Commentary Magazine

The Death and Life of the Great American School System, by Diane Ravitch

The Death and Life of the
Great American School System

By Diane Ravitch
Basic Books, 308 pages

In her new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, the eminent historian Diane Ravitch considers, as so many others have, how to mend the nation’s rickety education apparatus. But Death and Life cannot be filed away as just another volume on the endless shelf of broken-schools literature, for it also marks a major authorial about-face. For decades, Ravitch has been known as a conservative scholar (she served as a senior official in the Department of Education during the administration of George H.W. Bush). No longer. With this new work, the 71-year-old Ravitch radically changes course, seizing the bullhorn and strapping the banner to the Cessna to proclaim that she now opposes most conservative education reforms.

“Where once I had been hopeful, even enthusiastic, about the potential benefits of testing, accountability, choice, and markets,” she writes, “I now found myself experiencing profound skepticism about these same ideas.” She came to suspect that she had been duped by educational fads, jumping “aboard a bandwagon festooned with banners celebrating the power of accountability, incentives, and markets.” In Death and Life she seeks, she says, to go past the slogans, focus on the facts, and in the end explain “what is needed to move American education in the right direction.”

The book is largely a series of histories of fraught school-improvement efforts. Ravitch usefully recounts, for instance, how standards-based reform morphed into an obsession with testing, and how proponents of school choice have recurrently exaggerated the capacity of vouchers and charter schools to raise student achievement. She is right that K-12 education—ever hungry for solutions, any solutions—is particularly susceptible to caprice. She is also right to insist that policymakers should jettison fanciful notions and make decisions about schools only after evaluating the evidence.

Unfortunately, Death and Life is itself selective about the evidence it relates. For example, Ravitch devotes scant words to discussing teachers’ unions, and when she does discuss them, she merely defends them from their critics. Unions have done heaps of good for educators, she writes, and there is no “clear, indisputable correlation between teacher unionism and academic achievement, either negative or positive.” Sure, teacher tenure, which unions fiercely protect, can make it difficult to fire a lousy educator, but tenure “is not a guarantee of lifetime employment but a protection against being terminated without due process.” Tenure “does not protect teachers?.?.?.?from being fired for incompetence or misconduct.”

Oh? Last year, the New Yorker published an article by Steven Brill about New York City’s so-called rubber rooms, the Temporary Reassignment Centers where unwanted public-school teachers—those accused of incompetence, as Brill put it, “in a system that rarely calls anyone incompetent”—wait out the decidedly un-temporary arbitration process required by the contract between the United Federation of Teachers and the city of New York. The rubber-room teachers are still employed, but they have no students; they’re purposefully kept away from students. On non-summer weekdays they punch the clock at 8:15 a.m. and then chat, play board games, sleep, whatever, until 3:15 p.m., when they go home. For these exertions they receive a full salary and accrue pensions and benefits. Hundreds of teachers occupy these rubber rooms, and most stay in them for years. It all costs New York tens of millions of dollars.

Brill uncovered on the website of New York City’s teachers’ union a page highlighting the supposed injustice of the rubber rooms. It included a triumphal story about a teacher who had beaten the system, returning to the classroom after years spent in the arbitration gauntlet. What the website didn’t mention was that this particular teacher—who was sent to the rubber room in 2005 after being discovered at her desk unconscious, unrevivable, and emanating an alcoholic tang while her class of 34 students looked on—was, in February 2009, again found passed out in her school office. When roused, she was unable even to blow into a breathalyzer.

Ravitch is simply wrong here. It is nearly impossible to fire a teacher for even gross violations, let alone mere classroom incompetence. The evidence is plain, the examples legion. A 2009 St. Petersburg Times article introduced readers to an educator whose rap sheet comprised more than 20 distasteful incidents, including allegedly spying on an undressing teenager in the girls’ locker room and being arrested for stealing a $6 sandwich, and who was nonetheless still employed and had received for his infractions the lightest of wrist slaps. “In Florida,” Ron Matus wrote, “most teachers have tenure, a status written into state law that gives them special legal protections. Most also have a union willing to wage a legal fight for them. The combination yields a firing process so tedious and time-consuming, districts rarely bother.”

Death and Life is not only selective about the evidence it cites; Ravitch is also willing to disregard evidence entirely. Take, for instance, her oft-repeated complaint that major decisions about schools are now made by outsiders, many of whom are business-minded, and not by those with years of public-school experience. “Education,” she writes, “is too important to relinquish?.?.?.?to the good intentions of amateurs.” Her solution is to fill important positions with exactly the same people who have held them for decades and who, during that time, have presided steadfastly over public education’s wan mediocrity. Ravitch deploys no evidence, no facts, to show that only the education establishment is qualified to run schools. Of course, how could she, when her strategy has long been tried and found desperately wanting?

The book fares no better in its treatment of educational choice. Ravitch’s basic argument against choice is that it will harm traditional public schools—that ever more parents will send their children to private or charter institutions and thus the enrollments of regular public schools will dwindle perilously. The argument works only if one believes that old-fashioned, brick-and-mortar public schools—even those many thousands that are educational backwaters where pupils learn little—have some preserve-at-all-costs intrinsic worth unrelated to their ability to teach children. Ravitch believes this, but many others do not. Why, exactly, should a student’s educational options be curtailed, why should he be confined to a shoddy school, just to save a decrepit and defective educational system? Ravitch offers nothing fact-based to bolster her nostalgia.

And in the end, that nostalgia seems to overpower reason here. Ravitch writes about “neighborhood schools,” which “are often the anchors of their communities” and where locals meet to “work together” on “common problems.” This is simply not the reality of life in 21st-century America. Ravitch writes that children “need to grow up surrounded by the mores and values of their community,” but some of today’s most flourishing public schools are those that expressly remove students from the often destructive mores and values of their communities and offer something better. Many more of the book’s assertions are similarly embedded in unreality.

The Death and Life of the Great American School System is not an attack on conservative education reform; it is an attack on almost all reform. One can only imagine the degree of frustration Ravitch experienced in her decades of effort to change schooling for the better. With this sad and sorry book, which is nothing less than an act of emotional and ideological capitulation to those who fought her tooth and nail all along the way, Diane Ravitch has consigned herself to an intellectual “rubber room” of her own devising.

About the Author

Liam Julian is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution (with which, until recently, Diane Ravitch was affiliated) and managing editor of Policy Review.

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