was the relatively measured, thoughtful, and respectful way Ravitch addressed her philosophical opponents.  This contrasts markedly with the rhetoric Ravitch uses on her blog, and in many of her articles and public comments, where she frequently engages in name-calling and demonization of anyone who disagrees with her.  I experienced this first hand when Ravitch dismissed me as a sexist when I used the word "hysterical" to describe opponents of a particular Gates-funded research study.  I noted then, and assert still, that such tactics are intellectually lazy and serve the purpose of cutting off meaningful debate and discussion of ideas.

Ravitch is influential, and her tendency for mischaracterizing and demonizing opponents has rubbed off on the whole anti-"reform" camp.  For evidence, see Anthony Cody's recent article alleging to contrast the "no excuses" (i.e., testing and choice) reformers (the bad guys) with the "social context" reformers like himself and Ravitch (the good guys).  Cody's description of the "no excuses" reformers presents a cartoon-like image of the diverse body of educators, activists and scholars who seek to make sweeping changes in the structure of American schooling.  As I noted in comments to Cody's article, thoughtful discussion between the two "camps" cannot even begin as long as the "social context" reformers refuse the acknowledge the nuance, complexity, and diversity of arguments on the other side. 

This, to me, is the fundamental flaw in Ravitch's work, the seeds of which are sown throughout The  Death and Life of the Great American School System.  While many of her philosophical opponents, including me, can appreciate the value of Ravitch's arguments and the indispensible case she makes about testing, she affords no such respect to the other side.  This is a great disappointment, given Ravitch's brilliance as a historian and the relevance of her concerns, as the only prospect for real progress in American education lies in our capacity to recognize what public schooling does well, what it cannot, and how it can be remade.  Ravitch has chosen to position herself as an opponent of the debate itself.


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