Books discussed in this essay:

Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms, by Diane Ravitch

The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupifies Young People and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30), by Mark Bauerlein

The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education, by Diane Ravitch

The Great School Wars, New York City, 1805-1973, by Diane Ravitch

The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs

Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, by James C. Scott

In Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms (2000), Diane Ravitch, a historian and professor of education at New York University, warned against "anything in education that is labeled a ‘movement.'" The problem, she contended, is that "there has been no shortage of innovation in American education; what is needed before broad implementation of any innovation is clear evidence of its effectiveness."

Americans have tried many innovations since A Nation at Risk, the 1983 report by President Reagan's National Commission on Excellence in Education, which catalyzed a vigorous debate over what's wrong with our educational system and how to fix it. One thing we haven't tried is austerity. According to the National Education Association, the average expenditure per pupil in public elementary and secondary schools was $2,230 in 1980, and $10,589 in 2008. Adjusted by using the Department of Commerce deflator for state and local governments, real per-pupil expenditures were 62% higher in 2008 than in 1980.

It would be hard to argue that America's educational system is working 62% better than it did 30 years ago. It's not certain that our schools are even 1% better. A Nation at Risk relied on declining scores in the College Board's Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) to assert that America had "squandered the gains in student achievement made in the wake of the Sputnik challenge."

Those scores haven't improved much since 1983, however. Between 1980 and 2009 the average SAT score on the "critical reading" test has been on a plateau, fluctuating between 500 and 508, where a score of 200 is the minimum and 800 is the maximum. (The College Board changed this test in 1994, but offers a "recentered" scale that allows results since the change to be compared to ones before it.) The average score on the mathematics test increased modestly, from 492 in 1980 to 520 in 2005, before retreating to 515 in the years 2007 through 2009. It's no shock that our high schools record few dramatic breakthroughs, given that in 2009 only one third of 8th-grade students were "proficient"—that is, demonstrated "solid academic performance"—in reading and math, according to the Department of Education's National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Labor, Management, and Materials

We, the shareholders of Public Education, Inc., deserve an explanation for how an enterprise could increase its per-unit costs by 62% over 28 years, during which improvements in the intended outcomes were, at best, slight and equivocal. Different analysts will come up with different explanations. In general, however, they will ascribe America's educational failures to some combination of problems with labor, management, and "materials"—the 50 million American children enrolled in an elementary or secondary school.

Labor: Conservatives deplore the teachers unions' success in securing tenure protection for mediocre or even incompetent teachers, and the political strength that allows them to dictate terms to school districts. Even many liberals have stopped defending the unions. Joe Klein of Time magazine calls them "a reactionary force" that wields the language of professionalism to secure "a set of work rules more appropriate to factory hands," including "strict seniority rules about pay, school assignment, length of the school day and year."

Unions aside, American education benefitted during long decades when teaching was the default career for bright young women discouraged from pursuing other careers. As recently as 40 years ago, according to the American Bar Association, fewer than 10% of law school students were women. By 1992 that figure exceeded 50% and has never since dropped below 43%. Similarly, the Association of American Medical Colleges reports that women earned 48% of the M.D.s awarded in 20092010, nearly twice the proportion in 1982-83.

Management: American public education's true governing structure is difficult for citizens, parents especially, to understand, influence, and—given the opportunities for self-dealing—trust. A number of critics describe it as "The Blob." It includes:

  • the two national teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA);
  • the school boards, district superintendents, school principals, and their professional associations;
  • state superintendents of education, and state boards and departments of education; 
  • the U.S. Department of Education, established in 1979, now with 5,000 employees and a $70 billion budget;
  • schools of education—the U.S. News and World Report ranking lists 279—where most teachers go for training and credentials, and where new pedagogical strategies are developed and launched.

Materials: Children bring problems and shortcomings to the schoolhouse door that dwarf the ones educators were expected to cope with decades ago. A 2004 Heritage Foundation report by Patrick Fagan stated that 4 out of every 100 American births in 1950 were out of wedlock. Fifty years later, 33 were. Another 8% of those born in 1950 would see their parents divorce, while 27% born in 2000 could expect to. Students from single-parent homes get significantly lower grades in school than those raised in two-parent families, Fagan noted, and are four times more likely to be expelled. On the Left, Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute argues that not even "the best curriculum, instruction, and teacher expectations," can prevail against the problems of educating children in poor health, from economically precarious homes, or who "come to school with limited vocabularies and who are unfamiliar with books."

