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The Two Faces of American Education

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For true believers, the promise of privatization is the enlargement of consumer choice and, through the pressure of competition, improvements in quality and efficiency. When it comes to education, this has meant mainly two departures from past practice. The first is the growth of charter schools—publicly funded schools (often with supplementary private support) that are granted, through renewable charters, greater freedom than conventional public schools to hire and fire teachers, accept or reject student applicants, and dismiss students who fail to thrive. The second is the provision of school vouchers (which Rhee initially opposed but now supports), in the form of tax credits that parents may apply to the cost of private or parochial school, thereby broadening the choice of schools for their own children while decreasing funds for public schools attended by children from families without the will or means to utilize vouchers.

Vouchers were first proposed in their modern form in 1955 by the free-market economist Milton Friedman.4 For groups seeking to escape what they regarded as the coercive culture of public schools, it was an attractive idea. It appealed to Catholics resentful of paying taxes to support schools to which they did not wish to send their own children, and to southern whites who wished to withdraw their children from public schools during the first phase of forced integration.

As for charters, Ravitch notes the irony that the idea was first brought to public notice in the late 1980s by Albert Shanker, the longtime president of the teachers’ union. What Shanker had in mind was small collaborations of teachers interested in helping troubled students by moving them into a sort of school-within-a-school that would be a laboratory for teaching experiments and that might be expanded if proven successful.5

Today, according to Ravitch, nearly two million students are enrolled in charter schools, including a startling 200,000 in what she calls “cyber-charters”—schools with no physical location that operate over the Internet, relying heavily on parents as “learning coaches.” An increasing number of charter schools—both “virtual” and actual—are run for profit by those whom Ravitch calls “speculators, entrepreneurs, ideologues, snake-oil salesmen…and Wall Street hedge fund managers,” among others.

Some nonprofit charters, such as Geoffrey Canada’s Promise Academy of the Harlem Children’s Zone and the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) schools, have attracted lavish support from wealthy philanthropies including the Gates and Walton foundations. Among lobbyists who favor maximum freedom of action for charters is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)—the same organization, supported by the Koch brothers, that drafted the legislative proposal on which Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law was based.

Most charters, nonprofit or for-profit, employ a much lower percentage of unionized teachers than conventional public schools. Because some charter schools—or networks of schools under centralized management—enjoy generous funding from private donors, they have the potential to support students and families in ways that go far beyond the scope of what schools dependent solely on public funding can possibly do. The leaders among them, such as the Promise Academy and the KIPP schools, provide what Ravitch calls, approvingly, “wraparound services”—prenatal counseling for expectant mothers, programs for preschoolers, longer school days, after-school and summer activities, and other support services urgently needed in low-income neighborhoods. Children whose families do little to encourage them to learn can greatly benefit from such services.

Many people are looking to charter schools for the salvation of public education. As measured by test scores, retention, graduation, and college-attendance rates, some charters have shown impressive results. Overall, however, they have a decidedly mixed record, and Ravitch cautions that “for every ‘miracle’ school…there are scores of ‘Dumpster schools,’ where the low-performing students are unceremoniously hidden away.” Her central concern is that pressure to show quick improvement in test results will create a “publicly funded dual school system”—one, consisting of some charter schools, will mainly appeal to the “motivated and willing”; the other, including public schools, will serve the “rejects.” It is by no means clear that large investments in charter schools will turn out to be money well spent.

4.

To read Rhee and Ravitch in sequence is like hearing a too-good-to-be-true sales pitch followed by the report of an auditor who discloses mistakes and outright falsehoods in the accounts of the firm that’s trying to make the sale. Both books are driven by hot indignation. Rhee is indignant at the forces that have resisted her efforts to rescue children from incompetent and indifferent teachers. She has little to say about the setting in which many teachers work—the desperate circumstances into which roughly a quarter of American children (a higher percentage in the school district she led) are born—except to say, in passing, that poverty ought not to be invoked as an excuse for poor academic performance.

She repeatedly invokes her mentor, Joel Klein, who asserts that “you cannot solve the problem of poverty until you fix the public education system.” Rhee, too, seems to believe that good teaching can overcome what she calls “environment”—yet she attributes her own drive and ambition to a childhood environment that was closely controlled by her “very, very strict” parents. She recounts her own first teaching experience, as a teenager, in a summer program for Native American children on whom she was sure she “was having an impact” until, upon returning from a week’s break, she discovered that they had sunk back into the sad apathy in which she had found them. Yet in her professional life she never faces up to the implication of this early experience. Even the most committed teacher has limited power to counter the effects of systemic deprivation.6

Ravitch, too, is indignant—at the callow arrogance of those who describe poverty as an “excuse” for not performing better in school. She is outraged by the persistence of poverty and its terrible effects: low birth weight with the associated risks of cognitive deficit, asthma, and the neurological effects of lead poisoning, among other debilitating conditions. She reminds us that poverty damages, often irretrievably, children who start school already hurt by having lived amid angry, often poorly educated adults prone to violence, having been parked in front of TV and tended by exhausted caretakers who rarely speak in complex sentences or about anything beyond the fraught incidents of day-to-day life. This fall, on the south side of Chicago, thousands of children are walking to and from school on streets lined with armored police trying to protect them from crossfire between warring gangs. Of course a good school can be a haven in such a setting, and good teachers can try to show children an alternative world, but it is foolish to overestimate their power to transform the lives of frightened and, inevitably, hardened children.

