Saturday, October 2, 2010


In The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch recants. Once, she advocated curriculum reform; then, as a Department of Education Assistant Secretary, advocated the principles, policies, and practices of No Child Left Behind (NCLB); now, more than half a decade later, renounces them. It takes guts for a once-public official to make a public repudiation because it generates charges of apostasy or betrayal. When I learned of Ravitch’s recantation, I wrote to welcome her back to the traditional, humanistic approach to education in a democratic society.

Ravitch’s latest book is a must-read for anyone concerned about the current condition of American pre-college public education. It is an impassioned warning that today’s approved solutions to poor academic performance and low graduation rates are tomorrow’s assured problems of even worse. The book makes a strong case that the application of presumed business principles, policies, and practices to public education has had, is having, and will have disastrous consequences.

Unlike Ravitch, I have never had a favorable opinion of Bush’s NCLB. I suspected an initiative on education offered by a president notably anti-intellectual but friendly with businesspeople who have long and rightly complained about the quality of graduates entering the workforce. So I was not surprised that the NCLB approach purported to be business-like, with a focus on market principles of competition and choice, management and money, performance measurement and standards, and monetary incentives.

Anything purporting to be business-like has a reflexive appeal to Americans who believe that the business of America is business. It has acquired greater appeal because of increasingly negative attitudes toward public schools. Within a decade of the Vietnam War, Americans had become alarmed by the decline of student academic performance. Disillusionment, disappointment, despair were commonplace. These adverse attitudes prompted The Nation at Risk, which appeared early in the Reagan administration but avoided business-based prescriptions. But they prompted politicians and businesspeople to think that business-like approaches could cure the ills of public education.

Too bad most politicians and businesspeople forget the lessons of history and repeat them. They are repeating the mistakes of the Vietnam War in American education. As Robert McNamara, former Ford Motor president, believed that quantified measures of battlefield performance could guide the war effort and produce success, so today’s politicians and businesspeople assume that quantified measures of student performance can direct education to better results. As high, often inflated, body counts did not prove that we were winning the war—as I recall, we lost it—so higher, often manipulated, test scores do not prove that we are better educating students.

Too bad most politicians and businesspeople flatter themselves that other people and other institutions are like them or theirs. So they think that business is like education and that what works for business can work for education. They think of schools as factories, teachers as assembly-line workers, and students as products. They cannot imagine fundamental differences between products and services, and curriculum and instruction; and between the motives, purposes, and values (even personalities) of politicians and businesspeople, and those of educators. They neither understand nor appreciate the distinctive nature of public education and its historical contribution to democracy and capitalism.

As their efforts, doubled and redoubled, have failed, politicians have become increasingly frustrated with, and businesspeople increasingly unfriendly toward, public education. Ironically, foisting their incessant and inappropriate initiatives on schools and teachers in the name of reform defeats their avowed purpose of improving public education.

Take three. Charter schools pick and kick both students and teachers, leave public schools with the rest, yet provide an education no better and often worse. Test scores to evaluate schools and teachers—close some of the former; fire some of the latter—incentivize states to lower standards, encourage schools and teachers to teach to tests, and get unreliable results. Top-down management denies teachers a voice in decisions affecting their professional conduct, forces them to work to the rule of elaborate lesson plans and approved classroom methods, then stigmatizes and punishes schools and teachers as failures for getting poor results.

Then, despite having created a sweatshop environment for teachers and students, and having blamed everyone but themselves for their failed efforts, politicians and businesspeople talk about the need to attract good teachers. Good luck with that.

What most politicians and businesspersons bring to public education is a toxic mix of arrogance from high position, and ignorance of education. They wield the influence of taxpayer funds or personal fortunes in my-way-or-highway approaches and projects with little, if any—guess what?—accountability. Barack Obama and Arne Duncan meet Bill Gates in making money the be-all-and-end-all in education and high-handedness the first principle of reform. (Race-to-the-Top means Run-for-My-Money-and-Jump-through-My-Hoops.) Their misguided meddling manufactures educational disarray, demoralized and ineffective teachers, and disillusioned and incompetent students. Maintaining their product-and-service lines will further impair, not improve, public education. My business-like idea: fire the current lot and hire educators qualified for the task.

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