How Has Opposition to Corporate School Reform Evolved?

The Republicans began their convention here in Cleveland yesterday, and the Democrats will meet soon in Philadelphia. The political season is upon us, with not much attention to the policies that affect our public schools. But I believe support for important reform in public schools has evolved considerably over the past couple of decades, despite that we still see intense advocacy for corporate reform supported by philanthropists and think tanks promoting the supposed efficiency of markets.

In 2010, Diane Ravitch, the education historian who had supported corporate reform as a fellow at the Hoover Institution and an assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush, did an about face in The Death and Life of the Great American School System.  Basic Books has recently published a revised edition. To mark the new edition of Ravitch’s important book, Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post recently published an interview with Ravitch and in a subsequent column an excerpt from the revised edition. Ravitch’s description of the evolution of her own thinking seems to me a good summary of the developing consensus of today’s thoughtful advocates who want to preserve a strong system of public education that serves all children and protects their rights.

When she published The Death and Life of the Great American School System in 2010, Ravitch rejected her previous support for the kind of accountability-based school “reform” defined by the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act because, she said, she had discovered it didn’t work.  It neither raised overall school achievement nor closed gaps in scores among racial and economic groups of children. In her 2010 book, Ravitch also categorically rejected the Obama-Duncan philosophy of education epitomized by Race to the Top and the Bloomberg-Klein commitment to the explosive growth of charter schools that dominated the enormous New York City school district at the time.  She castigated the ideas of a group of super-wealthy philanthropists she called The Billionaire Boys Club: Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the Waltons.

In her interview last month with Strauss, Ravitch describes her delight when Basic Books invited her to publish a revised edition, because over time her thinking has continued to develop: “As time passed, I realized that there was one key point in the book that I found embarrassing. In the final chapter, I reiterated my long-standing support for national standards and a national curriculum… The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that national standards and a national curriculum was another truly bad idea.” Ravitch describes the new edition in which: “I quite bluntly admit… that the pursuit of national standards, national curriculum and national tests is a dead end… Even in states that have the same standards and tests, there are achievement gaps, reflecting wealth and poverty. Politicians continue to claim that making tests harder will make students smarter. But tests are not an instructional method; they are a measure… What we now know, because of the failure of the Common Core, is that increasing the difficulty of the material to be learned and the rigor of the tests widens the achievement gaps. Children who are already struggling to keep up will fall farther behind.”

When Strauss asks how Ravitch believes the anti-corporate-reform movement, of which Ravitch has been a leader, has changed the conversation, Ravitch answers: “Fewer people today believe that charters have some special magic; more people understand now that those with the highest scores exclude low-performing students or push them out.  The virtual charter industry, which in my view is a Ponzi scheme, has been thoroughly debunked by research reports and newspaper exposes… Our biggest failure to date is that we have not been able to break through to government officials. Neither Bernie Sanders nor Hillary Clinton showed that they understood the widespread parent opposition to high-stakes testing or the dangers of privatization.”

Asked about the two likely candidates of the major political parties, Ravitch answers: “My first guess is that (Hillary Clinton) will follow the same policies as Obama, but within the confines of the new federal law, ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act).  The ESSA is only marginally better than No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top.  Many of her advisers come from the (nonprofit) Center for American Progress, which has strongly supported testing, test based teacher evaluation, Common Core, charter schools, and all of the other errors of the Obama administration. But she is a very smart woman. I am hopeful that she will forge her own path.”

About Donald Trump, Ravitch comments: “He has said two things: ‘I love charter schools.’ ‘I will get rid of Common Core.’  I am willing to bet that he has no idea what Common Core or charters are.  He doesn’t know that the president and the Education Department has no power to ‘get rid of Common Core.’  The charter industry should welcome its new friend, one who shares their disregard for public schools.”

In a follow-up column, Strauss prints an excerpt from the new edition of The Death and Life of the Great American School System—an excerpt that defines Ravitch’s primary concern today:

“Education is integrally related to the society in which it is embedded. It is intended to improve society by improving the knowledge and skills of the people, but it works incrementally over years, not overnight… But schools cannot by themselves solve the problems of poverty and inequality… School reform therefore must occur in tandem with social reform. A good place to start is investing in prenatal care…. Next in an agenda of social reform would be an investment in early childhood education, from birth to five years.  Children’s intellectual, emotional, and social development is likely to be impaired if they lack the basic necessities of life during these crucial years… Poverty matters. An exceptional school here or there may break the pattern for a tiny number of students… but the pattern will persist so long as social conditions remain unchanged, so long as there are districts and schools with intense concentrations of students who are both racially segregated and impoverished. We must set national goals to reduce poverty and increase racial integration.  Schools, too must certainly improve…  After many years in which the nation has placed its highest priority on test-based accountability, we have little to show for it other than small increments in test scores, billions squandered on testing and test preparation, and vast numbers of teachers and administrators demoralized by utopian goals and harsh sanctions.”

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