Reign of Error
Diane Ravitch
Knopf, $27.95 (cloth)
It is no surprise, given the stakes, that education reform is now one of the major battles in American politics. Particularly at the municipal and state levels—from Washington, D.C. to Boston to Chicago—it has created upheaval not only in schools, but also in elections, as Democrats and unions have parted ways and new pressure groups have emerged to funnel cash toward candidates who espouse the reform movement’s vision.

All of this leaves Diane Ravitch, a historian and assistant secretary of education under Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, troubled. In her new book Reign of Error, she mounts a well-documented and generally compelling case against the agenda of the “corporate school reform movement” of the last twenty-five years. She takes on its advocacy of testing and accountability as a means of raising the quality of low-performing schools; its promotion of for-profit, nonprofit, and cyber charter schools; its urge to replace professional educators with inexperienced college graduates and swap school board members, superintendents, and principals for corporate executives.

These are familiar complaints. Ravitch’s particular contribution is to unpack the philosophical assumptions guiding the reform movement. Reformers’ goals—higher test scores for all students and a reduced gap in achievement between affluent and poor, white and nonwhite—seem admirable. But Ravitch argues that their achievement comes at the cost of replacing both the ideal and the experience of education as a public good—provided by publicly financed, publicly controlled institutions that aspire to educate future citizens for their public responsibilities and adult lives—with an understanding of education as a private commodity chosen by parents. This commodity, like others, would be produced by rival corporations motivated by profit. Corporations would seek to educate not for the responsibilities of citizenship but for success in competitive markets. The philosophical and ideological commitment to the corporate over the public, Ravitch contends, threatens real damage not only to the education of mostly low-income children, but, more broadly, to our republic and the social compact and civil society on which it rests.

Reformers do well in political debates because few voters and parents are satisfied with the state of inner-city and rural public schools. It is hard for defenders to fight apparently damning statistics. But reform is not simply about change; it is about improvement. And, as Ravitch understands, the belief that corporate control is better able to secure universal access to good education relies on an impoverished notion of what education is for, a notion that thrives on and fosters the diminution of civic life.

Responding to Reform

The contest over education frequently takes the form of a data war, with each camp lobbing statistical salvos. When reformers look at the numbers, they see public schools that shortchange minority and impoverished students. In a series of chapters on “the facts about” test scores, achievement gaps, and graduation rates, Ravitch aims to show that these claims are overstated.

In spite of persistent achievement gaps between white, Asian, African American, and Hispanic youths, Ravitch argues, all four groups have been on upward trajectories over the last couple of decades; as a result, the gaps have narrowed. Ravitch also points out that schools are not, contra reformers’ claims, using poverty as an excuse to shield underperforming schools and unionized teachers from termination. Virtually all responsible scholarship on the relation of wealth and poverty to academic performance shows that economic class is the best predictor of educational success at all levels. Ravitch also takes on the international performance gap—a real but old phenomenon and not nearly as dire as the reformers and large swaths of the public believe. Moreover, the trajectory is favorable there as well.

The countries whose test scores we so envy de-emphasize testing.

Ravitch’s claims are supported by abundant data. But a steady flow of studies from both academic and governmental sources, some of it subsequent to the publication of her book, continues to suggest the weakness of American K–12 education. The Survey of Adult Skills, produced by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, shows that American adults score poorly on literacy and numeracy tests when compared with adults in most developed countries and in some developing countries as well. The National Center for Education Statistics finds that while our eighth graders on average outperform the world’s, our top-performing students in our top-performing states—Massachusetts, Vermont, and Minnesota—do worse than top-performing students from most East Asian countries. On the other side of the ledger, a recently released study by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes makes the case that the Washington, D.C. schools achieved higher test scores after reformers, led by controversial former chancellor Michelle Rhee, purged teachers and closed schools. The Washington Post reports that the District’s gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the “Nation’s Report Card,” outshone those of nearly every state.

