Are U.S. public schools failing, and if so, will implementing Common Core and next-generation tests as part of school accountability correct those failures?
At Valerie Strauss’s The Answer Sheet, Gerald Graff, an English professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has challenged Diane Ravitch’s stance on the both public schools and Common Core, which he characterizes as follows:
“Public education is not broken,” says Diane Ravitch in her new book, “Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools.” The “diagnosis” of the corporate reformers “is wrong,” Ravitch writes, and their solutions are also wrong. “Our urban schools are in trouble because of concentrated poverty and racial segregation. But public education as such is not ‘broken,’” and “the solutions proposed by the self-proclaimed reformers have not worked as promised.”
Ravitch’s argument — that the real problem is not public education but its would-be reformers — has become a familiar one for opponents of current attempts to reform the American educational system. Like most such opponents, Ravitch concedes that the system is far from perfect, but she argues that the causes lie in social conditions outside education, in “concentrated poverty and racial segregation,” as she puts it, and in the false story of a broken system that reformers disseminate in order to justify privatizing education and enriching themselves. So goes this argument.
Graff concludes: “I don’t buy it.”
While he concedes that Ravitch is correct about the negative impact of poverty and inequity on schools as well as the failure of many aspects of the reform movement (“more charters, more standardized tests and fetishized test data, all of it used punitively, more privatization”), Graff argues that, based on his experiences as a professor, public schools are failing and poverty cannot be the sole cause: “Few of the college students I teach are poor and many are white, middle class, and relatively privileged, yet their command of basic skills of reading, writing, and critical thinking falls far short of their potential.”
And thus, Graff aligns himself with the promise of Common Core standards, “which focus on precisely these ‘college readiness’ skills that my students not only struggle with but don’t seem to have been told are important” (See Mercedes Schneider’s response to Graff’s endorsing Common Core).
First, Graff’s characterization of Ravitch, I think, distorts how public school effectiveness should be described (and likely Ravitch’s position).
Public education is not failing the ways that reformers claim, typically based on raw test score comparisons (year-to-year in the U.S., international, state-to-state) and sweeping charges about “bad” teachers, public school monopolies (and lack of choices), and the negative influences of the status quo (often code for “unions”).
However, public schools are failing as they are overburdened by out-of-school influences (as long as we focus on standardized test scores, that influence remains the dominate problem facing education reform) and in the ways in which they perpetuate those social inequities (for example, tracking, inequitable discipline practices such as zero tolerance policies, rising segregation in public and charter schools, and inequitable teacher assignment including commitments to Teach for America for high-poverty minority students).
But the larger public school failure (the one I believe at the root of Ravitch’s “Public education is not broken”), however, is not that public education is failing the U.S., but that so far, we have failed public education. In other words, Ravitch’s argument is a call to reconsider our commitment to public education as part of the essential Commons and the need to reject market-based critiques and reform for that institution.
Here, Graff ignores that much of Ravitch’s Reign is, in fact, a call for reforms—which would be an odd thing to do if she in fact held as Graff claims that public schools are fine as they are.
Next, Graff’s reasons for endorsing the Common Core are ironically the reasons Common Core standards will never address the failures of public schools.
Since Graff and Ravitch highlight that public education struggles under the weight of poverty and inequity, we must acknowledge that there is nothing about Common Core (or any aspect of the accountability movement based on standards and testing) that addresses those inequities; in fact, a great deal of evidence suggests that high-stakes accountability simply labels inequity and often increases inequity—along with failing to achieve the goals often associated with accountability-based reform.
For example, there is nothing in Common Core that will change African American males being disproportionally suspended and expelled, nothing that will change African American and impoverished students attending majority-minority schools that are underfunded and staffed by inexperienced and un-/under-certified teachers, nothing that will insure that minority and high-poverty students will have access to high-quality courses (such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate), and nothing that will end the disproportionate retention of minority and male students (in fact, a growing trend of the accountability movement is retaining third grade students based on high-stakes test scores).
Finally, and directly drawn from Graff’s concerns about college students not burdened by poverty, is the claim that those students are not well prepared by public education.
