As long as anyone can remember, critics have been saying that the schools are in decline. They used to be the best in the world, they say, but no longer. They used to have real standards, but no longer. They used to have discipline, but no longer. What the critics seldom acknowledge is that our schools have changed as our society has changed. Some who look longingly to a golden age in the past remember a time when the schools educated only a small fraction of the population.
But the students in the college-bound track of fifty years ago did not get the high quality of education that is now typical in public schools with Advanced Placement courses or International Baccalaureate programs or even in the regular courses offered in our top city and suburban schools. There are more remedial classes today, but there are also more public school students with special needs, more students who don’t read English, more students from troubled families, and fewer students dropping out. As for discipline, it bears remembering a 1955 film called "Blackboard Jungle," about an unruly, violent inner-city school where students bullied other students. The students in this school were all white. Today, public schools are often the safest places for children in tough neighborhoods.
The claim that the public schools are in decline is not new. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Anti-intellectualism in American Life," Richard Hofstadter characterized writing on education in the United States as “a literature of acid criticism and bitter complaint . . . The educational jeremiad is as much a feature of our literature as the jeremiad in the Puritan sermons.” From the 1820s to our own time, reformers have complained about low standards, ignorant teachers, and incompetent school boards. He noted that anyone longing for the “good old days” would have difficulty finding a time when critics were not bemoaning the quality of the public schools.
There is a tendency nowadays to hark back with nostalgia to the mythical good old days, usually imagined as about forty or fifty years ago. But few people seem to realize there never was a time when everyone succeeded in school. When present-day critics refer to what they assume was a better past, they look back to a time when a large proportion of American youths did not complete high school and only a small minority completed four years of college. In those supposedly halcyon days, the schools in many states were racially segregated, as were most colleges and universities. Children with disabilities did not have a right to a free public education until after the passage of federal legislation in 1975 and were often excluded from public schools. Nor did schools enroll significant numbers of non-English-speaking students in the 1940s and 1950s or even the 1960s. Immigration laws restricted the admission of foreigners to the United States from the early 1920s until the mid-1960s. After the laws were changed, the schools began to enroll students from Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, Russia, Africa, and other parts of the world that had previously arrived in small numbers.
Thus, those who now sharply criticize the public schools speak fondly of an era when most schools were racially segregated; when public schools were not required to accept children with physical, mental, and emotional handicaps; when there were relatively few students who did not speak or read English; and when few graduated from high school and went to college.
Indifferent to history, today’s corporate reformers insist that the public schools are in an unprecedented crisis. They tell us that children must be able to “escape” their “failing public schools.” They claim they are “for the children,” unlike their teachers, who are not for the children. They would have the public believe that children and their teachers are in warring camps. They put “children first” or “students first.” Their policies, they say, will make us competitive and give us “great teachers” and “great schools” in every community. They say they know how to “close the achievement gap,” and they claim to be leading “the civil rights issue of our time.” Their policies, they say, will make our children into “global competitors.” They will protect our national security. They will make America strong again. The corporate reformers play to our anxieties, even rekindling dormant Cold War fears that we may be in jeopardy as a nation if we don’t buy what they are selling.
The critics want the public to believe that our public schools are a clear and present danger to our society. Unless there is radical change, they say, our society will fall apart. Our economy will disappear. Our national security is in danger. The message is clear: public education threatens all that we hold dear.
Recognizing that most Americans have a strong attachment to their community schools, the corporate reformers have taken care to describe their aims in pseudo-populist terms. While trying to scare us with warnings of dire peril, they mask their agenda with rhetoric that is soothing and deceptive. Though they speak of “reform,” what they really mean is deregulation and privatization. When they speak of “accountability,” what they really mean is a rigid reliance on standardized testing as both the means and the end of education. When they speak of “effective teachers,” what they mean is teachers whose students produce higher scores on standardized tests every year, not teachers who inspire their students to love learning. When they speak of “innovation,” they mean replacing teachers with technology to cut staffing costs. When they speak of “no excuses,” they mean a boot-camp culture where students must obey orders and rules without question.
