Education’s Tea Partier

March 15, 2010

Almost 20 years ago, as a young editor at The Public Interest, I wrote an admiring review of The American Reader, an anthology compiled by Diane Ravitch. At the time, a battle was raging over multicultural education, and Ravitch joined the fray with a wonderful collection of speeches, songs, essays, and poems spanning the nation’s history. She had a philosophical goal–setting forth a positive version of multiculturalist history that emphasized pluralism rather than identity politics–and also a practical one–creating a content-rich textbook that wasn’t, like so many others, homogenized and excruciatingly boring.

Today, Ravitch tells us in The Death and Life of the Great American School System that she still has a keen desire for students to be taught a rich curriculum in a variety of subjects. And who could disagree? But Ravitch then links this belief with her contention that the two central philosophies guiding today’s bipartisan reform movement–test-based accountability and school choice, both of which she used to embrace–have undermined teaching, learning, and content. It’s here that her argument falters.

Indeed, while her closely argued polemic offers some useful insights into the inadequacies of many reform efforts to date, ultimately, she doesn’t deliver the goods. Ravitch fails to make the case that the broad philosophies governing today’s reform movement are off-target.

Perhaps most striking to me as I read Death and Life was Ravitch’s odd aversion to, even contempt for, market economics and business as they relate to education. She writes repeatedly, in withering terms of “corporate style superintendents,” the “tycoons and politicians” driving wrongheaded reform efforts, the “managerial mindset” behind experiments with value-added assessment for teachers, and the hopeless inapplicability of such business terminology as “return on investment” for foundations seeking to gauge the educational results of their grant-making. Decrying the “unfettered market” (cautionary tale: Wal-Mart!), she claims that “the problem with the marketplace is that it dissolves communities and replaces them with consumers.” Her populist ire is such that one almost expects her to announce that she will be spearheading a new Educational Tea Party movement. 

Ravitch’s rhetoric is so overblown that it doesn’t seem in keeping with her record of analytical gravitas. Who says markets are antithetical to community? Democratic capitalism in the United States, after all, has generally coexisted quite nicely with thriving communities. Moreover, who is to say that businesses and foundations (sorry, make that “mega-rich foundations”) shouldn’t participate in school reform? Are they not part of the civic fabric that Ravitch so commendably wants to nurture?

As for her claim that entrepreneurs see charter schools “as a gateway to the vast riches of the education industry,” that hardly jibes with reality at the most admired charter organizations. As far as I know, nobody at Achievement First, Uncommon Schools, or KIPP, all non-profits, is getting rich from those organizations’ notably successful efforts to help low-income kids learn. But if–if–for-profit charter operators are able to operate good schools, why shouldn’t those educational entrepreneurs get rich? Isn’t the point to make sure kids learn? It is not as if profit is an alien notion in the world of public schools. As Ravitch knows well, a vast industry of contractors, curriculum specialists, and the like was getting rich off public schools long before charters came along. (Ravitch also missed important aspects of the charter movement: its relentless self-examination, eagerness to weed out poor performers, and desire to take to scale those approaches that are really helping kids.)

Read the full review here »