Now, it is not clear to what degree, if at all, these studies undercut Ravitch’s conclusions. Although the Stanford study and the National Report Card seemingly undercut Ravitch’s criticisms of reform regimes, the scores achieved in the District’s schools may reflect changes that post-date Rhee’s tenure, such as the introduction of preschool for every child. Moreover, Ravitch’s core argument is that testing does not tell us much about educational quality and that focusing on testing fosters a narrow education. That complaint remains untouched by higher scores at test-obsessed schools. And the countries whose scores we so envy do exactly what Ravitch urges: they focus education dollars on pockets of need so as to address the true causes of underperformance; they maintain rigorous but rich curricula; they de-emphasize testing; and they do all of this within the context of a deep national commitment to public education for all children.

Still, Ravitch’s insistence that public schools are already doing relatively well runs against the grain of so much data, or at least against the grain of how that data is reported, that general readers might suspect she is cherry-picking evidence. This would be a shame, as it might prompt undue skepticism toward her arguments taken in their entirety. Ravitch might have countered some of that skepticism by acknowledging that the evidence points ambiguously in a number of directions, that we do have a real problem of underperformance in both traditional and charter schools, and that some of the reform schools, including charters, might hold a few solutions.

In the second part of the book, Ravitch goes on offense, critiquing the motivations, the major legislative achievements, and most importantly, the philosophical foundations of the corporate reform movement. There is plenty of money to be made in the refashioning of education as a private commodity rather than a public good, particularly in the for-profit cyber-charter school industry. Ravitch shows the perverse effect of profit motives on the quality of the educational “product” these corporations hawk, largely to homeschooling parents.

Ravitch’s harshest criticism, however, is directed not at the moneymakers but at the legislative achievements of the reform movement. Thus, the Bush era’s No Child Left Behind Law—which Ravitch originally supported—began, in Ravitch’s telling, as a commendable demand for greater rigor and accountability in the lowest-achieving schools serving the poorest youth. But, almost twenty years later, it has become a debacle. Along with its Obama-era successor, Race to the Top, No Child Left Behind has generated an unhealthy preoccupation with test results. The result is wide-scale abandonment by “at-risk” schools—that is, schools serving low-income or low-performing students—of music, art, physical education, foreign language instruction, and physical and social sciences in order to focus on test preparation.

The charter school movement, which Ravitch also originally championed, likewise began with a laudable goal—to encourage innovation. The idea was that charters would target the children hardest to reach and would be funded by taxpayers but free of the oversight and regulation that might hamper traditional public schools. The teachers, drawn from public schools, would be freer to experiment and would share their results with their peers in the schools from which they came.

But times have changed. Today’s charter movement peddles an illusory promise of high quality—as measured almost exclusively by test scores—packaged as a magical product of deregulation delivered in schools staffed by well intentioned but unseasoned and undereducated young teachers. Many of these schools, Ravitch acknowledges, are excellent by any standard. But most, she argues, are not, and far too many, regardless of quality, have strayed from their missions. They are too often run by nonprofessional corporate administrators whose commitment to a competitive model of success leads them to cherry-pick high-scoring students. Charters cull their student bodies through admissions rules that limit applications to particular times of the year—thereby avoiding mobile and hard-to-teach children—and through high performance standards, permitted by virtue of deregulation, which in turn lead to high drop-out and expulsion rates. Public schools, by contrast, must take all comers, placing them at a relative disadvantage in testing. There is little cooperation between charters and traditional public schools. Rather than intensively support poor, non-English-speaking, and learning-disabled students with innovative methods, charters offer test prep. Yet even with cherry-picked student populations and testing-focused curricula, charter schools, by their own lights, generally do no better than public schools.

Today's charter school movement peddles an illusory promise of high quality.

Ravitch does not stop with the reform movement’s legislative agenda and evidentiary basis. The heart of her critical argument is a historical and broadly sociological claim that targets the movement’s ideological premise. The corporate reformers, she argues, are simply wrong in their diagnosis of what ails public education and therefore they are wrong about what we should do about it. Contrary to the reformers’ claims, poverty—not poorly motivated or poorly performing teachers—accounts for the pockets of underachievement that still afflict us. The reformers are wrong to insist that we can fix education without first fixing poverty. Poverty is the problem, and no purported solution to underperforming schools, teachers, or students that doesn’t address it head-on has a prayer of success.

