Defector from the school reform consensus

The Death and Life of the Great American School System:

How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education

“The great legacy of NCLB is that it has left us with a system of institutionalized fraud.”1

“The most dangerous potential effect of the 2014 goal [that 100 percent of students test proficient] is that it is a timetable for the demolition of public education in the United States.”2 

These critiques of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) are certainly not new. What is new, however, is the person making them. She had been one of the policy’s staunchest supporters. In fact, she has been among the leading voices for the last twenty years calling for standards and accountability, working with and for the key organizations that looked to charter schools and privatization as a means to reach their goals.

And now she has turned.

In her latest book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch combines a compelling mea culpa with clear analysis to demolish each and every assumption behind what passes for school reform today.

Ravitch describes, with amazing clarity, how the efforts to develop meaningful content standards were hijacked into a regime of high-stakes testing in the 1990s. She puts her own spin on common criticisms of NCLB, which she describes as little more than a policy to measure and punish.

Ravitch continues with a history of the voucher movement in the 1990s, and how it turned to charter schools as a more viable option to impose the market mentality on public education. She rehearses some well-known criticisms of high-stakes testing before turning her attention to the relentless effort to scapegoat teachers and their unions for, well, just about everything.

In addition, Ravitch applies her general arguments to three case studies—of District 2 in New York City in the 1990s, San Diego public schools, and New York City public schools under Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s control.

There is something extremely rewarding about reading this book. To follow the confession of how a leading cheerleader for market-based school reforms got it all wrong triggers a certain smug satisfaction.

More importantly, Ravitch’s arguments carry all the more weight because she has been a starting player in the lineup to impose market-based reforms on public schools for so long. She sat on the boards of conservative think tanks, such as the Fordham Foundation and the Hoover Institute at Stanford University. She hobnobbed with the likes of Chester Finn, Lamar Alexander, Erik Hanushek, et al., leading conservatives pushing market-based reforms. She was even an assistant secretary of education in charge of research under the Bush, Sr. administration. In other words, if anyone has first-hand insight into the logic of privatization, charters, high-stakes testing, and merit pay, it is Diane Ravitch.

Ravitch is at her best in exposing how market-based reforms for public education are a mantra that Republicans and Democrats mouth. She is merciless in her critique of NCLB, a bill usually hung around George W. Bush’s neck. Besides stressing that the bill enjoyed broad bipartisan support in Congress, however, Ravitch is correct to trace NCLB’s roots to education policies in the Bush, Sr. and Clinton administrations.

Ravitch is no less critical of the Obama administration. She exposes the connections between his team and leading forces pushing for charter schools. For example, education secretary Arne Duncan appointed James H. Shelton III to oversee a $650 million fund for “school innovation.” Previously, Shelton had been a partner in the NewSchools Venture Fund, a private foundation whose primary mission is to push for charter schools. More outrageous still, Duncan placed Joanne S. Weiss, another partner in NewSchools, in charge of designing and managing the $4.35 billion earmarked for Obama’s “Race to the Top” (RTTP) program. Unsurprisingly, one of RTTP’s key criteria for awarding funds is that states remove any cap on the number of charter schools that can open.

In addition to documenting these scandalous connections, Ravitch underscores the sheer perversion of what school reform is. She cites a 2008 article by the liberal magazine the New Republic that criticized then-candidate Obama for waffling on school reform. The critique didn’t highlight Obama’s failure to call for greater resources, or for curricular reforms that connected with students’ lives and interests, or for raising teacher pay to reflect the tremendous work they do. Instead, writes Ravitch, “A real reformer…was someone who supports competition between schools, charter schools, test-based accountability, performance pay for teachers, and No Child Left Behind, while being ready to battle the teachers’ unions.”

Ravitch’s analysis of “school choice” and charter schools is equally relentless. She begins with the reminder that “school choice” had long been code for segregationists to derail integration in the 1950s and 1960s. Ravitch briefly discusses the first attempts at pushing “school choice” through vouchers. However, most of her argument addresses charter schools, which are publicly-funded schools administered privately, often with additional financial support from foundations or even from for-profit concerns.

She is correct to argue that charter schools have found support from across the political spectrum. Liberals see them as a lesser evil to vouchers. Conservatives see them as the most efficient means of privatization. Progressive educators see in them the opportunity to change curriculum and implement radical reforms. And as bilingual education programs are dismantled, some ethnic and language groups use charters to maintain their children’s connections to their home language and culture.

