John Thompson is a historian and a retired teacher in Oklahoma. This article appeared originally in the Oklahoma Observer.

How the Billionaire Boys Club Ravaged America’s Public Schools

SLAYING GOLIATH The Passionate Resistance To Privatization And The Right to Save America’s Public Schools

Diane Ravitch started writing Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools in 2018 as teachers strikes erupted across the nation. These walkouts began in Red states where conservative legislatures drastically cut funding to under-resourced schools. Even in the places with the lowest salaries, like Oklahoma, educators were motivated by terrible working conditions that meant awful learning environments for students.

It wasn’t just the lack of money, and the resulting damage done by huge class sizes, a lack of textbooks, and neglected buildings, that motivated teachers. They also were resisting the disruption caused by corporate school reform, and the damage it had done to their kids. Teachers were sick of teach-to-the-test malpractice, reward and punish cultures and mandates that produce in-one-ear-out-the-other skin-deep instruction. The joy of teaching and learning was being undermined by the privatization of education. Many or most of these teachers put up with “reform” as long as they could before joining the “Resistance.”

Slaying Goliath is the third transformative book written by Ravitch after changing her mind on education policy. Although her academic histories of education had always been more balanced than progressives acknowledged, Ravitch had worked in the Education Department of President George H. W. Bush, and she had served on the board of the conservative Fordham Foundation. In 1992, she went to a briefing with David Kearns, the former Xerox CEO, where the Sandia Report’s findings were explained. Kearns and other reformers were outraged that scholars challenged the alarmism of “A Nation at Risk,” the infamous Reagan-sponsored indictment of public education. They refused to release the report which explained that American schools weren’t failing.

Ravitch recalls the way that education scholars were vilified for revealing that the so-called “crisis in education” was a “politically inspired hoax,” and a “manufactured crisis.” In a passage which exemplifies Ravitch’s candor, she writes about the late Gerald Bracey, “a prolific and outspoken education researcher” who challenged the conventional wisdom that she was then defending. Ravitch then writes, “I personally apologize to him.”

As the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 started to undermine schooling, Ravitch joined progressive educator Deborah Meier in a dialogue which changed Ravitch and the struggle against data-driven, competition-driven reforms. In 2010, she released the Death and Life of the Great American School System and three years later, she published Reign of Error. Ravitch “renounced” her old views and exposed the “smear campaign” which she presciently described as “privatization.” They funded so-called “transformative” change, designed to drive “bad teachers,” protected by “bad unions,” out of schools.

Ravitch’s talent with words may have been as important as her evidence-based evaluation of the inherent flaws of the technocratic micromanaging known as “reform.” The initial political successes of the reformers where driven by the huge bank accounts funding savage attacks on teachers and school systems. During the height of corporate reform a decade ago, Ravitch’s ability to coin a phrase seemed to be educators’ only means of self-defense. She nailed the issue by identifying “the Billionaires Boys Club” as the sponsors of “corporate reform;” now Ravitch dubs their movement “Goliath.” Her use of the term “privatization” helped us understand that the neoliberal attack, funded by Silicon Valley and Hedge Fund elites, was interrelated with the overall privatization movement which intimidated so many Democrats into retreating from the War on Poverty and other social justice campaigns. (In doing so, she paved the way for excellent work such a OU’s Associate Dean Lawrence Baines’ Privatization of America’s Institutions.)

Now, Ravitch renames both sides of the education wars. The Billionaires tried to claim the word reform, but they never deserved that title. They are “Disrupters.” We who fought them off are the “Resistance.”

Slaying Goliath reviews the failure of NCLB, and how 1990s improvements in student performance as measured by the reliable NAEP assessment slowed and then stopped. Then, Obama era reforms put NCLB’s high stakes testing, cultures of competition, and corruption of test scores and education values on steroids. But most of the book describes the emergence, the struggles and victories of the grassroots Resistance.

During the first decade of the 21st century, the Disrupters won nearly all of their political battles as their micromanaging failed to improve schools. Their testing often turned modern classrooms into sped-up Model T assembly lines, as their behaviorism turned charter schools into weapons for undermining teacher autonomy, due process, and professionalism. During the last decade, Disrupters suffered political and educational defeats as they learned that it is easier to kick down a barn than rebuild it.

However, Ravitch reminds us that the Disrupters are still threatening. She compares today’s danger to that which faced a man who decapitated a rattlesnake but who nearly died after being bitten by the detached head.

Oklahomans should take special interest in the narratives where the snake’s head is still a threat to our schools.

Today, many or most of Goliath’s coalition have become disenchanted with standardized testing, but their Disruption model can’t function without it. Oklahomans should heed the wisdom of reform-minded Paymon Rouhanifard, the former Camden superintendent, who abolished report cards after listening to complaints, and eventually denounced standardized testing.

Rhode Island, where their state superintendent Deborah Gist tried to fire all of the teachers in Central Falls, was an example of students rising up. They staged a “Zombie March, “ and created “Take the Test” for 50 elected officials, architects, scientists, engineers, college professors, reporters, directors of nonprofit organizations, and reporters.” Even with such educated test takers, 60% didn’t score high enough to earn a diploma.

Gist called their protest “deeply irresponsible on the part of the adults” for sending the message that tests don’t matter.

Since philanthropists who still support Gist have also funded “portfolio management,” Oklahomans should read the evidence about that kinder and gentler-sounding recipe for permanent teach-to-the-test and conflict.

Oklahoma philanthropists seem to believe the spin claiming that the New Orleans portfolio model was a success, but even the researchers who support that all-charter district’s prohibitively expensive approach admit that its school quality peaked in 2013.

As Ravitch explains, “A portfolio district is one where the local board (or some entity operating in its stead) acts like a stockbrokerage, holding onto winners (schools with high test scores) and getting rid of losers (schools with low test scores), replacing them with charters.”

As she further explains, these failures are linked to the Disrupters’ infatuation with mass closures of schools. To take one example, Chicago, Ravitch explains how the Chicago Consortium on School Research (CCSR) found “few gains” due to closing schools but “a profound sense of loss: lost schools, lost communities, lost relationships. These were losses that the Disrupters never understood. Test scores were all that mattered to them.” Chicago lost over 200,000 black residents between 2000 and 2016. And the CCSR further explained how they “caused large disruptions without clear benefits for students.”

Whether in Chicago, Tulsa, or Oklahoma City, closures may produce little or no gains, but they will lead to a “period of mourning.” This is one of the many ways reason why Oklahomans should move on from the presumption that disruptive and transformative change made sense. That mindset is another legacy of not seeing “value in bonds among schools, families, and community.”

Whether you call it transformative change or disruption, this mentality was committed to “blind adherence” to the corporate demand for “outputs” that “don’t work for schools for the same reasons they don’t work for families, churches, and other institutions that function primarily on the basis of human interactions, not profits and losses.”