Slaying Goliath - New Book From Diane Ravitch Documents the Rise and Precipitous Recent Fall of the Corporate Reform Movement in the USA.

Lessons for Canada?


In her most recent book on privatization and corporate driven reform in the USA Diane Ravitch reviews where what she now calls “ the Disruptors” came from, how they rose (covered in her two previous works ( The Death and Life of the Great American School System and Reign of Error ); how they reached their zenith and are now headed sharply downhill towards a nadir. 


The latest book, Slaying Goliath, draws it metaphor from the Biblical David and Goliath story, posing the corporate Disruptors as the giant Goliath and the resistance, parents teachers, progressives, as the diminutive David, armed only with a sling, who slew Goliath with a single well delivered stone to the forehead. 


Ravitch outlines a series of major turning points that broke in favour of the resistance in recent years. These developments cut the legs out from under the corporate disruptors. 


1. The Disruption thesis rested on essentially two pillars. The first was privatization, largely meaning charter schools and vouchers. As vouchers became increasingly unpopular, the emphasis shifted to charter schools. The second was standardized testing. Disruptors wanted a massive testing regime. They even wanted teachers evaluated and eventually terminated on the basis of student test scores. They were so convinced that vouchers and charters would demonstrate dramatic gains in test scores that they failed to leave themselves a back door in case this did not prove to be the case. 

Reality finally caught up to them when NAEP scores (the one test given nationwide) failed to show any growth after years of reform, both at the national and school level. Charters failed to show any improvement compared to local schools with similar demographics. Voucher students actually regressed at least temporarily. 


2. The crown jewel of corporate disruption, Washington DC turned out to be a total fraud. In 2007 Michelle Rhee became chancellor. Charters expanded rapidly, billionaires poured in $120 million, high stakes testing ruled, and was used to evaluate teachers, the entire disruptor play book was thrown at DC. 

The entire edifice crumbled in 2018 when one school claimed 100% graduation rate up from 57% one year earlier. NPR and right wing news fawned all over DC until the teachers blew the whistle. Sixty % of the graduating class were chronically absent, and ineligible to graduate. The FBI investigated, the city ordered an independent audit showing a total fraud. Across the city the same pattern emerged. Only 42% were on track to graduate but 73% were graduating. Rhee was soon out and the entire disruptor scam dealt the movement a body blow. Testing on a huge scale proved to be a total failure as a tool to improve achievement. Please note fellow Canadians. 

3. The NAACP The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is the oldest existing civil rights organization in the USA focussed on black advancement. Anger about exclusionary policies of charter schools was bubbling up across the country. The NAACP held nationwide hearings and a motion was moved that there be a moratorium on new characters until they were held to the same transparency and accountability rules as regular public schools. The motion passed. 


The disruptors had tried to make the case that charters and vouchers were ‘the civil rights issue of our time’. They played on Afrrican American dissatisfaction with the results of public schools but the NAACP motion punctured the balloon of privatization as a civil rights issue. For those who thought that the NAACP was your grandfather’s  civil rights organization, Black Lives Matter, BLM the younger, more militant face of black civil rights took the same position. What killed black support was the classic “creaming” scam of private education, charters made it difficult to enroll and found ways to quickly expel all disruptive or low achieving students. After that, attempting to claim that they are successful since the remaining students were from the same neighbourhood as the local public school which was required to take all students. 


4. The corporate disruptors believed that evaluating teachers by the score of their students would improve the quality of teaching and, by extension the quality of education. This idea was demolished ironically by a Bill Gates funded, independent study. The RAND Corporation and the American Institute for Research released a study of three public school districts and four charter school chains. The projects neither improved student achievement nor did they weed out ineffective teachers. It was a total failure. 

5. The massive, mainly red state walkouts by teachers, 2018,  dramatized the fact of widespread underinvestment in public education. Funding had been cut ostensibly due to the 2007-8 financial crisis but by 2018 it had not been restored. Americans realized that only mass action would persuade state legislators to restore funding. Echoing the NAACP teachers demanded a moratorium on future charter schools. These strikes, effectively changed the national channel from privatization to the underfunding of public education and even to the real cause of dismal underclass results - poverty. 


