In her new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, eminent historian Diane Ravitch charges that accountability and school choice have been ineffective, destructive distractions from real school improvement. Given her longtime support for these ideas, her "turncoat" moment has raised quite a stir.
But the resulting debate has been plagued by confusion. Ravitch is no turncoat. Indeed, she is now making the same fundamental mistake, in reverse, that she made previously. Ravitch's stance reflects the misguided premise that chartering and accountability are best seen as ways to improve instruction--like a new curriculum or reading program--rather than ways to create the conditions under which sustained improvement is possible.
Indeed, Ravitch's mistake shines a light on the frailty of current Obama-administration reform efforts. There is a disturbing parallelism when one hears Ravitch or Secretary of Education Arne Duncan discuss merit pay, accountability, or charter schooling. Ravitch is disappointed because she thought accountability and charter schooling were supposed to make schools better, and now sees that they don't. Duncan promises that they will make schools better. They're both missing the central point: These structural reforms are means, not ends. Choice and accountability can only make it easier to create schools and systems characterized by focus and coherence, where robust curricula, powerful pedagogy, and rich learning thrive.
A lack of choice forces educators to serve families with very different demands and varying responses to discipline simultaneously, making it difficult to establish common norms. A lack of autonomy makes it difficult for principals to assemble teachers who share expectations and instructional principles. Political turbulence and the reality that professional advancement entails leap-frogging from smaller districts to larger ones means that superintendents change jobs every few years, and district priorities and initiatives shift as well. Bureaucratic and contractual rules governing discipline, the school day, and professional development trip up district leaders seeking to emulate effective practices.
Choice, in and of itself, doesn't fix any of these problems, but it lets motivated people solve them outside of traditional K-12 systems, which hobble organizational focus and instructional coherence with their "little-bit-of-everything" mission, industrial-era contracts and staffing arrangements, ill-defined aims, balky governance structures, contested disciplinary arrangements, and the rest.
For an example of this confusion at work, look at Diane's longtime praise of KIPP schools. These schools have added more time to the school day, insisted on strict discipline, carefully selected teachers, and served students and families who embrace the school's mission--and gotten results. But KIPP's founders are the first to concede that they have no "secret sauce" or super-curriculum. Rather, they have aggressively and assiduously executed a particular model for a particular kind of student. School systems striving to emulate KIPP's deceptively simple practices find it immensely difficult given contracts, statutes, established disciplinary policies, broken HR systems, and mission creep. Choice and autonomy help to make possible--but do not create--the focus and coherence that makes schools like KIPP's work.
We've seen the same mistakes when it comes to accountability. Like choice, accountability is not a solution; it is a toolbox. And the tools need to be sharp, well-constructed, and appropriate to the task at hand if they are to suit. None of those is a particularly apt description of the No Child Left Behind–style accountability that Diane focuses on in her critique of accountability in general.
For all this, I'm reluctant to be too hard on Ravitch. For two decades, she was sold a bill of goods by would-be reformers who promised, in the words of my dear friends John Chubb and Terry Moe, "Without being too literal about it, we think reformers would do well to entertain the notion that choice is a panacea. . . . It has the capacity all by itself to bring about the kind of transformation that, for years, reformers have been seeking to engineer in myriad other ways."
And that brings us back to Secretary Duncan and the Obama administration. If his Race to the Top salesmanship involves overpromising and a failure to focus on what it will take for charter schooling and merit pay to deliver, Secretary Duncan is setting us up for another round of disappointment. If that should happen, too many parents and voters will wind up like Ravitch, disillusioned and resigned, back at square one, and once again trying to figure out how to squeeze coherence and instructional excellence out of a K–12 system ill-equipped to deliver it.
Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and the director of education policy studies at AEI.