Education

A Battle Over School Reform: Michelle Rhee vs. Diane Ravitch

As the No Child Left Behind era ends and Common Core begins, two education heavyweights face-off over what we’ve learned and where we’ve gone wrong.
by | January 2014
After being a Teach For America teacher and Washington, D.C.'s schools superintendent, Michelle Rhee (left) started a nonprofit advocacy group called StudentsFirst to mobilize school reformers. Diane Ravitch (right) began as an education historian, and after serving in George H.W. Bush's cabinet, she became an outspoken critic of the so-called reform movement. DailyPrincetonian.com/Grace Jeon

When President George W. Bush signed No Child Left Behind into law in early 2002, he described the sweeping education overhaul as a landmark piece of civil rights legislation. Closing the achievement gap between white students and non-Asian minority students was, the former president liked to say, “the civil rights struggle of our time.”

Many still see it that way. Every year, thousands of the nation’s most idealistic college graduates sign up for two years of service with Teach For America (TFA). Successful charter schools such as KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) make extreme demands on teachers and staff to prepare disadvantaged students for college. Their rallying cry is that inspired, dedicated teachers can improve educational achievement—no matter the obstacles of poverty or racial disparity.

It’s a familiar narrative. It’s also the story told by America’s most prominent education reformer, former Washington, D.C., school chancellor Michelle Rhee. As she rose from TFA teacher to nonprofit entrepreneur to big-city school superintendent, Rhee developed strong ideas about what works (great teachers), what doesn’t (rigid work arrangements mandated by collective bargaining) and what states should do (encourage competition and demand accountability). Today, Rhee runs a nonprofit advocacy group called StudentsFirst. Its goal is to recruit a million members and raise a billion dollars in private philanthropic money to mobilize a grassroots coalition of school reformers determined to overthrow the forces (read: teachers’ unions) that thwarted her in D.C.

A billion dollars is a hefty sum for a nonprofit. But that’s only a small slice of the funds being directed at education reform right now. The Gates Foundation, the world’s largest, has long been a strong supporter of the reform agenda. So too has President Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan. Using money from the stimulus act, Duncan created the $5 billion Race to the Top program designed to encourage states to expand charter schools and institute testing regimes to evaluate teacher effectiveness. He has also encouraged states to band together to create and adopt a set of common education standards, the so-called Common Core. To date, some 45 states and the District of Columbia have complied. The core tenets of education reform—choice through charters, accountability through standardized testing—have never been more ascendant.

Yet this is not a moment of education reform triumphalism. On the contrary, education reformers are under attack as never before. In New York City, voters recently replaced an ardent education reformer, Michael Bloomberg, with a charter school skeptic, Bill de Blasio. School boards across the country are discussing limits on charter schools. Liberals express concerns about “teaching to the test.” Conservatives worry about a perceived loss of local control. However, the most serious challenge is an intellectual one. A decade ago, attacking the education reform movement seemed almost sacrilegious. Today, it seems cutting edge. That change is due largely to the intellectual influence of a high-profile defector from the reform movement, 75-year-old education historian Diane Ravitch.

Ravitch began her career as an academic, the author of books such as The Great School Wars: New York City, 1805-1973. In 1991, she joined President George H.W. Bush’s cabinet as assistant secretary in charge of the Office of Educational Research and Improvement in the Department of Education. There she embraced the conservative mantra of standards and choice. By the mid-aughts, however, Ravitch had lost faith in the so-called reform movement. In 2006, she published The Death and Life of the Great American School System, a forceful critique of the idea that choice and accountability could improve school performance.

Rhee and Ravitch face off in two recently published books that outline their opposing perspectives on what’s needed in education today. Rhee’s recently published memoir, Radical: Fighting to Put Children First, is part apologia for the past and part prescription for the future. Ravitch’s new book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, is a broadside against Rhee and reform rhetoric. Rhee and Ravitch do agree that “special interests” are impeding, if not destroying, American education. But where Rhee views public teacher unions as the problem, Ravitch blames the reformers.

“Public education is not broken,” Ravitch declares at the beginning of her pugnacious new book. “It is not failing or declining. The diagnosis is wrong, and the solutions of the corporate reformer are wrong.” To the extent that there is a problem (and Ravitch believes the problem is confined to a subset of urban schools), it is a problem caused by “concentrated poverty and racial segregation.” Ravitch believes the reforms that Rhee and her philanthropic patrons hope to implement would actually make matters worse. As for Democrats like Secretary Duncan who support such reformers, Ravitch believes they are not merely misguided, but are dupes.

“Liberals, progressives, well-meaning people have lent their support to a project that is antithetical to liberalism and progressivism,” writes Ravitch. “By supporting market-based ‘reforms,’ they have allied themselves with those who seek to destroy public education. They are being used by those who have an implacable hostility toward the public sector.”

As Common Core prepares to launch, states have a rare chance to get education reform right. What have we learned from the No Child Left Behind era? Does Common Core represent movement in the right direction, or, as Ravitch argues, is it a misguided continuation of the flawed reform movement?

