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Ravitch vs. Reality (Part II)

• Dave Myslinski

In Diane Ravitch’s latest book, two glaring logical problems run throughout: first that public schools have never been better than they are right now, and second, that we ought not to expect more from them because of the crushing burden of student poverty.

Let’s tackle the student poverty issue first. Ravitch places education reformers from both the right and the left into the “corporate reformer” category. If you support charter schools and academic transparency in schools, Ravitch thinks of you as a “corporate reformer.” Ravitch then argues that this incredibly broad consensus of opinion simply doesn’t understand the role student poverty plays in crushing student outcomes and life prospects.

The unwritten assumption underlying this Gospel of Public School Helplessness is that American poverty is exogenous to the education system. Note however that the vast majority of the poor children attending public schools today had generations of ancestors who also attended public schools.

Americans strongly support public education both emotionally and financially and also strongly support the notion of equality of opportunity. If student poverty is indeed a greater problem in America than in other industrialized countries, at minimum it is in spite of having the most generously funded public education in human history.

Ravitch places everyone from Republican governors on the right to President Barack Obama and Secretary Arne Duncan on left into the “corporate reformer” category. These “corporate reformers” on both the right and the left believe that the tragic underperformance of the American public school system is a cause of enduring multi-generational poverty in America. Not the cause, but a cause. A large bipartisan consensus that sweeps across party and philosophical orientation holds that we would like to see the public school system be a part of the solution in reducing multi-generational poverty. The status-quo is not what anyone signed up for when the public school system was created:

In the 1830s, the push for public education gained momentum when reformers like Horace Mann, secretary of the Massachusetts board of education, promoted the notion of the “common school.” These schools would be publicly funded and locally governed and would offer a common curriculum to all students.

Inspiringly optimistic about the power of education, the common-school reformers saw universal public education as a solution to a host of social problems. In their view, public schools would transform children into moral, literate, and productive citizens; eliminate poverty and crime; quell class conflict; and unify a population that was becoming more ethnically diverse. A public investment in education would ultimately benefit everyone, they maintained, and would make schools accountable to the American people[i].

Public schools have benefitted millions of students and employed millions of hard-working, dedicated professionals. Public education is a permanent feature of American life, enshrined in state constitutions across the nation. Simply desiring an outcome closer to the original promise of the public education system today however will quickly get you denounced by Ravitch.

Is Ravitch totally correct regarding the role of student poverty, meaning that Horace Mann had things completely wrong? It is certainly not an either/or proposition, but it is easy to find evidence that reformers have every right to expect a more effective public education system that will do more to reduce inter-generational poverty.

In the next post, we look at the growing bipartisan consensus that reform is needed, the actual evidence supporting our conclusions, and how anyone concerned about the future of education can use that evidence to support and expand proven reforms.

Joint post written by Dr. Matthew Ladner and Dave Myslinski

About the author

Dave Myslinski

Dave Myslinski serves as a Communications Specialist for the Foundation for Excellence in Education, and was the State Policy Director for Digital Learning Now, focusing on digital education policies across all 50 states. Prior to joining the Foundation, he served as the Education Task Force Director at the American Legislative Exchange Council, where he focused on digital learning, K-12 education reform, and higher education policies on the state level. He is a coauthor of the Report Card on American Education: Ranking State K-12 Performance, Progress and Reform for ALEC, and currently serves on its Education Task Force Executive Committee and is a Vice-Chair of the Digital Learning Subcommittee. Dave has previously worked on state policies relating to health care and telecommunications. He is a graduate of Rutgers University. Contact Dave at