The Architect of School Reform Who Turned Against It

Diane Ravitch's second revolution

Denise Nestor

The survival of the school-reform movement, as it’s known to champions and detractors alike, is no longer assured. Even a couple years ago, few would have predicted this turn of events for a crusade that began with the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983, gathered momentum as charter schools and Teach for America took off in the 1990s, and surged into the spotlight with No Child Left Behind in 2001. As a schoolteacher, I know I didn’t anticipate this altered landscape. If one person can be credited—or blamed—for the reform movement’s sudden vulnerability, it’s a fiercely articulate historian, now in her 70s, named Diane Ravitch.

That Ravitch helped conceive the movement she now condemns makes her current role even more unexpected. Almost four decades ago, Ravitch emerged as a preeminent chronicler of, as she put it, “the rise and fall of grand ideas” in American education. The author of 11 books, including Reign of Error (out this month), she has traced the past century’s successive battles over how best to deliver a quality education—and to whom.

In 1991, she shifted from observer to policy adviser, becoming an assistant secretary of education under George H. W. Bush. An outspoken critic of progressive pedagogical theories, she urged rigorous national standards and gravitated toward conservatives promoting parental choice, vouchers, and charter schools. Market-based alternatives, she decided, were the answer for impoverished parents desperate to see their children escape broken inner-city schools.

A decade later, No Child Left Behind’s bipartisan push for federally mandated assessments brought Ravitch’s favored prescriptions into the mainstream. A growing cadre of social entrepreneurs—including Teach for America’s founder, Wendy Kopp, and many former TFAers, among them the creators of the KIPP charter schools—focused more intently on improving teacher quality. This was the key, they argued, to boosting achievement among disadvantaged students. They attracted generous backers, not least the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Executives from Silicon Valley and Wall Street hedge funds joined the cause, financing new organizations, such as Democrats for Education Reform, to push for more innovation. Soon the movement commanded allegiance from Democrats and Republicans in Congress, secretaries of education from both parties, and several big-city mayors and school superintendents. Ravitch, for her part, briefly advised George W. Bush’s first presidential campaign. The only figures conspicuously absent from this burgeoning coalition seemed to be traditional teachers and their unions, whom many reformers judged a primary obstacle to necessary change.

President Obama embraced his predecessor’s policies with, if anything, greater gusto. His Race to the Top initiative, employing federal stimulus money, encouraged states to open more charter schools, use student test scores to assess teacher quality, and dismantle tenure. The revolution appeared nearly complete. Except that by 2010, Diane Ravitch had broken ranks.

That year, she published a carefully researched book in which she reflected on the movement she’d helped launch but could no longer support. Surveying the data, she concluded that the reform effort was just another in the parade of high hopes that policy makers and practitioners had promoted through the decades. Their strategies couldn’t transform schools into engines of social mobility, because they did little to address the underlying causes of the achievement gap between white and minority students: entrenched segregation and poverty in America’s urban core. The book was called The Death and Life of the Great American School System, but it might as well have been called The Corrections.

The evidence Ravitch marshaled was damning. Some charters were superb, but most were not outperforming traditional public schools. Recalcitrant teachers unions weren’t a chief cause of failing schools after all; plenty of charters, freed from union strictures, were foundering. Nor had No Child Left Behind generated a substantial rise in student achievement. Now that standardized-test scores determined schools’ fates and funding, the curriculum in many districts emphasized rote prep. Benchmarks got revised downward. Even a few of Ravitch’s conservative former colleagues conceded that she was essentially right on the facts.

A former compatriot, Ravitch was perfectly poised to lead the mid-course correction the reform movement acutely needed. Who better to ask the tough questions and propose the necessary adjustments before another wild pendulum swing exhausted the public’s patience for innovation, as Ravitch the historian had warned happens again and again? She challenged reformers’ alarmist narrative about an entire public-school system in sharp decline, noting that affluent American students were doing just fine. But the most-impoverished students were more socially isolated than ever.

Ravitch and her book instead further polarized an already strident debate. Movement crusaders denounced her as a doomsayer with no constructive answers. Although the reformist camp was more diverse than Ravitch acknowledged, its more hard-line proponents circled the wagons. They declined to scrutinize even the obvious excesses of their movement: the zealotry of D.C.’s superintendent of schools, Michelle Rhee, who soon found herself linked to a cheating scandal; the shady for-profit charters and so-called cyber schools with no record of serving disadvantaged children; the hastily adopted and unproven teacher-assessment schemes; a pricey new bureaucracy of McKinsey-style reform consultants, deployed even as classroom budgets were gutted.