Setting aside that every generation has bemoaned the failure of the children coming after them (including Aristotle), we must ask why those students appear not prepared for the demands of college work.
The answer, for example, lies in Graff’s experience with students analyzing text and writing original essays.
Applebee and Langer have explored what students are asked to do as student writers in middle and high schools. Their research reveals a powerful, but damning dynamic: English teachers of middle and high school know more than ever about best practices in the teaching of writing, but students do little extended writing and much of that best practice is never implemented in U.S. classrooms.
Applebee and Langer’s research appears to expose why Graff finds his students ill prepared for college demands related to text analysis and writing, but the most important pattern found by Applebee and Langer is the reasons students are not be challenged are the inordinate high-stakes demands of the standards and testing era under which U.S. public schools function.
College-bound students, currently and over the past thirty years, have disproportionately spent their time in English classes learning to write to prompts for AP exams, high-stakes state tests, and, since 2005, the one-draft, 25-minute essay on the SAT.
As a writing teacher of freshman at a selective liberal arts university, I can attest that Graff’s characterization of students’ ability to write autonomously and with authority is lacking, but unlike Graff, I recognize that the problem is grounded in high-stakes accountability.
I also recognize that the historical record of standards and testing reveal that Common Core and next-generation tests will not change the entrenched failures of the accountability era, and Common Core has no mechanism to shift traditional failures of public schools (the inequities I have identified above).
In the end, Common Core is continuing to dig even after we have found ourselves in a pointless hole.
As Deborah Meier explains, even if Common Core standards do align better with college readiness (and that claim falls short), we are still asking too little of students with that goals.
And that is the problem, ultimately, with standards-based education and education reform.
If schools are failing to meet the needs of children living in a free society—and they are—that failure can be traced to the narrowing of teacher and student expectations—the one guaranteed consequence of standards-based education about which we have ample evidence.
In ten years, political leaders and the public will be decrying the failures of public education, professors such as Graff will still bemoan the inadequacies of their students, and we will again hear demands for yet another round of new standards and new tests—standards and tests that must be world-class and address college readiness. And Common Core will be placed on the shelf with all the other disappointing trophies to how we continue to fail universal public education.
At This Week in Poverty, Greg Kaufmann offers Anti-Poverty Leaders Discuss the Need for a Shared Agenda. Taking a similar pose, Diane Ravitch offers her reasoned “dissent” to my post, Secretary Duncan and the Politics of White Outrage, explaining at the end:
My advice to Paul Thomas, whose sense of outrage I share, is to embrace coalition politics. When the white moms and dads realize they are in the same situation as the black and Hispanic moms and dads, they become a force to be reckoned with. The coalition of diverse groups is a source of political power that will benefit children and families of all colors and conditions.
Both pieces raise an important element in the education reform debates, especially as that overlaps with efforts to address and eradicate poverty and inequity: Failure in education and equity reform has be driven by commitments to competition models instead of embracing collaboration and coalitions. To that, I offer the following:
Education Reform as Collaboration, Not Competition
Since the mid- to late-1800s, and especially over the past thirty years, public education has experienced a constant state of reform that can be characterized by one disturbing conclusion—none of that reform appears to work (or, at least, political leaders and the media stay committed, often in conjunction, to that claim).
Despite massive political, public, and financial commitments to creating better schools in the U.S., most people remain concerned that education is not achieving its promise. While debates often focus on issues related to state-to-state or international comparisons of test scores, we have also struggled with issues of equity, such as high drop-out rates and achievement gaps (see HERE and HERE).
Ultimately, the failure of decades of education reform is likely that we have committed to in-school-only reform. “No excuses” and “poverty is not destiny” represent educational policy such as Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools and calls for tougher standards (Common Core) and next-generation tests. Education consultant Grant Wiggins defends this in-school-only focus: “Teachers and schools make a difference, a significant one. And we are better off improving teaching, learning, and schooling than anything else as educators because that’s what is in our control.”
