Dissent magazine article: Who Will Reform the Reformers?

By Ilana Garon - December 17, 2013

 A week ago, when I went to turn in my timecard in preparation to leave school for the day, I encountered one of my co-teachers—a fifteen-year veteran who is beloved by her students and the teachers whom she has mentored—standing outside the main office looking frazzled. She had just come from an “Initial Planning Conference” with one of our supervisors, in which teachers discuss with their higher-ups the ways in which they will be evaluated, per the new criteria set out by the New York City Department of Education. “It’s so convoluted,” she told me, holding her palms to her face in a gesture of exasperation. “These new evaluations—they take away time from doing things that actually help the students learn, by piling on so much paperwork and pressure on teachers to do things that don’t even make any sense. I feel like I’m running in a hamster wheel.”


She’s not alone. New York City teachers have balked this year at the institution of a new teacher evaluation program based on the Danielson Group’s Framework for Teaching, a twenty-two-point rubric formerly intended as a guide for teachers to better their instruction. Despite its original purpose (not to mention its impractical and ambiguously worded guidelines), the framework has been co-opted by the state DOE as a supposedly objective means to judge teachers’ classroom performance. They will be categorized “ineffective,” “developing,” “effective,” or “highly effective” based on how many rubric components the evaluator sees them actively fulfill, and how their students behave, in a series of fifteen-minutes observations. Many of the requirements cannot be fulfilled simultaneously, such as directing the students with “passion” and having them work collaboratively in groups. And the fulfillment of some behavioral requirements, such as having students running the discussion without outside guidance, are not in a teacher’s control. Three consecutive ratings of “developing” or lower can get a teacher dismissed.

Another portion of our evaluation is based on a new set of standardized tests called the Measures of Student Learning (MOSL), which supposedly align with the Common Core State Standards. These are to be given to students alongside their normal state tests, the New York State Regents exams. The sole purpose of the MOSL is to aggregate changes in student scores between the fall test (when neither teachers nor students had any idea what would be on the exam) and the spring test, in order to produce yet another set of numbers that in theory will quantify a teacher’s effectiveness.

The result of these initiatives is that teachers with years of experience perfecting the craft suddenly feel that the rules of the game have been changed. It used to be that the best teachers were known for inventing surprising, non-formulaic lessons that would push students to consider exciting new ideas and see the world in different ways; now it seems that what was once seen as creative pedagogy risks being evaluated as “ineffective.” Meanwhile, more and more tests are piled upon the students, taking up valuable learning time. All of these efforts, according to proponents of Race to the Top (the federal education program launched in 2009) and its various education reform initiatives, will promote a culture of “teacher accountability” and ensure that a “great teacher” is in every classroom, causing graduation rates to soar nationwide.


In her new book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, Diane Ravitch rails against these kinds of reform efforts. Ravitch explains in her prologue that critics charged her previous book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System (2010), with being “long on criticisms but short on answers.” In Reign ofError, she intends to address this charge by answering four major questions: Is American education in crisis? Is American education failing and declining? Are the reform efforts being promoted by the government and corporate sponsors supported by any credible evidence? And what can we do to improve schools and the lives of school children? Ravitch divides the book into thirty-three chapters, each of which presents what she refers to as a claim of the current reform movement, debunks that claim, and culminates with a proposed set of solutions.

With copious charts, graphs, and citations, Ravitch documents the rise of the idea of American education in peril, beginning with a 1983 report called A Nation at Risk that pointed to the poor standing of American students on international tests and warned that this would cause U.S. jobs to be lost overseas. This fear was resurrected in 2001 with No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which promoted the idea of judging schools as “failing” based on their students’ ability to meet arbitrary benchmarks on standardized tests. Under the 2009 stimulus package, NCLB was complemented by Race to the Top, which included a provision allocating $4.35 billion (with billions more in the years to come) to states that were willing to tie teacher evaluations to test scores. Schools labeled “failing” according to criteria similar to those under NCLB would have to fire the entire staff, close the school, and start over with a new name and new staff.

As Ravitch explains, all of these initiatives were based on a fallacy: that the achievement gap between black and white students is pervasive, and that American students as a whole are falling behind their global peers. Reign of Error contends that American education is not, in fact, in crisis, but rather that urban public schools (and some rural ones) are beleaguered by poverty and racial segregation, mirroring issues that plague American society as a whole. “Schools and society are intertwined,” Ravitch asserts; in order to address the problems seen at the school level, we must make sure mothers are provided with quality prenatal care and that children from pre-K onward have opportunities to learn, play, get physical exercise, have healthy lunches, and undertake a balanced school curriculum including music and art. Classes should be small. Testing should only be used diagnostically, and to inform instruction. Schools should offer after-school programs for students to pursue wholesome and enriching extracurricular interests. Addressing these deficiencies in poor children’s lives would carry over into educational attainment.

Despite the absence of such redeeming social programs on a large scale, Ravitch argues, the education gap between white students and students of color has narrowed significantly over the past three decades. In fact, Ravitch notes, in the 1960s and ’70s, through efforts such the Great Society—a set of domestic spending programs implemented during the Johnson administration, most of which have been gutted under subsequent administrations, beginning with Nixon’s—the “black-white reading gap shrank by two-thirds,” and black, white, and Latino students attained parity in college attendance rates (a phenomenon that has not happened since Great Society programs were ended or scaled back). If we adjust for rates of child poverty, American children’s scores on international tests are on par with those of the highest scoring nations. Those who continually surpass the United States, such as Finland and the Netherlands, do more to holistically alleviate child poverty than America has for many decades.