When they speak of “personalized instruction,” they mean putting children in front of computers with algorithms that supposedly adjust content and test questions to the ability level of the student but actually sacrifice human contact with a real teacher. When they speak of “achievement” or “performance,” they mean higher scores on standardized tests. When they speak of “data-driven instruction,” they mean that test scores and graduation rates should be the primary determinant of what is best for children and schools. When they speak of “competition,” they mean deregulated charters and deregulated private schools competing with highly regulated public schools. When they speak of “a successful school,” they refer only to its test scores, not to a school that is the center of its community, with a great orchestra, an enthusiastic chorus, a hardworking chess team, a thriving robotics program, or teachers who have dedicated their lives to helping the students with the highest needs (and often the lowest scores).
The reformers define the purpose of education as preparation for global competitiveness, higher education, or the workforce. They view students as “human capital” or “assets.” One seldom sees any reference in their literature or public declarations to the importance of developing full persons to assume the responsibilities of citizenship.
Of equal importance are the topics that corporate reformers don’t talk about. Seldom do they protest budget cuts, no matter how massive they may be. They do not complain when governors and legislatures cut billions from the public schools while claiming to be reformers. They do not protest rising rates of child poverty. They do not complain about racial segregation. They see no harm in devoting more time and resources to standardized testing. They are not heard from when districts cut the arts, libraries, and physical education while spending more on testing. They do not complain when federal or state or city officials announce plans to test children in kindergarten or even pre-kindergarten.
They do not complain about increased class size. They do not object to scripted curricula or teachers’ loss of professional autonomy.
They do not object when experienced teachers are replaced by recruits who have only a few weeks of training. They close their eyes to evidence that charters enroll disproportionately small numbers of children with disabilities, or those from troubled homes, or English-language learners (in fact, they typically deny any such disparities, even when documented by state and federal data). They do not complain when for-profit corporations run charter schools or when educational services are outsourced to for-profit businesses. Indeed, they welcome entrepreneurs into the reform community as investors and partners.
If the American public understood that reformers want to privatize their public schools and divert their taxes to pay profits to investors, it would be hard to sell the corporate idea of reform. If parents understood that the reformers want to close down their community schools and require them to go shopping for schools, some far from home, that may or may not accept their children, it would be hard to sell the corporate idea of reform. If the American public understood that the very concept of education was being disfigured into a mechanism to apply standardized testing and sort their children into data points on a normal curve, it would be hard to sell the corporate idea of reform.
If the American public understood that their children’s teachers will be judged by the same test scores that label their children as worthy or unworthy, it would be hard to sell the corporate idea of reform. If the American public knew how inaccurate and unreliable these methods are, both for children and for teachers, it would be hard to sell the corporate idea of reform. And that is why the reform message must be rebranded to make it palatable to the public.
The leaders of the privatization movement call themselves reformers, but their premises are strikingly different from those of reformers in the past. In earlier eras, reformers wanted such things as a better curriculum, better-prepared teachers, better funding, more equitable funding, smaller classes, and desegregation, which they believed would lead to better public schools. By contrast, today’s reformers insist that public education is a failed enterprise and that all these strategies have been tried and failed.
They assert that the best way to save education is to hand it over to private management and let the market sort out the winners and the losers. They wish to substitute private choices for the public’s responsibility to provide good schools for all children. They lack any understanding of the crucial role of public schools in a democracy.
The central premise of this movement is that our public schools are in decline. But this is not true. The public schools are working very well for most students. Contrary to popular myth, the scores on the no-stakes federal tests— the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) — are at an all-time high for students who are white, black, Hispanic, and Asian. Graduation rates are also at an all-time high.
More young people than ever are entering college. Even more would go to college if the costs were not so high.
Of course some schools and districts have very low test scores and low graduation rates, and this has always been true. Most of these schools and districts have two features in common: poverty and high concentrations of racial minorities. The combination of these two factors is associated with low test scores. Children whose parents are poor and have low educational attainment tend to have lower test scores.
