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.”

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.

Union bashing, as Ravitch’s book makes clear, is often at the emotional core of school reform efforts. Teachers are presented as lazy and recalcitrant—shifty slackers who must be obsessively monitored, regulated, and punished if any real work is going to get done. Unions interfere with the efficient, can-do initiatives of management. Best get rid of them and let the unfettered free market solve all our problems.

Ravitch points out that this attitude has become more accepted as big private charities like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have become more central to school reform.

Many of the initiatives mandated by those foundations haven’t been especially good for children. Bill Gates, for example, got it into his head that small schools are better than big ones. And because he has more money than God, hey, presto, suddenly across the nation big schools were divided into smaller units. Dropout rates fell—but so did test scores. Gates himself was forced to admit that the experiment was a dud. Not that he’s particularly daunted. His latest enthusiasm is for charter schools.

It’s no surprise that, as Ravitch notes, wealthy, self-made men like Gates favor such free-market initiatives as charter schools. But, she shows, there’s little solid evidence that charter schools can transform public education. Some do very well, many don’t. In any case, few attempt to educate poor or special-needs students. Instead these unlucky kids are shunted off to the conventional public schools, dragging down test scores—and those low scores, in turn, reinforce the case that the old school system doesn’t work.

Ravitch likes to genuflect in the direction of a sunlit past where public schools anchored communities and created social mobility. “Our nation’s commitment to provide universal, free public education has been a crucial element . . . in the ability of generations of Americans to improve their lives,” she enthuses. But according to many sources, including a 2010 report from the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, in comparison with that of most Western nations, American social mobility is for shit. And part of the reason is that our notoriously, historically, and presently segregated school system has always been as much about perpetuating inequities as about alleviating them. “The drill-and-kill school practices that guarantee students will not be ready for college, skilled employment, lifelong learning or effective citizenship are most prevalent in schools serving low-income children of color,” notes Monty Neill, director of FairTest, which advocates for “fair, open, valid and educationally beneficial evaluations of students, teachers and schools.”

But even more important than making sure poor kids are properly regulated may be containing the NEA, the single biggest union—not teacher’s union, but union—in the country. Though our nation has gone a long way toward rolling back the menace of organized labor, the dread monster still squats mercilessly on our innocent children. Have no fear, though. If corporate and government interests have their way there’ll be charter schools from sea to shining sea. The whole point of having class, after all, is to learn your place.