According to Joanne Weiss, former director of the Race to the Top competition, the development of the Common Core State Standards “alters the market for innovation in curriculum development, professional development, and formative assessments.” In other words, private corporations are making large sums of money from new teacher evaluation processes, as well as “standards-aligned” professional development and curricular materials. It is not, therefore, in the interest of education reformers to acknowledge the above statistics on child poverty and education. But reformers’ conflicts of interest should lead us to question the necessity and alleged benefits of the changes to the teaching profession that they propose.

Charter schools also serve as moneymakers. Even the nonprofits (like the Knowledge Is Power Program schools) operate in “chains,” overseen by networks of individuals in either EMOs (education management organizations) or CMOs (charter management organizations), virtually interchangeable terms that describe the business of running educational corporations. The employees of these organizations provide a “brand” and “uniformity of administration” for these schools, as well as arranging for marketing, public relations, and financial oversight. The CMOs, which generate huge management fees, are in charge of allocating the millions of dollars in financial backing received by charter schools, including public funds, with limited public oversight. The result is a lack of accountability for these dollars—public and private—which has led to several cases of outright fraud. (Ravitch refers to a charter school in Philadelphia whose board president and CEO were charged with stealing half a million dollars from the school’s funds.) Perhaps the worst offenders, however, are the for-profit charter school networks, some of which—after receiving millions of dollars in funding from state and federal subsidies—grant contracts exclusively to builders, teacher trainers, and other vendors with ties to their “movement” (sometimes bypassing lower bids from state organizations). This can only be construed as cronyism and a gross misappropriation of public resources.

Charter schools have as a whole failed to make good on their promise that they will provide better instruction (translation: higher test scores) at a lower cost than traditional public schools. The results are “inconsistent,” says Ravitch, even within brand chains—but most studies conclude that on average the results produced by charter schools are “no better than those of traditional public schools serving the same sorts of students.” And despite access to sources of funding that are unavailable to traditional public schools, expenditures on actual instruction of students are dwarfed by spending for administrative and promotional purposes.

Ravitch’s book speaks directly to the experiences of public school teachers like me, who work in high-needs communities with kids who face myriad social, linguistic, and academic difficulties—teachers who are tired of being labeled as failures for their inability to control the outcomes of standardized tests. As a teacher in a system that has been the reluctant recipient of many top-down mandates over the past decade, however, I had to caution myself to read Reign of Error without getting carried away with feelings of personal vindication. I knew I would be on board withthe vast majority of what Ravitch said, and the book proved an effective manual for how to better articulate views I already hold.

Reign of Error’s primary flaw is, ironically, one of the same flaws she decries in the rhetoric of education reformers: a tendency to paint any discussion of the state of American public education with broad strokes. The message throughout is, “Reformers are bad, public education is good.” In failing to acknowledge the problems in public education as a whole (which most readers will have trouble putting aside) or leave room for ambiguity, Ravitch oversimplifies a set of issues that is in fact complex. The education reform movement’s claim that American schools are “in crisis” certainly warrants examination, and the default tendency to blame teachers for every problem is both incorrect and broadly damaging. But recent studies such as the OECD-sponsored Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies have shown that American adults lag behind their peers in “competencies” such as reading, math, and problem-solving. Though these problems have socioeconomic underpinnings, they reflect real problems in schools, too.

Ravitch’s tone often comes off as accusatory and shrill; her powerful arguments are undermined by what could be construed as defensive finger-pointing, including lists, sometimes twenty-five deep, of organizations and individuals who appear “appealing and innocuous” but are in fact “reactionary and duplicitous.” Without any acknowledgement that at least some who disagree with her may still be personally honest and well-intentioned, even if ultimately wrong-headed, Ravitch makes herself that much easier to dismiss.

Reign of Error features a few chapters that offer clear solutions. As mentioned above, Ravitch defends the need for a balanced curriculum that supports the arts, sports, and opportunities for outside enrichment; she advocates for better prenatal care and early childhood education. In a chapter called “Make Charters Work for All,” Ravitch re-envisions charter schools as centers wherein innovative educational techniques would be explored in order to educate the most difficult students, as per the original vision of United Federation of Teachers leader Albert Shanker—and contrary to current charter policies, which allow charters to expel disruptive or misbehaving students, sending them back into the local public schools.
Ultimately, though, the book would have benefited from more chapters that promote clear, active solutions to problems in schools. Despite the depth of Ravitch’s research, her passion for the cause, and the fact that she is correct about so many things, she faces an uphill battle in her efforts to inform the debate about education reform, which is deeply and perhaps intractably polarized. Though it may be naïve of me to have hoped that Reign of Error would influence corporate reform apologists to re-examine their views, Ravitch’s tone is not ideal for bringing in converts from any fold. Many readers of the book are—because of their financial, professional, or ideological interests—already in battle formation, but Ravitch’s book misses an opportunity to productively inform those who are not.