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The Death and Life of the Great American School System
BASIC BOOKS, 283 PAGES, $26.95

Catholic schools reap one benefit from poverty,” the high-school principal hiring me commented ruefully (I’d just glimpsed my pay package). “By the time we’ve scrounged up money for the latest educational innovation, everybody else has figured out it doesn’t work.”

Educational historian and former assistant secretary of education Diane Ravitch, ever skeptical of “pedagogical fads, enthusiasms, and movements,” would like my principal, even though he campaigns for vouchers and sifts through test scores with archaeological zeal. Ravitch, by contrast, has produced a bestseller by renouncing this faith. Once enticed by her colleagues in think tanks and the first Bush administration to “jump on a bandwagon,” she now proclaims herself “disaffected from both the choice movement and the accountability movement.” Apostasy sells.

In attacking such intuitively attractive concepts as accountability and choice, Ravitch displays more courage than her editors, who change “accountability” to “testing” in the subtitle. Certainly she has captured the public’s attention, including mine. During successive careers as a legislative analyst, corporate manager, homeschooling parent, and, finally, Catholic-school teacher, I devoured Diane Ravitch’s learned critiques of the educational establishment. Has she truly apostatized?

On accountability, only somewhat, and inconsistently. On choice, alas, yes.

In 1995 Ravitch defended “teaching to the test.” In her latest book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System , she charges that the state reading and math tests mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act lower the bar, produce inconsistent results, lack content, promote cheating, and encourage teachers to waste time on test-taking strategies.

Yet Ravitch repeatedly invokes the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests to expose inadequate state tests. She condemns the New York Regents for debasing their diploma by lowering the passing grade. She compliments Massachusetts’ “stellar state standards,” enforced by a grueling testing regime. She notes that “nations such as Japan and Finland have developed excellent curricula that spell out what students are supposed to learn””and test them on it.

Ravitch catches herself at this point: “their schools teach the major fields of study . . . not because they will be tested. They do the right thing without rewards and sanctions.”

How many Japanese or Finnish students would agree? For eight years I prepared bright students for International Baccalaureate and advanced-placement tests. Certainly some of them reveled in the joys of learning. All of them, together with their parents and my principal, kept close watch on the scores.

Still, no one assumed that I could make every student pass these exams. Ravitch scorns as No Child Left Behind’s “most toxic flaw” the “legislative command that all students must be proficient in reading and mathematics by 2014,” which has “placed thousands of public schools at risk of being privatized, turned into charters, or closed” even when the schools are improving or only a small subgroup fails to meet the targets.

Yet surely this points less to flaws in “accountability” than to accounting for too much or for the wrong things. By chapter 8, Ravitch is distinguishing between positive and punitive accountability. She cites Superintendent Beverly Hall’s turnaround program in Atlanta as positive because Hall “established accountability targets for every school, including the percentage of students who meet standards and the percentage who exceed them.” (Hurray, rewarding excellence, not just bare-bones proficiency!) Hall gave out bonuses to the staff when a school met 70 percent of its targets. She “replaced 89 percent of the principals . . . [and] closed some schools. Her strategy was slow and steady and it paid off . . . . Atlanta showed impressive gains” on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Hmm. So Superintent Hall embraced both positive and punitive accountability, and Ravitch measures her success”by a test.

More plausible and more troubling is Ravitch’s claim that “test-based accountability . . . removes all responsibility from students and their families for students’ academic performance.” It is always the school’s fault.

I remember hearing my mother, a dedicated fifth-grade teacher, snarl over her principal’s latest set of learning objectives. “You know what these mean, don’t you? I will lead all horses to water and I will make them drink.” Several years ago a young teacher from rural southern Utah burst into tears during a State Office of Education seminar. “These goals are impossible. You all know we can’t teach the kids from the ‘rez.’”

Some students will refuse to learn. Some families will sabotage any educational effort. The poverty, substance abuse, and family disintegration plaguing many poor communities daunt even dedicated teachers. Yet, while demanding 100 percent proficiency seems unfair, concluding that we “can’t teach the kids from the ‘rez’” (or the “‘hood”) seems unjust. We either try or we empower others who are willing to try.

Enter choice. Ravitch contends that voucher programs and public charter schools have failed to demonstrate measurable educational gains. Putting aside the surprising reemergence of test scores as the preferred standard of performance, I wondered what she would say about Catholic schools. The data on charter-school performance is perhaps mixed, but a half century of research proves, as Ravitch acknowledges, that “minority children in Catholic schools are more likely to take advanced courses than their peers in public schools, more likely to go to college, and more likely to continue on to graduate school.”

Claiming that she initially supported vouchers to “help Catholic schools,” Ravitch now contends that charter schools are forcing Catholic schools to close. A strange complaint. Eight hundred of the 1700 poor children who receive District of Columbia vouchers attend Catholic schools. If, now that Congress has killed the program, their parents flee to charter schools, “choice” will not be the culprit.

So Ravitch falls back on her distrust of markets whose “lure,” she warns, “is the idea that freedom from government is a solution by itself . . . . One need not know anything about children or education.”

Again, a strange complaint. Ravitch devotes much of her book to recounting how policy theorists and corporate executives imposed ineffective, top-down mandates on schools. Markets would circumvent many such disasters, not because charter and private schools never make mistakes but because consumers”parents”eventually will abandon failure and flock to success. Last year more than 400 charter schools shut down, while waiting lists to enter the lottery for successful programs swelled.

Yet in Ravitch’s narrative, parents are almost missing persons. “Parents,” she pronounces, “should not be burdened with locating a suitable school for their child. They should be able to take their child to the neighborhood public school as a matter of course and expect that it has well-educated teachers and a sound educational program.”

Since no one has more effectively chronicled a century of educational failure than Ravitch, I marvel at her faith that this time public schools will get it right. But what strikes me more is her condescension. As waiting lists for voucher lotteries and a 55 percent increase in charter-school students since 2004 attest, many parents, and disproportionately poor and minority parents, appear more than willing to shoulder this lamentable burden. Interestingly, 2000 census data revealed that, while just 22.7 percent of New York City residents sent their children to private schools, 32.5 percent of New York City’s public-school teachers made that choice. Ravitch pleads for more attention to teachers’ expertise.

Later, Ravitch shifts the ground of her attack. She contends that educational choice will create a “two-tiered system in urban districts, with charter schools for motivated students and public schools for those left behind.”

This is tough to reconcile with choice’s alleged failure to improve results. Still, educational triage is disturbing when children are involved. One reason I love Catholic schools is that we do not give up on children”but we do not expect 100 percent success either. Should we renounce choice because some parents will abdicate and children left behind will suffer?

On the other hand, why should motivated, inner-city children be forced to stay behind? I recently moved to Palo Alto, California. I doubt my neighbors would willingly ship their kids across the Bayshore Freeway to enrich the educational environment in much poorer, largely Hispanic East Palo Alto. Hefty mortgages, after all, are vouchers of a sort. Why restrict choice only for the struggling?

Ravitch concludes by praising the “1000 schools [that] use the Core Knowledge Curriculum, which describes explicitly what shall be taught in the full range of liberal arts and sciences in each grade.” Curious, I looked at the Core Knowledge website. Only 40 percent of Core Knowledge schools are traditional public schools.

The other 60 percent that use the curriculum come from the ranks of charter, private, and parochial schools, which together educate about 13 percent of America’s schoolchildren. As Diane Ravitch seeks allies in her lifelong crusade for meaningful curriculum reform, she might stop and ask: Where will she find her friends now?

Mary McConnell, a consultant and former teacher, blogs on education issues at