Our grandson, who runs a creative learning pod for a group of Chicago sixth-graders with his sister, encouraged me to read Diane Ravitch’s 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. A well-respected educational historian and former assistant secretary of education, she once led the drive to create a national curriculum. For the last ten years, she has repudiated her earlier support of punitive accountability through programs like No Child Left Behind and of charter schools.
In this book Ravitch argues that the business model does not support meaningful school reform, that privatization and charter schools do more harm than good. She reminds us that “The best predictor of low academic performance is poverty—not bad teachers” [Wall Street Journal 2010] and warns us that the charter school and testing reform movement was started by billionaires and “right wing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation,” for the purpose of destroying public education and teachers’ unions” [newyorkbooks.com 2010]. Using specific examples from major cities to show the perilous state of education, she argues for major policy shifts. She points out that we lag behind other nations in both prenatal care and quality preschool educational opportunities even as we face serious inequities and child poverty. Social policies to address those issues should support educational reform.
Ravitch would shift charter schools to educate the learners most in need of help, rather than make them an escape from public schools for other students. She would encourage family involvement from an early age. She would treat educators with respect, paying a fair wage for work and acknowledging that we lack the tools for merit pay to be reasonable. Most of all, she would leave educational decisions to educators, not politicians or businessmen.
Three years later, Ravitch published Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and Its Danger to America’s Public Schools, arguing against privatization and for public education. Her chapters describe the steps toward better education for all students as she advocates for more rigorous preschools, smaller class sizes, better teacher training, and comprehensive social services. She would professionalize teaching and turn more of the decision-making over to teachers.
Ravitch’s vision gives me hope. I have long believed that American education was on the wrong track, that charters and vouchers hurt the students left behind, that micromanagement by non-educators hamstrung good teaching, that teachers long to be effective and need to be given the time, tools, and support to do their best work.
Does any of this matter right now? During remote and hybrid learning, aren’t students, teachers, and parents just struggling to stay afloat? No doubt that’s true, but when the stranglehold of the Covid-19 pandemic releases its grip, as it ultimately will do, education will be ripe for reform. We’d do well to follow Ravitch’s lead and revise our policies and approaches accordingly.