It’s not all criticism, though. Ravitch has an agenda for change. Indeed, she wrote the book, she says, to counter the critics who accused her of being “long on criticism but short on answers.” If we are serious about improving outcomes for the neediest, she argues, we must invest in better and earlier neo-natal care for pregnant women; provide extensive and early intervention to improve the home and learning environments of babies, toddlers, and preschoolers; offer social, medical, and emotional support for school-age children; and create a K–12 curriculum that mimics those of our finest private and suburban public schools, which offer to the privileged what virtually all parents of means consistently seek: solid grounding in math and reading, yes, but also a full array of courses in the natural and social sciences, foreign languages, music, art, drama, as well as after-school activities that nurture imagination, physical and athletic development, and social skills while supplying healthy doses of whimsy and pleasure in companionable or solitary play. Professional educators know that the solutions lie here.

With these supports—and with the racial and ethnic integration that is seemingly the precondition for the politics that can supply them—all of our children would be well served. They would develop healthy habits of learning and discipline and would acquire a basic font of knowledge that would ground the higher education or the employment they seek. They would achieve the critical skills and political and moral commitments essential to their future role as citizens in a functioning democracy. And they would absorb an appreciation for our shared culture, as well as the inventive spirit to produce it and engage it, that would give them an endless source of happiness as they make their ways through their adult lives. It is a hopeful, expansive vision.

The Collapse, and Rebirth, of the Public Sphere

Why did America’s public schools, as well as the idea of public education itself, once regarded so highly, fall into such disrepute? Why were we all so easily duped into believing what seem to be, if Ravitch is right, false claims?

Part of the story, as Ravitch suggests, is politics, narrowly understood: corporate school reformers are feeding (and feeding off) a rightward tilt in American political life.

But party politics is not the entire story. The corporate reform movement has considerable bipartisan support. Not only the Bush administration, but also President Obama, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, Bill Gates, and Michael Bloomberg—not one of them a right-winger—signed on to the privatization of public schools. Rhee, perhaps the leading symbol of reform, is a lifelong Democrat. And the idealistic college graduates who flock to Teach For America and the KIPP Foundation are by no means aligned with a conservative or privatization-oriented political agenda, whatever might be true of the leadership of those organizations.

The phenomenal success of the corporate school reform movement’s attack on public education has deeper and more troubling roots. It owes, at least in part, to a thirty-year-long diminution in American commitments to the public sphere, public goods, public responsibilities, and public citizenship—in brief, a diminution of the American commitment to civil society. With that diminution, in turn, has come a transformation of American identity. American identity is no longer tied to our public institutions or our shared public projects or to support for those institutions and projects. The privatization of public schools fits cleanly into this new American identity.

We can see this transformation of identity reflected in popular media, advertising, entertainment, and political discourse: the widely hailed documentary Waiting for Superman, for example, which championed the charter school movement and decried public education, and the cross-generational appeal of movies and television shows that evince opposition to organized government, from The Incredibles to Twenty-Four. And we can see it in militia organizations, homeschooling, the again-ascendant home birthing industry, and the increasing use of mandatory arbitration to resolve civil disputes.

Perhaps most important, we can see the same transformation in a number of constitutional rights newly discovered by the Supreme Court, all of which protect not just individual liberty, but, more radically, rights to exit some traditional institution or project of civil society, or the social compact that structures it. For example, while the Supreme Court made clear twenty-five years ago that we do not have a “right to a police force,” we do now have a right to own a gun and to use it for self-defense as we “stand our ground” against perceived aggression. We have a right, that is, to exit the social compact and privatize a central function of the state: to use force if need be to protect ourselves against violence.

