The Great School Delusion

The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education by Diane Ravitch, Basic Books, 288 pages, $26.95

The dream of post-partisan politics is dead, but there is surprising cross-the-aisle consensus on one big issue -- how to reform education. What's needed, according to the conventional wisdom, is a dose of market discipline. Down with neighborhood schools, teachers' unions, and professional expertise, the argument goes; up with high-stakes student testing, tough accountability standards for teachers, and charter schools. In the media as well, "reform" is equated with reliance on market-driven strategies to raise student test scores.

This model powers the No Child Left Behind Act, the single bipartisan item on the Bush administration's domestic-policy agenda, as well as the Obama administration's $4.35 billion "Race to the Top" competition among the states. At the local level, school officials like Joel Klein in New York City and Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C., have been lionized for their top-down, take-no-prisoners approach to overhauling the schools.

For the past 20 years, Diane Ravitch, a highly regarded historian who served in the Department of Education during the George H.W. Bush administration, has been among the keenest advocates of this approach. "I too had fallen for the latest panaceas and miracle cures," she says, and "drunk deeply of the elixir that promised a quick fix." Mea maxima culpa: The Death and Life of the Great American School System is a complete turnaround, a point-by-point repudiation of this market-driven strategy.

Other critics have contended that No Child Left Behind is a disastrously flawed strategy, that charter schools are often worse than public schools, and that the fixation on testing drains the life out of the curriculum. What makes Ravitch's critique so convincing is the historian's attentiveness to facts on the ground, the careful collection and synthesis of data, and the demonstrations that what sounds good in theory may not work in practice. The book isn't a preachment to the congregation but an effort to convince those who have also been bewitched.

Ravitch devotes two chapters to New York City, at the forefront of the campaign to reinvent the public schools. She knows this landscape well, for her first book, The Great School Wars, is a history of New York's public schools. The city's school chancellor, Joel Klein, a lawyer with little background in education, has been lauded for his apparent success in boosting test scores since taking charge in 2003. Ravitch elegantly distinguishes myth from fact.

In revamping the largest school system in the country, Klein initially adopted "a corporate model of tightly centralized, hierarchical, top-down control," with a mandated curriculum and "strict supervision of every classroom to make sure the orders flowing from headquarters were precisely implemented." A few years later he switched tactics, "empowering" principals to take responsibility for students' performance. The curriculum went by the boards. Instead, students were offered a bewildering menu of choices, with options including a school for stagecraft and another for the business of sports. Meanwhile, the neighborhood schools, which had served as a fulcrum in the community, were effectively demolished.

Whether the New York City strategy entailed micromanaging the schools or crafting a system of rewards and sanctions, the metric of success has remained constant -- student performance on New York's reading and math tests, administered annually from third through eighth grade. Between 2006 and 2009, test scores rose dramatically, and for that reason 84 percent of the elementary and middle schools received an "A" grade on the chancellor's 2009 report card, up from 23 percent two years earlier. Yet as Ravitch shows, it isn't the skills of the students but the scoring of the tests that really changed. Because the state lowered the passing score, many students, though certified as doing acceptable schoolwork, lack the tools needed to survive in college or a high-skills job. When scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress -- the only nationwide measure of academic performance, hence the only outside check on the schools' progress -- showed that (except in fourth-grade math) New York City students had made no significant gains during the first four years of Klein's regime, the chancellor made the specious argument that those results weren't relevant because the students hadn't been prepped for that exam.

Meticulously, Ravitch scrutinizes each of the voguish market-mimicking panaceas. The "measure and punish" regime of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was doomed to fail, she argues, because of its Canute-like command that by 2014 all students be "proficient" -- performing at grade level -- in reading and math. Only in Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon are all the children above average, and given the impossibility of the task, it's not surprising that thousands of schools have been identified as "failing." What's more, the mandated "restructuring" of schools that aren't making "adequate" progress has not improved the situation. Nor has the gap between black and white students narrowed -- in fact, black youngsters made greater progress in the four years before NCLB. Meanwhile, the fixation on reading and math leaves teachers with less time for every other subject.

Expanding student choice -- whether through vouchers or, much more frequently, through charter schools -- was supposed to boost student success by injecting competition into a bureaucratically bloated system. But the evidence on effectiveness is decidedly mixed, with bloody battles waged among scholars whose findings often mirror their ideological predilections. The best charters, the research shows, are as good as the best public schools, but the worst are awful. What's the tradeoff? A 2009 nationwide study concluded that there's a 2-to-1 margin of bad charters to good charters. It's also doubtful that this model can be applied to public education in general. Because students must apply to charters, those schools attract the most motivated youngsters, and many of them don't stay the course. In the widely touted KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) Schools, for instance, 60 percent of the students in San Francisco's Bay Area dropped out or were nudged out between fifth and eighth grade. Public schools don't have this luxury -- they must accept all comers -- and so they confront much tougher challenges.

The effort to hold teachers and principals accountable -- to reward or punish them based on their students' test scores -- is premised on the attention-getting claim that the achievement gap between races and ethnic groups can be closed if students have five good teachers in a row (or three or four in a row, depending on which econometrician is speaking). The problem, however, is that there's no reliable instrument to distinguish good from not-so-good teachers. One study found that 11 percent of teachers who were in the lowest quintile of effectiveness when they started teaching wound up in the top quintile after getting tenure. With salaries and even jobs on the line, school personnel have figured out ways of gaming the system, whether by outright cheating or, more subtly, by weeding out low-performing students and teaching youngsters how to guess.

Only when it comes to appraising the role of the teachers' unions does Ravitch lose her edge. Noting that the past three presidents of the American Federation of Teachers have been friends of hers, she rests her defense of unions on the need to protect teachers' academic freedom and assure them a decent wage. No one would argue with that, but too often the unions focus only on their members' bread-and-butter concerns rather than on making the schools better. And it's hard to defend union demands for job security that make it nearly impossible to fire incompetents. In New York City, for example, as detailed in a much--discussed New York Times Magazine article last year, teachers removed from the classroom for the sake of the students rusticate for years in so-called "rubber rooms" while the contorted termination process grinds on.

What's to be done? Like most observers of the education scene, Ravitch does a better job of critiquing than advancing an agenda for reform. "The most durable way to improve schools is to improve curriculum and instruction and to improve the conditions in which teachers and children learn," she asserts. True enough -- but she doesn't tackle the question of how to get from here to there. What Ravitch does do, better than anyone else on the block, is to refute the belief that a magic formula -- accountability plus choice -- can improve education and that jiggering with organization charts can substitute for the hard slog of enriching life in the classroom. She knows how powerful this belief can be, because she's been there herself.

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