Ravitch responds by discussing recent research on charter schools to demonstrate how detrimental they are to education overall. First, no research—whether funded by pro-charter foundations or not—has demonstrated that charter schools actually improve student performance on standardized tests in any significant way. Second, if some charters are performing well, Ravitch documents that this support is most often due to their ability to keep the most motivated, best-performing students while quietly escorting the rest to the door, if they’re allowed in at all. This is particularly true for disabled students and emergent bilingual students—those whose home language is not English—who are in almost every case vastly underrepresented in charter schools. 
Third, Ravitch cites findings from a 2009 study funded by pro-charter foundations that for every charter performing well, two are not. Ravitch quotes another similar study to get at a central issue: “The authors [of that study] said that the question to be answered was not whether charter schools, on average, outperform regular public schools, ‘but rather whether the underperformance of some charter schools is a price worth paying for the overperformance of others.’”

Finally, Ravitch links the charter movement to the campaign to break teachers’ unions. Not only do most charter teachers work at the will of their principals, but their non-union status pressures unionized public school teachers to give in to concessions. Ravitch cites charters and the push for teacher merit pay based on student test scores as the primary wedges to break the unions.

Adding to the stakes is the explosion in numbers of charters in the last decade. As of 2009, there were some 4,600 charters with 1.4 million students in forty states and Washington, DC. 60 percent of those schools were located in California, Arizona, Texas, Florida, Michigan, and Ohio. Here, it is worth pointing out what Ravitch misses: The first four states on the list also have some of the highest proportions of emergent bilingual students. Their underrepresentation in charters is leading us right back to where “school choice” started—a legal way to segregate schools.

The case studies Ravitch conducts of how charters, merit pay, and high-stakes testing have undermined public schools in New York City and San Diego are rich with revolting details of power, corruption, and insider influence. Most important is what Ravitch calls the “left-right strategy” that has made these supposed reforms possible. On the one hand, these reforms appease the left insofar as they allow for progressive curricular reforms. On the other hand, they appease the right insofar as they center their attacks on teachers’ unions. The result has been undemocratic, top-down measures, imposed in collusion with private foundations that have driven some of the most experienced and effective teachers from the classroom.

Or to the doctor. Ravitch cites her conversation with a social worker at Kaiser Permanente in San Diego. During the regime of Alan Bersin, a lawyer brought on as school superintendent from 1998–2005, Kaiser witnessed a spike in the number of teachers suffering from what they called “Bersinitis.” The hostility caused by central administration harassing teachers into compliance with reforms made “droves” of teachers literally sick.

Worse still, the reforms imposed in both cities have cost enormous sums of public money but have done little to improve education even on their own terms—higher test scores—while disrupting the lives of tens of thousands of students and educators.

The most devastating example of the latter point is what Ravitch labels a “shell game” for students who perform poorly on standardized tests. This has especially been the case in New York City, where Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein have replaced traditional high schools with small schools. Ravitch describes a process in which four or five schools serving 500 students each might replace the old high school serving 3,000. She calls out this fuzzy math to highlight that the students who perform the worst on tests get lost in the shuffle, bounced to other schools—or bounced out of school altogether.

She ties this trend directly to NCLB and its demands to increase the percentage of students meeting Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) on literacy and math tests every year. Ravitch concurs with well known critiques of high-stakes testing: that it narrows the curriculum, that teachers feel compelled to teach to the test, that it leads to outright fraud and cheating, etc. But she goes the extra step to highlight how principals and school systems now have a vested interest in keeping the low scorers out of school altogether. The urgency is only increasing: In the 2006–07 school year, 25,000 schools did not meet AYP benchmarks; in 2007–08, the number rose again to 35,000.

One of the most useful aspects of Ravitch’s book is her chapter on the role of private foundations in driving education policy. She writes, “Never in American history had private foundations assigned themselves the task of reconstructing the nation’s education system.” Ravitch focuses in particular on the Gates, Broad, and Walton foundations and their newfound influence. All three are vehemently dedicated to market-based reforms, such as charters, outright privatization, and merit pay for teachers.

Ravitch is rightly and especially scornful of the Broad Foundation and its main assumption that anyone can run schools as long as they can manage data. Broad sponsors quick-and-dirty institutes to turn former business people into school superintendents and principals. Not surprisingly, busting the union is usually on the top of Broad trainees’ lists.

One of the strongest arguments Ravitch makes against the foundations’ influence is that it violates their own demands for accountability. She writes, “The foundations demand that public schools and teachers be held accountable for performance, but they themselves are accountable to no one. If their plans fail, no sanctions are levied against them. They are bastions of unaccountable power.”

Her discussion of the Gates Foundation and its initial drive for small schools underscores her point. When Gates first got into the business of education policy, it focused almost exclusively on creating small schools. Ravitch documents a number of stories in which the small schools supported by the foundation cost enormous amounts of money, polarized communities, and in most cases eventually returned to their original setup. Yet, no one at Gates was held accountable.

