A Comment on Diane Ravitch's new book
by Lynn Chu
The Death and Life of the Great American School System is forthcoming from Basic Books next March, 2010
From reading the first two thirds of Diane's book in manuscript (I await the physical book to relax with the rest), it seems to me that what has been most dumbed down in America is its lawmaking. Apparently our legislators have lost all grip on what a workable rule of law is, as opposed to a PR message.
Jacques Derrida had a point—we are all trapped in words and have lost track of their manipulability and basic unreality. I'm sympathetic to play, but only if it is play. Not law, or social reform.
PR slogans don't translate directly into "laws." Is it really necessary to point such a thing out? Mandating goals only makes a mess. Here is the invariant result: "we must triple the wheat production in accordance with the 5-year plan, comrades!—or else!"
It seems to me that the school reforms of the 90s implemented Maoism. Orders to poohbahs to "go forth and fix it, dammit!" plus budget to do so and, for the US, a despotic level of power to do whatever the poohbah liked, has had disastrous results, Ravitch shows.
Filled with good intentions but no clue, politicians turned for assistance to the same crowd, a/k/a the "Blob," whose activities had bolluxed up the school system to begin with. As you may recall, since the late 1960s educationists had fostered many pernicious trends such as the "whole language" movement (a riff on the bestselling book, the Whole Earth Catalog), "fuzzy math," and other shamanic practices, like, requiring all classrooms to install a rug and a rocker, and position all desks in a circle. After the new reform laws, the Blob had even more power. They proceeded to slap newly popular "phonics" and "back to basics" labels on their same old snake oil, then proceed, entrepreneurially, to hawk their wares, now to a whole new group of suckers: newly empowered local politicians. Unlike teachers, this group didn't even have the benefit of past bad experiences with the Blob to guide them.
"Local" implied "federalism" and "grass roots." That played well, rhetorically, to the political tastes of the day. "Free market" and "choice" implied sales. Millions in taxpayer funds were instantly wasted on the purchase of teacher retraining packages from the Blob. Its skills at schmoozing politicos, and lining up at the trough, proved the true Darwinian survivor of the creative destruction touched off by reform.
Subpar unionized teachers can't be fired. Naturally the next option that springs to the simple mind, is retraining them. "Equality" then demands that all minds be restructured—one's own teaching method, based perhaps on years of experience, and perhaps excellent in your case, and suited to you as an individual, all pitched out the window. Welcome to the Maoist re-education camp.
Teachers saw how dumb it all was. But unions had been in bad odor since Reagan fired the air traffic controllers. Al "Chainsaw" Dunlap techniques, Druckeresque management programs, and management leadership cults were in, in the 90s. Cults of personality sprang up around executives at companies with rising stock prices, reminiscent of Maoist hero worship of the "great leader."
It's important to understand that all corporations are tyrannies—benign ones, one hopes. Legal and business theorists have always noted the fiction of corporate democracy. Corporations are by nature wholly self-serving. Their boards are oligarchic, and shareholder voting is a sham. Relative to society, the virtue of a company is in its smallness, numerosity, and fungibility. Each is checked and balanced by its competitors, and by society's diversity as a whole. Amoral by nature, they're like the great white shark swimming forward, ever in search of new prey. The saving grace of America, with its free market values, is that you can always quit a corporation and work elsewhere. Or sell your shares, and buy those of another.
Democratic accountability, diversity, and parental involvement were now low priority in the new reforms. In New York, all school boards were eliminated. Budgets for good programs, like after school tutoring, were shifted to fund the politicians' selections of teacher retraining packages.
Charter schools proliferated. National standards, the entire original point of the law, were ditched. "Locally" selected tests suited the Blob's business interests, as each locality now had to purchase its own package. Yet in 10 years, overall achievement has declined with charters doing slightly worse than public schools, despite the fact that the public schools play on an unlevel playing field, since charter schools select their student populations, and public schools can't. Many of the publicized gains in test scores turn out to be demographics—areas that got richer, whiter and more Asian—not better educated from any brilliant choice of teacher retraining package, as Mayor Bloomberg (with his billionaire's subsidy) has bragged in New York.
"Choice," a fine sentiment, never really meant much in any school context. Choice is always available to parents if they move. Law can't restructure geography. Accountability only means heads rolling. That was the approach taken in San Diego, where 100% of principals and most of its teachers left the system after a disastrous reform patterned after New York's, which had been falsely promoted as successful. Eventually, San Diego's citizens kicked the bums out.
The rhetoric of the pitch for school reforms has been all about organic bottom up change, but the reality has been all top down, heavy-handed tyranny.
Ravitch is justifiably hard on politicians like New York's Mayor Bloomberg and rich dabblers like the Gates and other large foundations. Billionaires are inevitably circled by courtiers and yes-men, and can be afflicted by arrogance. Their money also gives them the power to distort the debate by buying self-promotion. Service providers will surround any rich sources of cash with flattery and self-confirmation. The claims of the very rich need particularly close scrutiny and it seems to me that this applies also to well-fixed non-profits. It's important to remember that not for profit does not erase entity self-interest.
Other crazinesses include programs eliminating all subjects other than reading and math to make test score improvement the sole focus. That only works with the youngest and lowest level of the most disadvantaged. To impoverish a curriculum just to improve a test score only shows that politicians, not educators, are in charge.
This sad tale of misguided reform, arrogant reformers, and big business opportunism ought to outrage everyone about the damage being done to American schools, which has only gotten worse over the past 10-15 years of all too earnest reform.