Diane Ravitch is a historian of education who was once a proponent of conservative school “reform.” Starting out in the 1970s as an ally of Al Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, Ravitch moved rightward when she joined the movement calling for national standards and test-based accountability in education. Famously, in the wake of the wreckage created by President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind policy, with its emphasis on high-stakes testing and the policy of punishing failing schools, she changed her mind. And she let people know it with a brilliant broadside, The Life and Death of the Great American School System, aimed at what she now calls “corporate education reform.” [See Featherstone, “Resisting Reforms,” August 12, 2010.] She has since used her popular blog and nationwide stump speeches to rally a fast-growing army of mutineers that includes groups like FairTest and Citizens for Public Schools as well as teachers and parents around the country.
In her new book, Reign of Error, Ravitch attacks the central narrative of corporate education reform, which goes like this: test scores prove that US schools have failed, sinking in relation to measures of aptitude in other countries. High school dropout rates are on the rise, and our economy and security are at risk. At the heart of the problem are lazy, incompetent and undemanding teachers. For this reason, unions and teacher job protection must go. Schools need evaluating so that we can close the failed ones and open charter schools in their place. For-profit charters, along with vouchers and online schools, will provide better education for children at a cheaper price. Business leaders and foundations are helping us move in the right direction, toward innovation and school reform.
Reign of Error is both a manifesto fueled by righteous indignation about this narrative and a policy wonk’s memo crammed with charts and footnotes refuting it. Much like the celebrated statistics wizard Nate Silver, Ravitch is an explainer, someone who is adept at explicating technical data without resorting to geek speak. She extends the arguments of her previous book by claiming that the American public is the victim of a “hoax” in which purported free-market solutions have worked as distractions from the truly pressing problems of poverty and segregation by race and class, which impede learning and therefore should be the actual target of education and social reform. The corporate-reform narrative tactfully avoids using language that smacks of privatization because, while accurate, it would almost certainly make the proposed reforms less popular. “Public education is in a crisis only so far as society is and only so far as this new narrative of crisis has destabilized it,” Ravitch writes. Having explained why student scores on standardized tests cannot reliably be used to measure and assess their teachers’ performance, Ravitch concludes by offering a stinging appraisal: this signature idea of corporate reformers “may even be junk science.”
Ours is an age of relentless testing, corrupted by cooked or deceitful results and widespread cheating scandals. Only one test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, has remained credible, because there are no stakes attached to it. Ravitch cites NAEP results showing that, contrary to the corporate reformers’ talking points, children’s test scores are at the highest point on record. Reading and math have improved over time (the biggest gains occurred, however, before No Child Left Behind—a showing that may reflect the shift in federal policy from equity to test scores). Nor is it true that the United States is falling behind compared with other nations, though its scores have never been very high, and policy-makers should probably worry more than Ravitch does about the stagnation of US college graduation rates. (Severe inequality pulls US scores down in international comparisons.) But the high school dropout rate is at an all-time low, and graduation rates are at an all-time high. Moreover, there is absolutely no good evidence that schools are to blame for the struggling economy. On the contrary, business leaders have succeeded in turning schools into scapegoats for their decisions to export jobs and lower labor costs. Nor is there any basis for the claim that schools will improve if teacher tenure and seniority are abandoned. Likewise, the claim that learning can be improved by a scorched-earth policy of firing principals and teachers, closing schools, and starting anew remains unproven.
Ravitch demonstrates that a key claim of the corporate reformers—that charter schools will be able to produce better results than regular district schools—is not supported by the evidence. Charters “run the gamut from excellent to awful,” she notes, but on average they’re no better than public schools with comparable populations of students. Too many charters obtain their good results by culling students who test well from the public school population, not by taking their share of special-needs and immigrant students and improving their capacity to learn. Ravitch does admire the best charters: top-notch schools that are drawing imaginative teaching talent and doing a brilliant job with kids in poor communities. She would like to see good stand-alone nonprofit charters flourish, but with ground rules that would tether them more closely to public purposes and prevent them from becoming the foundation of a dual school system even more segregated by race and class than our present one. She opposes the growing shift to large charter management chains, which raise serious questions of accountability, quality and public purpose. The well-known Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) schools do an admirable job of selecting smart and determined students, but they are basically a triage operation, not a model for inclusive public education. And despite there being some real promise in technology, Ravitch scorns for-profit virtual and online schools.
The mission of public schools should not be to make money, she insists. Required to educate all citizens, public schools embody hard-won principles of equity and inclusion that are now endangered. The free market always favors those with more money and information, generating inequality. Many who protest the corporate reformers’ fixation on tests and the current efforts to narrow curriculum and pedagogy will agree with Ravitch that public schools also have an obligation to produce a full, rounded and “liberal” education for all citizens. Good schools with such a curriculum should be, like clean air and medical care, available to all families. For all the unfairness and vagaries of local school control and the myriad ways that political arrangements in the United States act as sieves for privilege, many local schools still knit together the common life of a community or neighborhood. Reign of Error is a moving plea to renew democratic principles and justify education not as a consumer good, but as an integral part of democratic society.
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