The Diane Ravitch/Deborah Gist Meeting, and What it Tells Us About the Failure of Progressive Education Reform
In mid-May, education reformer Diane Ravitch visited Rhode Island to speak with Governor Lincoln Chafee. We do not know precisely what she wanted to tell him, but we do know that she does not feel that she was afforded the opportunity to fully express herself. After her meeting with the Governor, Dr. Ravitch posted an item to her Education Week blog saying that an unexpected invitee to the meeting, Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist, had “dominated the conversation, interrupted me whenever I spoke, and filibustered to use up the limited time”. Dr. Ravitch went as far as to demand an apology from Commissioner Gist, though she later retracted the demand. (Governor Chafee told a Providence Journal reporter in regards to the meeting that “Commissioner Gist comported herself in an appropriate and respectful way at all times during this discussion”).
Meeting protocol aside, the incident invites speculation about what it was that Dr. Ravitch felt the governor needed to hear that he hasn’t already heard and isn’t likely to hear from anyone else. A broad outline of themes that Dr. Ravitch could have been expected to talk about can be found in a March 2010 Wall Street Journal op-ed where she explained her widely noted change-of-mind regarding educational philosophy. The op-ed concluded with Dr. Ravitch offering definite positions on several big-picture areas of education-reform: that “the current emphasis on accountability has created a punitive atmosphere in the schools” and that students need a “coherent curriculum” instead of a “marketplace”. But why a “coherent curriculum” should be posited as the alternative to a “marketplace” is not obvious, and the juxtaposition is worth pondering — especially when combined with the idea of reduced accountability.
* * *Leftist phobias aside, the features that define a marketplace are that, within its structure, transactions only occur when they are individually agreed upon by all parties involved, and outside parties do not get to veto transactions they are not involved in. Obviously, Dr. Ravitch doesn’t want curricular choices to be determined by the market; she wants the choice of curriculum to be set outside of the market, and not allow other curriculums to be offered by others who might try to create one. She is not alone in this belief, and this idea not inherently unreasonable. Not everything is best delivered by pure market mechanisms.
However, simultaneously rejecting markets and accountability is problematic. When someone, or some small group, is given strong powers to limit what others may choose, mechanisms must to be put into place to make sure that the choices provided are good ones. Something must be done to guarantee that people impacted by restrictions on their choices still get access to optimal-quality choices, especially if the option-setters can compel the selection of inferior options, even when better options might be possible. You could say that the answer to this problem is to create a system of accountability for those setting the options, but that answer is nearly tautological — which is what makes the idea of reducing accountability seem to be such an odd focus for an education reformer.
One possibility is that Dr. Ravitch is using the term “accountability” in some way peculiar to the education reform community. It is possible, for example, that the accountability she objects to in her WSJ op-ed is the specific regime imposed over the past decade by the Federal No-Child Left behind Act, but the record indicates that this is not the case. In a Policy Review article written in 2002 on testing and accountability, Dr. Ravitch described a “professional education paradigm” that included the idea that professional educators should be “insulated from public pressure” and was “suspicious of the intervention of policymakers”. After her change of mind, in a December of 2010 entry on her Education Week blog, Dr. Ravitch relayed a story of being told that there is “no word in the Finnish language for ‘accountability'”, while praising the education system of Finland. And in the more comprehensive exposition of her current thoughts on accountability contained in her recent book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, despite expressing support for the validity of testing, Dr. Ravitch criticizes an over-emphasis on accountability in education systems, on the grounds that education measures tied to consequences will always be gamed, no matter how accurate tests and evaluations might have a potential to be. Consistently throughout her career, Dr. Ravitch has treated the idea of accountability in its broadest possible sense, and not used the term as a shorthand for testing or a particular program like NCLB.
Alas, in opposing accountability at such a high conceptual level, Diane Ravitch — and her union allies — have proposed answers to old and familiar problems that are based on ideas that repeatedly have been shown to be unworkable…
* * *If both markets and accountability are to be rejected, then how can parents and students gain access to an improved education, when evidence appears that the education system is not working for them or the people around them? For those who oppose accountability and market mechanisms in education, this question is without meaning. Progressives say there are no visible, definitively meaningful signs that can tell a parent if an education system is working or not. No system of student or teacher evaluation can provide a picture accurate and reliable enough to be useful, because observing authentic educational progress and aligning progress with potential are processes too “complex” for anyone uninitiated into the education profession to command, and even if an effective accountability system could theoretically exist, there is still nothing can be done with many students to improve their educational performance, because socio-economic status is unalterable destiny. There is simply no information adequate to the task of helping a parent or student determine on their own if they need to move to a new system, or make a major change in their existing system, that can lead to better outcomes than simple deference to the professionals in the education field.