Employment and health law are heading in a similar direction. In the last three years, churches, church-sponsored schools, and conscience-driven secular employers have all asserted with varying degrees of success expansive exemptions from obligations under our civil rights laws: obligations to non-discriminatory employment and compensation and to the provision of health insurance. In last year’s Affordable Care Act cases, Chief Justice Roberts asserted, in a peevish bit of dicta, his belief in a personal right to refuse to purchase health insurance—in effect, a right to exit the shared risk pool that enables health care for all. And the Court held in that case that states must be permitted the right to avoid both the benefits and the obligations of poor people’s broadened and deepened rights to Medicaid. The courts increasingly allow corporate employers to avoid their obligations imposed by contract, tort, and property law through privately negotiated contracts that limit those rights and recourse to the courts for redress of employment-related wrongs. Employees likewise are encouraged to exit from obligations of union membership, through First Amendment rights permitting those exemptions.

We have a more secure right to be free of public education than to have access to it.

As with guns, self-defense, health, and employment, so with our “education rights.” Although we do not have a constitutionally grounded right to a high-quality public education, some lower federal and state courts have begun to articulate a constitutionally grounded “right to homeschool”: a parental right to take one’s kids out of the public system and educate them at home. Thus we have a more secure right to be free of public education than to have access to such an education.

In sum, where the Court over the last two decades has engaged in activist judicial decision-making in the realm of individual rights, it has been toward the creation of rights to exit from, rather than to participate in, projects of civil society. The result of this progression—the privatization of public functions—is becoming constitutionally valorized.

The success of the corporate reform movement, with its rhetoric of privatization and parental choice, reflects and reinforces this transformation. The movement’s premise is that we are and should be schooled not so much for citizenship but for labor markets. Testing ranks, quantifies, and evaluates learning, training students for the rigors of a hierarchical workplace that will do similarly, rather than for the critical thought and cooperative deliberation required of citizens in a functioning democracy. In short, we should educate for a world of e pluribus pluribus rather than e pluribus unum.

Reversing this will require not just a renewed commitment to public education, but also to the civil society on which all of our public institutions—public police forces; public health insurance; public laws of contract, tort, and property; public parks, open spaces, city halls, and state buildings—as well as our beleaguered public schools rest. We need, that is, a new civil rights movement.

Is such a movement on the horizon? Perhaps. After all, while the Supreme Court has spent the last couple decades fashioning individual rights of exit, our civil rights have moved in the opposite direction: toward greater recognition of rights to enter and participate, and to do so in a way that strengthens rather than weakens social bonds. Thus the Affordable Care Act rests on an implicit civil right to health care, as guaranteed not only through rights but also through obligations to invest in an insurance scheme that spreads risk among a pool of co-insureds: a right and an obligation, in effect, to strengthen civil society. A number of state legislatures likewise have recognized a civil right to marry regardless of sexual orientation—again, giving those who are its beneficiaries a right to enter a publicly regarded marriage and to enjoy the social benefits and responsibilities of that status. The Violence Against Women Act, recently renewed, and the Family and Medical Leave Act, recently strengthened, both recognize a civil right to a safe and economically secure family life. All of these recently enacted or renewed laws look like the cornerstones of a civil rights agenda that places civil society, and the right and obligation to participate, at the core.

Because good citizenship is—or was, until the corporate reform movement took off—a goal of education, a renewed campaign for a right to a high-quality education would find a place within this expansive paradigm of civil rights. In order to keep the promise of a civil right to citizenship education, we need to do much more than insure that our children are not discriminatorily denied entrance to school on the basis of impermissible characteristics. We must do exactly what Ravitch describes: interrupt cycles of poverty; provide assistance and support to pregnant mothers in the form of prenatal care; intervene in humane and supportive ways into under-stimulating and impoverished homes; offer services to correct for the psychological, mental, and emotional deficits of underperforming children; and provide a pedagogically rich curriculum for all grades and levels of ability, not one myopically focused on test scores.

This new civil rights movement is possible. And it could be as successful as the civil rights movement of half a century back, which also aimed to open schoolhouse doors—equally. What is lacking, as Ravitch emphasizes, is not an understanding of what children need. The missing ingredient is political will.

Photograph: Erik Bremer