Reading Rhee and Ravitch’s books together is like watching two accomplished pugilists fight a 15-round bout. (Indeed, Ravitch spends an entire chapter questioning Rhee’s accomplishments in Washington, D.C.) Think of this as an attempt to score the fight.

To understand where Michelle Rhee wants American education to go, it helps to understand where she comes from.

Rhee grew up outside Toledo, Ohio, the oldest daughter of immigrant parents who moved to America from South Korea in the 1960s. Rhee started out in a local public school. Her teachers there told her parents she might be slow. Then, in 1978, when she was nine, Rhee was shipped back to South Korea. It was a revelatory experience. There were 70 kids in her class. There was no special treatment for the newcomer, even though she didn’t speak Korean. “Every child was ranked by his or her grades, from one to seventy, and the rankings were posted,” she writes.

Rhee loved it.

“I lived in a society where competition and excellence were rewarded, and attended a school that demanded hard work and dedication from every child,” she writes. It was an environment in which she thrived. Rhee went on to matriculate at Wellesley, then transferred to Cornell. After graduating, she joined Teach for America, which assigned her to an elementary school in the Harlem Park neighborhood of Baltimore, “a very downtrodden, dangerous neighborhood.” Her first semester was a disaster. Rhee was routinely assailed by her disruptive students. (“Shut up, you Chinese bitch!” they would yell at her.) It would have been easy to give up or attribute the problems in her classroom to crime rates or single-parent families or poverty. Instead, Rhee came to a different conclusion—“that, in fact, I was the problem.”

“I was creating the kind of environment where they could act up and be crazy,” she writes, “but if they were in a different environment with a different teacher, they could be calm and learn. It was me!”

By the second year, Rhee was, by her own account, firmly in control. Instead of compassion and playfulness, she sought to provide certainty and stability. “By the end of my time in Harlem Park, my kids who had been with me for the second and third year were soaring,” Rhee writes. She felt her tougher approach had overcome the disadvantages her children brought with them to school. “I would have put them up against kids from any private school in Baltimore.”

“Low academic achievement levels weren’t about their potential or their ability or anything else,” she concluded. “It had to do with what I was doing as a teacher, what we were doing as a school, and the expectations that we set for them. That’s what it was all about.”

Rhee left to get a master’s degree at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. There she met TFA founder Wendy Kopp, who recruited Rhee to start a nonprofit, The New Teacher Project, that would help school districts and states find good teachers. In her 10 years there, the project helped recruit and train more than 23,000 educators. In 2007, Washington, D.C.’s just elected Mayor Adrian Fenty tapped Rhee for the newly created position of D.C. school chancellor.

Rhee was shocked by what she found in D.C. The central office was a bureaucratic sinkhole. School facilities were in shambles. Many lacked libraries and textbooks. At one school, Rhee spotted a sign: “Teachers cannot make up for what parents and students will not do.” Rhee’s was “enraged” by this attitude. “Most people blamed poverty for the low academic achievement levels of the children in D.C.,” writes Rhee. She disagreed, noting that poor African-American kids in New York City were two grades ahead of their peers in D.C. “There is no doubt that poverty and home environment have an impact on students and schools, but clearly there was something terribly wrong with the D.C. schools.”

Rhee responded by cleaning house. Some of her most impressive accomplishments were administrative. Thanks largely to legislation Fenty had sponsored as a city councilman, the city was able to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on school facilities. Schools were fixed; textbooks delivered; services upgraded. Rhee also implemented a controversial teacher evaluation program and closed underutilized schools, most of them located in D.C.’s poorest neighborhoods. The decision to do so was a reasonable one from an enrollment perspective, but the closures angered the city’s African-American majority. Rhee didn’t back down when faced with criticism. Indeed, she seemed to relish confrontation. PBS’ “Frontline” filmed her firing a principal, one of 36 she let go (along with 22 assistant principals) during her two-plus years in D.C. (IMPACT, the teacher evaluation system she put in place, led to the departure of some 300 teachers.) Time put her on its cover, holding a broom. Such notoriety made her the darling of the reform world, but it also became a political liability. In September 2010, Adrian Fenty was voted out of office in an election that broke along sharp racial lines.

Four weeks after his defeat, Rhee resigned and subsequently founded StudentsFirst. Among the items at the top of Rhee’s policy wishlist: meaningful information for parents, effective teacher evaluation systems, performance pay for the best teachers, an end to tenure schemes based on seniority and an end to “arbitrary” caps on charter schools. Most of all, though, Rhee wants the U.S. to regain its competitive spirit. “We have gone soft as a nation,” she writes at one point. “No more mediocrity. It’s killing us.”

Diane Ravitch believes America’s schools are at risk too—from the education reformers, that is. The demand for “accountability,” the push to close “failing” public schools and the emphasis on replacing them with charter schools is, in Ravitch’s opinion, nothing less than an attempt to privatize public education—and cash in in the process.

“Public education,” she writes, “is in crisis only so far as society is and only so far as this new narrative of crisis is destabilizing it.”

