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Ravitch misfires on school reform

Diane Ravitch is all the rage in education circles these days, but rage, unfortunately, is what's she's selling. There are many reasons why, despite decades of efforts, U.S. public schools continue to fail, especially for low-income and minority children. Perhaps the most destructive one is the polarization of the debate over school reform and the refusal of opposing factions to look for middle ground. Sad to say, Ms. Ravitch's new best-selling book, "Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools," fits this pattern.

Her emergence as a popular gunslinger in the education wars is itself a revealing story. Long recognized as a pre-eminent education historian, she served as assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush and became a leading proponent of the movement that led to the No Child Left Behind Act. Then, as she writes, "It was only after I saw the corrosive effects of No Child Left Behind that I … recanted my earlier support for what is now known as the 'reform' agenda in education: high-stakes testing, test-based accountability, competition and school choice (charters and vouchers)."

Her mea culpa was a 2010 book, also a national best-seller, "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education." It launched a barrage of articles, speeches, blogs and now her new book, in which she has taken her arguments to new heights. Or, more accurately, to new polemical depths.

To Ms. Ravitch, such prominent features of the current reform landscape as No Child Left Behind, the Obama administration's Race to the Top program, current testing and accountability measures, Teach for America and charter schools are not just wrong-headed. They are a Trojan Horse to privatize public schools and enrich big corporations. She demonizes those who support them as "corporate reformers" who want to turn over public education to "speculators, entrepreneurs, ideologues, snake-oil salesmen, profit-making businesses and Wall Street hedge fund managers."

Who are these villainous corporate reformers? The political right for sure, but also moderate Republicans like Jeb Bush and Democrats like President Barack Obama, the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, many governors (including Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley) and members of Congress.

It is quite a stretch to depict these political leaders as enemies of public schooling, but she tries. She contrasts her own reform vision. It includes some conventional school improvements like early childhood programs, smaller class sizes and revamped teacher preparation programs. She is also a defender of teacher unions and crusader for local control of schools.

But these proposals are secondary to her central big idea: The real road to school reform lies in anti-poverty policies outside the schools. Ms. Ravitch describes how poverty and racial segregation are the root causes of achievement gaps between economic and racial groups. Schools alone, she emphasizes, can't substantially narrow the gaps.

There is merit to many of her progressive ideas. However, contrary to her disparagement of those she recklessly portrays as hucksters for big corporations and Wall Street, there is no evidence that her wish-list alone will live up to her claims. Ms. Ravitch employs a double standard for proof of what works. She cites the lack of evidence for the agenda of the corporate reformers, but she can't substantiate the case for her own solutions either.

This polemical approach leads to her refusal to acknowledge that her ideas and some of the ideas she opposes could seed a middle ground — a grand bargain that might finally raise school achievement to higher plateaus. It is unfair and counterproductive to assail President Obama, his secretary of education Arne Duncan, lots of liberals and a few conservatives as single-minded privatizers who ignore the need to blend anti-poverty action and more resources with the so-called corporate reform agenda.

Even this grand bargain might not be enough if the reforms from both camps are not supported by a critical missing element: a focus on classroom instruction, including resources targeted at early interventions for struggling students, especially in reading.

The details await another day, but the day will not come until Ms. Ravitch and other polarizers declare a cease-fire in the education wars. Common ground must be sought where children, particularly low-income and minority students, can at long last fulfill their potential, and our nation can redeem its promise of true educational opportunity for all.

Kalman R. Hettleman is a former member of the Baltimore school board and former state human resources secretary. His email is khettleman@gmail.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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