Q&A: In ‘Slaying Goliath,’ Diane Ravitch argues public education advocates have beat back privatization efforts

Education historian and activist Diane Ravitch is publishing a new book Tuesday, the latest in her years-long chronicling of how the modern school “reform” movement has harmed students, teachers and schools.

A decade after her blockbuster book on the disastrous effects of the 2002 No Child Left Behind law, Ravitch’s new book, “Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools,” tells the continuing story of the reform push during the Obama and Trump presidencies.

Ravitch focuses on what she calls the “failures of Corporate Disruption” of public education ti changes aimed at operating schools as if they are businesses — and introduces readers to students, teachers, parents and others who have fought high-stakes tests and the privatization of public schools. She says that corporate-informed school reform efforts are actually dead, even if their supporters don’t quite realize it yet.

“Slaying Goliath” is a bookend of sorts to 2010’s “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” which was a sensation in the education world. Before publishing that book, Ravitch had been assistant secretary of research and improvement in the Education Department under President George H.W. Bush and was an early supporter of No Child Left Behind, the chief education initiative of President George W. Bush, which ushered in the high-stakes standardized-testing movement.

But when she researched the effects of the measures, she saw that NCLB’s testing requirements had turned classrooms into test prep factories and driven schools to narrow the curriculum to focus on tested subjects. She wrote “Death and Life” to explain why she no longer believed in what she called “corporate school reform.”

The 2010 book helped start a movement among parents, educators, students, advocates and others, and she became the titular leader of it. Ravitch wrote or co-wrote a few other books over the next decade, including “Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools.” She also co-founded and leads the nonprofit Network for Public Education, which links people and groups that advocate to improve public schools.

Here’s a written Q&A I did with Ravitch about her new book and the future of public education:

Q: Hi Diane. I’ll start by asking you to explain the title of your new book. Who is Goliath in your account and who are the resisters?

A: In the book, I discuss the startling contrast between the powerful forces that have been disrupting public schools for at least the past 20 years. Because of their vast wealth and the political power they purchase, they are Goliath. They include billionaires (e.g., the Waltons, the Koch brothers, the DeVos family, the Sackler family, Bill Gates, Eli Broad, Laurene Powell Jobs and many more), wealthy hedge-fund managers (e.g., so-called Democrats for Education Reform), right-wing think tanks, the leadership of the federal government and most states, and dozens of foundations and corporations. On the other side are public schools, supported by teachers, parents, grandparents and people who think that public schools are important for their community and our democracy. The number of foundations that support public schools is tiny. The two national teachers unions obviously support public schools, but their resources are minuscule compared to those of the billionaires intent on disrupting, privatizing and “reinventing” public schools.

Q: Why did you decide to tell this story this way now? 

A: The wave of teachers’ strikes that began in February 2018 convinced me that the national narrative about American education was undergoing a profound change. For the first time in nearly 20 years, the conversation was no longer centered on “our failing schools.” Instead, the media switched to discussing the realities of underpaid teachers, overcrowded classes, stagnant funding and deep budget cuts. Add to that the fact that test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) had been flat for a decade, and a new reality appeared: the “reforms” promoted by Bush, Obama and Trump had failed. Those “reforms” had imposed a failed regime of high-stakes standardized testing and school choice.

They began with George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law, continued with Barack Obama’s Race to the Top program, deepened with the Common Core State Standards, and were enforced by the Trump administration. Billions were spent on testing, test prep and consultants, but there was nothing to show for them.

When former secretary of education Arne Duncan wrote an article in The Washington Post insisting that “reform” had not failed, he convinced me that “reform,” as defined and mandated by the federal government and funded by the billionaires for nearly two decades, is in fact dead. It’s still written into federal law, but it has failed to reach any of its goals. There is no reform movement. If the spending stopped, the charade that’s disrupted our schools for nearly 20 years would collapse.

Q: Can you expand on the idea that there is nothing to show for any of the reforms? NAEP scores have been flat, but what else is there? As you have written repeatedly, test scores don’t mean much.

