School Choice & Charters Opinion

“Reign of Error” Reviewed: Ravitch Rises

By Anthony Cody — September 15, 2013 4 min read
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Diane Ravitch has emerged as an iconic figure on America’s political landscape. 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. Her new book, Reign of Error, The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, goes on sale Tuesday, and reveals a great deal about the nature of the epic struggle raging over the future of public education in America - and beyond.

Ravitch’s previous book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, was a breakthrough. An “establishment” figure reviewed the evidence and categorically rejected the dominant reform strategies then on the ascent. What’s more, Ravitch called out what she termed the “billionaire boys club” for their heavy-handed attempts to privatize the public schools.

Reign of Error picks up where Death and Life left off. Over the past three years the patterns of corruption and influence have become clear, as has the evidence. Her prose is precise and accurate, and devastating. She does not mince words. The third chapter, “Who are the Corporate Reformers,” provides a thumbnail portrait of the titans and their proxies. From Gates to Jeb Bush to Barack Obama, we see the web connected by the power of wealth.

Some have suggested that Ravitch applies too broad a brush in her indictment. Here is what she writes:

Some in the reform movement, believing that American education is obsolete and failing, think they are promoting a necessary but painful redesign of the nation's ailing schools. Some sincerely believe they are helping poor black and brown children escape from failing public schools. Some think they are on the side of modernization and innovation. But others see an opportunity to make money in a large, risk-free, government-funded sector or an opportunity for personal advancement and power. Some believe they are acting rationally by treating the public education sector as an investment opportunity.

Ravitch is not vilifying. She allows for good intentions as well as selfish ones. We do not need to look into the hearts of corporate reformers to determine that they are wrong for our schools. We just need to look at the results of their policies.

And that is where Reign of Error is most useful.

True to the title, the book takes on the errors that are central to the corporate reform narrative.

• While we hear that schools are failing, the truth is test scores and graduation rates have never been higher.
• Poverty is not an excuse for low achievement. It is a significant obstacle which must be dealt with.
• Using test scores to identify and get rid of “bad” teachers will do more to harm students than help them.
• Merit pay for test scores likewise has never worked.
• Schools are not improved by closing them.

On Teach For America, her analysis corresponds to my experiences working as a mentor teacher in Oakland:

By its design, TFA exacerbates teacher turnover or "churn." No other profession would admire and reward a program that replenished its ranks with untrained people who expected to move on to a new career in a few years. Our schools already have too much churn. Nationally, about 40 percent of teachers leave within the first five years; in high-poverty schools, the rate is 50 percent or so. Few members of TFA stay in the classroom as long as five years. Researchers have found that experience matters; the weakest teachers are in their first two years of teaching, which is understandable because they are learning how to teach and manage their classes. Researchers have also found that staff stability matters. The more that teachers come and go, the worse it is for the schools and their students. One recent study determined that teacher turnover depressed achievement in both mathematics and reading, especially in schools with more low-performing and black students. The disruption was harmful to students whose teachers left, as well as to other students in the school. Turnover itself is harmful, possibly because it undermines the cohesion and collegiality of the community of educators.

On the subject of charter schools, Ravitch does not issue the blanket condemnation she has been accused of. Instead, she makes specific observations of the practices of charters around the country, and their impact on the local communities they inhabit. And she raises some critical questions:

Will charter schools contribute to the increasing segregation of American society along lines of race and class? Will the motivated students congregate in charter schools while the unmotivated cluster in what remains of the public schools? Will the concentration of charter schools in urban districts sound a death knell for urban public education? Why do the elites support the increased stratification of American society? If charter schools are not more successful on average than the public schools they replace, what is accomplished by demolishing public education? What is the rationale for authorizing for-profit charters or charter management organizations with high-paid executives, since taxpayers will pay their salaries, with no benefit to their own children?

On the subject of online education, Ravitch describes recent boondoggles, and observes,

Online technology surely holds immense potential to enliven the classroom. But the story of cyber charters warns us that the profit motive operates in conflict with the imperative for high quality education.

When Ravitch discusses vouchers, her dedication to quality education shines through.

If the market were always right, the best products would always be the most successful, but that is not necessarily the case. If the market were always right, only the highest quality books, movies, and television programs would top the charts, but that is not necessarily the case.
Would the free market produce better education? Should the state subsidize schools where teachers are not certified and meet no particular standard of professionalism? Should taxpayers fund religious schools whose beliefs do not accord with modern science or history?

Ravitch was faulted for her last book’s lack of solutions to the problems she identified. The last third of Reign of Error is devoted to concrete policy solutions, and evidence that they are sound. Prenatal care, early childhood education, and, of course, a solid, well-rounded education for every child. Smaller class size and wraparound social services are also endorsed.

The issue of testing is of critical importance, because this, more than anything, has emerged as the linchpin of corporate reform. Her seventh solution is:

Eliminate high-stakes standardized testing and rely instead on assessments that allow students to demonstrate what they know and can do.

Every time we decry the effects of standardized tests, we are told that this is the only way to hold schools and teachers accountable. Ravitch offers another idea.

Just imagine that every school district and state had a team of expert educators who regularly visited and inspected schools. They would review student work and meet with the principal, teachers, parents and students. They would analyze the demographics, the curriculum, the staff, the resources, and the condition of the school. They would interview educators to gauge the progress of students who advanced to the next level of schooling, from elementary school to middle school, from middle school to high school, and from high school to postsecondary studies. Schools that are struggling to meet the needs of their students would get frequent visits, no less than annually. Schools that are successful would require fewer inspections. The evaluation team would make recommendations to help the school improve and send in support personnel when needed. It would prod the authorities to make sure the school got the resources and support it needed. The goal of the evaluation should be continuous improvement, not a letter grade or a threat of closure.

In the final chapters of Reign of Error, Ravitch explains the pernicious effect of privatization:

But as school choice becomes the basis for public policy, the school becomes not a community institution but an institution that meets the needs of its customers. The school reaches across district lines to find customers; it markets its offerings to potential students. Districts poach students from each other, in hopes of getting more dollars. The customers choose or reject the school, as they would choose or reject a restaurant; it's their choice. The community no longer feels any ties to the school, because the school is not part of the community. The community no longer feels obliged to support the school, because it is not theirs.

Educators feel that Diane Ravitch speaks for us in a way that few others do. That is clearest when she writes this, in bringing her book to a close:

Genuine school reform must be built on hope, not fear; on encouragement, not threats; on inspiration, not compulsion; on trust, not carrots and sticks; on belief in the dignity of the human person, not a slavish devotion to data; on support and mutual respect, not a regime of punishment and blame. To be lasting, school reform must rely on collaboration and teamwork among students, parents, teachers, principals, administrators and local communities.

Ravitch’s own journey, which has taken her from inside the first Bush administration to standing alongside those protesting Obama’s education policies on the National Mall, is remarkable. This book provides us with a definitive study of the state of education reform in the modern age. This is a living history written by someone willing to make it, not just write about it.

In the year to come there will be study groups gathering by the hundreds to talk over this book and better understand what is happening to our schools. This book was not written simply to be read. Like the best books, it was written to be discussed, wrestled with, and acted upon.

Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error book tour will begin this week, and already larger venues are being sought as advance tickets sell out. Reign of Error can be preordered now. I will be speaking at the Sep. 27 event in Sacramento, along with Ravitch and Linda Darling-Hammond.

Disclosure: Diane Ravitch joined me last March in co-founding the Network for Public Education, which she serves as president.

What do you think of Diane Ravitch’s work? Will “Reign of Error” inform our discussion of education reform in the months to come?

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The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.