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BOOK REVIEW: "Reign of Error": The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools

Forget low test scores, says one of the nation's foremost education experts in her new book. The privatizers are the real threat to America's schools.
 
 
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Photo Credit: DianeRavitch.com

 

When faced with the many competing narratives of the religions of the world, comparative myth/religion scholar Joseph Campbell explained to Bill Moyers that Campbell did not reject religion, as some scholars have, but instead reached this conclusion:

Every religion is true one way or another. It is true when understood metaphorically. But when it gets stuck to its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble.

Following the unveiling of Ravitch 2.0 in The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, Diane Ravitch now offers Ravitch 3.0 with her newly released Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools.

Since Ravitch is a respected historian of education, a brief history seems appropriate for context.

Ravitch 1.0 established herself as a leading scholar of the history of education. She also wrote best-selling and influential books on education beginning in the mid-1970s. During the 1970s and into the early 2000s, Ravitch was associated with conservative politics (notably because of her public service from 1991 to 1993 as Assistant Secretary of Education and Counselor to Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander under President George H.W. Bush) and traditional educational philosophy. Ravitch 1.0 was a strong advocate for standards, high-stakes testing, accountability, and school choice.

With the publication of Death and Life, however, Ravitch 2.0 unveiled a stunning and powerful reversal of positions for Ravitch, who detailed in this popular book how she had come to see that the mounting evidence on the accountability era revealed that standards, high-stakes testing, and market forces were doing more harm to public education than good. In the following year, Ravitch became a highly visible and controversial public face on a growing movement to resist the accountability era and champion the possibility of achieving the promises of universal public education in the U.S.

An additional significant commitment from Ravitch, along with her relentless speaking engagements, was that she began to blog at her own site, creating a public intellectual persona that gave her more latitude than her traditional commitment to scholarship allowed. Ravitch’s blog now stands as a vivid and living documentation of how Ravitch has informed the education reform debate and how Ravitch herself has been informed by the experiences and expertise of an education community that has been long ignored by political leaders, the media, and the public.

Ravitch 2.0, however, remained tempered, often withholding stances on key issues in education, such as the debate over Common Core State Standards, that frustrated some of her colleagues teaching in the classroom, blogging about education, and conducting research on education and education reform.

Now, with Reign, we have Ravitch 3.0, displayed in a comprehensive work that in many ways echoes not only her own blog, but the growing arguments among educators and scholars that much of the reform agenda lacks evidence and that alternative commitments to education reform need to address poverty, equity, and opportunity.

In her Introduction, Ravitch explains her motivation for this book:

[David Denby] said to me, “Your critics say you are long on criticism but short on answers.”

I said, “You have heard me lecture, and you know that is not true.”

He suggested that I write a book to respond to the critics.

So I did, and this is that book. (pp. xi-xii)

Like Campbell, Ravitch confronts competing narratives about the state of education in the U.S. and the concurrent calls for reform. I have labeled these competing agendas as “No Excuses” Reform (NER), the dominant narrative driving policies at the federal and state levels, and Social Context Reform (SCR), a broad coalition of educations, academics, and scholars among whom I’d place Ravitch.

Also in her introduction, Ravitch begins by stating her purpose for the book as addressing four questions:

First, is American education in crisis?

Second, is American education failing and declining?

Third, what is the evidence for the reforms now being promoted by the federal government and adopted in many states?

Fourth, what should we do to improve our schools and the lives of children? (p. xi)

The first twenty chapters of Reign continues a tradition of other important, but too often ignored by politicians and the media, works confronting the false narratives perpetuated about U.S. public education—The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, And The Attack On America’s Public Schools by David Berliner and Bruce Biddle, from the mid-1990s, and Setting the Record Straight: Responses to Misconceptions About Public Education in the U.S. by Gerald Bracey, which followed Berliner and Biddle about a decade later.

Ravitch carefully and meticulously discredits claims that U.S. public education is in decline and details that crisis discourse misleads the public about what problems schools do face (messages echoing the work of Berliner, Biddle, and Bracey). Further, while offering a welcomed refrain that poverty and inequity drive most educational struggles, Ravitch details that the research base on most accountability era reform commitments (since the early 1980s) fails to justify those policies—for example, merit pay and linking teacher evaluations to test scores, charter schools, dismantling tenure, Teach for America, online education, parent trigger laws, vouchers and other choice mechanisms, and school closings.

