Saturday, March 6, 2010

First thoughts about Diane Ravitch's changes of heart on school reform

I'm planning to purchase Diane Ravitch's The Death and Life of the Great American School System as soon as possible - it sounds like a fascinating and heartfelt book about a great educator's rethinking of long-held positions on school reform. The reviews have been mostly glowing. (For a kind but critical review, check out Chester Finn's take in Forbes:

However, the tone of many of the stories about Ravitch's change of heart suggest to me that the politicization of education and school reform has become a serious problem. We need to refocus on whether a particular idea or a particular reform will strengthen student outcomes, and we should be less concerned about whether the proposal comes from the left or the right of the political spectrum.

School reform is not just another political issue: it is an issue that directly affects the lives of millions of students and their communities. It affects the social and economic future of society and the health of democracy.

Those who wade into these debates bear an especially heavy burden, and to handle that burden responsibly, we should read widely and listen with an open mind to ideas and proposals from as many perspectives as possible.

It seems to me that there may be more common ground than the current political lines-in-the-sand suggest. For instance, the progressive vision of small, personal, relationship-driven schools (advocated most prominently by Deborah Meier) seems more compatible with a flexible and choice-driven school structure than with large-scale, one-size-fits-all models of schooling.

Above all, perhaps, our education policy debates might become more sane if we stood back for a moment from debates about means - how and by whom education services are to be delivered (by public or private schools, charter schools, virtual schools, home-based schools, etc.) - and agreed first and foremost that educational outcomes (what knowledge, skills, habits, and dispositions students walk away with at the conclusion of their schooling) are what matters most.

It seems silly and shortsighted to pick a fight with a school that is truly serving its students and community well just because it is a particular type of school. Likewise, it seems wrong to stand up against any and all reform measures that target schools that are clearly not serving their students and community well simply because one is concerned about the broader implications of the reform or the political affiliation of those who are promoting the reform.

The simple reality is that there are excellent public, private, charter, virtual, and home-based schools, and there are extremely poor public, private, charter, virtual, and home-based schools. The means of schooling are less important than the outcomes.

(Image sources: Education Week ( and Barnes & Noble (

Further reading:

Diane Ravitch's homepage:

Diane Viadero, "In New Book, Ravitch Recants Long-Held Beliefs,", 3/5/10.

Steve Inskeep, "Former 'No Child Left Behind' Advocate Turns Critic,", 3/2/10.

Chester E. Finn, "School's Out: On Diane Ravitch's "The Death and Life of the Great American School System,", 3/3/10.