Since three decades of standards-based and test-driven accountability have resulted in the current call for different standards and tests, we are poised at a moment when in-school-only reform and competition models such as school choice and Race to the Top must be examined as part of the problem. Instead, education reform must be an act of collaboration that addresses directly both social and educational reform. That collaboration model should begin by acknowledging that we are failing both the historical promise of public education and the call in No Child Left Behind to create scientifically-based education reform. For example, consider just two powerful research-based reasons to change course.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation highlights the importance of social reform as a powerful mechanism for educational reform: “The impact of increases in income on cognitive development appears roughly comparable with that of spending similar amounts on school [emphasis added] or early education programmes. Increasing household income could substantially reduce differences in schooling outcomes, while also improving wider aspects of children’s well-being.”
And Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir in Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much show that—despite the in-school reform argument for students needing “grit”—people in abundance succeed because of slack, not grit, and those same people would struggle in scarcity.
Education reform, then, needs to shift away from in-school-only commitments and competition, thus seeking ways in which the lives and schools of children can create the slack all children deserve so that their grit can matter.
When faced with the many competing narratives of the religions of the world, comparative myth/religion scholar Joseph Campbell explained to Bill Moyers that Campbell did not reject religion, as some scholars have, but instead reached this conclusion:
Every religion is true one way or another. It is true when understood metaphorically. But when it gets stuck to its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble.
Following the unveiling of Ravitch 2.0 in The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, Diane Ravitch now offers Ravitch 3.0 with her newly released Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools.
Since Ravitch is a respected historian of education, a brief history seems appropriate for context.
Ravitch 1.0 established herself as a leading scholar of the history of education. She also wrote best-selling and influential books on education beginning in the mid-1970s. During the 1970s and into the early 2000s, Ravitch was associated with conservative politics (notably because of her public service from 1991 to 1993 as Assistant Secretary of Education and Counselor to Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander under President George H.W. Bush) and traditional educational philosophy. Ravitch 1.0 was a strong advocate for standards, high-stakes testing, accountability, and school choice.
With the publication of Death and Life, however, Ravitch 2.0 unveiled a stunning and powerful reversal of positions for Ravitch, who detailed in this popular book how she had come to see that the mounting evidence on the accountability era revealed that standards, high-stakes testing, and market forces were doing more harm to public education than good. In the following year, Ravitch became a highly visible and controversial public face on a growing movement to resist the accountability era and champion the possibility of achieving the promises of universal public education in the U.S.
An additional significant commitment from Ravitch, along with her relentless speaking engagements, was that she began to blog at her own site, creating a public intellectual persona that gave her more latitude than her traditional commitment to scholarship allowed. Ravitch’s blog now stands as a vivid and living documentation of how Ravitch has informed the education reform debate and how Ravitch herself has been informed by the experiences and expertise of an education community that has been long ignored by political leaders, the media, and the public.
Ravitch 2.0, however, remained tempered, often withholding stances on key issues in education, such as the debate over Common Core State Standards, that frustrated some of her colleagues teaching in the classroom, blogging about education, and conducting research on education and education reform.
Now, with Reign, we have Ravitch 3.0, displayed in a comprehensive work that in many ways echoes not only her own blog, but the growing arguments among educators and scholars that much of the reform agenda lacks evidence and that alternative commitments to education reform need to address poverty, equity, and opportunity.
In her Introduction, Ravitch explains her motivation for this book:
[David Denby] said to me, “Your critics say you are long on criticism but short on answers.”
I said, “You have heard me lecture, and you know that is not true.”
He suggested that I write a book to respond to the critics.
So I did, and this is that book. (pp. xi-xii)
Like Campbell, Ravitch confronts competing narratives about the state of education in the U.S. and the concurrent calls for reform. I have labeled these competing agendas as “No Excuses” Reform (NER), the dominant narrative driving policies at the federal and state levels, and Social Context Reform (SCR), a broad coalition of educations, academics, and scholars among whom I’d place Ravitch.
Also in her introduction, Ravitch begins by stating her purpose for the book as addressing four questions:
First, is American education in crisis?
Second, is American education failing and declining?
Third, what is the evidence for the reforms now being promoted by the federal government and adopted in many states?