Even children from prosperous, well-ordered homes pose new pedagogical challenges for educators. In The Dumbest Generation (2008) Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University, argues that even though technology, leisure, and prosperity offer today's young Americans "extraordinary chances to gain knowledge and improve their reading/writing skills," the reality is that they are "no more learned or skillful than their predecessors, no more knowledgeable, fluent, up-to-date, or inquisitive, except in the materials of youth culture."

Ravitch Reconsiders

The latest of Diane Ravitch's ten books, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education (2010), is the most controversial volume on American education in many years. InDeath and Life Ravitch switches sides, something that always draws attention when done by a prominent advocate. Ravitch was, for many years, associated with the conservative critique of, and reform agenda for, American education. During the final two years of the George H.W. Bush presidency she was assistant secretary in the Department of Education, reporting to Secretary Lamar Alexander, now a Republican senator from Tennessee.

But that was then. Now, Ravitch quotes John Maynard Keynes, who is said to have told a critic, "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" She writes in Death and Life that she "grew increasingly disaffected from both the choice movement and the accountability movement," two essential elements of the conservative plans to recast public education.

I feared that choice would let thousands of flowers bloom but would not strengthen American education. It might even harm the public schools by removing the best students from schools in the poorest neighborhoods. I was also concerned that accountability, now a shibboleth that everyone applauds, had become mechanistic and even antithetical to good education. Testing, I realized with dismay, had become a central preoccupation in the schools and was not just a measure but an end in itself. I came to believe that accountability, as written into federal law, was not raising standards but dumbing down the schools as states and districts strived to meet unrealistic targets.

It's no surprise, given the vigor of Ravitch's recantation, that she once argued forcefully for positions she now rejects. In 1995 she wrote, "Parents ought to be able to send their children to the school of their choice, basing their decision on accessible, accurate information." Furthermore, "The neediest students should get scholarships to attend any accredited school, including religious schools." As for accountability, Ravitch insisted that every school should be "accountable" and "rigorously audited" for "student performance and fiscal integrity." Regarding New York City's school system of one million students, she wrote:

The schools chancellor and the central board should set academic standards, administer citywide tests, sign performance contracts with every school and replace the managements of schools that fail to meet their own performance goals. The chancellor should have the power to close schools that consistently fail or engage in corrupt practices.

Unintended Consequences

Before considering the relationship between changing facts and Professor Ravitch's changing opinions, it's important to discuss the way her thinking has not changed. Ravitch was given rock-star treatment when she received the Friend of Education award at the 2010 NEA convention, and was recently described as a "liberal icon" by the Washington City Paper. Yet she was not being disingenuous when she wrote in Death and Life, "I am too ‘conservative' to embrace an agenda whose end result is entirely speculative and uncertain…. I could not countenance any reforms that might have the effect—intended or unintended—of undermining public education."

This Burkean concern with the potential for reform agendas, derived from abstract theorizing, to have unexpected and baleful consequences is a thread running through Ravitch's career. Her first book, The Great School Wars, New York City, 1805-1973 (1974), concludes with an account of how ideas about "community control," devised by the Ford Foundation under the leadership of McGeorge Bundy, were implemented to disastrous effect in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn. "One of the persistent ironies of reform," she wrote, "is the impossibility of predicting the full consequences of change; every school war has had outcomes which were unintended, and, in many cases, unwanted."

This wary respect for the law of unintended consequences continues to the present day. The title of Ravitch's new book pays homage to The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), by Jane Jacobs. Jacobs gained fame as the writer and activist who thwarted massive urban renewal projects proposed by New York's Robert Moses, the most powerful unelected state and local official of the 20th century. Jacobs, who opposed the war in Vietnam so intensely that she left America for Canada in 1968 and never returned, was nonetheless included in an anthology of conservative thought edited by William F. Buckley, Jr. The 1965 New York City mayoral candidate hailed her as "the tenacious challenger of the urban abstractionist," who defended "a city that grows as it is disposed to grow, free of the superimpositions and the great allocations of the planners."

