Diane Ravitch deserves respect for her energy and dedication, displayed in her numerous publications and for the endurance she displayed in wading through volumes of educationese while researching Left Back. Any normally compassionate reader will finish __Left Back…__ appalled at the arrogance of socialists (Dewey, Cubberley, et. al.) who treated other people’s children as their clay. Ravitch laments the abandonment of a rigorous classical curriculum in favor of a succession of fad reforms that reduced system performance and raised costs. While Ravitch criticizes the policies which self-appointed experts prescribed, she does not question the premise that some expert ought to prescribe curriculum.Several lines of evidence support the following propositions:
In “School’s Out“, his review of the latest Ravitch book, Chester Finn writes:
“Diane and I go back a very long way–three decades, give or take–and in addition to the personal friendship we have, during that period, shared a basic diagnosis of what’s awry in U.S. education. It boils down to this: Most kids aren’t learning nearly enough of the important stuff that they ought to be learning.”
That’s not a diagnosis; that’s a symptom. Why do schools fail?
Finn continues: …”She would undo most if not all of the “structural” reforms that have been put in place in recent years–mayoral control, performance-based pay, charter laws and other choice schemes, reliance on entrepreneurship and market incentives, federal efforts to incentivize and prod the system to change in constructive directions, testing- and results-based accountability and more. She would, instead, look to the “great American school system” and a (somehow) renewed culture and family structure to do right by our children.”
Umm…”Schemes”? Vouchers and charter choices enhance overall system performance. And when/where has “reliance on entrepreneurship and market incentives” been tried?
Elsewhere, Finn writes: “Any successful redesign will require a clear-eyed assessment of what has and has not worked in the effort to achieve the last generation’s reform goals, and must open itself to new aims. It will demand long, concerted effort by experts, civic and business leaders, educators, parents, and policymakers. And while it must be realistic about politics and the difficulties of transition, any overhaul of American education must also be informed by an overarching vision of the kind of system it is after. That vision, more than the details of individual reform proposals, may be what is most sorely needed now.”
Finn does not hide his commitment to centralized (expert) control.
As Neal McCluskey observed, Chester Finn is no fan of market-oriented reforms. Ravitch and Finn may merit the term “conservative”. They in no sense qualify as pro-(school)choice.
Milton Friedman rejected the label “conservative”. He called his viewpoint “liberal” (in the classical, 19th century sense of the word, meaning pro-freedom).
1. As institutions take from individual parents the power to determine for their own children the choice of curriculum and the pace and method of instruction, overall system performance falls.
2. Political control of school harms most the children of the least politically-adept parents.
Political control of school invites critics and defenders of the current system to imagine prescribing reforms to that system. Critics such as Finn and Ravitch do not address the obvious fact that their opponents occupy their current positions because of this system. Public-sector unions, their kept politicians, and Professors of Education won the contest for control of this system. Reform proposals which ignore the rules of the game that enabled this result must either accommodate the policy preferences of these interest groups, or fail.
Practically, this observation implies that effective reform will occur one family at a time, as parents decide to homeschool.
Update: A Volokh conspirator discusses the newspaper report on the Ravitch book. Harriet added 2 cents worth (comment 67).