Disruption Is Not Reform!
I started to write this book in the spring of 2018 at an unusual moment in our nation’s history. In state after state, tens of thousands of teachers walked out of their schools and marched to their state capitols to protest low pay, poor working conditions, and the persistent underfunding of public education. The walkouts and strikes continued into 2019, spreading from district to district and state to state. Teachers were marching not just for themselves but for the students they taught, who were in overcrowded classes, using obsolete textbooks, in long-neglected buildings. In the Republican-dominated states where the walkouts began, education spending had been sharply reduced in the previous decade. Faced with thousands of irate teachers and closed schools, legislators made concessions to placate the striking teachers, even in states where unions were weak and strikes were forbidden.
Most commentators were shocked by teacher militancy. They never imagined that teachers would rise up spontaneously, but they did. Across the nation, teachers were demoralized by stagnant wages, budget cuts, soaring health care costs, crowded classrooms, punitive evaluation systems, attacks on teachers’ job security and pensions, and public funding of privately managed schools, which reduced the funding of public schools. Many teachers decided they could no longer remain in their chosen profession because a draconian standards-and-testing regime mandated by federal law stole weeks, sometimes months, from classroom instruction, distorted the goals of education, and made it impossible for them to teach with autonomy, passion, and creativity.
Persistent insults and legislative attacks on the teaching profession and public schools caused many experienced teachers to abandon their classrooms long before they were due to retire, creating teacher shortages and causing a sharp drop in the number of applicants to teacher preparation institutions. At a time when fake “Reformers” were casting teachers as villains, the number of people entering the profession went into free fall. How can a nation educate its young without well-qualified, experienced teachers?
The teacher walkouts were a nail in the coffin of what has falsely been called “education reform” for at least two decades. By the bold act of walking out in mass numbers and marching to their state capitols, even where doing so was forbidden by law, teachers were educating the public about the mean-spiritedness, ignorance, and shortsightedness behind the facade of “education reform.” Teachers were working second and third jobs to make ends meet. Some teachers were paid so little that they were eligible for government food stamps. Even with their low wages, teachers laid out or raised hundreds of dollars each year to buy essential school supplies for their students. These conditions, graphically illustrated in newspapers, magazines, and on websites, educated the public about the causes of widespread teacher shortages and the dramatic underfunding of public schools.
This was the wreckage that the so-called “reform” movement had created by demonizing teachers as if they were adversaries of their students and treating them as malingerers who required constant evaluation lest they fail to do their duty. This was the damage inflicted on public schools, their students and teachers, by heedless billionaires who had decided to disrupt, reinvent, and redesign the nation’s public schools. This was the work of some of the richest people in the nation: the Walton family, Bill Gates, Betsy DeVos, the Koch brothers, Michael Bloomberg, Laurene Powell Jobs, Reed Hastings, Eli Broad, and a bevy of other billionaires, most of whom had made their fortunes on Wall Street, in Silicon Valley, or in the tech industry.
For nearly two decades, the “reformers” had promised a dramatic transformation in American education, based on their strategy of high-stakes testing, teacher evaluation by test scores, charter schools, and closing low-scoring public schools. They confidently claimed that they knew the answers to all the vexing problems in education. They asserted that they were leading the civil rights movement of our time, funded by billionaires, Wall Street titans, and the federal government, as if the elites would be leading a civil rights movement against the powerful (themselves!). They insisted that when their remedies were imposed, America’s test scores would soar to the top of international rankings. No longer would poor children be “trapped in failing schools.” No more would children’s success be determined by their ZIP code or social status. They all sang from a common hymnal about the failures of public education and proclaimed their certainty that they knew how to turn failure into high test scores for all.
But despite the investment of billions of federal, state, local, and philanthropic dollars, these malign efforts came up empty. The leaders of this charade had confidently predicted that success was just beyond the horizon. But as so often happens with mirages, the horizon kept receding farther away. None of their promises and claims came true. Judged by their own chosen metrics—standardized test scores—the fake “reformers” failed.
