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The Two Faces of American Education

Diane Ravitch and Michelle Rhee; drawing by James Ferguson

1.

In 1898, the Boston writer and editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson published a memoir entitled Cheerful Yesterdays. One of the memories that cheered him was of lying before the hearth while his mother read aloud. As for “the children of to-day who have no such privilege,” he wrote, one must regard them with “pity.” Here we have the keynote of much that has been written about education before and since: praise for a bygone age when children were well served by their elders, and pity for the ill-served children of today.

When Higginson was a child, public or “common” schools were just emerging, so education remained largely the province of families and churches. Today, when the state of teaching and learning is bemoaned, it is usually the public schools that get the blame. Politicians and pundits hold them accountable for how students perform on standardized tests. Principals are fired and schools closed for poor results. Teachers feel besieged. The American Federation of Teachers has become a popular target for anti-union sentiment. The tide of anger has been rising ever since a national commission released a report in 1983 called “A Nation at Risk,” which opened with these often-quoted lines:

If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves.

In the thirty years since, the public mood about schools has only darkened, so it is striking that Diane Ravitch, arguably our leading historian of primary and secondary education, strongly dissents. “The public schools,” she says in her new book about education policy, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, “are working very well for most students.” She points out that over the last few decades high school drop-out rates have declined. Average test scores have risen, if modestly. Nor is it clear, as often assumed, that American children lag significantly behind their foreign counterparts in science proficiency.

But if Ravitch disputes prevailing assumptions, she does not gloss over the fact that school performance by the large minority of American children who grow up poor or in segregated neighborhoods is disproportionately weak. On the contrary, she thinks that their plight is a national scandal, that today’s school reformers are misguided in their efforts to redress it, and that, along with the persistence of poverty and residential segregation, we should be alarmed by the current reform movement itself.

2.

The public face of that movement is Michelle Rhee. Among young educators who have come lately to prominence, Rhee is the best known. Her closest rivals for celebrity are Wendy Kopp, who, as a Princeton senior in 1990, founded Teach for America (TFA), an organization that deploys graduates from elite colleges to teach in public schools; and Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, which oversees several charter schools as well as health and social services for poor children and their families. Canada was the star of the widely praised (and criticized for its sensational claims) 2010 film Waiting for “Superman.”

The title of Rhee’s new book, Radical: Fighting to Put Students First, suggests, accurately, that her main subject is herself. The child of Korean immigrants, she briefly attended public school in Toledo, Ohio, before her parents moved her to a private school. When she was nine, they dispatched her to live with relatives for a year in their native country, where she admired—at least retrospectively—a culture in which teachers rank their students and families prod their children to raise their ranking. “Rather than damaging the souls of the less accomplished,” she writes with an intimated sneer at those who would coddle rather than challenge children, “the rankings focused every family on moving their children up the ladder.”

After returning to private school in the United States, Rhee spent a year at Wellesley before transferring to Cornell. Upon completing college, she joined TFA and was assigned to an inner-city charter school in Baltimore where her second-graders were, at first, uncontrollable, and called her “Chinese bitch.” As she tells it, after a frustrating start, her classroom went from restless and noisy to calm and orderly—a change she attributes in part to advice from an experienced teacher, and to a reward system of her own devising whereby points for good behavior were converted to prizes such as toys and candy. She also rearranged the seating from separate tables into a single semicircle, visited the parents of disruptive children, and grouped her students according to how they were doing, with the promise of advancement to a higher group if their work improved. According to Rhee, her stint in Baltimore was a big success.1

She tells the rest of her story as an alternating series of victories on behalf of children grateful for her gifts and setbacks at the hands of adults threatened by her smarts. At a presentation about her accomplishments in Baltimore, for example, she was jeered by veteran teachers whose invective, she says, exceeded that of the students who had called her a bitch. Now she was called a whore.

Rhee went on to the Kennedy School at Harvard with the idea in mind that “public policy had to change: how we run schools and select our teachers, how we train them, how they relate to the students.” There she launched an organization called the New Teacher Project, which began as a consulting service for school districts seeking new teachers, and evolved into an advocacy group for the reform of hiring, promotion, and severance practices throughout the public school system.

In 2005, Rhee came to the attention of Joel Klein, chancellor of New York City’s schools, who later commended her to the mayor of Washington, D.C., Adrian Fenty. In the summer of 2007, after she had “knocked his socks off” at her job interview, Fenty appointed her, at age thirty-seven, chancellor of the Washington schools. Upon taking the job, she knew immediately that she would have to get over “trying to be warm and friendly.” She got over it in a flash. Perhaps in emulation of Donald Trump on The Apprentice, she invited the camera crew of a PBS documentary to film her in the act of firing a principal. Time magazine put her on its cover looking fierce and holding a broom.

By the spring of 2008, she had dismissed thirty-six principals, twenty-two assistant principals, and, before she was done, nearly three hundred teachers. In the fall of 2010, after Fenty was defeated for reelection in the Democratic primary (which was at least partly a referendum on Rhee), she resigned, blaming her perennial enemy, the teachers’ union. She now heads a lobbying organization called StudentsFirst, which opposes tenure for teachers and has raised over $1 billion for political candidates whom it finds congenial.