As satisfying as it may be to follow Ravitch’s accounts of how and why she changed her mind about market-based reforms, it is crucial to point out serious weaknesses in her book. As Richard Rothstein, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, has noted, this book does not represent some radical left-wing rebirth for Ravitch, but rather a return to her intellectual roots. And those roots are themselves controversial.

Before her cheerleading days for market-based reforms, Ravitch was best known as an historian of education who called for a return to the “traditional curriculum.” Part of her argument is well founded: that all children, whether college-bound or not, whether poor or working class or not, should have access to a rich curriculum in literature, math and sciences, languages, the arts, sports, etc. There is much to agree with her recent statement on Democracy Now! that “Schooling isn’t just about getting a job. Schooling is about getting a life.”

Where Ravitch found trouble was in what the content of that curriculum should be. For Ravitch, that content was the “canon,” what has often been criticized as stuff written by or about dead, rich, white, men (and a few women). There are moments in this book where Ravitch concedes that a rich curriculum should in fact reflect multiple cultural and intellectual traditions. But there are moments, too, where she slips.

One case is her repeated praise for Catholic schools and their tradition of what she describes as excellent education for urban youth of color. Ravitch attributes part of that success to Catholic schools resisting “relativism” in their curriculum. But relativism is a term often used by conservatives who criticize multicultural or anti-racist curricula. Another is her praise for Mrs. Rafliff, Ravitch’s high school English teacher who wielded her red pen without mercy. A final example, although not directly attributable to Ravitch, is the picture of the little red schoolhouse on the book’s cover. Such schools rarely opened their doors to students of color. In other words, replacing NCLB and other market-based reforms with the old canon or with a romantic vision of what school used to be is certainly no alternative worth fighting for.

More problematic still is Ravitch’s take on the assault on teachers and their unions. To be sure, Ravitch supports teachers’ unions, and she resists each move to blame the crisis in our schools on teachers. However, she is too soft on organizations such as Teach for America (TFA) and the New Teachers Project. TFA in particular is well known for recruiting students from elite colleges and universities. After a crash course in teaching over the summer, they are sent to teach for two years in underserved areas, usually urban and rural districts.

Ravitch rightly argues that the model on which these organizations is based is inherently flawed. Sending a few thousand young and idealistic teachers willing to work fifty or sixty-hour weeks to “put children first” only to see them leave after a few years is untenable. In fact, TFA turns out some 10,000 teachers a year in a field of almost 4 million teachers nationwide. Clearly, one cannot replace the other. And Ravitch does connect the premise behind TFA to the vicious anti-unionism of its most famous alumna, Michelle Rhee, who runs DC Public Schools.

But Ravitch pulls her punch when it comes to the more insidious assumptions behind TFA—that the teaching force is simply not smart or capable enough to teach our children. That TFA recruits “the best and the brightest” for a mere two years of service betrays an appalling assumption that if poor kids are merely in the presence of middle or ruling-class adults, their education improves. Rhee admitted as much in her 2008 interview with Charlie Rose, where she argued that we need a better “caliber” of person in the classroom. Such sentiments are not only an insult to teachers, but they throw open the ideological door to make it easier to scapegoat teachers and their unions for just about everything.

Part of what limits Ravitch’s analysis of teacher quality reforms is her consistent separation between what she calls “adult interests” from children’s interests, as if they were two separate or counterposed things. This separation is a linchpin in the argument that the unions cater to selfish teachers who only care about pay and benefits to the detriment of their students. In fact, there is no separating adult interests from those of children. When teachers have control over what they teach, when they work in sane and supportive environments, when they are fairly paid for the work they perform, when they have provisions that allow them to take care of their families in times of need, etc., this can only lead directly to improved educational experiences for children.

Whatever its weaknesses, you should read Diane Ravitch’s book—right away. It is well written, it is relentless, and because it’s penned by a once-leading voice behind the policies the book itself criticizes, it is extremely valuable.

Near the end of her book, Ravitch writes:

American education has a long history of infatuation with fads and ill-considered ideas. The current obsession with making our schools work like a business may be the worst of them, for it threatens to destroy public education. Who will stand up to the tycoons and politicians and tell them so?

This book makes clear that neither Obama nor the Democratic Party will. Instead, it provides exactly the arguments that progressive teachers, parents, and other activists need to stand up and fight for the resources and democratic control we need to defend public schools.

  1. Interview with Diane Ravitch, Democracy Now!, March 5, 2010, available at
  2. Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System (New York: Basic Books, 2010), 104.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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