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Ravitch v. Rhee


Andrew Delbanco has a largely excellent review of the new books by Diane Ravitch and Michelle Rhee in the latest New York Review of Books. Essentially, the two come across in their books as you’d expect. Ravitch is passionate in her defense of teacher unions, subtle in her understanding that we need to fight both poverty and improve schools at the same time. She sees schools as largely succeeding (the idea that schools are failing our students seems to be conventional wisdom yet largely lacks evidence. And where are schools are failing, such as the teaching of art and music, its precisely because of the policies that people like Rhee support) and that if SAT scores declined in the 70s, it’s because far more children were taking them in an increasingly inclusive education system. She sees privatization as a great threat to our schools, with little accountability for charter schools and national priorities moving toward giving snake-oil salesmen access to our schools.

Rhee’s book seems to be an exercise in pure narcissism. She is perfect, everyone who opposes her is not just wrong but has evil, nefarious motives and must be personally impugned (an attitude and style of argument that I find particularly distasteful). She has no understanding of historical context and doesn’t care. Teacher unions are evil, she is pure. She wants the shock doctrine applied to the public schools and brooks no opposition to her project of turning our schools into a capitalist experimentation station. She thinks the whole world should be competing viciously in a William Graham Sumner-esque race to the top. She lacks the ability to look outside her own experiences growing up in a household where she was pushed hard by her parents to understand why others might not find this valuable or desirable or even possible.

Rhee says that we can’t solve poverty until we solve education. This is absurd on the face of it. First and once again, does education need to be solved? That’s not to say it can’t get better; of course it can. But not only is there zero evidence that Rheeism will improve education for the average child, but her policies make it harder to do what we really could do to improve education–increase funding for school programs, hire more teachers for smaller class sizes, increase funding to teach foreign languages and better prepare our students for 21st century global life, build schools with better learning (and working) conditions that actually have air conditioning (a major issue in the Chicago Teachers Union strike), increase the salaries of teachers to make it an appealing profession for young people, improve the intensity and quality of education programs at the college and university level, etc. But of course these things cost money and take political power and Rhee’s interest in those questions go only so far as it profits her and her friends.

I’m also curious, even if we do “solve education,” how Rheeism will solve poverty. Will it convince Congress to improve the food stamp program? Raise the minimum wage? Pass a national guaranteed income? Undermine racial segregation? Bring industrial jobs back to the United States for the working class? Of course it will do none of these things. I guess it’s supposed to make “job creators” or something, but the end game of Rhee’s ideas are never spelled out precisely because she completely lacks interest in the long-term implications of her project.

Overall then, the review is great except for the last paragraph. After spending an entire article talking about Rhee’s own self-regard and unwillingness to admit the problems in her points while also talking about the sense Ravitch makes, Delbanco closes with the following sentence: “One thing that certainly won’t help our children is any ideology convinced of its exclusive possession of the truth.” Ah, a classic both sides do it ending! Earlier, Delbanco talks about how Ravitch’s ideas make more sense but they won’t get you on the cover of Time. I guess a true judgment at the end of a hot topic domestic article won’t get you the featured New York Review of Books piece either.

Nonetheless, a review very much worth your time.

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