Author: Diane Ravitch (Alfred Knopf, 2013) Reviewed by Doris Friedensohn
Prepare to be upset. Prepare to be challenged. Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error is a combative, fact-filled and persuasive condemnation of current thinking about American public education. You know the general arguments: public schools are failing our kids; their poor test results in reading and math are threatening America’s position as the world’s #1 economy. The dominant response to this dilemma, as embedded in George Bush’s No Child Left Behind and Barack Obama’s Race to the Top, is to close weak public schools and replace them with privately run Charter Schools.
Give up on our public schools? Especially those in neighborhoods rife with crime, unemployment and dismal housing? Really? No way! Ravitch’s subtitle, The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, is a progressive policy wonk’s battle cry. Her enemies are big monied interests, from the Gates Foundation to hedge fund operators, nimble entrepreneurs, and right wing organizations committed to small government. These free marketeers deny the connection between our schooling problems and the 23% of American children living in poverty. If we fix the schools we won’t have to worry about the costs of inequality or the absence of opportunity for America’s poor. Worse still, the supporters of privatization are already dipping into the public (education) till to generate huge profits for corporations running charter schools, the testing empires, and various businesses servicing them.
Ravitch, who is Professor of Education at NYU, is the author of ten books on schooling and education policy (and another ten edited volumes). Once an avid supporter of charter schools, she reversed her position in 2010 with The Death and Life of the Great American School System. In that book she attacked the testing movement and the school choice movement as separate efforts to cure the (supposedly) ailing public school system. In Reign of Error she sees the two as acting in consort – – promoting wrongheaded notions about the efficacy of testing and of judging teachers by their students’ test scores. School reform, she argues, is a misnomer. What we are seeing is a powerfully organized effort to transform public education “into an entrepreneurial sector of the economy.”
It is impossible to hear Ravitch’s title without thinking, ominously, about Reign of Terror. Testing, the imperfect instrument of “accountability,” is the mushroom cloud that hangs over students and teachers. Most students fear tests. Students who test poorly tend to become more fearful. Teachers, now at the mercy of their students’ performance, have their own anxieties. While testing students’ “progress” seems reasonable, teachers rightly fear its misuses. Ravitch and other scholars question the assumption – – basic to No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top – – that standardized tests are an accurate measure of educational achievement. Further, she notes that all students served by the public schools (especially the learning disabled and English-as-a-second language students) cannot meet recently established national standards. Nor can students be expected to improve their scores each year. Obsessive testing (of reading and math skills) not only distracts from learning; it also narrows the curriculum. There’s little time and less money for the arts and humanities, the sciences and physical education – – the “enriched” curriculum that educated, successful parents expect for their children and are the pride of private and suburban schools..
Ravitch challenges the notion that students’ test scores are an appropriate means of evaluating teachers. Variation among teachers, research shows, accounts for only a small part of the variation in students’ scores. Most differences in test scores are related to factors such as student and family background, poverty, segregation, and racism, which are beyond the teachers’ control.
Of course, good teaching makes a difference. Reign of Error in no way denies this. But Ravitch’s findings force us to reconsider commonplace assumptions about schooling, democracy and inequality. Can schools, as we’ve wanted to believe, create educational opportunity for our poorest kids? Can they reverse damages attached to violent neighborhoods, disorganized families, poor nutrition and health, and few models for self-control? What can we expect of good teachers – – within the confines of the school building, the school day, the limited school budget and the conventional school year?
Maybe the notion that committed teachers in orderly schools are the magicians of democracy is our Reigning Error. Indeed, some teachers are magicians: they possess charisma, otherworldly patience, command of their subject matter and devotion to kids. We’re lucky to have them doing this demanding work. And yes, it’s also true that some inadequate teachers are protected by unions and the values of due process, tenure and seniority. But still. Teachers and the schools in general are a convenient scapegoat, according to Ravitch. They allow us to turn away from poverty and systemic inequality. Our schooling myths allow us to believe that those enormous social realities can be overcome without significant changes. Worse still, the failures of local schools in poor communities provide an opening to privatize the problem. Let the market take over; let corporations, through “their” charter schools, offer student consumers and parents a better alternative, referred to as Choice.
The data, as Ravitch is at pains to demonstrate, fail to support claims made by the partisans of choice. Some charter schools do better than the public schools they have replaced – – but only because they aren’t teaching a full spectrum of students. The promoters of privatization, Ravitch writes, “promised miracles that would shame snake-oil salesmen.” There are other reasons to be suspicious of Choice, as it is extravagantly promoted by a variety of funders. Do we want a consumerist model to replace the community model of schooling? Are there ways in which Choice contributes to re-segregation in schooling? To isolating and abandoning the most needy pupils?
It’s time to end this “reign of error,” Ravitch argues. The titles of her closing chapters delineate a costly but conventional path ahead: for example, Schools Don’t Improve if They are Closed; Begin at the Beginning (with good pre-natal care); The Early Years Count; Class Size Matters; Wraparound Services make a Difference; and Strengthen the (teaching) Profession.
Whether the public will exists to take back the schools from the foundations and profiteers and to fund them adequately is another question. Ravitch is optimistic, but I wonder. Can the changes in education that she wishes to promote be brought about without more fundamental transformations in society and the economy? Are Americans really prepared to address the fraught relation between poverty and opportunity? Do enough of us still believe that public schools are essential to a vital democracy? Reign of Error will keep us from sleeping too soundly. As it should.
The good news is that Ravitch’s blog has 11 million hits, and the numbers are growing. As I write (in mid April 2014) teachers and parents are beginning to demonstrate in front of their schools. Posters announce, “Enough Testing,” “We Love our Teachers,” and “Transparency Now.” Maybe the time is ripe to depose the corporations and their billionaire chieftains; maybe we are ready to re-invest in public education.
Doris Friedensohn, professor emerita of Women’s Studies at New Jersey City University, is the author of the food memoir Eating As I Go: Scenes from America and Abroad and Cooking for Change: Tales from a Food Service Training Academy.