In Ravitch’s recounting, virtually every argument the education reformers make is wrong. According to Ravitch, America’s public schools are not, in fact, failing. On the contrary, she writes, “public schools are working very well for most students.” National Assessment of Educational Progress scores are at an all-time high for students who are white, black, Hispanic and Asian. Math and reading scores for American students have improved dramatically from 1992 to 2011. Graduation rates are also at all-time high. More young people than ever are entering college. As for the notion that students from Singapore, Shanghai, South Korea, Japan and Finland dramatically outperform U.S. students, Ravitch dismisses it as “a timeworn bugaboo.”

That is not to say that all is well. The United States does suffer from a terrible problem—one that has contributed to an achievement gap that separates white and Asian students from black and Latino students. That problem is poverty.

“Poverty,” writes Ravitch, “is the most important factor contributing to low academic achievement.” As for the claim made by Rhee and many others that improving the quality of teachers will lift educational outcomes, Ravitch is skeptical. She raises an eyebrow at the oft-cited research that seems to show that great teachers can produce 18 months of test gains in a year while bad teachers produce only six. “Perhaps such ‘great’ teachers exist,” she writes, “but there is no evidence they exist in great numbers or that they can produce the same feats year after year for every student.”

With grim determination, Ravitch attacks one shibboleth of the education reformers after another. Test scores are not falling. Value-added teacher assessments (that is, attempts to capture teaching quality using standardized tests) are flawed. Merit pay will not result in better outcomes (but it could undermine collaboration and professionalism). Charter schools on average perform no better than ordinary schools. Like General Sherman marching to the sea, Ravitch goes on like this for 20 chapters.

Ravitch is particularly dismayed by the Obama administration’s approach to education reform. “No one can say with certainty whether the Common Core standards will improve education, that they will reduce or increase the achievement gaps among different groups, or how much it will cost to implement them,” she writes. Nonetheless, Secretary Duncan’s approach to education reform has done something bad: “[No Child Left Behind] created—and Race to the Top sustained—the unwarranted belief that standardized tests are an accurate, scientific gauge of educational achievement. They are not.”

So what does Ravitch believe will fix the education system’s failings?

“If we were serious about narrowing the gaps [between white and Asian students and black and brown students, between students from wealthy families and students from poor families],” she writes, “the schools attended by African-American and Hispanic children would have a stable, experienced staff, a rich curriculum, social services, after-school programs and abundant resources to meet the needs of their students.” Where Rhee prescribes teacher assessments, bonus pay and an end to tenure, Ravitch calls for prenatal care, prekindergarten classes, testing that is purely diagnostic (and doesn’t just result in punishment), a broad curriculum and small classes.

But first she would have legislators and school districts stop “doing the wrong things,” she writes. “Stop promoting competition and choice as answers to the very inequality that was created by competition and choice. Stop the mindless attacks on the education professions.”

How to reconcile such divergent descriptions of what ails American education? One way is to step back from Rhee and Ravitch’s specific disagreements and consider the ingredients of educational excellence from a different perspective. That is precisely the strategy pursued by journalist Amanda Ripley in her new book, The Smartest Kids in the World (And How They Got That Way).

Consider the case of Finland, home to what is perhaps the most admired and most closely studied education system in the world. As Ripley details in her book, Finland’s students consistently rank at the top of international assessments. Its teachers are unionized; few are ever fired. It uses standardized tests sparingly and for diagnostic purposes only. As a result, Ravitch and other reform critics have often pointed to Finland as offering an alternative to the dominant U.S. approach of choice and accountability. It’s true that Finland has attained these achievements “within the system”—without the private options and charter schools pushed by Rhee and other reformers.

But Finland has embraced one of the core tenets that Rhee espouses: Better teachers make better students. Finland has put enormous emphasis on improving inputs. Teachers there are exceptionally well qualified. Gaining admission to teacher-training programs at Finnish universities is as difficult as winning admission to MIT. Teachers are expected to become genuine subject experts in the fields they will teach. They then undergo a yearlong teaching apprenticeship.

In contrast, according to Ripley, many American education schools provide an average of 12 to 15 weeks of classroom training of variable quality. And the focus is typically on classroom readiness, not subject expertise. It’s hard to argue with Ripley’s contention that the U.S. approach to ensuring quality seems backward. We make it easy for just about anyone to become a teacher—allowing education schools across the country to turn out nearly two-and-a-half times the number of new teachers actually needed—and then create elaborate evaluation schemes, which are at best imperfect, in order to weed them out.

It can be easy to discount Finland as a model. Its low child poverty rate and homogeneous population are hardly analogous to conditions in the United States, a diverse country with a scandalous child poverty rate. But there are aspects of an input-focused approach that can be incorporated in the U.S. For example, Ripley cites Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist’s 2009 decision to raise minimum test scores for prospective teachers.

More important, Ripley makes a compelling argument that improving the quality of teachers and instituting well-considered curricula can improve educational attainment, boosting economic growth in the process. In the world described by Ripley, Ravitch’s complacency is misguided. But so is the reformers’ narrow focus on standardized testing. The best way forward is likely more nuanced, and more complicated.

Ours is a country that yearns for the quick fix—iPads in schools, massive open online courses, e-charter schools. What’s needed instead, argues Ripley, is a focus on teachers and curricula, as well as something more intangible—a belief that our children’s lives really depend on their education.

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