Children who are poor receive less medical attention and less nutrition and experience more stress, disruption, and crises in their lives. These factors have an ongoing and profound effect on academic performance.
That is why poor children need even more stability, more support, smaller class sizes, and more attention from their teachers and others in their schools, but often receive far less, due to underfunding.
Unfortunately, many people are unwilling to address the root causes of poor school outcomes, because doing so is either too politically difficult or too costly.
They believe it is faster, simpler, and less expensive to privatize the public schools than do anything substantive to reduce poverty and racial isolation or to provide the nurturing environments and well-rounded education that children from prosperous families receive.
Instead, the privatization movement nonchalantly closes the schools attended by poor children and destabilizes their lives. The privatization agenda excites the interest of edu-entrepreneurs, who see it as a golden opportunity to make money. But it is bad for our society. It undermines the sense of collective responsibility for collective needs. It hurts public education not only by attacking its effectiveness and legitimacy but by laying claim to its revenues. The money allocated to privately managed charters and vouchers represents a transfer of critical public resources to the private sector, causing the public schools to suffer budget cuts and loss of staffing and services as the private sector grows, without providing better education or better outcomes for the students who transfer to the private-sector schools.
Reformers in every era have used the schools as punching bags. In one era, progressives complained that the schools were obsolete, backward, mindless, rigid, and out of step with the demands of the modern age. Then, in their turn, came anti-progressives or “essentialists” who complained that the schools had grown soft, standards and curriculum had collapsed, and students were not learning as much as they once did.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, reformers lambasted the schools, saying they were too academic and ignored the economy’s need for trained workers. In 1914, Congress passed the first federal legislation to encourage industrial and vocational education so that schools could prepare young people for jobs on the nation’s farms and factories. In the 1930s, with millions of people out of work, reformers blamed the schools for their inability to keep students enrolled and out of the ranks of the unemployed. Reformers called on the schools to be more attentive to the needs of adolescents so as to entice them to stay in school longer. The New Deal created the Civilian Conservation Corps and the National Youth Administration to provide education and training for young people during the Depression.
In the 1940s, reformers complained that the schools were obsolete and were failing to give students the skills they needed for life and work; “life adjustment education” became the reformers’ battle cry. In the 1950s, reformers said that the schools had forgotten the basics and needed to raise academic standards and return to time-honored subject matter disciplines. In the 1960s, reformers said that the schools were too academic and that students were stifled by routine and dreary assignments; the reformers wanted more spontaneity, more freedom, and fewer requirements for students. At the same time, the civil rights movement achieved major gains, and the schools became the focus of national legislation and Supreme Court rulings that required desegregation.
In the late 1970s, a backlash against the reform ideas of the 1960s and early 1970s led to the rise of minimum competency testing and, once again, a return to the basics. Despite the pendulum swings, despite the critics and reform movements, the American public continued to be grateful for public education and to admire its community schools.
Then came the 1980s, with a stern warning in 1983 from the National Commission on Excellence in Education that we were “a nation at risk” because of the low standards and low expectations in our schools. Our national slippage was caused, said the commission, by “a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.”
This mediocre educational performance was nothing less than “an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.” The alarmist rhetoric was excessive, but it was enough to generate media attention and caused many states to raise their graduation requirements. In response to the dire warnings in the 1983 report, standards, testing, and accountability became the national agenda for school reform.
Many policy makers agreed: set higher standards; test to see if students have mastered them; hold back students or prevent them from graduating if they don’t pass. There was no research to support these strategies, but they were widely accepted anyway, as were proposals to reward the schools that succeeded on state tests and penalize those that did not. The first Bush administration embraced these ideas, as did the Clinton administration. The second Bush administration made testing and accountability the federal agenda with passage of its No Child Left Behind legislation.
Somehow, in the midst of all this nonstop controversy and criticism, the public schools continued teaching generations of students. And somehow, despite the endless complaints and policy churn, the American economy continued to be the largest in the world. And somehow, American culture continued to be a creative and vibrant force, reshaping the cultures of other nations (for better or worse). Our democracy survived, and American technological innovations changed the way people live around the globe. Despite the alleged failures of the schools that educated the vast majority of them, American workers are among the most productive in the world.