A former compatriot, Ravitch was perfectly poised to lead the mid-course correction the reform movement acutely needed. Who better to ask the tough questions and propose the necessary adjustments?

Ravitch had taken to social media with the fervor of a teenager, and she responded to critics with fire-hose blasts of tweets and blog posts. Plainly thrilling to the role of polemicist, she accused one “loathsome” reformer of having “ruined the life” of a career educator “for filthy lucre.” Her opponents gave as good as they got. Whitney Tilson, a financier renowned for circulating pro-reform e‑mails, denounced Ravitch’s “thuggery.”

Ravitch was no longer engaging with her critics. She was rallying a base that grew rapidly as anti-testing fervor spread. This spring, she helped found the Network for Public Education to fight high-stakes testing and what she calls the privatization of public schools. (Meanwhile, Ravitch’s ideological adversaries have poured money into school-board and congressional races.) In less than three years, she has become the public face of a counterrevolution that shows no signs of abating, as many educators and parents now balk at the Common Core State Standards, a newly ambitious set of academic guidelines and accompanying assessments.

Ravitch presents Reign of Error as an overture to dialogue with opponents, but her subtitle suggests otherwise: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. Her tour of the research is littered with bumper-sticker slogans—she indicts, for example, the “Walmartization of American education”—likely to put off the unconverted. The book reads like a campaign manual against “corporate reformers.” The first half challenges the claims of their movement; the second offers Ravitch’s alternative agenda. Her prescriptions include universal pre-K, smaller class sizes, better teacher training, and more measures to reduce poverty and school segregation.

These are worthy goals—and not one of them is necessarily incompatible with many reformers’ own aims. Yet Ravitch doesn’t address competing priorities or painful trade-offs. Further reducing class size in better-off suburban districts, for example, may leave less money for more urgently needed early-childhood programs in poorer communities.

Ravitch the counterrevolutionary may be right that the reformers’ cause is primed for derailment. But Ravitch the historian once foretold what typically follows a contentious drive for school improvement: “It was usually replaced,” she observed in 2003, “by a movement called ‘back to basics,’ or ‘essentialism,’ ” which didn’t herald new progress but rather “a backlash against failed fads.” Ravitch herself is the “essentialist” now, urging that we go back not to basics but to a past when issues of equity and adequate funding dominated debates about education. At a time of growing income inequality, this correction is overdue.

But let’s not get too nostalgic about those old debates. There’s a reason the younger Ravitch was impatient decades ago to discover new choices for families in America’s worst-off districts. I hope I’m not alone in searching her new book for traces of the writer who, as recently as 2010, could still see beyond a politicized landscape to understand what draws many hard-pressed parents to charters. They’re not set on this curriculum or that pedagogy, as some reformers suggest. They’re looking, as Ravitch appreciated, for academic “havens”—which is what parents at the inner-city school where I teach, once nominally parochial and now a charter, often tell me. They want a place where their children can join peers already driven to achieve in school—a search with another bleak trade-off. The departure of these students leaves other peers, without parents resourceful enough to find better alternatives, stranded in schools that become all the harder to improve.

In Reign of Error, Ravitch does outline the beginnings of a potential compromise with her former pro-charter allies, which she isn’t trumpeting on Twitter, but should be. Instead of trying to eliminate charters altogether, she sounds ready to work toward making them better. Some of the greatest failures and outright frauds of the charter movement, she rightly observes, are in its for-profit sector. Schools shouldn’t be in the business of figuring out how to maximize investor returns—in fact, they shouldn’t be in business at all. No top private or parochial school operates this way. Ravitch is less persuasive when she attacks charter networks. Why not scale up programs that work? Some of the best charters, like KIPP, are chains run by nonprofits.

If the reform movement hopes to retain the public’s trust, insisting that reputable charters expel their for-profit brethren is a sensible place to start. Ravitch also argues convincingly that charters should accept a fairer share of the toughest-to-educate students. For her part, Ravitch might lead her own followers to recognize that the desire to improve teacher quality isn’t tantamount to teacher-bashing.

“If my child were in a school where he was not learning,” Ravitch wrote in the not-too-distant past, “I would not wait for a gathering of social scientists to tell me whether it was okay for me to put him in another school.” A reform movement convulsed by extremism shouldn’t hinder parents, or children, either. If only Ravitch, too, would dedicate her zeal to a less divisive vision.