You should read this amazing book

Tuesday, May 4th, 2010

I’m not used to starting an article with the kind of headline you see above. Education journalists are (or at least, should be, in my view…) accustomed to dealing in nuance, caveat and complexity, and not in the unequivocal enthusiasm which those six words suggest.

But I feel they are justified in the case of Diane Ravitch’s “The Death and Life of the Great American School System”. For me, her book has performed an invaluable task, showing up the connections between debates in the US about school accountability, choice, testing and corporate involvement in education, and what has been going on over here. With positions probably more polarised (and therefore rival stances more starkly visible) in the US, arguably this makes the debate over here easier to understand.

For readers in England in particular, and especially as we ponder the possibility of a Conservative-led government which seems enthusiastic for at least one element of US policy (charter schools), the book shows up just how heavily the US debate has influenced, and continues to shape, arguments on this side of the Atlantic. It suggests that much of the heat in the US is generated by ideology, espoused by business-orientated advocates of “reform” who are ranged against defenders of state education as it has traditionally been understood. The strength of Ravitch’s book has been that she tries to see beyond the politics of this row to ask what is really in education’s best interest, as she sees it, rather than what best fits a politicised agenda. In this, I think she is quite brave: big business and many in the US media have lined up to support the reform movement, as if to question it is to side with lower ambitions for schools. It can be quite difficult, then, as Ravitch acknowledges, to make the counter-argument. But she succeeds.

The book has certainly not been short of influence, either: last time I looked, it was in the top 200 of any book on the bestseller list of the US Amazon website, a staggering achievement for a work on education policy.

Part of the interest, for readers coming to it afresh, must come from Ravitch’s background. The full title of her book is “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education”. Anyone reading that apparent rejection of two ideas which have traditionally been associated more with the political right than with the left – or, indeed, anyone perusing her regular blog on these issues on the website of Education Week newspaper – might be surprised to learn that Ravitch describes herself as a conservative, having served as Assistant Secretary of Education for the elder President Bush in the early 1990s.

On the first page, she describes how, in the autumn of 2007, she had an “intellectual crisis”. “Where once I had been hopeful, even enthusiastic, about the potential benefits of testing, accountability, choice, and markets, I now found myself experiencing profound doubts about these same ideas,” she writes. The next 241 pages see Ravitch set out the evidence that made her change her mind.

The argument is really quite straightforward. Ravitch posits that, in recent years, big business and ambitious politicians have put forward the idea that education should be transformed to be placed on a more business-like footing. Schools and teachers should be held to account through test scores, and they should compete for parents’ custom. Those which are successful should be rewarded, while schools which fail to improve their numbers should close and unsuccessful teachers should lose their tenure. Unions were seen as a block to reform and their influence should be curbed, it is argued, since schools should be run like businesses and be freer to sack teachers for poor performance and pay staff what they choose.

Giving parents choice over which school their child attended, then, was seen both as a good in itself and as a vehicle for pushing up school standards through competition.

This model was initially attractive, Ravitch writes. At first, she says,“I got caught up in the wave of enthusiasm for choice in education. I began to wonder why families should not be able to choose their children’s schools the way they choose their place of residence, their line of work, their shoes or their car….there was an undeniable appeal to the values associated with choice: freedom, personal empowerment, deregulation, the ability to chart one’s own course. The anti-choice side was saddled with defending regulation, bureaucracy and poor academic results.

“How much easier it was to promise (and hope for) the accomplishments, successes and rewards that had not yet been achieved and could not yet be demonstrated, but were surely out there the other side of the mountain.”

I’m not against choice in education as a principle, either. My own book does not set out to criticise it, as a concept, or challenge its existence in the English context. But the question is whether these policies actually work to improve our schools. Ravitch ends up hugely frustrated, and anxious, about the attempt to frame education in a corporate image.

“The problem with the marketplace is that it dissolves communities and replaces them with consumers,” she writes. “Going to school is not the same as going shopping.”

Along the way, she tells some powerful stories, identifying what look to this observer like gaping holes in the US accountability structure in particular. She deems it an “accounting strategy” – “measure, then punish or reward”, which has little to do with education: education by numbers indeed.

In terms of these “holes”, did you know, for example, that under No Child Left Behind, George Bush’s law from the year 2001 which required states to set children tests in reading and maths, all states had to publish timelines showing that 100 per cent of their pupils would achieve “proficiency” in these subjects by 2014?

This was, of course, an impossible goal, Ravitch writes, quoting two academics who wrote that it was akin to Congress declaring that “every last molecule of water or air pollution would vanish by 2014, or that all American cities would be crime-free by that date.” Yet it was not just an aspiration: the threat was that schools would be closed and teachers sacked if these targets were not met. I understand that Barack Obama has now scrapped the targets.

She also tells stories about how states managed to improve their results on the tests by seemingly lowering standards. While the federal government said that all states should have testing systems for reading and maths, and held states to account for results in those tests, it appears to have left unregulated the content of the tests (partly following a political row over history teaching dating to the 1990s, after which states decided it would be too controversial to try to reach a view on what children should actually be taught; what mattered was simply that they were tested), or how standards are kept constant. Ravitch cites a 2009 research study’s view that seemingly impressive gains in Chicago were down to “changes in the tests and testing procedures, not real student improvement”. President Obama praised the apparent gains in that city when he appointed the man who oversaw the Chicago schools system, Arne Duncan, as his secretary of education. Duncan is now busy pushing forward the choice/accountability agenda.