After the publication of "A Nation at Risk: The Imperative For Educational Reform" in 1983, public discourse about the nation’s educational system settled on the unfounded belief that America’s public schools were locked into an arc of decline. Report after report was issued by commissions, task forces, and study groups, purporting to document the “crisis” in American education, the “crisis” of student achievement, the “crisis” of high school dropouts, the “crisis” of bad teachers.
News magazines like Time and Newsweek published stories about the crisis, television networks ran specials about the crisis, editorialists opined about the causes of the crisis. The steady drumbeat of negative journalism had its effect: Public opinion about the quality of American public education dropped from 1973 to 2012. In 1973, 58 percent of Americans felt confident about the public schools, but by 2012 their approval rating had dropped to only 29 percent (which still was higher than public confidence in banks and big business, which stood at 21 percent, or Congress at 13 percent).
In striking contrast, Americans whose children attended public schools continued to have a very high opinion of their own schools. In another Gallup poll in 2012, only 19 percent of the public gave an A or a B to the nation’s public schools, but 77 percent of parents awarded high marks to their own public school, the one they knew best. Two-thirds of respondents said they read mostly “bad stories” in the media about public schools. So, the parents who had the most direct experience with the schools thought well of them, but the relentless negative coverage by the media very likely drove down the general public’s estimation of American public education.
More recently, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation dedicated its considerable energies to persuading the public and policy makers that the nation’s public schools are failing. In 2005, Bill Gates told the nation’s governors that the nation’s high schools were “obsolete” and “broken.” At that time, he wanted to redesign the American high school by making schools smaller, with the goal that every student would be prepared to enter college. Three years later, his foundation abandoned its small-school initiative, having spent $2 billion to persuade districts to replace their comprehensive high schools with schools too small to offer a balanced curriculum. Despite this setback, Gates remained certain that the public school system was obsolete and broken. The solution, his foundation now believed, was to develop new evaluation systems that could identify ineffective teachers so that there would be an effective teacher in every classroom.
In 2012, Melinda Gates was interviewed on the PBS "NewsHour." When the interviewer asked her what was “working and what can scale up,” she responded:
If you look back a decade ago, when we started into this work, there wasn’t even a conversation across the nation about the fact that our schools were broken, fundamentally broken. And I think that dialogue has changed. I think the American public has woken up to the fact now that schools are broken. We’re not serving our kids well.
They’re not being educated for the — for technology society.
The Gates Foundation and others financed a lavish, well-coordinated media campaign to spread the word about our broken public schools; its leading edge was a documentary film called "Waiting for Superman.” The film, which included interviews with Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates, and the economist Eric Hanushek, among others, made the central points that public education was failing, that resources don’t matter, and that the best ways to fix the national crisis of low test scores were to expand the number of privately managed charters, fire ineffective teachers, and weaken the unions that protected them. It was released in September 2010 with an unprecedented publicity campaign, funded in large part by the Gates Foundation, and was featured on the cover of Time magazine. The film was also the centerpiece of a week of programming on NBC, which the network called “Education Nation,” as well as the subject of two programs on Oprah Winfrey’s popular television show.
The film told the story of five children who were desperate to enroll in privately managed charter schools and whose hopes depended on winning the lottery to gain admission. Each child was adorable, and the viewers’ emotions became engaged with their plights and their dreams of escaping from awful public schools (and in one case a Catholic school). The film painted public schools as failures whose teachers were self-centered, uncaring, and incompetent. The statistics in the film about poor educational performance were misleading and erroneous, as was its idyllic portrait of charter schools. Yet the producers and promoters of the film made sure it was viewed as widely as possible, giving free screenings throughout the country to parent groups, state legislatures, even to the national conference of the PTA.