Through Ravitch’s eyes we see what Rhee refuses to see: the limits of what even the most skilled teacher can do in the face of such realities. “Poverty,” she says bluntly, “is the most important factor contributing to low academic achievement.” And so “we must work both to improve schools and to reduce poverty, not to prioritize one over the other or say that schools come first, poverty later.” This is an incontestably true statement—but not the kind of call to arms that gets you on the cover of Time magazine.

5.

If the present looks different through the eyes of Rhee and Ravitch, so does the past. When Rhee looks back at the America in which she was born in 1970, she sees a time of collapsing standards. But when she adduces as evidence the fact that SAT scores were falling, she fails to note that the test was changing from an option for high-achievers to an almost compulsory sorting mechanism for the growing number of students aiming for college. When she describes the suburb of Toledo in which she grew up, with its rolling lawns and houses like “mini castles,” she mentions that white flight from the city had left the schools in Toledo heavily segregated and dependent for funding on a declining tax base; but she goes straight from this observation into making her case for internal school reform. The economic and social settings in which schools and students exist pretty much disappear.

Ravitch, born in the late 1930s, looks back at the 1960s and 1970s and sees something different. She sees the achievement gap narrowing between black and white students at a time of increased government support for early-childhood education, improving economic opportunities for black families with the help of antidiscrimination laws and jobs programs, and federal funds allocated to schools that enrolled poor children, rather than according to comparative performance on tests. In short, she sees President Johnson’s Great Society policies as a force for progress.

These conflicting versions of the past lead to different prescriptions for the future. Ravitch wants a return to broad-scale attack on social and economic inequities—to incremental, long-range strategies that do not promise quick results. Rhee, essentially, wants shock therapy for the schools.

6.

Despite our much-lamented political “gridlock,” some liberals and conservatives have found common ground on issues ranging from civil liberties to military intervention in foreign affairs. You would think there might be room for some agreement on how to improve public education. To find it would require all sides to moderate their tone. Rhee is incredulous at what she considers the stupidity and irresponsibility of just about everyone who disagrees with her. Ravitch imputes bad motives and a grand design where there may be good intentions and overblown confidence. She denounces “the deceptive rhetoric of the privatization movement,” whose “underlying goal” is

to replace public education with a system in which public funds are withdrawn from public oversight to subsidize privately managed charter schools, voucher schools, online academies, for-profit schools, and other private vendors.

At the heart of the dispute between Ravitch and Rhee are their conflicting views of the teachers’ union. For Rhee, it is simply a thuggish interest group that stands in the way of reform and holds the Democratic Party in thrall. She sees its overriding purpose as protecting weak or burned-out teachers who block opportunities for younger teachers who have better prospects of instructing and inspiring children. Ravitch, in defense of the union, is equally tenacious but makes her case with more nuance and depth. She sees it as “the strongest voice in each state to advocate for public education and to fight crippling budget cuts.” Tenure, she points out, was established long before the advent of the union, and means the right to “due process” rather than a guarantee of continued employment.

She acknowledges that initiatives such as TFA have helped elevate the prestige of public-school teaching by attracting talented young college graduates. But she stresses the value of long experience, and thinks that teaching as a professional career is undermined when eager young recruits drop in for a few years before dropping out in order to move on to something more lucrative or prestigious.7 In short, Rhee wants to bust the union while Ravitch wants to strengthen it as an “advocate for better working conditions and better compensation for its members,” since “better working conditions translate into better learning conditions for students.”

Both writers have shown themselves capable of changing their minds. Rhee calls herself a Democrat, but has moved toward positions that reflect a stalwart Republican’s faith in private investment and deregulation as the best approach to all problems. Ravitch, who once served in the Department of Education under a Republican president, George H.W. Bush, now laments the “full-throated Democratic endorsement” of the Republican agenda of privatization in the guise of reform.

You would think it possible to take ideas from both sides and put them to work together. In order to agree that America’s schools ought to be better (Ravitch), we don’t have to believe that they are worse than ever (Rhee). We don’t have to think, as Rhee does, that “great” teaching is a magic bullet in order to agree with Ravitch that the training of teachers ought to be more rigorous and that our nation needs “a stable workforce of experienced professional educators” who receive good compensation and respect. Rhee is right that our schools could use some shaking up. Ravitch is right that “the wounds caused by centuries of slavery, segregation, and discrimination cannot be healed by testing, standards, accountability, merit pay, and choice.”

Perhaps a starting point would be to acknowledge, as Ravitch does, that the golden age of master teachers and model children never existed, and, as Rhee insists, that the bureaucracy of our schools is wary of change. One thing that certainly won’t help our children is any ideology convinced of its exclusive possession of the truth.

  1. 4

    See Milton Friedman, “ The Role of Government in Education,” in Economics and the Public Interest, edited by Robert A. Solo (Rutgers University Press, 1955). 

  2. 5

    See Albert Shanker, Speech at the National Press Club, March 31, 1988, available at nybooks.com/u/123

  3. 6

    Without citation, Rhee mentions a Harvard study showing the durable effects on “kids who had just one effective teacher in their lifetime” (p. 142). Ravitch’s view of “great” teachers is that “there is no evidence that they exist in great numbers or that they can produce the same feats year after year for every student” (p. 101). She cites multiple studies in her endnotes. For an extended discussion of excessive faith in education as the remedy for economic and social problems, see W. Norton Grubb and Marvin Lazerson, The Education Gospel: The Economic Power of Schooling (Harvard University Press, 2004.) 

  4. 7

    See Motoko Rich, “At Charter Schools, Short Careers by Choice,” The New York Times, August 27, 2013. 

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