A: The “Reformers” excoriated public schools based on test scores; they promised that their reforms would not only raise test scores but close achievement gaps between racial groups. In every city that they have targeted, their attacks on the public schools were based on test scores. It is fair to judge them by their own metric, since they used that very metric to close and replace public schools and to fire teachers and principals. All of their promises have fallen flat. NAEP scores have barely budged in the past decade, and in the latest NAEP report for 2019, the gaps between groups actually widened. Charter schools have been portrayed by their advocates as a remedy for low-scoring public schools, but on average they get the same results as public schools, and many are among the lowest-performing schools in their state. Vouchers typically perform worse than public schools, probably because they do not have certified teachers. Independent studies of vouchers in the District of Columbia, Louisiana, Ohio and Indiana have shown that students who use vouchers actually lose ground academically. Although reformers say that they want students to have the same choices as rich parents, this is nonsense because vouchers are typically even less than is spent on public schools and is never enough to pay for tuition at elite private schools.

The Common Core was sold as a reform that would equalize educational opportunity because all students would have the same curriculum, the same textbooks, the same instruction. This was always a dumb idea because children vary even in the same classroom with the same teacher. The Common Core cost states and districts billions of dollars for new materials, new software, new hardware and new teacher training. In the nine years that Common Core has been in use, there is no evidence that educational outcomes have become more equal. Standardizing the curriculum reduces variation among materials, but it also reduces opportunities for creativity and fresh ideas. And it constrains teachers whose ideas are better than those of the scripted curriculums. The Common Core guidelines also led to a decided de-emphasis on the teaching of literature, which was replaced by informational text; this was a loss for students across the nation and it is not based on any sound research. Understanding good literature is every bit as challenging as reading informational text. It may require greater insight and critical thinking to read literature than to read a government manual.

Evaluating teachers by the test scores of their students was a hot idea promoted by the Obama-Duncan Race to the Top. States were not eligible to compete for a share of the $5 billion prize of federal funds unless they agreed to judge their teachers by the test scores of their students. This idea gained wide publicity when Harvard Professor Raj Chetty promoted the idea in a paper he released, with national publicity and a mention in President Obama’s State of the Union address in 2012. One of his colleagues in the research said, in a front-page story in the New York Times, that the lesson of the research was that “bad teachers should be fired sooner rather than later.” Forty-five states that wanted Race to the Top funding changed their law to permit this means of evaluating teachers. Bill Gates put up hundreds of millions of dollars to incentive districts and charter chains to apply this theory. Gates funded an evaluation by RAND and AIR [the American Institutes for Research], which concluded in 2018 that the experiment was a failure. The method did not identify the best and the worst teachers. Many teachers with the highest ratings avoided teaching the weakest students, who might lower their ratings. In Houston, teachers sued and won an injunction against this method because, the judge concluded, they were being judged by a secret algorithm and they had “no meaningful way” to know whether they had been fairly evaluated. State after state found that the method identified few teachers who were ineffective, even in schools with high rates of failing students.

Reformers in California enacted into law a program called the “parent trigger,” which allowed parents to sign a petition, take control of their public school and turn it over to a charter operator. A billionaire-funded organization pushed the idea in a handful of communities, which provoked parental battles and resulted in the takeover of only one or two schools, despite massive funding and even a movie (“Won’t Back Down”) promoting the idea.

AMerit pay was a favorite of reformers. It failed wherever it was tried. Like everyone else, teachers must be paid appropriately for their work, but offering them a bonus to get higher test scores from their students simply doesn't work. Carrots and sticks work for donkeys, not for professionals.

State takeovers, like those in Michigan (the Education Achievement Authority) and in Tennessee (the Achievement School District) have been outright failures. Their sponsors made bold promises about raising the lowest-performing students from the bottom to the top, but these promises never came through. Both have been abandoned, yet the state takeovers continue, most recently in Houston, where the state plans to take over one of the biggest districts in the nation because one out of 280 schools is persistently low-scoring. (That school — Wheatley High School — has an unusual proportion of students who are poor, have disabilities, or don’t speak English.)