In these opening and foundational chapters, Ravitch 3.0 will not allow a discussion of education and education reform to ignore the corrosive influence of poverty and inequity of opportunity. Ravitch also maintains a compelling and accessible mix of painting a clear and detailed picture of the history of education, the people driving the new reform era, and the research base that now reveals the accountability era is failing.

Readers cannot miss that poverty matters, and should never be allowed to determine children’s destinies (as it does now), and that the driving principle behind a commitment to public education is democracy, and not simply bending to the needs of the market.

Before moving to her alternative reform plan, Ravitch makes a direct statement about school choice advocates that serves well to represent what distinguishes the two competing narratives about education reform:

Conservatives with a fervent belief in free-market solutions cling tenaciously to vouchers. They believe in choice as a matter of principle. The results of vouchers don’t matter to them. (p. 212)

And therein lies the problem between NER and SCR. As Campbell explained above, NER is “stuck” in an ideological commitment that the evidence refutes. Ravitch, however, has maintained her ideological commitment to public education but honored her scholar’s ability to place evidence over beliefs.

From Chapter 20 on, Ravitch provides a powerful opportunity for educators to move beyond reacting to the accountability movement and to begin calling for alternatives to a failed three decades of new standards and the relentless misuse of high-stakes testing. In the last third of the book, Ravitch offers the following:

  • Rejecting the rise of school closures as effective policy.
  • Calling for prenatal care as a foundation for education.
  • Emphasizing the need for early childhood education for all children, but especially children trapped in poverty.
  • Shifting the focus on “basics” education to a commitment to a broad and rich curriculum for all children:

We cannot provide equal educational opportunities if some children get access to a full and balanced curriculum while others get a heavy dose of basic skills….The fact of inequality is undeniable, self-evident, and unjustifiable. This inequality of opportunity may damage the hearts and minds of the children who are shortchanged in ways that may never be undone….The essential purpose of the public schools…is to teach young people the rights and responsibilities of citizens. (p. 237)

  • Endorsing the importance of low class sizes.
  • Rejecting the misguided corporate charter movement but endorsing the original purposes of charter schools envisioned by Albert Shanker as collaborative and experimental and not competition for public schools.
  • Stressing the need for wraparound services to support in-school reform—medical care, summer programs, after-school enrichment, parent education.
  • Eliminating high-stakes testing and embracing authentic assessment that guides instruction: “Accountability should be turned into responsibility” (p. 273).
  • Rejecting demonizing teachers and the teaching profession and embracing instead teacher autonomy and professionalism.
  • Protecting democratic control of public schools.
  • Addressing directly racial segregation and poverty: “We should set national goals to reduce segregation and poverty” (p. 298).
  • Honoring the “public” in education and rejecting the privatization of schools: “We must pause and reflect on the wisdom of sundering the ties between communities and schools” (p. 312).

Toward the end of her plan for alternative policies to reform education, while discussing the problem with privatizing schools, Ravitch sounds what I think is the most dire point confronting the U.S. and our commitment to democracy:

The issue for the future is whether a small number of very wealthy entrepreneurs, corporations, and individuals will be able to purchase educational policy in this nation, either by funding candidates for local and state school boards, for state legislatures, for governor, and for Congress or by using foundation “gifts” to advance privatization of public education. (p. 310)

And the problem is not “whether” this can occur, but that it is happening now.

Legislation across the U.S. is driven by Bill Gates and his billions as well as the celebrity of Michelle Rhee, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and Jeb Bush while the careful messages crafted by Ravitch in Reign have been readily available through the Internet over the last several years.

The publication of Reign represents a watershed moment. Will money driving ideology continue to ruin our public education system, or will evidence win out?

Ravitch’s voice and scholarship were a needed boost to the field of education. Ravitch speaks with us now.

But until political leadership and the media have similar conversions to Ravitch’s—until evidence trumps money—we are likely to watch the self-fulfilling end to public education happen right before our eyes.

Addendum

Just to offer some balance and context.

Since Ravitch’s concerns about Common Core came fairly recently, Reign feels a bit incomplete on that topic. Ravitch is clear about her view that the broader accountability movement has done a great deal of harm, and CC appears clearly more of that bad policy, but many of us who strongly oppose CC would likely have preferred more here on that topic.

I also have real problems with Paul Tough and David Kirp (see HERE and HERE), both of whom I feel do work that helps perpetuate “miracle” school narratives and “no excuses” ideologies that I completely reject. Ravitch is far more gracious with Tough and Kirp than I can embrace.

Paul L. Thomas is an associate professor of education at Furman University.