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School & District Management Opinion

What Ravitch and the Reformers Both Got Wrong

By Rick Hess — March 02, 2020 3 min read
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Over at Education Next, I recently had the opportunity to review Diane Ravitch’s new book, Slaying Goliath. The book is well-timed—marking the end of a decade during which a once-triumphal “reform” coalition unraveled—and provided a useful opportunity to reflect on what happened and what we’ve learned. Ravitch, of course, first made her name as an influential education historian. I was hugely curious: Given her stance as perhaps the foremost critic of 21st-century “reform,” how would she make sense of reform’s demise?

Well, Ravitch’s tale turns out be a remarkably simple one. A nefarious cabal of “Privatizers” sought to destroy public education, only to be beaten back by a plucky “Resistance” of anti-testers, left-wing nonprofits, and teachers unions.

Now, longtime readers know that I agree with Ravitch that contemporary school reform deserves to be harshly critiqued—especially when it comes to favorite Ravitch targets like NCLB, the Common Core, big philanthropy, teacher evaluation, and the obsession with reading and math scores. Yet, with all talk of malicious billionaires, shadowy networks, noble “reformers of old,” and the plucky “Resistance,” the tale offered more vitriol than vision. As I put it in the review:

It's all a cartoonish muddle, as Bill Gates, the Walton family, Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan, Democrats for Education Reform, Jeb Bush, Barack Obama, Eli Broad, Betsy DeVos, and their "Corporate Disrupter" allies devote themselves to "cutting taxes, cutting spending on public schools, and turning control of public schools over to private corporations." Why would Obama, Gates, or Bush do this? Ravitch reports that it's because, "They are masters of chaos, which they inflict on other people's children, without a twinge of remorse. . . . They don't like public control. They like to close public schools." If this seems like a case of depicting a vast grab-bag of people and organizations as moustache-twirling villains, you've got the idea.

As I read the volume, I was struck by how closely it paralleled the black-and-white caricature offered up in books by the same “reformers” that Ravitch assails. To take just one example among many, I reviewed former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s How Schools Work a couple years ago. I noted that his harangue was an exercise “in straw men and self-congratulation” (much like Ravitch’s). I observed:

Duncan suffers from the tendency to divide the world into those who are "for the kids" and those who are not. . . . In Duncan's telling, he has spent a career facing off against those who didn't share his commitment to the kids, battling the "vested interests that are resistant to change and absolutely beholden to the status quo."

In fact, when I reflect on the past decade, the Ravitchians and the reformers increasingly strike me as mirror images of one another. The two sides embraced similar tropes and shared an inclination to cherry-pick data, wave away complexity, and dismiss critics as “anti-child” and “part of the problem.” This reliance on simple-minded moralism proved especially costly for reformers, making it tough for them to recognize missteps or broaden their coalition.

Worst of all, I fear that both camps tended to make the same mistake when thinking about educational change—overstating the import of policy change, by itself, and failing to appreciate the degree to which any consequences depend on execution more than adoption. Along the way, the combatants helped turn promising attempts to rethink the shape of public education into cardboard solutions—thus ensuring that they’d disappoint. Heck, as I observed of Ravitch and Duncan a decade ago, at the height of Race to the Top’s early success:

When I listen to [Ravitch and Duncan] discuss merit pay, accountability, or charter schooling, I hear the same mistake. . . . [Ravitch] is disappointed because she thought accountability and charter schooling were supposed to make schools better and now condemns them for failing to deliver on that promise. Duncan seems to promise that they will make schools better. They're both missing the central point: These kinds of structural reforms are means, not ends. Nobody should expect them to magically boost learning or improve outcomes. . . . The action is not in the fact of charters, accountability, or merit pay, but in what one does with them. And that's a subject we've given dreadfully short shift for two decades.

Rather than focusing on how to ensure that these changes would deliver on their promises, reformers got distracted by the sheer excitement of fighting and tallying “wins.” They created awards for policy warriors. They eagerly tallied the number of states that adopted the Common Core or new teacher-evaluation systems, and focused relentlessly on scoring more goals. The result was that too much weight got put on “winning” and not enough on persuasion, workability, or how those wins would be experienced by families and teachers.

The last decade in American schooling has much to teach those who seek to improve it. High-profile reforms crashed and burned. A bipartisan reform coalition came apart. How and why this happened is about much more than a clash of good guys and bad guys. It’s mostly, I suspect, a story of well-meaning “reformers” focusing more on statehouses than schoolhouses, with results that proved destructive and ultimately self-defeating. And I’m still waiting for the book that explores that.

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