Public Education and its “Disrupters”

Slaying Goliath is a remarkable book. That is to say, it is a remarkably bad book, and its dismal quality is all the more startling given the pedigree of the author.

Diane Ravitch received her doctorate in history from Columbia University in 1975 and was later appointed to the faculty, where she taught the history of education. She has served in the Department of Education in both the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations, and later joined the Brookings Institution. Her 13 books include The Great School Wars: New York City, 1805-1973 (1974), which earned well-deserved praise, as did What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know? (1987) written with Chester Finn, Jr. of the Fordham Institute. E.D. Hirsch credits her support in the conception and publication of his groundbreaking Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (1988).

Around 2006 Ravitch made an unexpected turn, repudiating most of her previous education reform activity. Since then, she has become a virulent opponent of most efforts at school reform and an ardent supporter of the unreconstructed public school system. Since then, her book titles speak for themselves: Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, and her latest, Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools. Diane Ravitch 2.0 has moved away from careful scholarly activity into a shady world of vituperative name-calling.

The Deplorable Disrupters

Slaying Goliath is an embarrassment with a preposterous title. To identify, for example, the politically dominant behemoth National Education Association with the heroic, diminutive David is an allusion borrowed from an alternate reality. The book, moreover, is one long ad hominem attack aimed at a wild variety of targets. Those who disagree with the author do not deserve “the honorable word reform, which they have brazenly appropriated.” Rather, they are all “Disrupters” who are interested only in their “own well-being.” Ravitch thunders, “I will not allow the term ‘reform’ to be hijacked by those who have a hidden agenda.”

Confessing the bankruptcy of a cause she had advised and promoted for decades—apparently to the detriment of hundreds of thousands of pupils—surely takes humility. It may also signal confusion, and this is certainly a confused book. The biggest problem with Ravitch’s thesis, such as it is, is that she lumps all of those who disagree with her into one basket of deplorables, even if they have little to nothing in common.

Who, then, are the “Disrupters”? They constitute a vast right- and left-wing conspiracy, and their numbers and diversity are staggering. Accordingly, the “Disruption beast” includes George W. Bush, Barack Obama, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Charles Koch Foundation, the Teach for America program, the Walton Family Foundation, Laurene Powell Jobs, Reed Hastings (of Netflix), the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Rahm Emanuel, Governor Andrew Cuomo, Senator Cory Booker, and the Bezos Family Foundation.

Jerry Brown is a Disrupter because he opened two charter schools as mayor of Oakland. Charter schools are sinister because they may be supported by the “fossil fuel industry.” Disrupters are guilty of pursuing “innovation” and many just “want to blow up the current system.” Some “hate government-run schools.” AT&T, Blue Cross Blue Shield, and Merck contribute to disruption. But that’s not all: “Every Republican governor is a Disrupter” and “virtually every Republican member of the United States Senate” and “the House of Representatives.” Some of them are the evil “masters of the universe” and they reek of “indifference to racism and poverty.”

The “Resistance,” for which Ravitch is now a principal leader, consists of those in the bureaucratic and academic world of education, including the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), most of whom are united by their hostility to reform and their adherence to education progressivism. Ravitch claims to speak for public school teachers everywhere.

Slaying Goliath is a meandering manifesto, a call-to-arms populated by straw men whom Ravitch mercilessly demolishes. She asserts, “There is neither research nor evidence to support the Disrupters’ belief that intergenerational, systematic poverty can be eliminated by teachers and schools.” But who makes that argument? We are left to guess. Ravitch decries the “Disrupters’ wholehearted embrace of standardization.” She argues instead for the value of “diversity” and “the standards developed by a community”—as if choice advocates eschew pedagogical diversity and reject the role of fair-minded parents and teachers.

There is, though, room for “disruption” if it is for an approved cause. For example, anti-standardized testing groups like “Mothers Against Drunk Testing” in Texas and the “opt-out” movement in New York are praiseworthy. Teacher strikes in Seattle are lauded. Students who protest standardized testing in Providence are approved. (Imagine, students protesting exams!) Perhaps our confidence should be boosted by Ravitch’s teamwork with celebrity Matt Damon and the “Save Our Schools” (SOS) marches and her appearances on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” that bastion of thoughtful debate.

The term “public education” has long been co-opted: are American citizens educated in religious, preparatory, or home schools not members of the “public”? Are they not being prepared for meaningful citizenship?

Ravitch has become a brass-knuckled street fighter and the arena is class warfare, but she is in good company for such tactics are all the rage. Her mind-numbing denunciation of “billionaires” occurs well over one hundred times in the text; most, no less, are “greedy” billionaires whose only interest in education is personal profit. Aside from self-serving “disruption,” the only problem is structural poverty. This is a convenient argument as most Marxist analyses are: Few would disagree that poverty and a distressed culture may undermine education, but if misappropriated wealth is the culprit, no real improvement can be expected short of a socio-economic revolution. Accordingly, this is hardly an inspirational book—rather it is written to provoke anger.