Whether Rhee’s time in Washington had positive or negative effects on schoolchildren depends on who tells the tale. Her own book is remarkably self-praising and untroubled by doubt. Its cast of characters is divided between those who adulate her and those who despise her—in both cases, apparently, for her determination to do good. As soon as she became chancellor, she discovered deplorable conditions in the schools: broken air conditioners, warehouses stacked high with piles of undelivered textbooks. Even her detractors agree that she improved building maintenance and delivery of supplies—not trivial achievements, since the physical condition of schools makes a real difference to children as well as to teachers. She boasts of soaring test scores in her first year and continued success in the second, “though the increases were not as dramatic.”

When budget cuts became imperative after the financial crash of 2008, she attempted to make rational decisions about which schools to close or consolidate, and how to make the necessary layoffs on a better basis than the “last in, first out” triage favored by the union. But critics found her rash and abrasive, and distrusted her decisions about which teachers should stay and which should go.

Diane Ravitch not only sides with Rhee’s critics; she surpasses them in her condemnation, which borders on contempt. Here is her summary of Rhee’s legacy to the Washington schools: “cheating, teaching to bad tests, institutionalized fraud, dumbing down of tests, and a narrowed curriculum.”2 The reference to cheating is to an improbable rise in passing rates on reading tests during Rhee’s first two years (in the case of one school, the rates almost doubled). Although an investigation by the D.C. inspector general did not determine exactly what happened, it found that teachers in at least one school, under intense pressure to show good test results, erased wrong answers and substituted correct ones.

This should not have been surprising. During Rhee’s regime, teachers’ pay, their jobs, even the survival of their schools, could depend on a couple of years of test scores. In this respect, her intervention was representative of an approach to education that has been gathering force under both Republican and Democratic administrations. Beginning with the “No Child Left Behind” initiative of President George W. Bush and continuing with President Obama’s “Race to the Top,” it is likely to accelerate with the adoption of the “Common Core State Standards” (endorsed so far by forty-five states) as testable benchmarks on which federal funding depends.3

Ravitch describes that approach, aptly, as “testing mania.” Tests, she thinks, can be useful diagnostic instruments, but as a high-stakes method for evaluating teachers and schools, they create more problems than they solve. She quotes Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond (who was Arne Duncan’s chief rival to become President Obama’s secretary of education) that teacher ratings based on tests “largely reflect whom a teacher teaches, not how well they teach.” Conflating test scores with teacher quality has the effect, Ravitch writes, of punishing “teachers for choosing to teach the students with the greatest needs,” while encouraging them to “spend more time with the students who will respond to their coaching and to spend less time with those who will not.” The emphasis on test scores exacerbates rivalry, discourages teamwork, and undermines morale. It also tends to drive out of the curriculum subjects that are not amenable to testing, such as art and music. Most important to Ravitch, “the tests do not measure the many dimensions of intelligence, judgment, creativity, and character that may be even more consequential for the student’s future than his or her test score.”

As for Rhee’s view of such concerns, she is dismissive. “There will always be doubters,” she writes, and comments on the cheating scandal with a conditional sentence: “If audits and investigations expose cheating on tests, we are cheating our kids.”

3.

What links Michelle Rhee’s personal story to her professional practice is her almost fanatical faith in the power of competition. Recalling her revelatory experience in Korea, she remarks, with wistful admiration, that “children in other nations are fiercely competitive.” Her fervor for competition exemplifies what is fast becoming the national education dogma, which boils down to a few variations on a single theme: (1) Students should compete for test scores and their teachers’ approval. (2) Teachers should compete for “merit” rewards from their principal. (3) Schools should compete for funding within their district. (4) School districts should compete for budgetary allocations within their state. (5) States should compete for federal funds.

For one who grew up, as I did, in the 1960s and 1970s, it is strange to hear such faith in the salutary power of competition from someone who calls herself “radical.” That word once implied deep discontent with the basic structure of society and a revolutionary zeal to overturn it, beginning with the distribution of wealth. Now it apparently means the determination to remake public institutions on the model of private corporations.

In this respect, too, Rhee’s book is a representative document of our time. She wants to bring financial incentives, rewards, and penalties into a bureaucratic system that she regards as dysfunctional and complacent. She wants to save it from itself by the infusion of entrepreneurial energy. In this sense, too, her approach to school reform is part of a trend that has been building since the 1980s to introduce private competition (in police, military, and postal services, for example) where government was once the only provider.

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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. 1

    Ravitch, however, cites a University of Maryland report that questions Rhee’s claims of greatly improved test scores by her students (pp. 152–153). 

  2. 2

    “Shame on Michelle Rhee,” The Daily Beast, March 29, 2011. 

  3. 3

    See Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, “Who’s Minding the Schools?,” The New York Times, June 9, 2013. 

  4. 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). 

  5. 5

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

  6. 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.) 

  7. 7

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

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