Q: You name a number of billionaires who have pushed their preferred reform, and I’m wondering if you believe that their motives are all the same. Is Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s family the same in this context as Gates and Jobs? Does it matter if their motives are different?

A: I was astonished by the long list of billionaires and foundations that support “reform,” which I prefer to call “disruption.” The imposition of mandates on teachers and schools by non-educators is not reform; it is not intended to increase funding for schools, to raise teachers’ salaries, to reduce class sizes, to encourage racial integration, to provide health clinics for children and families, or to address any real problems. It is intended to “shake up,” “disrupt” and “reinvent” education.

This cascade of changes have neither evidence nor experience to support them. I have never believed that billionaires promote their ideas to make money; that makes no sense. I expect that if one were to question each of the many billionaires involved, their answers would differ to some extent. But at heart, they believe in private-sector solutions to public-sector problems. They believe that consumers make the best choices. They believe that the market should decide which schools live and which schools die. They refuse to acknowledge the reality that the market produces winners and losers. The market will never produce equality of educational opportunity. The market may do well for the highest-achieving students, the ones who are most motivated, but the market ignores the students with the greatest needs.

As I listen to DeVos, Gates, [Mike] Bloomberg, Broad, Hastings, Koch, the Waltons and other billionaires, I hear the voices of people who admittedly know nothing about education but believe that the market will produce the best outcomes. But they will not admit that it is highly inefficient to send government funds to three competing school systems — one of which is regulated and the other two of which (charters and vouchers) are lightly regulated, if at all. There are some public services that government is obligated to provide and that government is required to provide on an equal basis. We should be striving together to assure that public schools are well resourced, have experienced teachers and have reasonable class sizes and a full curriculum in every community, rather than starve the public sector that still enrolls 85 percent of America’s students.

Q: There are too many kids who live in school districts where the public schools are failing them and parents are desperate for alternatives. Some charter schools play that role. What’s wrong with that?

A: There are too many kids who live in communities that are racially segregated and economically distressed. The schools even in these communities may be doing a heroic job, but the odds against the kids and their families are stacked because of our deeply unequal economic system. It was not always like this in America. We are living now in a time of almost unprecedented inequality — income inequality and wealth inequality.

It makes no sense to blame the schools for an economy in which the rewards for the top 1 percent are soaring while the minimum wage for those at the bottom is stagnant. The schools are being used as a punching bag for problems they did not create and cannot cure. Certainly parents are desperate to help their children. They can help them by becoming active in their public school’s parent association and work with other parents to demand an increase in the resources it gets from the district. They can get to know their child’s teacher and learn how to help them with their schoolwork. They can, of course, choose a charter school, but they run the risk that the charter might reject them, the charter might have draconian and offensive disciplinary rules, the charter might suddenly close down, or the charter may be no better, may even be worse, than the public school they left behind. Not all choices are better choices; some may be worse choices.

Q: There never was a golden era in American education, and we certainly don’t have that now. What in your view is the realistic and correct path forward? 

A: American public education has played a very important role in our society. Ninety percent of the American people went to public schools and became the backbone of what is arguably one of the most successful democratic societies in the world.

There are many purposes that people attach to public education: Building an educated citizenry, who can vote thoughtfully and participate in improving our society. Teaching literacy, numeracy and civic knowledge. Helping children to develop into their best selves. Strengthening our democracy, by teaching people from different backgrounds to live and learn together amicably. Preparing people for work, citizenship and lifelong learning. People may differ about the order in which these goals matter most to them, but they are complementary. Our current obsession with test scores is warping our education system. Every child has the right to a good education. The realistic and correct path toward those goals is to insist on investing in education as the foundation of our future as a society.

In my book, I cite data showing how underfunded our schools are. In some districts, the buildings are falling apart, teachers hold two or three jobs to make ends meet and students don’t have access to the arts or other parts of a sound curriculum. The way forward is to address the root causes of school failure: poverty, poor health, hunger, homelessness, drug abuse and other malfunctions of our social order.