Of the difficulties with the US version of high-stakes testing, Ravitch writes: “Students may be able to pass the state test, yet unable to pass a test of precisely the same subject for which they did not practice. They master test-taking methods, but not the subject itself. In the new world of accountability, students’ acquisition of the skills and knowledge they need for further education and for the workplace is secondary. What matters most is for the school, the district and the state to be able to say that more students have reached ‘proficiency’. This sort of fraud ignores the students’ interests while promoting the interests of adults who take credit for non-existent improvements.” She also writes how holding schools and teachers to account in this way takes away pupils’ responsibility for doing well.

Closing schools, she writes, is an admission of failure and should be a matter of absolute last resort. “The goal of accountability should be to support and improve schools, not the heedless destruction of careers, reputations, lives, communities and institutions.”

Looking at reforms of the schools system in New York City under the mayor, Mike Bloomberg, the “media mogul”, and his chancellor, Joel Klein, Ravitch also documents problems with the report card system which became a vehicle for school accountability in that city and has been suggested by Labour for introduction here. Last year, she says, 84 per cent of elementary and middle schools received an A on their report cards, the top grade in an A-F grading system, compared to only 23 per cent two years previously. The rise, which lacked credibility, was partly driven by the state’s “secret decision to lower the points needed to advance on state tests”, the test results contributing to schools’ overall grades.

Ravitch also takes aim at the charter schools movement, including assessing the evidence on the success of charters, which is mixed. One chapter is entitled the “Billionaire Boys’ Club”. This shows how some of the richest families in America, including Bill and Melinda Gates, the Walton family, which is behind WalMart, and Eli Broad, a billionaire from home building and life insurance, have pumped funding into schools reform, including charter schools. But these donations, Ravitch writes, have been very much on their own terms, with the successful entrepreneurs tending to insist on market-driven policies. Although they promote accountability for schools, there seems to be little accountability surrounding their own decision-making policies, argues Ravitch. She has written on her blog that this amounts to a “privatisation” movement for state education.

The Broad Foundation seems particularly influential. It invested millions in charter schools; in training school board members and administrators; in advocacy, think tanks and other organisations such as the Center for Education Reform and the National Governors Association; and in public relations operations for New York City’s Department of Education and underwrote coverage of education reform issues by a public television network. During the 2008 presidential election campaign, the Gates and Broad foundations jointly invested $60 million to “make education reform a national campaign issue”.

Although some will no doubt welcome this largesse from people who could spend their money in less challenging fields than school reform, and engagement from the business community in the education field in theory could be great if managed well, for me it raises serious questions. The key thing is where the power resides in these relationships. If business people were willing to hand over their cash and allow others – perhaps those with professional expertise whose views might not accord with their own – to take decisions on how to spend it wisely, maybe they would have a better case to be viewed as an unequivocal positive force for a nation’s schools, and its democracy. But, if Ravitch’s account is correct, this is very much charity on the giver’s terms. To put it another way, why should a rich individual exert more influence over the direction of schools policy in furtherance of a particular viewpoint simply because he or she is wealthy?

I have gone on far too long, but must make a few more points. It could be argued that there is no straight “read across” from US education policy to the situation in English schools. In particular, our academies programme has shown how extracting sponsorship of schools from rich individuals is sometimes not as simple as it might appear to be in the American context. And our own New Schools Network, which has close links to the Conservatives, says it wants to take only the best of the charter schools movement and replicate it here.

Nevertheless, there are many echoes of the debates around test-based accountability in English schools. And I find myself agreeing with Ravitch’s overall conclusion, that, for all the talk about the structures of schooling, and the need to “incentivise” teachers to do their jobs well, in reality what really matters is simply what pupils are taught, and how. Ravitch makes a strong case that it is the curriculum, above all, which matters. She thinks every child should have the right to a broad and balanced learning experience right through high school, offering the best that liberal education can provide, including all of the following subjects: “history, geography, literature, the arts, the sciences, civics, foreign languages, health and physical education”, alongside the ubiquitous tested subjects of English (language) and maths. Schools should be rooted within their communities, and accountable to them. Teachers should also have the right to be represented by unions.

Although elements of this might sound a tad traditionalist for some, I have to say, it is not far from my own opinion (although, let’s be clear: I am not, and have never been, a teacher, so others may be better qualified to take a view on what should be taught). Particularly powerful is the humanity of what she has to say: it is better to treat teachers, parents, and children, as individuals worth respecting than to see them essentially as abstract elements within an ideological argument, the book implies. Perhaps my only surprise is that Ravitch, now a research professor at New York University and described on the back cover as “one of the most important public intellectuals of our time”, should have been so swept up by the reform movement in the first place. But no matter.

The title comes from Ravitch’s belief that the forces she takes on are helping to undermine that ideal of what good public schools should be about, with little evidence that the changes being pushed, including currently by Barack Obama, really will promote better education in the long run.

Perhaps the most urgent quote in the book comes at the end of the chapter on choice. It reads: “In barely 20 years, the idea of school choice rapidly advanced in the public arena and captivated elite opinion. Given the accumulating evidence of its uneven results, this was surprising. Even more surprising was how few voices were raised on behalf of the democratic vision of public education.”

This book gives much on which to ponder, I think.

1 Comment

  1. Fascinating review. The continued separation of the debate between choice, accountability, testing etc is extremely frustrating. Until they are treated within the context of improving the quality of education as a whole, piecemeal policies and initiatives are inevitable.

    It was particularly interesting that someone who was once a great advocate of new schools has become less enthusiastic over time – a sign of things to come in the UK?…

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