A Devastating Critique of Choice and Competition in Education by a Former Advocate: Part 1

Diane Ravitch has been one of the most influential voices in American education for the past 30 years. When such a person changes her views it is big news and it has been in the US for the past few weeks. A couple of headlines give the flavour:

Scholars School Reform U-Turn Shakes Up Debate New York Times, 2 March]
Ravitch Recants Long-Held Beliefs Education Week, 10 March]

Ravitch has just published a new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education. It is a devastating critique of choice and competition in education. It is supplemented in several articles and interviews by Ravitch with the book’s launch.

Ravitch rejects her previous support for school choice, accountability, competition and education markets, charter schools, and merit pay for teachers. She says it has failed to improve student achievement and, worse, it has narrowed education and threatens to destroy public education.

She defends her change of views by reference to a famous response by John Maynard Keynes to a critic after reversing his views on an economic issue: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

As a columnist of the Washington Post [26 February] noted, Ravitch was the darling of conservatives in education for years. Her credentials as a conservative voice on education date back to the 1970s when she critiqued what she called “radical attacks” on education from the left.

She was a founding member of the Koret Task Force, a group of scholars focusing on free-market solutions to education problems. She was an assistant secretary of education in the administration of President George H.W. Bush, and a vocal backer of the second President Bush’s education program. So, it is no wonder her change of heart is big news in the United States.

Nonetheless, despite the headlines about a ‘volte face’, Ravitch’s new book represents the culmination of a sustained critique of education reform in the United States over the last five years or so. For example, she has long been the leading critic of the education policies on New York City Schools Chancellor, Joel Klein, who our own Federal Education Minister so admires.

Given her influence and prominence in education debates over the past 30 or more years, this book cannot be ignored, least of all by education policy makers in Australia who are hell-bent on copying the US model of education reform.

Critique of market approach to school reform

Ravitch tells of what she calls the “wrenching transformation in my perspective on school reform”. She explains how she went from supporting President George Bush Jnr’s No Child Left Behind legislation and its testing and accountability regimes to becoming a vocal critic who thinks the very things she once backed are destroying public schools. In explaining her previous support of the neo-conservative agenda in education she admits that:

I too had fallen for the latest panaceas and miracle cures; I too had drunk deeply of the elixir that promised a quick fix to intractable problems.

She writes:

I got caught up in the rising tide of enthusiasm for choice in education…I was swept away by my immersion in the upper reaches of the first Bush presidency, where choice and competition were taken for granted as successful ways to improve student achievement.

She now opposes the introduction of markets in education. She says it is not the best way to deliver public services:

Education is too important to relinquish to the vagaries of the market…Privatising our public schools makes as much sense as privatising the fire department or the police department. It is possible, but it is not wise.

As she stated in an interview on the launch of her book:

By introducing the idea of market competition, entrepreneurs encourage everyone to think of their own private advantage and to forget about the common good, about the responsibilities of the community to the education of its children. Education News, 13 March]

Education is not like shopping, she writes:

Schools operate differently from, say, shoe stores, which open and close in response to consumer demand. Schools are essential community institutions, like firehouses. They are cooperative enterprises, where the adults are expected to work closely with one another towards common goals. Teachers should not compete with each other for extra dollars (Edward Deming says this kind of competition doesn’t even work in business, that it demoralizes the workplace). Teachers should share what they know, not hoard their trade secrets for their private benefit. The New Republic, 16 March]

She says that much of her previous support for choice and competition was based on just promise and hope Los Angeles Times, 14 March]. But, she writes, today there is empirical evidence, and it shows clearly that choice, competition and accountability as education reform levers are not working. Ravitch makes clear that there is no research base supporting any of the provisions so-called “reformers” advocate – not for charters, not for merit pay for teachers, not for using test scores as the sole measure of the performance of teachers and schools, not for approaches such as those advocated by Teach for America for teachers.

Despite this, the Obama administration is plunging ahead to push an aggressive program of school reform. Its Race to the Top (RTTP) program is premised on the power of incentives and competition to improve education. Ravitch says it is a race to have more privatized schools, more test-based accountability, more basic skills, no emphasis on a broad curriculum for all kids and no equal educational opportunity Democracy Now, 5 March]. She says it will make schools worse, not better Los Angeles Times, 14 March].


