Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error Hits Bookstores

By Catherine A. Cardno — September 20, 2013 3 min read
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Diane Ravitch, the scholar, education pundit, and former assistant U.S. secretary of education under George H. W. Bush, published a new book this week that is garnering a range of responses from the education community and beyond. Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools (Knopf) is a critical look at the current state of education reform and how federal policies and trends of the past decade have encroached on the public nature of public schools, thus damaging them.

Reign of Error is a follow-up to The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (Basic Books, 2010), which marked Ravitch’s change of heart from a supporter of policies like expanded school choice and accountability to one of their most vocal opponents. There are those who would argue that rather than switching sides, Ravitch merely realized that measures she had once supported had taken a turn that she could not endorse.

The release of Reign of Error has sparked coverage in education and mainstream publications alike: A number of bloggers on Huffington Post, including two teachers, mostly offered favorable reviews. UC-Berkeley’s David L. Kirp mentioned the book favorably in an essay he wrote for Slate on three anti-charter/anti-voucher books, but suggested that Ravitch soft-pedals some problems, including slipping U.S. college-graduation rates and the difficulty some districts experience trying to fire incompetent teachers. Both The New York Times and The Atlantic recently published profiles of Ravitch that address her well-known pro-to-con stance on the current tilt of school reform, while NPR’s On Point ran an hour-long interview with her, including a follow-up Q&A, in which she addressed listener reactions to her exchange with host Tom Ashbrook.

Ravitch’s book tour has also (and perhaps unsurprisingly) resulted in an asynchronous debate of sorts with her nemesis Michelle Rhee over the root of public school troubles in Philadelphia. (In the chapter “The Mystery of Michelle Rhee,” Ravitch calls the StudentsFirst founder and former chancellor of the District of Columbia’s public schools “the face of corporate reform.”) opinion bloggers have also joined the conversation: Anthony Cody, a co-founder with Ravitch of the Network for Public Education, writes: “What Daniel Ellsberg was to the Vietnam War, Ravitch has become to the battle raging over public education—a truth-teller with the knowledge that comes from decades on the inside of the education ‘reform’ movement.” He offers an outline of Reign of Error‘s main arguments in his blog Living in Dialogue.

Peter DeWitt, the author of the Finding Common Ground blog, framed his review as a call to action, writing, “We, as education professionals, need to have more of a voice in these changes to education policy.” Nancy Flanagan, whose opinion blog Teacher in a Strange Land is hosted by Education Week Teacher, recommends Reign of Error for educators “frustrated at being left out of a dialogue where their hard-won practice expertise is undervalued, even scorned.”

In contrast, Sam Chaltain—who blogs at Of, By, For: In Search of the Civic Mission of K-12 Schools—sees Ravitch’s language and status as more divisive than inspiring. Calling Ravitch a “muckraker,” he writes: “I found myself most convinced by her least sensational passages—the ones where her skills as a historian overwhelmed her sensibilities as a crusader.” While recognizing the need for public figures and voices to act as lightning rods in education, Chaltain concludes, “Reign of Error is a must-read book, but its research is diminished by its reductive characterizations of how we see, think, and believe.”

Ravitch co-authored the opinion blog Bridging Differences with Deborah Meier from 2007 to 2012. She now blogs at

Amy Wickner contributed to this post.

A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.