As far as your editor is concerned, far too many people give once-respectable education historian Diane Ravitch too much credit for intellectual caliber and for her former position in the school reform movement. For much of her career — especially after her criticisms of multiculturalism and practitioners of the concept such as Leonard Jeffries moved her into the public intellectual spotlight — she has been more of an enfant terrible than anything else. And these days, Ravitch wants to be the Camille Paglia of education traditionalists without either the latter’s intellectual curiosity, scholastic rigor, or skillfulness in bombast. It is why she discredits herself with every tweet, proves herself incapable of offering cogent arguments with The Death and Life of the Great American School System (a weak attempt at being both the Paglia and the Jane Jacobs of education), and costs herself credibility with pieces such as a column she wrote last year for the Wall Street Journal that would be graded an F by any respectable education historian.
So when Thomas B. Fordham Institute research czar Mike Petrilli’s ran his piece yesterday on the need for school reformers to get their hands dirty and duke it out with National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers locals for control of districts, Ravitch responded with the kind of weak sophistry that only she can muster.
Seizing upon Petrilli’s suggestion that school districts (and their boards) should go out of business altogether, Ravitch first attempted in an e-mail to argue that such a move would not lead to improvements in student achievement. Her prime example: The efforts by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his string of chancellors (notably Joel Klein) to overhaul what was once one of the Superfund sites of American public education. Ravitch declared that the successes “went up in smoke” once New York State tightened up its reading and math standards — and used the state test results to prove her point.
If Ravitch was truly being intellectually honest, she could have used New York City’s performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress to make her case; after all, the data covers 2003 through 2009, or much of the period in which Bloomberg and his team have done their work. But then, it wouldn’t have proved her point. The percentage of fourth-graders reading Below Basic declined from 53 percent in 2003 to 38 percent in 2009; the average fourth-grader in 2009 was reading at a grade level ahead of a peer six years earlier. More importantly, the percentage of students reading at Proficient and Advanced levels increased from 19 percent to 29 percent within that same period. Meanwhile the percentage of eighth-graders scoring Below Basic in math declined from 46 percent in 2003 to 40 percent in 2004, while the percentage of students scoring at Proficient and Advanced levels increased from 21 percent to 26 percent in that period. The average eighth-grader scores half a grade level higher in math in 2009 than a similar student six years earlier. And when one considers that New York City’s graduation rates increased from an abysmal 37 percent at the time Bloomberg took over the district in 2002 to a slightly less-horrifying 50 percent, there are clear signs of improvement.
This isn’t to say that all is well. Far too many Big Apple kids leave schools not ready for college. Eighth-grade reading scores on NAEP have barely budged; given that few illiterate fourth-graders improve their reading skills without strong reading remediation, the city sorely needs to hold back students before they enter fourth-grade in order to offer reading interventions, and provide intensive tutoring in the later grades. Black males struggle mightily; it’s one reason why Mayor Bloomberg teamed up with George Soros’ Open Society Institute on bringing the latter’s black male education initiatives to the city.
All that said, New York City is in far better shape than it was before mayoral control and far better than it was when I was attending Big Apple schools during the 1980s and 1990s. And if Bloomberg and his current chancellor, Dennis Walcott, continue their efforts at shutting down failing schools, reforming its recruiting, compensation, and management of teachers, expanding school choice, and battling the American Federation of Teachers’ local, the Big Apple will offer far better schools for its children than what education traditionalists like Ravitch would ever want.
Where Ravitch’s argument really falls apart is when she declared that any move to relegate school districts to the ashbin of history — and the precious concept of local control she defends — would mean the end of “democracy” and ” public education as we have known it for the past 150 or so years.” From where she sits, eliminating school districts would either mean centralizing school decision-making at the state level (and in the process, in her words, having “decision making so far removed from the reach of ordinary parents”), or (in her own mind) the even worse solution of moving to transforming public education into a system of school choice with vouchers offered to every child.
