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Moving Beyond Ravitch’s Reformism

[Diane Ravitch is speaking at Illinois State University this evening (see Corey Mattson’s post below for details about Ravitch and her talk). What follows is my critique of the arguments Ravitch puts forth in her latest book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.]

Diane Ravitch’s, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, provides a thorough account of contemporary school reform strategies and offers incredible insight into the pitfalls of the reform strategies so overwhelmingly favored and employed by elites.  Ravitch’s detailed history of how school reform has come to be what it is today is complimented by her astute assertions regarding the direction she believes our school system needs to be steered toward.  While Ravitch concludes that “The most durable way to improve schools is to improve curriculum and instruction and to improve the conditions in which teachers work and children learn” (2010, p. 225), and while she provides detailed steps on how to achieve such ends, I will argue that the steps she offers for how to go about improving said conditions and curriculum and instruction are useless unless we, as a society, address the underlying roots of our school system’s problems: our economy and our system of governance.  I also believe and insist that alternative ways of thinking about—and doing—education and society are needed if we are ever going to truly improve the lives of the less fortunate.

Let us begin with a brief summation of what Ravitch argues is wrong with current popular school reform strategies.  She covers a lot of ground within her analysis of education reform, of which rehashing everything would be tiresome and pointless, so I will just mention the very basics of what she contends is flawed.  The neo-liberal approach to education reform—of which Ravitch herself was once a prominent proponent—Ravitch now believes, is fundamentally at odds with genuine reform.  This approach includes, but is not limited to, focusing on reading and math at the expense of arts, social studies, science, etc.; employing standardized tests as our most valuable measure of academic achievement and teacher performance; shutting down neighborhood public schools deemed failing; viewing charter schools as a panacea—in fact, Ravitch has nothing but disdain for anything being perceived as a panacea; and most importantly, and influencing all other aspects of this approach, allowing the dictates of the market economy to determine how our school system should function.  These are some of what have comprised the most pernicious core of recent education reform strategies.  But Ravitch does not simply critique contemporary reform policies; she offers a well-stated alternative approach.

Ravitch puts forth several steps for how we can improve schools and education.  First and foremost, Ravitch believes that improving education requires that we all “have a vision of what good education is” (2010, p. 230).  Of course, getting three hundred million people to agree on such an abstract thing will be tough, but she maintains it must be done.  Once there is agreement on what exactly makes for good education, Ravitch states that the next step is to ensure the quality of the curriculum being taught.  She stresses, “The curriculum is a starting point for other reforms.  It informs teachers, students, parents, teacher educators…and others about the goals of instruction.  It provides direction, clarity, and focus around worthy ends, without interfering with teachers’ decisions about how to teach” (2010, p. 231).  After a solid curriculum is in place, Ravitch’s next step is to make sure that the way we assess the progress of students, teachers, and schools, is actually a reflection of and reinforcement for what is being taught.  Our current mode of standardized testing is nowhere remotely close to what Ravitch would consider appropriate assessment.  Ravitch then argues that after appropriate curriculum and assessments are in place, teachers must be optimally qualified to teach the agreed upon curriculum.  She includes with this point not only that teachers must be highly qualified, but also that the compensation teachers receive must be highly attractive.  Finally—and this last step Ravitch puts forth is the key to why I will argue that all of her previous steps are useless unless our society changes our economic system and governance structures—Ravitch states, “Schools do not exist in isolation.  They are part of the larger society” (2010, p. 239), and she goes on to say that quality schooling requires the active participation of the larger community.

All of the above steps, from Ravitch’s elite point of view, seem reasonable and appropriate.  But could they be enough to mend our failing school system?  No.  From Ravitch’s position of privilege and stature, she is either unable to see or unwilling to say that, just as “Schools do not exist in isolation,” schools embedded within an inherently unjust and inequitable economy and an inherently unjust and inequitable system of governance can never possibly be just and equitable.  So while I may very well agree that her proposed steps to school reform are desirable, I adamantly disagree that those steps alone—embedded within a capitalist corporatocracy—will ever achieve the ends that Ravitch and people like myself desire.

Among the disagreements I may have with Ravitch, I take particular exception to her repeated use of the word “democracy” when describing our country’s system of governance.  Ravitch makes statements like, “Our public education system is a fundamental element of our democratic society” (2010, p. 241) and “A democratic society cannot long sustain itself if its citizens are uninformed and indifferent about its history, its government, and the workings of its economy” (2010, p. 223).  But in repeatedly referring to the United States’ system of governance as democratic, Ravitch is only proving how uninformed she truly is about “its history, its government, and the workings of its economy.”  There is nothing more undemocratic than our economy, which is under the complete control of and led by the profit maximization motives of what are essentially private fascist tyrannies; our government is a faux-republic in which most legislation that gets passed is drafted by committees comprised of appointees from the same fascist tyrannies that control the economy, in which our supposed representatives are bought off by moneyed elites well before they ever take office, and in which social progress is only made when people act outside of established political channels; and the history of the United States has been anything but democratic—from the days when only white, property-owning males could participate in decision making up until now when nine elites, who hold their positions because they were appointed by other elites, are able to decide the outcome of a presidential election.  I would like Diane Ravitch to explain to me at what point in our history she thinks our country began operating as a democracy, because it sure does not look like one to me.