Ravitch occupies a difficult position, a precarious “Don’t Worry, Be Unhappy” state-of-mind. On the one hand, there is nothing really wrong with public schools, as concerns stem from a “manufactured crisis.” Public schools are better than they were in past decades because, well, Ravitch’s “experience” tells us so. At the same time, the pot of discontent must boil—this is no time to be pleased. Contentment and satisfaction do not fuel resistance. For that reason, measurements like the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) are used with care. If the numbers show stasis or decline, the fault is “disruption,” but when indications of progress appear, only the economic ecosphere surrounding public education needs to change.

Taking Progressive Education on Faith

It is notable that the closest Ravitch seems to come to the actual classroom is as a high school student. Nowhere in summaries of her career can I find experience as a teacher in a public school. Does this matter? Apparently not, because many educational experts seem to lack classroom experience as well. In fact, the progenitor of today’s progressive education, John Dewey tried but failed in two attempts to be a high school teacher. According to Jay Martin’s biography, when Dewey left his second post in Charlotte, Vermont, “the townspeople. . .were glad to see him depart.” It turned out well, though, because he found another job teaching other teachers how to teach.

The good news, says Ravitch in lurid prose, is that the “disruption movement is dying” though not yet “dead.” Thankfully, though, it is on its “last legs . . . like a giant creature whose heart and brain have died, but whose tentacles keep reaching out and strangling whatever it can get hold of.” This strange analogy explains little, other than that the author may have been reading H.G. Wells. Though this odd “creature” may be in extremis, she nonetheless complains of the people who do not “believe” in public education. What does that mean? Must we now embrace unreformed education as an article of faith? If so, such an approach was anticipated by John Dewey’s “My Pedagogic Creed” (1897). Some, however, may prefer to practice their liturgy elsewhere.

And what, we should ask, is “public” education? The term has long been co-opted: are American citizens educated in Amish, preparatory, or home schools not members of the “public”? Are they not being prepared for meaningful citizenship? Ravitch complains that “every dollar that goes to a charter school is taken away from public schools,” but charter schools are public schools.

The book is hopelessly trite and tells us little that we do not already know. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” and Obama’s “Race to the Top” are “kissing cousins.” Ravitch is correct to condemn imperialistic federal programs and she is right to criticize Core Standards as they have become politicized in nature and awkward in implementation. In the ideal environment that Ravitch imagines, where the rest of the world would just do as she says, universal standards might be possible—but not in the hyper-political climate to which Slaying Goliath contributes. She is also correct that excessive standardized exams steal the soul out of learning and present irresistible temptations for teachers and administrators to cheat on behalf of their students. Those who saw President George W. Bush side-by-side with the late Edward Kennedy signing NCLB knew that Bush had been duped. Just ask any teacher: the programs are a disaster and have made their life miserable, pushing too many teachers to retire prematurely. But we already knew all of that.

Ravitch compiles a list of charter school scandals but ignores their successes. Public school scandals are also ignored, like one in Atlanta where personnel from Fulton County schools were sent to prison for falsifying students’ exams. She also ignores the ideologically-driven opposition to charter, private, and homeschools that has attempted to thwart these schools’ success. Nonetheless, the best universities in the country aggressively recruit students from these schools. Apparently, they don’t read Ravitch’s blog.

I picked this book up to better understand the arguments against charter schools and privatization because there are surely difficulties associated with these reforms. There are important lessons to be learned, and ill-advised practices to amend. I have learned little, however, except how badly politicized even some of the best minds in education have become.

Ravitch censures those who “believe that choice is an end in itself.” Guilty as charged. Choice indeed is an end in itself given that choosing is an exercise of freedom—unless, that is, one denies that freedom is an end in itself. If you can’t choose, however, or if you have nothing to choose from, freedom is attenuated. But according to Ravitch, such choice has been imposed on hapless parents in an “assault on democracy.” This is strange democratic theory indeed.

Though Ravitch describes a repudiation of her earlier views, this is less a reversal than a retreat into the safe world of progressive education. The public school system, from the early 20th century, rests upon the ideas of John Dewey, who hijacked the progressive education movement in the interest of his political agenda, as I have argued elsewhere. Several generations of research, tenure, promotion, and reputation are housed in the public school superstructure. Consequently, to challenge the status quo may provoke an existential crisis for those who live and work therein. In Slaying Goliath, more concern is evident for the welfare of schools than for the welfare of students, but this comes as no surprise because such is the preoccupation with power and survival in contemporary progressive education.

Undaunted by many examples of questionable education research, Ravitch complains that the “Disrupters” do not take appropriate guidance from the “experts.” Though appropriate credentialing and professionalism are critical, surely we have reached the point where too many of the experts in education are described by Bob Dylan’s dark ballad “Desolation Row,” where he warns of “everyone that knows more than they do.”

Finally, we must ask: if Ravitch, by her own admission, was so wrong before, why should a reasonable person rely on her guidance now? Slaying Goliath does little more than provoke class hostility and deepen political divisions. To quote Dylan’s song again, Ravitch is only contributing to the tumult in which “Everybody is shouting, / Which side are you on?