President George Bush Jnr’s No Child Left Behind Act instituted a national accountability regime based around standardised tests and reporting of school results. It mandated that 100% of students would reach proficiency in reading and mathematics by 2014.

Ravitch says that the great legacy of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is a system of institutionalized fraud. She says that the NCLB is a failure and that under it accountability has become a shibboleth and antithetical to a good education. The NCLB has been marked by a narrowed and dumbed down curriculum, cheating, and widespread gaming of the system and has failed to produce any genuine improvement in education.

Since the law permitted every state to define “proficiency” as it chose, many states announced impressive gains. But the states’ claims of startling improvement were contradicted by the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress tests which show no improvement in eighth grade reading and very little improvement in mathematics.

Ravitch shows how the states responded to NCLB by dumbing down their standards so that they could claim to be making progress. Some states declared that between 80%-90% of their students were proficient, but on the federal test only a third or less were. Because the law demanded progress only in reading and math, schools were incentivized to show gains only on those subjects. Hundreds of millions of dollars were invested in test-preparation materials.

According to Ravitch, accountability pressures have also led to widespread gaming of the system. She says that every so often, a cheating scandal is uncovered, but such scandals are minor compared to the ways in which states have manipulated the scoring of tests to produce inflated results. New York state education officials, for instance, made it easier to rate students as “proficient” by lowering the number of points that a student needed to earn to reach this level on the state tests.

In 2006, a seventh grader needed to get 59.6 percent on the state math test to be rated proficient, but, by 2009, a student needed to earn only 44 percent. Although most people would consider this a failing grade, the lowering of the “cut point” produced the desired results: In 2006, 55.6 percent of seventh graders were rated proficient, but, by 2009, that proportion had soared to 87.3 percent.

Meanwhile, there was less incentive to teach the arts, science, history, literature, geography, civics, foreign languages or physical education. Schools devoted more and more time to test preparation and this has led to a narrowed curriculum. Students are now receiving a less than well-rounded education. In a recent interview, Ravitch said:

I believe that No Child Left Behind has been a failed policy, that it’s dumbed down the curriculum, narrowed the curriculum. Our kids are being denied a full education, because so much time is being spent on test prep and on tests that are really not very good tests and, in some cases, even fraudulent scoring of the test. The kids are getting a worse education as a result of No Child Left Behind. Democracy Now, 5 March]

She wrote in the Wall Street Journal recently:

In short, accountability turned into a nightmare for American schools, producing graduates who were drilled regularly on the basic skills but were often ignorant about almost everything else. Colleges continued to complain about the poor preparation of entering students, who not only had meagre knowledge of the world but still required remediation in basic skills. This was not my vision of good education. [Wall Street Journal, 9 March]

Ravitch says that Obama’s education reform program is likely to make matters worse. She says it is an aggressive version of the NCLB.

Race to the Top will make matters worse. Every part of it is tied to NCLB, markets, choice, competition, test scores, and accountability. The business model of education is deeply embedded in RTTP, along with every mistake of NCLB. Education News, 13 March]

She notes that it embodies an even more punitive approach to holding teachers accountable and to closing schools. Test scores will determine salary, tenure, bonuses and sanctions, as teachers and schools compete with each other, survival-of-the-fittest style.

Ravitch says that accountability under NCLB and Race to the Top has become a synonym for punishment. Schools face draconian penalties – eventually including closure or privatization – if every group in the school did not make adequate yearly progress. By 2008, 35% of the nation’s public schools were labelled “failing schools,” and that number seems sure to grow each year.

She criticizes the strategy of shaming and humiliating low performing schools. She criticizes the use of sanctions against teachers and schools that are unable to improve student results.

Obama has said that he wants to see 5,000 low-performing schools transformed or closed, as we saw just recently in Rhode Island, where the only high school in a desperately poor community is supposed to fire all the teachers, close the school. And I think this is a terrible thing for public education. And I think we’re going to see a devastation of public education over the next—however long this president is in office, unless he changes course, which I hope he will, and doubt that he will. Democracy Now, 5 March]

Trevor Cobbold

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