Education is a vital ingredient in the success of our society. But education alone cannot reverse or overcome the social crises that now plague our society. We must take direct aim at poverty. Every American child should have equality of educational opportunity. No American child should be without proper medical care, nutrition, or a decent home. We must save communities, save families, save children and save public schools. Blame-shifting never works.

Q: I’ve heard reform proponents mock critics who say that poverty must be addressed for public schooling to be addressed. They say it will take generations to pull people out of poverty and that children don’t have generations to wait for good neighborhood schools. How do you respond to that?

A: Poverty cannot be solved quickly or easily. One place to start would be to raise the minimum wage. The Walton family, owners of Walmart, are worth more than $150 billion. They have over 1 million workers. … The Waltons are the single biggest funders of charter schools in the nation, other than the federal government. They say they want to help poor children succeed. They would have a far bigger impact on the lives of children and families if they immediately increased the minimum wage of Walmart workers to $20 an hour. They can certainly afford it. And it would do more to reduce poverty and help children than opening more charter schools. The Waltons are also fighting to reduce property taxes in various states. If, instead, they fought to raise their income tax and property taxes, there would be more money to provide the services that children need.

If Bill Gates were to open medical clinics for children and families in every impoverished community, that would do far more good than the billions he has spent on charter schools and evaluating teachers by their students’ test scores.

If the 1 percent paid a higher tax rate and the minimum wage were increased, poverty would decline without waiting generations.

Reform proponents are not in a good position to scoff at any proposals to reduce poverty, because everything they have imposed on the schools — charters, vouchers, high-stakes testing, test-based teacher evaluation, state takeovers, etc. — utterly failed. Despite their bold promises, they have not raised test scores, reduced achievement gaps, or reduced poverty. When you fail and fail and fail again, you must be willing to look for different solutions. The so-called reformers (I call them “Disrupters”) are the status quo. The status quo of constant disruption, constant testing and privatization has failed. The only thing that keeps this approach moving is the vast amount of money being poured into it by people like the Waltons, Charles Koch, Betsy DeVos, Mike Bloomberg and a long list of billionaires, Silicon Valley titans and hedge fund managers. The millions they spend to disrupt public schools and demoralize teachers doesn’t make a dent in their vast holdings but it is hurting kids and their teachers. It is time for fresh thinking, and I hope they are capable of examining their record of consistent failure and finding a new path forward if they really want to help children and improve education.

Q: And finally, if you were education secretary, what are the first two things you would do?

A: If I were education secretary (which I will never be because I am too old), I would first fire every political appointee that Betsy DeVos hired. Then I would ask, as several Democratic candidates have done, for full funding of special education and for a tripling or quadrupling of funds for Title I schools. These increases would help fund all schools that enroll the neediest students. I would ask for immediate debt relief for every student who was defrauded by for-profit colleges. I would seek a dramatic increase in federal student subsidies for higher education, so that income was no impediment to going to college. I would set aside $5 billion for a competition among the states to reward those that produce the best, most actionable plans to desegregate their schools. (This would be a reverse version of the Obama-Duncan “Race to the Top” where states won money by increasing charter schools and emphasizing test scores.)

As regards federal support for charter schools (which are publicly funded but privately operated), I would eliminate the federal Charter Schools Program, which is currently a $440 million boondoggle for large corporate chains. I would leave it up to states to decide whether they want to have charter schools but would urge them to ban not only for-profit charter schools but also to ban for-profit management organizations. In addition, I would urge the president to appoint federal judges who are respectful of the separation of church and state.

Headshot of Valerie Strauss

Valerie Strauss

Valerie Strauss is an education writer who authors The Answer Sheet blog. She came to The Washington Post as an assistant foreign editor for Asia in 1987 and weekend foreign desk editor after working for Reuters as national security editor and a military/foreign affairs reporter on Capitol Hill. She also previously worked at UPI and the LA Times. Follow