Fourth, what should we do to improve our schools and the lives of children? (p. xi)
The first twenty chapters of Reign continues a tradition of other important, but too often ignored by politicians and the media, works confronting the false narratives perpetuated about U.S. public education—The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, And The Attack On America’s Public Schools by David Berliner and Bruce Biddle, from the mid-1990s, and Setting the Record Straight: Responses to Misconceptions About Public Education in the U.S. by Gerald Bracey, which followed Berliner and Biddle about a decade later.
Ravitch carefully and meticulously discredits claims that U.S. public education is in decline and details that crisis discourse misleads the public about what problems schools do face (messages echoing the work of Berliner, Biddle, and Bracey). Further, while offering a welcomed refrain that poverty and inequity drive most educational struggles, Ravitch details that the research base on most accountability era reform commitments (since the early 1980s) fails to justify those policies—for example, merit pay and linking teacher evaluations to test scores, charter schools, dismantling tenure, Teach for America, online education, parent trigger laws, vouchers and other choice mechanisms, and school closings.
In these opening and foundational chapters, Ravitch 3.0 will not allow a discussion of education and education reform to ignore the corrosive influence of poverty and inequity of opportunity. Ravitch also maintains a compelling and accessible mix of painting a clear and detailed picture of the history of education, the people driving the new reform era, and the research base that now reveals the accountability era is failing.
Readers cannot miss that poverty matters, and should never be allowed to determine children’s destinies (as it does now), and that the driving principle behind a commitment to public education is democracy, and not simply bending to the needs of the market.
Before moving to her alternative reform plan, Ravitch makes a direct statement about school choice advocates that serves well to represent what distinguishes the two competing narratives about education reform:
Conservatives with a fervent belief in free-market solutions cling tenaciously to vouchers. They believe in choice as a matter of principle. The results of vouchers don’t matter to them. (p. 212)
And therein lies the problem between NER and SCR. As Campbell explained above, NER is “stuck” in an ideological commitment that the evidence refutes. Ravitch, however, has maintained her ideological commitment to public education but honored her scholar’s ability to place evidence over beliefs.
From Chapter 20 on, Ravitch provides a powerful opportunity for educators to move beyond reacting to the accountability movement and to begin calling for alternatives to a failed three decades of new standards and the relentless misuse of high-stakes testing. In the last third of the book, Ravitch offers the following:
- Rejecting the rise of school closures as effective policy.
- Calling for prenatal care as a foundation for education.
- Emphasizing the need for early childhood education for all children, but especially children trapped in poverty.
- Shifting the focus on “basics” education to a commitment to a broad and rich curriculum for all children:
We cannot provide equal educational opportunities if some children get access to a full and balanced curriculum while others get a heavy dose of basic skills….The fact of inequality is undeniable, self-evident, and unjustifiable. This inequality of opportunity may damage the hearts and minds of the children who are shortchanged in ways that may never be undone….The essential purpose of the public schools…is to teach young people the rights and responsibilities of citizens. (p. 237)
- Endorsing the importance of low class sizes.
- Rejecting the misguided corporate charter movement but endorsing the original purposes of charter schools envisioned by Albert Shanker as collaborative and experimental and not competition for public schools.
- Stressing the need for wraparound services to support in-school reform—medical care, summer programs, after-school enrichment, parent education.
- Eliminating high-stakes testing and embracing authentic assessment that guides instruction: “Accountability should be turned into responsibility” (p. 273).
- Rejecting demonizing teachers and the teaching profession and embracing instead teacher autonomy and professionalism.
- Protecting democratic control of public schools.
- Addressing directly racial segregation and poverty: “We should set national goals to reduce segregation and poverty” (p. 298).
- Honoring the “public” in education and rejecting the privatization of schools: “We must pause and reflect on the wisdom of sundering the ties between communities and schools” (p. 312).
Toward the end of her plan for alternative policies to reform education, while discussing the problem with privatizing schools, Ravitch sounds what I think is the most dire point confronting the U.S. and our commitment to democracy:
The issue for the future is whether a small number of very wealthy entrepreneurs, corporations, and individuals will be able to purchase educational policy in this nation, either by funding candidates for local and state school boards, for state legislatures, for governor, and for Congress or by using foundation “gifts” to advance privatization of public education. (p. 310)
And the problem is not “whether” this can occur, but that it is happening now.