When I asked her, by email, about the connections between the two Death and Life books, Ms. Ravitch replied, in terms similar to Buckley's, that she was impressed by Jacobs's defense of "the wisdom of those who are closest to the situation, as opposed to grandiose schemes that don't take ordinary people's ideas into account about how they want to live their lives." Her Death and Life also cites a less famous book that makes a similar argument, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (1998) by James C. Scott. It taught her, Ravitch wrote, to beware the temptations that lead to, and consequences that follow from, "looking at schools and teachers and students from an altitude of 20,000 feet and seeing them as objects to be moved around by big ideas and great plans."

Ravitch devotes a scathing chapter of Death and Life to the big ideas that convulsed the San Diego school system. Alan Bersin, a former federal prosecutor appointed school superintendent in 1998 despite having no experience as an educator or educational administrator, played the part of Robert Moses. Superintendent Bersin quickly assembled a team that "launched a radical venture in school reform," according to Ravitch, with a strategy that relied on "command-and-control methods rather than consensus" and assumed "the central planners know exactly what to do and how to do it."

Bersin attempted to reshape all of San Diego schools on the basis of "Balanced Literacy," a flavor-of-the-month pedagogical theory that "focuses mainly on reading strategies and teaching children to identify and practice them," in Ravitch's summary. Students are encouraged to rehearse and specify these strategies by interrupting their classroom reading to announce, "I am visualizing," "I am summarizing," "I am making an inference," or "I am making a text-to-self connection." At one point Ravitch interviews one of the Balanced Literacy Kool-Aid drinkers from the San Diego central office, who says, "You won't believe this, but we had fourth graders who didn't know the difference between point of view and perspective." Ravitch refrained from confessing that she didn't know the difference either.

Hayek Without Tears

The great exponent of the idea that the wisdom possessed by even the ablest, most conscientious planners is never more than a fraction of the knowledge dispersed throughout a large population was the economist Friedrich Hayek. Though Ravitch never mentions Hayek in Death and Life, she was familiar enough with his work to cite it in a 1999 City Journal article, wherein she addressed a conservative readership: "Friedrich A. Hayek explained long ago that centralized ‘command-and-control' regulation seldom is efficient, because the people at headquarters always have a crucial deficit in information; they never know as much as the many thousands of people who are out in the field."

Hayek argued that prices, rising and falling freely in open markets, facilitate the efficiency and dynamism that planners can only compromise. Such prices convey, accurately and fluidly, changes in demand and supply—that is, in how widely and avidly people desire particular goods and services, and how easily and successfully people provide them.

Invoking a famous market theoretician would be as politically awkward for Ravitch today, given the different audience she is addressing, as it was helpful 12 years ago. Ravitch 2.0, in a 2011 blog post for Education Week magazine's website, decries the "continuing campaign to dismantle public education, privatize it, and turn it over to entrepreneurs of various stripes." There is, she now believes, a clash of visions for American public education:

One sees the school as a community, a place of learning where there is an ethical obligation to support both staff and students, helping both to succeed. The other sees schools as one part of a free-market economy, where quality may be judged by data; if the results aren't good enough, then fire part or all of the people and close the store, I mean, the school and pick a new location.

Having changed her mind, Ravitch has embraced a philosophy that amounts to Hayek without tears—indeed, without consequences. Ravitch 1.0 wanted parents to be able to choose their schools on the basis of accurate, accessible information, and for school systems to formulate and apply standards that could measure which schools and teachers were doing a good job, and which weren't. For Ravitch 2.0, bad teachers' responsibility for our educational shortcomings is minimal, but the "zeal" to fire "bad teachers" is deplorable. (The quotation marks questioning whether such teachers exist are hers.) Such terminations entail shirking "responsibility for ruining someone's life." The thing to do with bad teachers, she writes, is to help them. If you've helped them, and they're still bad teachers…then you help them some more.

In the 2.0 morality play, then, the bad guys are the ones performing the tasks considered essential in the 1.0 analysis of schools' most urgent needs. Those who formulate and apply criteria for educational success, permitting or even encouraging parents to choose or reject schools on the basis of those criteria, have become Robert Moses-like villains, imperiously convulsing students and educators' lives on the basis of grand theories and comprehensive plans.

Ecology and Teleology

This reversal involves something deeper than switching sides politically. Jane Jacobs's central contention in The Death and Life of Great American Cities was that cities have an ecology. She never used the term, and I don't employ it in the sense that became synonymous with "environmentalism" a decade after she published her book. The point, rather, is that Jacobs demonstrated that cities adapt and flourish because of the intricate, subtle interactions among the people who live and work in them. The economist Edward Glaeser wrote in a 2009 essay, "Jacobs offered an anthropological analysis of how neighborhoods actually work." Her greatest insight, according to Glaeser, "was that cities succeed by enabling people to connect with one another…. As Jacobs understood better than anyone else, the chance encounters facilitated by cities are the stuff of human progress."