I am not trying to be difficult or tangential by picking out Ravitch’s use of the word “democracy” as a main point of my contention with her steps to reform.  I am merely establishing the basis of my argument for why her steps for education reform will never work within our current conditions.  What I contend is that her steps to improving our school system cannot possibly work because they are based on false assumptions like the notion that we live in a democracy.  If the root of her analysis—that our school system is embedded in a democratic society—is false—which it most certainly is—than any following steps to reform the system based on that false root assumption are going to be inherently flawed, no matter how wonderful her intentions are.  As Ravitch said herself, “Schools do not exist in isolation.  They are part of the larger society” (2010, p. 239).  I would say that schools are a microcosm of larger society.  And so if larger society is undemocratic, unjust, and unequal, how can our schools not be just as undemocratic, unjust, and unequal?  Which leads to my argument that in order to achieve the goals that Ravitch claims to desire—which seem to be something like a more equitable and just system of education—her steps to reform will never work unless we go further and work to create an equitable and just economy and system of governance.  So what are we to do?

Instead of viewing schools as a, more or less, self-contained system that exists within larger society, and that is able to be sculpted according to specific desires, more or less, independently of larger society, we must begin to understand schools and schooling as inextricably linked to larger society in every way.  While schools are completely shaped by larger society, they simultaneously shape larger society—there is no sculpting one without the other.  And so equitable education requires an equitable larger society—there is no getting around that imperative.  With this mindset, the writings of Ivan Illich carry much weight.

In Deschooling Society, Ivan Illich explains that he wants “to raise the general question of the mutual definition of man’s nature and the nature of modern institutions which characterizes our world view and language,” and to do so he has chosen the school as his paradigm (1972, p. 2).  Illich deeply understands the inherent injustices of our society and the specific injustices of education.  But he does not advocate reforms within our school system, he advocates dissolving the system altogether.  Illich argues that,

“The poor [do not] get equality from obligatory schools.  …[T]he mere existence of school discourages and disables the poor from taking control of their own learning.  …[T]he school has an antieducational effect on society: school is recognized as the institution which specializes in education.  The failures of schools are taken by most people as a proof that education is very costly, very complex, always arcane, and frequently [an] almost impossible task” (1972, p. 11).

Illich insists that genuine, substantive learning does not take place within institutionalized settings, rather, learning takes place at home, during play, while working, interacting, living, existing.  Learning is constant and never stops.  And that the educational institutions we have constructed do little more than serve elites by perpetuating elite dominance through the hidden curriculum (the byproduct, intentional or not, of schooling that perpetuates and reinforces the status quo of society’s institutions).  Illich goes further to say that his analysis of the hidden curriculum of our school system “should make it evident that public education would profit from the deschooling of society, just as family life, politics, security, faith, and communication would profit from an analogous process” (1972, p. 2-3).  He clearly understands the inextricable interrelatedness of all aspects of society and that there is no disentangling them; to truly reform one part of society requires revolutionary change for the entirety of society.  This notion is a far leap from the steps Ravitch offers for school reform, and should at least be thought over by all who are truly interested in improving education specifically and society in general.  But how can one, while remaining embedded in an unjust larger society, go from abstract ideas about deschooling society to actual pedagogy that contributes to the improvement of education, society, and the lives of the less fortunate?

Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed is a seminal work within the realm of revolutionary education.  Freire offers insight into and direction on how educators should go about assisting communities in developing critical consciousness—the type of consciousness one hopes will lead to communities taking control of their own lives.  Freire’s ideas are consistent with other thinkers who insist that means and ends cannot be separated, and he is adamant that the artificial hierarchies existing between teachers and students must be broken down if educators intend on breaking down the hierarchies of larger society.  We are all teachers and, more importantly, we are all students.  Freire states,

“[T]he humanist, revolutionary educator[s’] … efforts must coincide with those of the students to engage in critical thinking and the quest for mutual humanization.  [Their] efforts must be imbued with a profound trust in people and their creative power.  To achieve this, they must be partners of the student in their relations with them.  …To resolve the teacher-student contradiction, to exchange the role of depositor, prescriber, domesticator, for the role of student among students would be to undermine the power of oppression and serve the cause of liberation” (1970, p. 75).

This type of education is almost certainly incompatible within the current institutional structures of our school system.  But individual educators may be able to employ aspects of Freire’s ideas within their classrooms with the hopes that through more egalitarian pedagogy students will begin to think about society in more egalitarian terms.

My reason for bringing up ideas presented by Illich and Freire is merely to illustrate how conservative Ravitch really is in her approach to education.  One who is familiar with the writings of radical educators and social thinkers who want to do more than reform schools—who want create a just society—can only view Ravitch as someone who, while her intentions may be good, is offering faux-solutions that will only maintain the status quo and leave the root problems—our economy and system of governance—in tact.  It simply does no good to point out the flaws of neo-liberal school reform without pointing out the flaws of the neo-liberal ideology in general, just as it does no good to offer up better strategies for reforming schools without offering up strategies for how to revolutionize society as a whole.  While I think the analysis Ravitch offers in her book is important and should be read by as many people as possible, I also firmly believe that her analysis is woefully incomplete.  We would all do well to be better informed on how our economy functions, how we are governed, and how all of society is inextricably interwoven.  It is simply foolish to think we can make schooling more just without first—or simultaneously—making society more just.  Only when we are informed and truly understand our situation—when we have developed the critical consciousness Freire wrote about—will we be able to move beyond useless ideas of institutional reform and begin the necessary process of revolution.


Freire, P.  (1970).  Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc.

Illich, I.  (1972).  Deschooling Society.  New York: Harper & Row.

Ravitch, D.  (2010).  The Death and Life of the Great American School System.  New York: Basic Books.



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