Legislation across the U.S. is driven by Bill Gates and his billions as well as the celebrity of Michelle Rhee, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and Jeb Bush while the careful messages crafted by Ravitch in Reign have been readily available through the Internet over the last several years.
The publication of Reign represents a watershed moment. Will money driving ideology continue to ruin our public education system, or will evidence win out?
Ravitch’s voice and scholarship were a needed boost to the field of education. Ravitch speaks with us now.
But until political leadership and the media have similar conversions to Ravitch’s—until evidence trumps money—we are likely to watch the self-fulfilling end to public education happen right before our eyes.
Just to offer some balance and context.
Since Ravitch’s concerns about Common Core came fairly recently, Reign feels a bit incomplete on that topic. Ravitch is clear about her view that the broader accountability movement has done a great deal of harm, and CC appears clearly more of that bad policy, but many of us who strongly oppose CC would likely have preferred more here on that topic.
I also have real problems with Paul Tough and David Kirp (see HERE and HERE), both of whom I feel do work that helps perpetuate “miracle” school narratives and “no excuses” ideologies that I completely reject. Ravitch is far more gracious with Tough and Kirp than I can embrace.
[NOTE: The topic of the appropriate tone for making and debating points in education reform will not die; thus, I am reposting two pieces on tone, both originally posted at Daily Kos in 2012 (See pt. 1 HERE, and pt. 2 HERE); pt. 3 is original and intended as a prelude to the release of Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error, which is drawing some criticism for her tone (see my review HERE). Let me be clear that it is absolutely true that tone matters, but I also have learned that the charge of inappropriate tone tends to come from those in power to put the powerless in their “place” and from those who have no substantive point to make. In the end, I call for addressing the credibility and validity of the claims being made first and then, if relevant, we can discuss tone.]
During my 18-year career teaching high school English in rural South Carolina, a foundational unit of study included a nine-week focus on non-fiction, highlighting argumentation. In that unit, we examined carefully the lineage of making arguments that depended on ethical authority—spanning from Henry David Thoreau to Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr.
An important point, I believed, for young people was how these powerful and influential writers committed themselves to embodying the principles they called for in everyone. In other words, to have ethical authority, all of us must walk the talk. Otherwise, our claims are discredited by our hypocrisy.
Especially in my 30-years as a teacher of young people—many of which were also spent coaching—and in my challenging life as a father for 24 years now, I have found that young people are greatly impressed by adults who practice what they preach, but are quick to discount those of us who venture into hypocrisy.
And thus, I feel compelled to offer all the education reformers who find themselves concerned about the tone of educators, scholars, and academics who are raising a growing voice against education reform that does not hold up to the weight of evidence and increasingly offering alternatives to the failed accountability era built on standards and high-stakes testing, charter school expansion, Teach for America, VAM, merit pay, and related free-market policies a mirror to their own hypocrisy.
If you are an education reformer speaking from a position of privilege or power (Secretary of Education or USDOE official, governor, superintendent of education, billionaire, EdWeek blogger, think tank member, self-appointed leader of a reform organization, etc.) and you have made or intend to make a claim of inappropriate tone aimed at a K-12 teacher, an education researcher, or an education scholar, I must note that any of the following immediately discredits you as having ethical authority, and thus, the mirror:
- If you use “no excuses” discourse, stop it. “No excuses” language implies those of us who teach are making excuses. We aren’t. It is an ugly, ugly implication, and it fails the tone argument.
- If you wave “miracle” schools up as examples of what we all should be doing, stop it. “Miracle” schools don’t exist, and if they did, see above. To suggest some people are simply working harder but the rest of us can’t cut it, again, is an ugly, ugly claim. It too fails the tone argument.
- If you label those of us who support public education as foundational to the U.S. democracy as part of the “government school lobby,” you are being purposefully dismissive and triggering intentionally the anti-government sentiment among the libertarian streak in the U.S. This is misleading, and thus, fails the tone argument for its snark.