As with so much of her rhetoric these days, none of this stands up to scrutiny. Given that families and other taxpayers who fund local districts also vote for state officials, there is no loss of the “democracy” Ravitch considers to be so precious (except when voters support the very school reforms she opposes). More importantly, local control has always been a myth. Under state constitutions, school districts (along with other local governments) are arms of the state. The U.S. Supreme Court resolved that matter a century ago in Hunter v. Pittsburgh; while public schools did exist in New England states such as Massachusetts before they actually became states with the formation of the United States, in most cases, state governments required the establishment or actually formed school districts.
The myth of local control has become more mythical since the 1960s as states have passed laws requiring school districts to bargain with affiliates of the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers; thanks to school funding suits and property tax revolts (along with federal education policy, which began recognizing the rightful role of state governments in shaping education policy), states have begun providing the lion’s share of school funding. These days, states, on average, provide 48 percent of all school dollars spent by districts on the ground.
It actually makes sense to rid the nation of school districts and require states to handle the full funding of schools. Why? It would allow for both the expansion of school choice (especially in turning school funding into vouchers that families can use for any educational option), allow for families to actually be lead decision-makers in schools, force schools to regard families and children as (shudder the thought) real customers who deserve to be treated with respect, and, ultimately, help children get the high-quality teaching and curricula they deserve. It would also eliminate the very central bureaucracies that NEA and AFT locals have worked with to restrict the ability of principals to be real managers in schools with actual ability to hire and fire (and also, in the process, force real improvements in school leadership).
If anything, the continued existence of traditional districts is the single-biggest obstacle to systemic reform. As seen in Michigan — where Gov. Rick Snyder is pushing for a system of public school choice, districts can oppose school choice because they still collect local property tax dollars and parents outside their boundaries don’t provide those funds (even though they are financing the same schools through their state income taxes). At the same time, the districts can even deny choice to the children they are supposed to serve by continuing the pernicious practice of zoned schooling and zip code education. When it comes to other reforms, districts have little incentive to embrace them because they are rendered servile by NEA and AFT locals through collective bargaining laws and their considerable political heft. Save for reform-minded districts that are usually accountable to mayors (who have other constituencies that balance against the threat of NEA and AFT campaigning), most of the leading reforms undertaken in the past three decades have happened because of reform-minded governors, legislatures and bureaucrats.
Traditional districts are also the biggest obstacles to Parent Power efforts. Families don’t have the ability to overhaul schools in their own communities, essentially making the schools unaccountable to those who have no choice but to send their kids to them. More importantly, the nature of school district politics — with NEA and AFT locals essentially slating favored candidates for school board seats and working as hard as they can with favored politicians to shape what districts actually do before items are placed on agendas — means that school board meetings are of little value for families and taxpayers alike. As former L.A. Unified board member Caprice Young noted in her own experience, there are plenty of situations in which board members are constantly communicating with their NEA and AFT overlords during what are supposed to be closed sessions, essentially rendering “democracy” a mere ruse.
If Ravitch really wants a system in which parents have a direct voice in schools, she would support the end of traditional districts. If she really wants democracy, she would support Parent Trigger laws that allow families to overhaul the schools within their own neighborhoods. If Ravitch truly wants every child to get a high-quality education no matter where they live, she would support the expansion of school choice and the end of traditional districts. The data has long ago shown that the current system in place is a failure for kids, especially for those from poor and minority households — and that it is not worth defending.
But Ravitch doesn’t really want parents to actually participate in education decisionmaking. After all, this is the woman who in one her first tomes, 1972’s The Great School Wars: A history of New York City schools, chastised parents in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville community (scene of the infamous Parent Power battle) for rightly demanding the ability to directly hold schools and teachers accountable for student achievement. As with her fellow education traditionalists, Ravitch thinks that families should be rarely seen and never heard except when they admirably parrot her bromides (or when she can conveniently blame them for what is really the fault of American public education’s systemic failures). And as one reads Star-Ledger reporter Tom Moran’s interview with Ravitch (in which she declares that her fellow-travelers in the NEA and AFT are “pusillanimous” for their miniscule concessions on teacher quality reform), one can simply conclude that she has little of value to say on much of anything.
Once again, Ravitch has proven herself incapable of intellectual honesty and rather willing to defend practices that have condemned far too many children to poverty and prison. We would all be better off ignoring her screeds once and for all.