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“The Death and Life of the Great American School System”

Education historian Diane Ravitch’s new book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” comes out this week. This exclusive excerpt is from Chapter 9, “What Would Mrs. Ratliff Do?”

My favorite teacher was Mrs. Ruby Ratliff. She is the teacher I remember best, the one who influenced me most, who taught me to love literature and to write with careful attention to grammar and syntax. More than fifty years ago, she was my homeroom teacher at San Jacinto High School in Houston, and I was lucky enough to get into her English class as a senior.

Mrs. Ratliff was gruff and demanding. She did not tolerate foolishness or disruptions. She had a great reputation among students. When it came time each semester to sign up for classes, there was always a long line outside her door. What I remember most about her was what she taught us. We studied the greatest writers of the English language, not their long writings like novels (no time for that), but their poems and essays. We read Shakespeare, Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, Milton, and other major English writers. Now, many years later, in times of stress or sadness, I still turn to poems that I first read in Mrs. Ratliff’s class.

Mrs. Ratliff did nothing for our self-esteem. She challenged us to meet her exacting standards. I think she imagined herself bringing enlightenment to the barbarians (that was us). When you wrote something for her class, which happened with frequency, you paid close attention to proper English. Accuracy mattered. She had a red pen and she used it freely. Still, she was always sure to make a comment that encouraged us to do a better job. Clearly she had multiple goals for her students, beyond teaching literature and grammar. She was also teaching about character and personal responsibility. These are not the sorts of things that appear on any standardized test.

She loved her subject, and she enjoyed the respect the students showed her, especially since this was a large high school where students did not easily give respect to their teachers. Despite the passage of years, I still recall a class discussion of Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” and the close attention that thirty usually rowdy adolescents paid to a poem about a time and a place we could barely imagine. I wonder if Mrs. Ratliff has her counterparts today, teachers who love literature and love to teach it, or whether schools favor teachers who have been trained to elicit mechanical responses from their students about “text-to-self connections,” “inferencing,” “visualizing,” and the other formalistic behaviors so beloved by au courant pedagogues. If Mrs. Ratliff were planning to teach these days, I expect that her education professors and supervisors would warn her to get rid of that red pen, to abandon her insistence on accuracy, and to stop being so judgmental. And they would surely demand that she replace those dated poems and essays with young adult literature that teaches adolescents about the lives of other adolescents just like themselves.

At our graduation, she made a gift of a line or two of poetry to each of the students in her homeroom. I got these two: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield,” the last line of Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” which we had read in class, and “among them, but not of them,” from Byron’s “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” which we had not read in class. As she did in class, Mrs. Ratliff used the moment to show us how literature connected to our own lives, without condescending into shallow “relevance.” I think these were the best graduation presents I got, because they are the only ones I remember a half century later.

I think of Mrs. Ratliff when I hear the latest proposals to improve the teaching force. Almost every day, I come across a statement by a journalist, superintendent, or economist who says we could solve all our problems in American education if we could just recruit a sufficient number of “great” teachers. I believe Mrs. Ratliff was a great teacher, but I don’t think she would have been considered “great” if she had been judged by the kind of hard data that is used now. The policy experts who insist that teachers should be judged by their students’ scores on standardized tests would have been frustrated by Mrs. Ratliff. Her classes never produced hard data. They didn’t even produce test scores. How would the experts have measured what we learned? We never took a multiple-choice test. We wrote essays and took written tests, in which we had to explain our answers, not check a box or fill in a bubble. If she had been evaluated by the grades she gave, she would have been in deep trouble, because she did not award many A grades. An observer might have concluded that she was a very ineffective teacher who had no measurable gains to show for her work.

Data-driven education leaders say that academic performance lags because we don’t have enough “effective” teachers, the ones whose students consistently improve their standardized test scores. The major obstacle to getting enough effective teachers and getting rid of ineffective teachers, they say, is the teachers’ unions. Union contracts provide job security that prevents administrators from hiring and firing teachers at will. If there were no unions, no union contracts, and no tenure, then superintendents could get rid of bad teachers and hire only effective teachers. Without the union, teachers’ salaries would be based on the test scores of their students, rather than on their seniority and credentials. According to theory, the higher compensation would attract outstanding teachers – the kind whose students will get higher scores – to the nation’s classrooms. So long as the unions insist on a uniform salary scale that gives equal rewards to effective teachers and mediocre teachers, then outstanding teachers will leave teaching and outstanding college graduates will never enter the profession. The answer to the problem of ineffective teachers, or so goes the argument, is to eliminate the teachers’ unions or at least render them toothless, then fire the teachers whose students get low scores.

To some economists and business leaders, this analysis makes sense because it reflects the way the free market supposedly works. In the free market, incentives and sanctions matter. Good performance gets rewarded, poor performance gets penalized, and employers have the power to hire and fire their employees. According to this theory, people work harder if the incentives are large enough, and they work harder if they fear being fired. What works in the private sector should also work in the public sector. Or so the theorists say, not taking note of the many instances when executives of failed corporations collected huge bonuses after the stockholders lost everything.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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