- If you accuse any in education of “defending the status quo,” especially after acknowledging the historical and current struggles of high-poverty, high-minority schools, you are making a vicious and malicious claim about people that is untrue. The great irony of such a claim is that it is not only an ugly charge but a foolish argument made by accountability advocates who are calling for a continuation of the ineffective accountability status quo.
- If you accuse any educator of believing that poor children, children of color, or English language learners cannot learn, you have scraped the bottom of the ugly claim barrel. The rare people who genuinely believe such bigotry do exist, but they often have stated such in ways that we can confront and expose. But the vast majority of educators in no way believe such and to imply it is the worst sort of slander.
- If you say teachers don’t want to be held accountable because we speak out against misguided accountability, once, again, stop it. This is more of the laziness and gravy-train narrative that has no place in conversations about professional educators. It is a damned lie.
- If you say experience and certification do not matter—either directly or by supporting TFA—you are discounting an entire profession and central principles of all professions. Experience and qualifications matter. Period. Apply this ridiculous claim to the medical profession and you’ll see the folly. Or airline pilots.
- If you have no experience or background as a K-12 teacher, hold your tongue until you have listened carefully to those who have taught and those who do teach. Your ill-founded arrogance is offensive.
Those who hold positions of privilege are often quick to question the tone of those they deem beneath them. That in itself calls into question the issue of tone. But in the education reform debate, it is also becoming more and more common to promote a false image of MLK as a passive voice in order to keep subordinates in our place.
That, too, is a lie.
King, especially, carried the torch lit by Gandhi that rejected framing either man as a passive leader. They called for non-violent non-cooperation—nothing passive about it.
To call a political appointee someone without qualifications or experience is not a personal attack; it is a fact. And it is something Gandhi and King did.
So let’s stop that game as well.
I end here, then, with a solemn pledge.
If any person in the education reform movement who is concerned about tone will take the first step to reject the mirror items above and to commit to never stooping to them again, I too will join you and likewise honor a similar list of concerns.
Since the reformers have all the power, however, I must ask them to go first—that is, if tone really is the issue (and I suspect it is not).
The erosion of support for the Commons is most distinct in the failure of foundational support for universal public education in favor of the more powerful interests of corporate America. Just as public schools and teachers have no political party, the so-called liberal media have also abandoned public education and America’s workers, teachers.
Bill Maher and Stephen Colbert have fallen into the corporate education reform trap by buying into and thus selling the “bad” teacher myth, the charter school scam, the Michelle Rhee self-promotion tour, and the Teach for America masquerade. NBC and MSNBC, along with CNN, have long been marginalized by the Right as shining examples of the liberal media, but all have fallen in line with the corporate education reform agenda through programming such as Education Nation—corporate reform propaganda pretending to be investigative media.
This week, PBS (certainly the gold-standard of liberal media, if we believe public perception) ran an episode of Frontline examining once again Michelle Rhee: “The Education of Michelle Rhee.”
Teachers, scholars, and education activists—including education historian Diane Ravitch—held onto the slimmest glimmer of hope that the unmasking of Rhee would finally come in the form of genuinely democratic media, free of corporate agendas.
However, the program with the tagline “FRONTLINE examines the legacy of one of America’s most admired & reviled school reformers” left educators and public school advocates saying, “Et tu, liberal media?”
On balance, PBS provided Rhee yet more media coverage, satisfying her self-promotion, but leaving a tremendous vacuum of things unsaid as well as truly accurate and confrontational responses to Rhee on the cutting room floor.
John Merrow and American journalism have once again failed the democratic purposes of public media and the promise of universal public education.
Merrow, however, has chosen to run a much more detailed and enlightening piece online, in writing, about Adelle Cothorne, leading many to wonder: Why offer the larger and more powerful TV audience Rhee propaganda-lite and bury something closer to Rhee confrontation in an online blog?
The answer is ugly.
The Commons in the form of journalism and education have been consumed by the consumer culture that feeds the Corporate Greed pooling America’s resources in the hands of the few at the expense of the many.
Public education, its students, and its teachers have no political party and have no media to fight for the truths that must be revealed if democracy, and not corporate interests, is our goal.