If changes to the education system do need to be made, it is members of the education profession who will identify the key problems (using their methods that can’t be wholly explained to those outside of the profession — after all, if they could be explained, they could be built into a system of accountability) and who will make the necessary changes, because that’s what professionals are supposed to do, and professionals must always be trusted to do what they are supposed to do. This, in turn, defines a proper role for those outside of the education system. Theirs is not to try to hold those responsible for education “accountable”, or to ask for some freedom to make their own choices; the role of non-professionals is to assume that the people on the inside of the education profession are delivering the best education possible (at least within existing resource constraints), and therefore to give the people on the inside whatever they say they need.
Degeneralize this non-market, non-accountable system from the specifics of education field — while holding on to the idea that the education of children is a critical task in society — and you are left with a small, mostly self-identified, group of people assuming the right to take a critical role in bringing society forward in a way that they themselves decide, regardless of what the broader population thinks should be done. As a guiding principle for social and government organization, this may sound familiar to you…
* * *Another education reformer, E.D. Hirsch, has noted the strong impact that “romantic” ideas, rebranded in contemporary dialogue on intellectual history as “progressive” ideas, have had on the American education system. Hirsch’s primary interest in romanticism is on how its ideal of doing things in a “natural” way has appeared at various times and places in progressive education reform movements; one of his interesting observations is that justifying something as being “natural” takes on a role today that a justification of pleasing the divine once took in earlier ages.
But the rejection of a broad based notion of accountability makes obvious that educational progressives have absorbed romantic ideology not only in defining their goals, but also into their organizational ideas for achieving them. Romantically-influenced ideologies, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s original writings, through the tragically influential Marxist variations and into modern progressivism, have stressed that average citizens are impeded from achieving their full “natural” or “human” happiness by societies that have been fragmented by competing, selfish interests, and that the only way to bring the great mass of citizens out of their confusion is to cede sweeping powers to a chosen group who has gained a true understanding of the natural order of the universe, so that they may structure a society that presents people with the proper, though limited, set of choices for fulfilling their potentials.
Of course, in none of its historical forms has romanticism/Marxism/progressivism solved the problem of actually identifying the group of people who can wield this considerable power over others. Romantics of various stripes have tried historically to fill this gap with a secular mysticism, assuming a “first legislator” (Rousseau’s concept) or a “dictatorship of the proletariat” (the Marxist concept) possessing superhuman judgment and uncorrupted motives will appear when needed. This has been a key place where romantic ideas have met the less-romantic human reality, history having shown that giving one group of people unaccountable power over another never results in a system that works in the best interests of everyone. Still, the lessons of history have not dissuaded progressive education advocates from holding tight to the core romantic social and political concepts; i.e. a public trapped by a false consciousness and likely to be deceived by false choices, needing to be saved by an elite that possesses an unrivaled and authentic understanding of the natural, perhaps even divine, truths about the best ordering of society; in order to dismiss the significance of “accountability”.
Take the false consciousness to be the idea that our schools could be doing better at their existing resource levels; take the false choices to be options for charter schools or cross-district choice, and take the divine truth that only the initiated can see about the natural order of society to be that top-down bureaucracies is the only viable way for organizing a school system, and you have a pretty accurate description of the position of contemporary progressive education reformers who reject both markets and accountability.
* * *Understanding what possibilities remain, after progressive education reformers have taken both markets and accountability off the table, helps make sense of Diane Ravitch’s out-of-proportion reaction to Deborah Gist’s participation in the meeting with Governor Lincoln Chafee. Dr. Ravitch was eager to take an opportunity to pass along truths that she has spent a lifetime understanding, to an earthly authority that could reinforce their application on a broad scale. But the presence during her meeting of someone from outside of the educational elect introduced confusion into the communication stream. Dr. Ravtich felt her opportunity to share secrets with a high political authority was being compromised by pedestrian ideas that she and her elite had divined were distractions from the deepest truths of education like markets and accountability, and she worried that the Governor was losing his opportunity to hear an unfragmented message about the one true and natural way he should proceed reform for the good of all in the realm of education reform. Dr. Ravtich thus grew frustrated, and wrote her blog post lashing out at Commissioner Gist.
But in the end, markets and accountability cannot be simultaneously dismissed, to be replaced by monopoly leadership who claim they just understand more than the common people ever can. And the more that romantically-inspired education reform proponents claim that the results observable by the general public shouldn’t matter, and that stagnation or decline in observable measures of educational achievement must simply be accepted, the more the result is a movement that marginalizes itself.