From the New York Review of Books comes a comparison review of Diane Ravitch's new book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools and Michelle Rhee's book, Radical: Fighting to Put Students First. (Ravitch's book just came out and is now #1 in sales at Amazon. Ravitch will be speaking this week, Thursday the 26th, at UW's Kane Hall from 7-8:30 p.m.)
What is striking about this review comes almost at the end when the reviewer, Andrew Delbanco, gives them each a fair pro/con assessment.
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.”
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.
I note this balance in this review because one thing I consistently
see in ed reform rhetoric is the complete and total inability to be
intellectually honest about the good and bad of ALL of public education.
It's almost as if a memo when out - something akin to Reagan saying
"Never speak ill of a fellow Republican" - that said, "Never admit
anything could be wrong with any part of ed reform. We are always in the
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
That statement is breathtaking in its implications. Public education is the source of poverty? Public education can fix poverty? And it's public education's job to do so?
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.
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.”
- The title of Rhee’s new book, Radical: Fighting to Put Students First, suggests, accurately, that her main subject is herself. (And indeed, she works in the name of her organization - Students First - into the title of her book.)
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.
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
TestingTests, she (Ravitch) 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.”
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.”
Her (Rhee) 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.
His aside is priceless:
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.