Unlike a city, however, a school system has an ecology but also a teleology—a mission. The core of this mission is to contribute to the success of the American experiment in self-government by preparing young people to assume the responsibilities our republic requires. It is not sufficient for these purposes that the schools produce graduates who are literate and numerate—but it is necessary. The Ravitch 2.0 diagnosis of why our schools don't perform their basic job better emphasizes "materials" (the schoolchildren), management (the regime of accountability, represented by No Child Left Behind and President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's Race to the Top), and choice (especially the increasing resources and attention devoted to charter schools). Labor (teachers and principals) are victims, not perpetrators.

Thus, "If every child arrived in school well-nourished, healthy, and ready to learn, from a family with a stable home and a steady income, many of our educational problems would be solved," Ravitch wrote in the New York Times earlier this year. Writing on her blog in support of July's "Save Our Schools" march in Washington, she called for federal programs assuring "that every pregnant woman has appropriate medical care and nutrition," and "children have high-quality early-childhood education…." Ravitch believes the Obama education policies affirm rather than repudiate No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and dismisses both approaches as "cruel." She has expressed particular concern about "the effects of 12 years of multiple-choice, standardized testing on children's cognitive development" and the growth of "an educational system devoted to constant measurement, ranking, and rating of children." As for labor, its shortcomings are entirely attributable to management, because the "punitive approach embedded in NCLB" has "poisoned the atmosphere," Ravitch wrote in theNew Republic last year, leaving educators feeling "fearful, beleaguered, and disrespected" by a "blame game that makes teachers the culprits for poor performance."

This diagnosis is unpersuasive, and the prescription it leads to is conspicuously thin. It's undeniable that weakening family and social structures, and the general abbreviation of attention spans, leave more children less prepared to succeed in school. It's difficult, however, to see that the correct conclusion to draw from these realities is that the schools should be excused from any expectations to perform better until a different Blob, the social welfare system, finds the resources and strategies it needs to guarantee every child's health and happiness. Head Start, the core federal program intended to address such needs is now 45 years old, and spends $7 billion a year on preschool programs enrolling about one million poor children. The benefits, according to the "Head Start Impact Study" recently released by the Department of Health and Human Services, are negligible. Positive results "vanished by the end of first grade," according to Joe Klein's summary in Time, while "Head Start graduates performed about the same as students of similar income and social status who were not part of the program."

The Compromise

So, yes, the schools have a tough job, and there are no obvious ways to make it much easier. This daunting challenge should make us more determined to learn whatever we can about which schools and approaches are faring especially well or poorly. It's here where choice and accountability can help, and where the Ravitch 2.0 rejection of them is misguided. They are not, as Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute argues, "ways to improve instruction—like a new curriculum or reading program." They are better understood as ways to acquire the insight and flexibility that make improvements in the organization and delivery of educational services possible. The point is not to discover the "secret sauce" that can guarantee excellence in every public school. Specific circumstances are likely to require different approaches in a nation growing larger and more diverse. Choice and accountability demonstrate their value, and refute Ravitch's critique of them, by making it easier to "create schools and systems characterized by focus and coherence, where robust curricula, powerful pedagogy, and rich learning thrive," in Hess's words.

Accountability can be administered badly, of course. Ravitch trains her sights on a big, ambling target in Death and Life, since by 2010 it was impossible to find anyone who believed the No Child Left Behind testing regime had been just the tonic for our schools. What she doesn't acknowledge is that all those kids taking all those tests is not just a problem, but a reflection of a deeper problem. The political bargain that secured large majorities for NCLB in both houses of Congress when it passed in 2001 was that Republicans would accept increased federal funding for education and Democrats would accept the development of yardsticks to satisfy parents and taxpayers that the schools really were improving. On this basis liberal Democrats, led by Representative George Miller of California and the late Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, supported the bill, as did conservative Republicans who ordinarily would have opposed another federal program to throw money at our educational problems.

