When Diane Ravitch decided that reform ideas like robust testing, charter schools, and No Child Left Behind were imperiling rather than saving American education, she managed to break with her former Republican allies and start a fight with Obama Democrats, all at once. For Ravitch, this wasn’t merely a course correction, it was a complete turnaround: when she was an assistant secretary of education during George H. W. Bush’s administration, she was all for more standardized testing and for school choice. During the Bush II years, she cheered the passage of No Child Left Behind. But in her new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Ravitch says the evidence shows that vouchers and charters don’t actually serve kids better on average than regular public schools, and that testing has squeezed every creative drop out of the school day—who has time for art class when success depends on drilling students in math? Ravitch has also come to view the closing of “failing” schools that’s required by No Child Left Behind as an unfair attack on the teachers and principals who work with low-income students.
Teachers unions and some civil-rights groups sounded these alarms before Ravitch did. But her sharp writing and mastery of history (she’s an education professor and historian at New York University) mean that no one makes the case more forcefully. That has won her some new friends, but also cost her some old ones (she parted ways with a pair of conservative think tanks). Her latest target is Race to the Top, the Obama competition that rewards states for increasing the number of charter schools and tying teacher evaluations to test scores. Ravitch calls the program “a massive waste of money that will produce perverse consequences.” She doesn’t offer much in the way of an alternative (beyond the well-worn mantra of professional development for teachers). But sometimes it’s enough to be a critic. By facing off against most of the centers of power in her field, Ravitch has turned herself into a singular check on the ascendant education orthodoxy.