It's About Class 

How "school reform" helps maintain the status quo

The Death and Life of the Great American School System Diane Ravitch (Basic Books)

Everyone knows that teachers have class—but which class that is, exactly, isn't clear. As educated people working with brains, pens, and paper clips, they look white collar. Those indicators are superficial, though. In most ways that matter, teachers are working class. Charged with controlling a potentially dangerous population, they toil through a regimented workday at the butt end of a faceless bureaucracy. A teacher is a prison guard disguised as a college professor—a combination that gives nearly everyone some reason to despise them.

The Death and Life of the Great American School System doesn't talk about it explicitly, but class wafts through its pages like the hopeless, heavy scent of institutional paint drying. Author Diane Ravitch is a policy wonk who worked in the Clinton and George H.W. Bush administrations, and she does her best to tell her story as one of policy wonkishness triumphant. For many years, she explains, she herself believed that school choice, vouchers, and accountability would lead to improvements in public schools. Over time and in the face of mounting evidence, however, she changed her mind. She concludes that education reform requires year-in, year-out high standards and lots of hard work: "there are no shortcuts, no utopias, and no silver bullets."

If Ravitch discovered this modest truth through honest self-questioning and sound logic, why then can't we all read her book and do the same? Because, as Ravitch demonstrates despite herself, school reform has little to do with a dispassionate interest in improving schools and a lot to do with the manipulation and consolidation of power. This lesson is driven home most nakedly in her discussion of the infamous so-called school reforms carried out in San Diego in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Ravitch notes that San Diego was an odd candidate for major reform since it already had what was "widely perceived" to be "one of the nation's most successful urban school systems." However, in the spring of 1996 the teachers' union struck for higher wages and more input into school decision-making—and won. Ravitch reports that "the city's business leaders were aghast." They were also vindictive. In retaliation that fall they backed a slate of school-board candidates who supported greater "accountability."

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The business community's picks won election, a reform superintendent was hired, new rules were put in place, and San Diego embarked on eight years of punitive school management. Administrators and principals were arbitrarily demoted. A new reading program based on trendy research was instituted from the top down, and teachers were carefully monitored to make sure they followed its tenets to the letter.

The result, according to teachers Ravitch interviewed, was a "reign of terror." Even the posters tacked up in classrooms were closely regulated. Teachers felt compelled to parrot educational catchphrases such as "I am a reflective practitioner." If you sneered at the psychobabble you could be reprimanded or worse. One common form of punishment, Ravitch says, was "grade switching," in which "a first-grade teacher might be reassigned on short notice to teach sixth grade, while a sixth-grade teacher would be reassigned to teach kindergarten or first grade." In the first two years of the new regime, teacher resignations and retirements doubled. Over its entire eight years, 90 percent of the district's principals left or were replaced.

The changes were at first hailed as innovative and transformative. Yet, as Ravitch shows, they did little to improve student achievement. Ravitch notes that "elementary schoolchildren made significant progress, but not as much as those in comparable urban districts across the state."

Ravitch concludes that the results didn't justify the bitterness and conflict occasioned by the means. But bitterness and conflict appear to have been the point. From Ravitch's account it's apparent that reform was instituted as a move in a labor dispute. Its main goal was not to help students but to punish uppity workers, and in that regard it was wildly successful. Moreover, the high turnover rate ensured that many of those who had been involved in the strike were sent packing.

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