NCLB critics have valid arguments about mis-measuring and over-measuring our students. Beneath them, however, is a less creditable attempt to revise the political bargain that created NCLB. The position of such critics is that we should continue and increase the flow of public dollars, while trusting the educators receiving those dollars to determine whether they're being spent effectively. Every American child deserves an education as good as the one offered at Sidwell Friends School, Ravitch told the protestors at the Save our Schools rally. Sidwell Friends, of course, is where the past two Democratic presidents enrolled their children—and where tuition exceeds $30,000 a year.

Before tripling the amount they pay for public education, however, taxpayers should be aware that the only assessments blessed by the Save Our Schools website are ones devised and applied by teachers, who know how to evaluate students informally and "are able to assess learning in multiple dimensions." As Ravitch told the rally, "Education policy should be designed by educators, not by politicians." In a democracy, politicians are responsible to voters while educators are responsible to professional standards, as applied and interpreted by…other educators. "We protest the idea that state legislatures have the wisdom to know how to evaluate teachers," she told the marchers. "It's unprofessional!"

Some of Ravitch's critics have pointed out that her detailed, forceful attacks on choice and accountability are accompanied by an account of the right path for the schools to follow that is meager, vague, bromidic, and nostalgic. InDeath and Life she wrote:

Our schools will not improve if we continue to close neighborhood schools in the name of reform. Neighborhood schools are often the anchors of their communities, a steady presence that helps to cement the bonds of community among neighbors. Most are places with a history, laden with traditions and memories that help individuals resist fragmentation in their lives. Their graduates return and want to see their old classrooms; they want to see the trophy cases and the old photographs, to hear the echoes in the gymnasium and walk on the playing fields.

We interrupt this reverie to inform you that conservatives who opposed busing with such language 40 years ago were accused of using code words for racism. For liberals, the rhetoric of communitarianism lends itself to covertly advancing the agenda of professionalism. Diane Ravitch grew up in an "FDR-loving, Democratic family," according to Dana Goldstein's profile in the Washington City Paper. After long years spent advancing a conservative viewpoint "she has returned to her traditional liberal home" with the publication of Death and Life, wrote Richard Kahlenberg, biographer of teachers' union leader Albert Shanker, in the Washington Monthly.

Carrots, Sticks, and True Canards

Coming home to liberalism means coming home to the conviction that disinterested experts really are disinterested, and really are expert. No one outside the guild can fairly or competently evaluate anyone inside it. "We protest the idea that principals and teachers will work harder if they're offered bonuses and if they live in fear of being fired," Ravitch told the Save Our Schools rally. "Carrots and sticks are for donkeys, not professionals." That hellish set of arrangements where one prospers by performing a job capably and suffers for performing it badly is what most Americans know as adulthood. In a Daily Beast article last year, "Stop Trashing Teachers!" Ravitch insisted, "The claim that ‘tenure' is a guarantee of lifetime employment is a canard." The job protections afforded teachers do not constitute "tenure" but merely offer "due process," a guarantee that a teacher can be fired "only after a hearing by an impartial hearing officer."

It turns out, however, that the widespread belief that tenured public school teachers have lifetime job security is one of those canards that is mostly, um, true. Ravitch devotes a chapter in Death and Life to lamenting the results of the state legislature's decision in 2002 to abolish the New York City Board of Education, which appointed and oversaw a schools chancellor, in favor of direct control of the schools by the mayor. Ravitch does not mention that in the kinder, gentler school system before mayoral control, 97% of New York City teachers received tenure after three years in the classroom, and 99% were deemed satisfactory in their annual evaluations.

In 2009 Steven Brill did mention these facts in an acclaimed New Yorker article. It made clear that the accommodation worked out over the years between the school system and the United Federation of Teachers did not guarantee merely ahearing to teachers up for dismissal. The process due to teachers under the union contract was a gauntlet, a siege, an endurance contest—a series of hearings, motions and appeals that consumed eight times as many days as the average criminal trial in the U.S. The embarrassment to the schools and the union from Brill's article was so acute that they agreed last year to shut down the "rubber rooms," where hundreds of teachers reported every workday to sit, dozing or playing board games, collecting full pay and accumulating credit towards their pensions, while their dismissal proceedings dragged on, sometimes for years.

