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.