"Waiting for Superman” provided the charter school movement with a degree of public visibility it had never had. It also gave the movement a populist patina, making it seem that if you were concerned about the plight of poor inner-city children, you would certainly support the creation of many more charter schools. The film burnished the claim by charter advocates that they were involved in “the civil rights issue of our time,” because they were leading the battle to provide more choice to poor and disadvantaged children trapped in low-performing public schools.
The film’s narrative, as well as the larger public discussion, was directed away from the controversial issue of privatization to the ideologically appealing concept of choice. Reformers don’t like to mention the word “privatization,” although this is indeed the driving ideological force behind the movement. “Choice” remains the preferred word, since it suggests that parents should be seen as consumers with the ability to exercise their freedom to leave one school and select another. The new movement for privatization has enabled school choice to transcend its tarnished history as an escape route for southern whites who sought to avoid court-ordered desegregation in the 1950s and 1960s.
To advance the privatization agenda, it was necessary never to mention the P word and to keep repeating the C word. After all, the public had no reason to be enthusiastic about the takeover of one of its essential public institutions by private financiers and entrepreneurs. Privatization of libraries, hospitals, prisons, and other basic services had long been hailed by those on the political right, but how could one persuade entire communities to hand over their children and their public schools to private sector corporations, some of which hoped to turn a profit off their children, in order to reward their shareholders? The only way to accomplish this sleight of hand was to pursue a skillful public relations campaign that drummed in the message, over and over, that our public schools are failures, that these failures harm our children and threaten our nation’s future prosperity. Repeat it often enough, and people would come to believe that any alternative would be better than the current system.
Once that message sank in, Americans would be ready for the antidote: eliminating the public schools they had long known and cherished as the centers of their communities.
The prestigious Council on Foreign Relations issued a report in 2012 intended to provoke fears that the public schools not only were failing but endangered the future survival of our nation. Joel I. Klein, former chancellor of the New York City public schools, and Condoleezza Rice, former secretary of state in the administration of President George W. Bush, were co-chairs of the task force that produced the report. The report warned that the nation’s public schools were a very grave threat to national security. It recited doleful statistics showing that students in the United States were not leading the world on international assessments but scoring only in the middle (but not mentioning that this was the same complaint that had been expressed in "A Nation at Risk" thirty years earlier). It asserted that employers could not find qualified workers and that the schools were not preparing people to serve in the military, the intelligence service, or other jobs critical to national defense.
On and on went the bill of indictment against the public schools. The task force offered three recommendations. One was that the states should adopt the Common Core standards in mathematics and reading, already endorsed by forty-six states. Since the Common Core standards have never been field-tested, no one knows whether they will raise test scores or cause the achievement gap among different racial, ethnic, and income groups to narrow or to widen. One study, by Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution, predicted that the standards would have little or no effect on academic achievement; he noted that “from 2003 to 2009, states with terrific standards raised their National Assessment of Educational Progress scores by roughly the same margin as states with awful ones.” Loveless reported that there was as much variation within states, even those with excellent standards, as between states.
The task force’s second recommendation was that the schools of the nation should have a “national security readiness audit” to see if they were doing their job in preparing students to meet the nation’s economic and military needs. This seemed like a hollow attempt to revive Cold War fears, given that there was no military adversary comparable to the Soviet Union. The report did not suggest what agency should conduct this audit, what it would cost, and what would happen to those schools that failed it.
The key recommendation of the task force, whose members included leading figures in the corporate reform movement, was that more school choice was needed, specifically the expansion of privately managed charter schools and vouchers.
If it were true that the nation faced a very grave security threat, this was not much of a call to arms to combat it, since most states had already adopted the Common Core standards and were increasing school choice in response to the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program.
Perhaps the most curious development over the three decades from "A Nation at Risk" to the 2012 report of the Council on Foreign Relations was this: what was originally seen in 1983 as the agenda of the most libertarian Republicans — school choice — had now become the agenda of the establishment, both Republicans and Democrats. Though there was no new evidence to support this agenda and a growing body of evidence against it, the realignment of political forces on the right and the left presented the most serious challenge to the legitimacy and future of public education in our nation’s history.
Excerpted from "Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools." Copyright © 2013 by Diane Ravitch. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.