When it comes to education reform I’m a struggling optimist. The news is rarely good, with a steady diet from the media of school failures, lukewarm test scores, the self-serving demands of teacher unions, and even threats to our national security.
So what to make of Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools? The title itself seems to promise nothing but more bad news.
But this book is not a lament. Instead, in lean, measured prose Diane Ravitch addresses the many erroneous claims made by the “education reform” movement and then presents a realistic and humane plan for true educational improvement.
Ravitch doesn’t, however, just say that the reformers’ claims are wrong. That’s too easy, and Ravitch refuses the easy way out. She recognizes that the public is confused. For over a decade, it has been told by the government that our children’s schools are in a dangerously sorry state. The Bush Administration’s major tactic in presenting education reform (among other issues) was to repeatedly insist that something was “fact” despite solid contrary evidence until the public believed it. Unfortunately the Obama Administration has continued this same tactic in its education agenda.
In an effort to clear up some of the public’s confusion and to address the reformers’ accusations and claims, Reign of Error examines a wide variety of topics such as who constitutes what Ravitch calls “the corporate reformers,” the validity of high-stakes testing, the expanding achievement gap, charter schools and vouchers, and local school control. For each topic the book presents an exhaustive overview of studies, graphs and statistics that demonstrates why the reformers’ statements are false, oversimplified and in some cases, downright wrong thinking.
Yet behind all the statistics and the arguments laid out point by counterpoint, demonstrating the best of academic writing—no point left unsubstantiated—is a passionate and compassionate advocate for teachers, students and our public school system. Although the tone of Ravitch’s writing is professional, it is refreshing to see her own exasperation occasionally break through her usual cool demeanor when, for example, in writing about value-added assessment of schools and teachers she comments, “Stated as politely as possible, value-added assessment is bad science. It may even be junk science.” Having worked with at risk students my whole teaching career I couldn’t help but cheer that “dukes up,” “let’s take it to the parking lot” slam, and wonder if “bad science” was as close to “bullshit” as she (or her editor) could allow.
But Ravitch doesn’t stop at confronting the misinformation put out by the government and its corporate backers. She systemically exposes the motive behind many of these corporate reforms: the dismantling of our public school system itself and its replacement by entrepreneurial ventures.
For the more naïve reader (for example, me) it was continually jarring, almost painful at times, to confront the forces, one is tempted to say the sinister forces, that are shaping our educational polices. It was disturbing to read about for-profit charter schools and the educational schemes of equity investors and corporations; to see quantified the amount of money that is pulled away from public schools by charters and the use of vouchers. Reign of Error demonstrates over and over the power of greed in shaping educational policy.
All this profit is in stark contrast to the dire poverty in which many of our most vulnerable students—the supposed beneficiaries of NCLB and Race to the Top—live, a poverty that permeates their schools, which are unsafe, undersupplied, understaffed and as a result underrated.
As a teacher of disenfranchised high school kids, I appreciated Reign of Error’s in-depth investigation into the relationship between poverty and academic performance since policy makers and pundits consistently refuse to acknowledge the link. The impact of poverty and racism (conditions that go hand in hand) on the achievement gap seems too obvious to ignore. But ignore, the corporate reformers do. They maintain that schools alone can close the gap.
But a great deal of research proves the opposite, and Reign of Error documents not only the damage these conditions have on a child’s development but also shows how these unaddressed societal problems impact the entire field of education. It matters in how and why charter schools are established or vouchers are paid out. It matters in how teachers are evaluated, in whether neighborhood schools are closed, school staffs fired, and children labeled as failures.
Ravitch is a realist. She does not insist that poverty be eradicated before we improve our schools. That is a false choice, she assures us. The solution is clear, the way so much of what she recommends throughout Reign of Error is clear: Fix both at the same time. But there is little political will to address these conditions—there’s no money to be made. As Ravitch writes, “It is easy for people who enjoy lives of economic ease to say that poverty doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter to them…For them, it is a hurdle to be overcome, like having a bad day or a headache or an ill-fitting jacket.” Another zinger!
So, after reading Reign of Error do I remain an optimist? Yes. Perhaps even more so. Diane Ravitch has written the primer for anyone who wants to understand the education debate and who cares about kids and their schools. She doesn’t just tell us what is “wrong” in today’s schools, she lauds what is good (and there is more than you’d think given the reformers’ propaganda) and lays out what we—parents, teachers, administrators, school boards, citizens—can do to improve what we have. Reign of Error sounds an optimistic note, “Across the nation…parents and community leaders are beginning to realize that education policy has been hijacked. They are starting to organize against high-stakes testing and privatization.” This book just might be the wedge that finally cracks open corporate education reform and helps it crumble.
You can read an excerpt from Reign of Error at Salon