Two recent books by leading figures in the fight for the future of American education illustrate the passions at play in one of the country’s most important debates. Ravitch has emerged as the most consistent and searching critic of the contemporary education-reform movement, which favors more testing, more accountability for teachers, and more charter schools. The movement enjoys the support of an influential coalition of entrepreneurs, politicians of both parties, and wealthy foundations. Against these formidable opponents, Ravitch scores some important points: test scores are somewhat arbitrary, “teaching to the test” is not how great schools are built, segregation and poverty contribute to poor school performance more than many reformers admit, both the Bush and the Obama administrations gave the Department of Education far more power than it can wield wisely or well, and proponents of charter schools and school-voucher programs do not always have the facts on their side. As for school choice, which reformers believe will improve the system by making schools compete for students (and the funding that comes with them), Ravitch argues that education is one of the areas in which free-market thinking and market metaphors fail. But Ravitch’s feisty defense of the pre-reform status quo will strike many readers as too undiscriminating. Can it really be true that in cities where governments have been hollowed out by decades of corruption and one-party rule, the public school systems don’t need much reform? Is it not true that many public school teachers become cynical and despairing after years spent working in dysfunctional systems?
Rhee entered education through the Teach for America program and eventually rose to become an extremely controversial chancellor of the crisis-ridden Washington, D.C., public school system, where she took on the powerful teachers’ union. In 2010, the district elected a new mayor who did not support Rhee, and Rhee left her post to found an advocacy group that promotes school reform and supports politicians who back it. Rhee believes that rewarding successful teachers and either retraining or firing low performers will improve the quality of education. This is her core disagreement with Ravitch, who argues that teaching is too complicated and too personal a profession to be easily assessed and graded and that, in the real world, subjective assessments are likely to be biased and putatively objective ones, such as standardized tests, are often inaccurate.