It may not be well known among our (probably millions of) readers, but this blog takes its name from a Diane Ravitch line. I like Ravitch, for the most part. I often agree with her, especially when she’s railing against charter schools and faux-liberal nonsense like “Waiting for Superman“–which puts as much faith in the all-curing power of stone-cold statistical analysis that Michael Lewis did in Moneyball. And I agree, too, with her larger critique of neoliberal “reform” in the field of education.  Education is a market (like healthcare) quite unlike the generic market studied in economic classes, for neither its “consumers” nor its “profits” can be quantified in a typical sense. Measurement–or accountability–is hardly the cut-and-dry issue that it is in, well, baseball.

Still, I have some major problems with Ravitch. She often goes too far, makes spurious legal arguments, and articulates a faith in federalism that betrays an ideological tension with many of my left-leaning friends who similarly support her education arguments. Check this out:

[Arne Duncan] seems not to know that education is the responsibility of state and local governments, as defined by the Tenth amendment to our Constitution. States and local school districts now look to Washington to tell them how to reform their schools and must seek permission to deviate from the regulations written by theU.S. Department of Education. George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) created the template for this growing federal control of education, but Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top has made it possible for Washington to dictate education policy across the nation. Grade: F

I loathe NCLB, but my problems with it stem not from an ideological revulsion towards federal power but, rather, from a skepticism towards testing and the misguided presumption that teachers’ accountability will solve all, or even any, of the nation’s education problems. I loathe it, in other words, because it’s a system predicated upon universalist notions espoused by non-educators who know little or nothing about education. Ravitch however complicates this critique by promoting a localism that, as Scott Lemieux also notes, has been crucial to the resegregation of American schools. In the excerpt above, she sounds far more like Ron Paul than someone concerned with social justice.

I have to admit, I don’t know if you can take “the substance” but leave the tentherism here. I fear that the tentherism is the substance, or at least a crucial part of it, and I’d caution those out there who similarly loathe NCLB to formulate a criticism that’s more ideologically capacious than this one. Indeed, it shouldn’t be hard to note that the trend towards testing makes for bad policy at all levels of government–full stop. Let’s leave the federalism to the other guys. Anyone even remotely familiar with “Brown V. Board,” Little Rock, and (really) the entire civil rights era should see the problems inherent in Ravitch’s argument.

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One thought on “Ravitch

  1. I totally agree that Ravitch takes things way too far here.

    But I also think that the “ideological tension” between Ravitch and lefties is limited. There has been a strong commitment to local control of schools for all of American history that crosses ideological lines. Yes, the federal government had to step in to desegregate schools in the South. I think we can distinguish, though, between approving of federal enforcement of equal conditions in public education and rejecting federal influence over content (which, in the end, is what testing regimes amount to). Education is, arguably, a sort of “soft check” on government; an informed citizenry is better at holding its representatives accountable. So I think we should always be concerned with government – and especially federal government – tinkering with educational content. That may seem overly Orwellian, but given the shenanigans last year in Texas by that state’s board of education I think it’s pretty reasonable.

    In more conventionally liberal terms, the government has no business telling us how to think – about marriage, child-rearing, religion, sexuality, art, or a host of other things – beyond enforcing the basic rights and freedoms that our constitution and legal precedent have established. Yes, that can all get very complicated and lead to an extremely active role for government, up to and including confronting citizens at gunpoint. But that role has been and should be a reluctant one, and so a certain knee-jerk skepticism toward government involvement in educational content is, I think, justified.

    Ravitch is overstating the case by putting into legal terms what should be a principled argument. The principle, though, is sound.

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