In the torrent of articles she has written since the publication of Death and Life, Ravitch employs communitarian language to describe healthy schools. "Teachers, principals, administrators, parents, and local communities should collaborate to create caring communities," she contends, and urges us to view schools as "cooperative enterprises, where the adults are expected to work closely with one another towards common goals." She distinguishes such communities from markets, red in tooth and claw, where educators are terrorized to teach better, and find themselves demeaned and their lives ruined if their students don't learn enough.


It's hard to disparage collaboration and cooperation, as such. Context matters, however. In her Death and Life Jane Jacobs popularized the term "social capital" to describe how trust and the ease of sharing ideas strengthen a society. There may well have been more of that social capital for the great American school system to draw on decades ago, but it had a particular configuration. As recently as 1970, barely half (52.3%) of Americans aged 25 and over were high school graduates, and only a tenth (10.7%) held bachelor's degrees. By 2009 those proportions were 86.7% and 29.5%, respectively. The collaborations in 1970 between credentialed teachers, principals, and administrators, on the one hand, and parents and other community members, on the other, had a significant degree of deference built in, as educated people deliberated education policy with, generally, less educated people.

When Ravitch and teachers union leaders talk about restoring the good old days where professional educators were stewards entrusted with a community mission, this is the quality they are most eager to recapture. In reality, that sort of deference and, therefore, that sort of collaboration is less common today. An important reason why accountability remains integral to federal education policy, even after a Democratic administration displaced a Republican one in 2009, is the depletion of social capital, the lack of trust in the Blob. The political message that parents and taxpayers deserve objective, independent evaluations of schools' performance resonates far better with today's increasingly educated public than the message that educators should be given the money and power to do their job as they understand it, and know-nothing amateurs should stop interfering in their work.

"Congress and state legislatures should not tell teachers how to teach," Ravitch wrote in Death and Life, "any more than they should tell surgeons how to perform operations." Suppose, however, that the vast majority of hospitals were public facilities and the vast majority of physicians were public employees. Voters would not want legislators to write surgical guidelines, any more than they want them to devise schools' lesson plans. But they would want to know if there were some hospitals and surgeons whose patients recovered at an unusually high rate, and others whose patients were exceptionally likely to get sicker and die. Because of that data's importance, responsible public authorities would be obligated to develop it carefully, taking into account that different hospitals serve different communities, with health problems of varying types and severity.

After allowing for factors beyond the hospitals' and surgeons' control, public oversight might well reveal big differences still remaining in outcomes that could be ascribed to factors within the medical professionals' control. The public and their elected representatives would want to have access to that information. They would want to know which facilities were performing conspicuously well, in the hope that their best practices could be adopted elsewhere, and which facilities were doing conspicuously poorly, in the hope that their mistakes could be corrected. If the individuals responsible for the worst mistakes couldn't or wouldn't make the necessary improvements they could then be directed into lines of work that did not put patients' lives at risk. Conscientious hospital administrators and surgeons, for whom professional standards define a calling instead of propping up a careerist racket, would welcome such standards rather than resent them as the intrusions of uninformed outsiders. As that noted right-wing demagogue, Barack Obama, once said, "If a teacher is given a chance or two chances or three chances but still does not improve, there's no excuse for that person to continue teaching. I reject a system that rewards failure and protects a person from its consequences." One of the New York rubber room teachers Brill spoke to dismissed that position as "accountability bullshit" in favor of professional self-regulation: "We can tell if we're doing our jobs. We love these children."

In an America where public-sector medicine was the norm we would also expect that citizens would refuse to accept a system where they were assigned to their neighborhood hospital, and could seek care in other facilities, public or private, only by navigating a bureaucratic labyrinth or at great personal expense. Rather, they would demand, to paraphrase Ravitch 1.0, the freedom to seek medical care in the hospital and with the doctors of their choice, basing their decision on accessible, accurate information. It would be no surprise if that desire to vote with their feet led to demands for patients to be able to seek medical care from any licensed doctor or hospital.

For many years Diane Ravitch understood these concerns, and expressed them cogently. She has come to view her work during those years as flawed, and the policy initiatives that resulted from the political pressure she helped generate as misbegotten. Ravitch has retracted what she views as mistakes she made in the past, but takes pride in the flexibility and empirical clarity that allows her, no dogmatist, to discard ideas that fare badly outside the seminar room and op-ed pages. Perhaps, then, she'll reconsider the dangers of entrusting public education to professionalism that is neither checked nor balanced by citizens' concerns and their elected representatives' actions. Perhaps she'll change her mind again.