In this book, I will not call these activities and their leaders by the honorable word reform, which they have brazenly appropriated. The individuals and groups who promote test-based accountability, school closings, and school choice as remedies for low test scores are not reformers. What to call them? Others call them “deformers” or the “financial privatization cabal” or the “Destroy Public Education Movement” or “privateers.” Such groups and individuals often say their goal is to “disrupt” public education, and I think in this instance they have accurately named themselves. They are Disrupters. They are masters of chaos, which they inflict on other people’s children, without a twinge of remorse. They are most certainly not reformers, the title they have deceptively claimed. The old and true sense of the word “reform” has positive connotations; most people hear the word and think of “improvement,” “progress,” and “uplift.” This does not describe the current disruption movement, which is in fact a calculated, insidious, and munificently funded campaign to privatize America’s public schools, to break teachers’ unions, to tear apart communities, and to attack teacher professionalism. The rhetoric used by this campaign is so similar from place to place that I assume it was concocted by marketing and branding professionals to deceive the public. I will not allow the term “reform” to be hijacked by those who have a hidden agenda.
Disrupters are proponents of privatization. They distrust the public sector. They don’t like local control. They like to close public schools. They belittle teachers. They use their vast resources to transfer public assets to the private sector and to demean those who teach our children despite their low wages and poor working conditions.
Disrupters say that schools should be run like businesses. They think that students, teachers, principals, and schools need to be externally motivated by carrots and sticks, by bonuses and penalties, tied to standardized test scores. They believe that because businesses succeed by having private ownership, profit and loss statements, and data-driven decision making, so should schools. They believe that standardized testing is an essential tool for making objective decisions about which teachers are effective or ineffective and which schools should be rewarded or closed.
The Disrupters view education as an entrepreneurial activity that should be “scalable” and should produce “return on investment.” They encourage new businesses to enter the education marketplace. The schools, once seen solely as institutions of teaching and learning, have been reimagined by corporations and entrepreneurs as places of commerce and profit. There is money to be made in selling tests, hardware, software, professional development, new curricula, new ways to analyze and utilize data, and consulting services for all of the above. There is money to be made by opening charter chains, buying real estate under one name and leasing it back to the new charter under another name, establishing related corporations to supply goods and services to one’s own charter schools, using the charter school’s credit card to fly first-class, eat in pricey restaurants, and buy luxury cars and clothing. Frequent conferences are convened to explore how equity investors can make a profit in the education industry. Many people have figured out how to make money from public education dollars, but these people are not teachers. Teachers meet their classes several times a day, do their jobs for an average wage of $60,000, far below the salaries of their peers with the same credentials in other professions in the same states. They are definitely not in education for the money.
In the new era of Disruption, it seems quaint, antique actually, to speak of “love of learning” as a goal of education, to speak of education as personal development and preparation for citizenship in a democratic society. Where is the profit in such fuzzy goals? How could those be measured?
The disruption and privatization movement was codified into law by George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act (passed by Congress in 2001 and signed by the president in 2002) and extended its control of state and local policy by Barack Obama’s Race to the Top program (2009). The marketing of Disruption reached a large national audience in 2010 with the release of the documentary Waiting for “Superman,” which falsely asserted that America’s public schools had failed, extolled the virtues of privately managed charter schools, and ridiculed public schools and their teachers.
I wrote two books about the emergence of this new movement. The first appeared in 2010 and was called The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. Having worked as assistant secretary of education for the Office of Educational Research and Improvement in the administration of President George H. W. Bush and for many years in some of the nation’s leading conservative think tanks, I had hoped that privatization and testing would produce sweeping improvement, especially for the neediest students. It didn’t. I couldn’t pretend otherwise. I came to realize that the privatization movement was a continuation of a decades-long campaign by right-wingers who hated public schools, which they derisively called “government schools.” I renounced my own past views and determined to expose the well-funded smear campaign against American public schools and their teachers.
In 2013, watching the privatization movement grow to become the status quo, embedded in federal and state policy and supported by billionaires and major foundations, I published Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, which contained not only an indictment of privatization and teacher-bashing, but also a detailed list of research-based actions that would improve schools and help poor and needy students, their families, and their communities.
