You don’t need to be an expert on education policy to enjoy and learn from Diane Ravitch’s new book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, published tomorrow, September 17, by Alfred A. Knopf. Packed with details and surprises, the book will answer just the questions you may have after trying to sort through the rhetoric of the education policy wars.
And if you know quite a bit about this issue already, you’ll also be engrossed. My personal favorite chapter on first-reading the book is “Trouble in E-Land,” an exploration of the history of for-profit virtual charter schools and their growth in particular states at the expense of the public education budget. While I already knew a lot about this topic, the chapter connected the dots for me in new ways.
This book should feel threatening to supporters of today’s school “reform.” Ravitch has built and documented a formidable critique of their movement and a deeply principled defense of public education.
You’ll learn who is pushing hard for school “reform” and privatization—Americans for Children, American Legislative Exchange Council, Better Education for Kids, Black Alliance for Educational Options, Center for Education Reform, Chiefs for Change, ConCANN along with 50CAN and other state affiliates, Democrats for Education Reform, the Education Equality Project, Education Reform Now, Educators 4 Excellence, EdVoice, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, the National Council on Teacher Quality, New Leaders for New Schools, NewSchools Venture Fund, Parent Revolution, Stand for Children, Students for Education Reform, StudentsFirst, Teach for America, Teach Plus. The list goes on and on.
You will also learn something about the lexicon of these reformers—that they really mean “deregulation and privatization” when they say “reform” and that “personalized instruction” means sitting children in front of computers. Writes Ravitch, “The reformers define the purpose of education as preparation for global competitiveness, higher education, or the workforce. They view students as ‘human capital’ or ‘assets.’”
Ravitch, a well-known historian of education, was formerly a supporter of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and many pieces of the current education “reform” movement until she underwent an apostasy that was the subject of the book she published in 2010, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. In that book Ravitch registered her own shock and dismay as she watched the policy failures of NCLB and as she realized that the public education policies of the Obama Administration replicated the strategies of the Bush Administration.
More than three years have passed since Ravitch’s last book, and the evidence has begun to pile up: “When I wrote The Death and Life of the Great American School System, I thought that two very different reform movements just happened to converge in some sort of unanticipated and unfortunate accident. There was the testing and accountability movement, which started in the 1980s and officially became federal policy in 2002 as part of the No Child Left Behind law. Then there was the choice movement which had been simmering on the back burner of education politics for half a century, not making much headway… NCLB breathed new life into the choice movement by decreeing that schools persistently unable to meet its impossible goal of 100 percent proficiency be handed over to private management, undergo drastic staff firings, or be closed… Now the two movements are no longer separate. They have merged and are acting in concert.”
Ravitch sorts out the acrimonious debate about students’ standardized test scores. For seven years during the Clinton Administration, she served on the National Assessment Governing Board, an independent oversight agency that manages the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), a national test given without high stakes or any rankings or ratings of students or teachers or schools. Its purpose is simply to measure student achievement across the United States over time. One form of the NAEP goes back to the early 1970s. Without jargon or heavy psychometrics, Ravitch explains that all demographic groups of children continue to improve academic performance on the NAEP. Unfortunately children isolated in impoverished communities remain far behind.
The first half of the book is organized around myths vs. facts—about test scores, the achievement gap, international test scores, high school graduation rates, college graduation rates, the impact of poverty on school achievement, teachers and test scores, the problems with merit pay, and the role of tenure and seniority. These chapters are short, easy to read, and filled with facts. This section is followed by chapters on how privatization is damaging public schools today—the role of charters, the horrors (academically and financially) of the virtual e-schools, the unworkability of the parent trigger, and the failure of vouchers.
Ravitch condemns the crisis being created by federal policy for public education in America’s poorest communities: “Given unrealistic goals, a school can easily fail. When a school is labeled a ‘failing school’ under NCLB or a ‘priority’ or ‘focus’ school according to the metrics of the Obama administration’s program, it must double down on test preparation to attempt to recover its reputation, but the odds of success are small, especially after the most ambitious parents and student flee the school. The federal regulations are like quicksand: the more schools struggle, the deeper they sink into the morass of test-based accountability. As worried families abandon these schools, they increasingly enroll disproportionate numbers of the most disadvantaged students… In time, the neighborhood school becomes the school of last resort, not the community school. When the neighborhood school is finally closed, there is no longer any choice.”
Ravitch devotes the last third of the book to social reforms along with public school reforms that will improve opportunity for our nation’s most vulnerable children, the over 22 percent of our children living in poverty, the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world. There is no mystery here. Our society needs to ensure that all pregnant women get medical care; children need pre-kindergarten; elementary school children in small classes should be provided a rich, not basic, curriculum; children should be tested sparingly; the curriculum in middle and high school should be balanced with sciences, literature, history, geography, civics, foreign languages and the arts; teachers should be well-credentialed and provided ongoing training and mentoring; students should have access to supervised after-school and summer programs; families need wrap-around social and health services; and our society must build the political will to overcome poverty and segregation by race and family income.
Our current school reform fad has been a reign of error; the future is up to all of us. This book is essential for helping us realize what’s happening and what needs to change.