6. Until Trump’s election there was widespread Democratic Party support for charter schools. Corporate Democratlc luminaries  like Cory Brooker, Mike Bloomberg, Bill Clinton, Rahm Emmanuel, and many others were heavy backers. Even Obama allowed his education secretary, Arne Duncan to become a super charter promotor. Then a perfect storm hit charters (and vouchers). On top of the above failure of testing, teacher testing, NAACP and other failures, Trump appointed Betsy DeVos as education secretary. Her aura was one of the billionaire incompetent, religious zealot, far right winger, in over her head. She was a heavy promoter of vouchers and charters for all the conservative reasons ( ideology, privatization for profit, but mainly as a work around that allowed public money to support religious education). Many Democrats began to see the contradictions. If these far right zealots plus Trump himself are for privatization, why am I for it? 

The Disruptors (ironically a popular term in private business with Uber and Air B+B, ) are very unpopular terms with public school parents. The very last thing they want is educational disruption. Biz types seem oblivious to this. The Disruptors tried to showcase their “success” stories like New Orleans, where Katrina’s aftermath and disaster capitalism created a 100% charter district, and Florida where former governor Jeb Bush and his acolytes  had been running amok with vouchers and charters for years. Both proved to be Potemkin Villages. Researchers and NAEP results soon demonstrated that they were total failures. 


Privatization failed for a perfect storm of corruption, (the media is full of endless stories of failure and outright financial chicanery. Segregation was promoted by charters. This is segregation of every kind, race, religion, income…). The evidence began to show that the funding for charters came right off public school budgets. This shifted the thinking of public school supporters. Their past view of charters shifted from a benign cancer to a more  malignant variety. 


Every time the Disruptors, and especially their billionaire backers were proven wrong, they shifted focus to another complete failure like a kitten with a ball of yarn. They have the attention span of a gnat. You can google some of these failures, as there are just too many to document. Common core, small schools, parent trigger laws, teacher testing, state takeover of failing schools, and more. 


The Disrupter narrative, is that the “failure” of American education can be laid at the feet of teachers, teacher unions, “tenure”, and their supporters. This narrative suffered a fatal blow when the American Statistical Association concluded that teachers are responsible for a minimum of 1% and a maximum of 14% of the variability in test scores and that most opportunities for improvement were not with teachers and classrooms but in system level conditions. 


At the end of the day, even the OECD, a Paris based, capitalist oriented, think tank  responsible for PISA testing has been telling the USA for years that their weak results are due to POVERTY and exacerbated by the fact that poverty is concentrated. This leaves the billionaires with a quandry. They want an educated workforce for our new world of 5G, AI and a tech driven future but they don't want to pay for it by having their vast wealth taxed, to alleviate the poverty that is the root of all American failure. It seems the adage “you get what you pay for” doesn’t register with the 0.01% of billionaires. 


Lessons for Canada


Some provinces like BC already offer up to 50% tuition support for privates schools. This should be capped at today’s rate and begin a phase out at 10% less per year over a 10 year period. Alberta has a few charter schools. They are not a problem yet but every single one means less money for regular public schools. They also need to be capped and phased out. Ontario has full funding for catholic schools,  an historical anachronism. As the water gets low in the watering hole, the animals look at each other differently. If the catholic priesthood does not destroy this system first, the system will be looked at with an increasingly different lense due to advances in human rights, science, education, urbanisation, and the growing free thinking movement. Religious education will not survive too much longer or be justified in light of financial pressure. Quebec and Newfoundland abolished their religious based system. Quebec opted for a language based English French system. This makes far more sense. 


Finally, Canada must look at, not only the failure of privatization by charters and vouchers but also the total failure of all disruptive reform south of the border. Testing has zero value added to the education system. It is costly and there is evidence from U Texas at Austin, that it increases the dropout rate by demoralizing marginal students. 


Our American sisters and brothers let corporate disruptive education reform get away from them and build up a head of steam that looked undefeatable until the bodies started to float to the surface. The disruptors were hoisted on their own petard. The standardized testing they demanded turned on them and showed, by their own standards, vouchers and charters have no value results for all their disruption. 


Canadians must avoid privatization and begin to wind down standardized testing. The latter obviously has no role to play in educational\improvement.