Schools and Citizens

Robin West:

It is no surprise, given the stakes, that education reform is now one of the major battles in American politics. Particularly at the municipal and state levels–from Washington, D.C. to Boston to Chicago–it has created upheaval not only in schools, but also in elections, as Democrats and unions have parted ways and new pressure groups have emerged to funnel cash toward candidates who espouse the reform movement’s vision.
All of this leaves Diane Ravitch, a historian and assistant secretary of education under Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, troubled. In her new book Reign of Error, she mounts a well-documented and generally compelling case against the agenda of the “corporate school reform movement” of the last twenty-five years. She takes on its advocacy of testing and accountability as a means of raising the quality of low-performing schools; its promotion of for-profit, nonprofit, and cyber charter schools; its urge to replace professional educators with inexperienced college graduates and swap school board members, superintendents, and principals for corporate executives.
These are familiar complaints. Ravitch’s particular contribution is to unpack the philosophical assumptions guiding the reform movement. Reformers’ goals–higher test scores for all students and a reduced gap in achievement between affluent and poor, white and nonwhite–seem admirable. But Ravitch argues that their achievement comes at the cost of replacing both the ideal and the experience of education as a public good–provided by publicly financed, publicly controlled institutions that aspire to educate future citizens for their public responsibilities and adult lives–with an understanding of education as a private commodity chosen by parents. This commodity, like others, would be produced by rival corporations motivated by profit. Corporations would seek to educate not for the responsibilities of citizenship but for success in competitive markets. The philosophical and ideological commitment to the corporate over the public, Ravitch contends, threatens real damage not only to the education of mostly low-income children, but, more broadly, to our republic and the social compact and civil society on which it rests.