What I had come to understand was that the root cause of poor performance in school is not “bad schools” or “bad teachers” but poverty. Closing schools and firing their teachers and principals does not help students. If anything, it introduces damaging instability into their lives. The privatizers hail disruption and call it “creative,” but it is neither creative nor beneficial.
The Corporate Disrupters are indifferent to poverty and racial segregation. They refuse to acknowledge the impact of poverty on students’ lives. They insist that poverty can be cured by “great teachers” or “great schools.” It is true that teachers can change children’s lives; time and again, remarkable and dedicated teachers have enabled students to emerge from difficult circumstances because of their influence. But uplifting individual stories are not proof of a large-scale remedy. There is neither research nor evidence to support the Disrupters’ belief that intergenerational, systemic poverty can be eliminated by teachers and schools. Lasting social change requires a new direction in public policy, one that directly reduces economic inequality and poverty.
Disrupters wreak havoc on urban school districts, where test scores are lowest and where poverty and racial segregation are concentrated. In some cities, such as New Orleans, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., the very existence of public education has been put at risk by the growth of charter schools. Others, like Oakland, teeter on the brink of insolvency due to the diversion of state funds to charter schools. The privatizers gloss over two fundamental facts: first, every dollar that goes to a charter school is taken away from public schools; second, public schools have fixed costs that cannot be reduced, requiring them to lay off teachers, increase class sizes, and cut programs. Thus, the great majority of students suffer from budget cuts so that a small minority of students can attend charter schools, which may abruptly close due to mismanagement or low enrollment.
Because the Disruption movement was promoted by the Obama administration, supporters of public education were caught off guard. If Democrats, the traditional defenders of public education, gave their approval to the strategies of the Disruption movement, how bad could it be? President Obama’s secretary of education Arne Duncan frequently pointed to successful charter schools, but never acknowledged such factors as attrition rates, exclusion of students with disabilities or English learners, or the large number of charter schools that failed or that closed after a year or two.
The remedies imposed by the Obama administration were no different from those of the George W. Bush administration. Actually, they were worse. None had any evidence to support them. None achieved the promised outcomes. When the Obama administration was followed by the Trump administration, the failed Bush-Obama policies remained in place. The Disruption agenda remained the same whether the secretary of education was Rod Paige, Margaret Spellings, Arne Duncan, John King, or Betsy DeVos.
After two decades of the same failed federal policies, it became clear that the Disruption movement was running out of steam. Even the Disrupters felt the slow but steady shift of the pendulum away from the stale and unpopular policies of the Bush and Obama administrations. Since test scores were stagnant, some moved the goalposts and said that test scores didn’t really matter after all; instead, graduation rates mattered, or parental satisfaction mattered, or choice was an end in itself and nothing else mattered. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos claimed that as long as parents were choosing their children’s schools, the outcomes were unimportant. The sense of an era coming to an end was palpable.
The Disruption movement is dying. It is not yet dead, but it is nonetheless on its last legs, stumbling and defensive. Its strategies of high-stakes testing, standardization, and privatization have not succeeded. Yet its adherents press on because the money keeps flowing in from billionaires and the federal government. The Disruption combine is like a giant creature whose heart and brain have died, but whose tentacles keep reaching out and strangling whatever it can get hold of.
As I was writing this book, I read about a man who decapitated a rattlesnake in his backyard; he waited ten minutes, then picked up the detached head, and it bit him, nearly killing him. The snake was dead, but it still had poisonous venom and still was capable of grievous harm. That is like the Disrupters today. Not one of their efforts has succeeded, as I will show in this book. Based on glorious promises, Disruption has managed to undercut and damage public education in many urban districts by replacing public schools with ones that are privately managed. But taking control is not the same as being successful. Disruption has failed to achieve any of its goals. It is kept alive by its vast resources and by its lock on federal policy: every child must be tested every year, and test results are used to hold teachers, administrators, and schools accountable. States must intervene in the lowest-performing schools, either closing or privatizing them. Closing schools does not make them better nor does it help the students who are sent to distant schools.
Copyright © 2020 by Diane Ravitch. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.