Education Reform

Standing up against public schools' reign of terror


It may well be that you've heard or read about Diane Ravitch and her new book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement. Ravitch, a historian of education and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education, is a polarizing figure, fierce with her opinions and unstinting in her use of research and data to back up her claims that the dominant brand of education reform that has evolved since the 1990s has damaged our nation's schools, the teaching profession, the lives of young people (particularly those who come from poor families and neighborhoods) and the fabric of our democracy.

Reign of Error's first half feels like a guided tour through the polluted landscape of our education policy and the weakened public system that has resulted. Ravitch describes corporate education reform – the coordination between policy makers and corporate interests that has produced a system in which private, for-profit interests have flourished in the form of corporate-run charter school chains, profitable standardized testing mandates, weakened unions and much more. I realize that this sounds like a dismissible conspiracy theory. Nevertheless, I encourage you to don your tinfoil hat and pay attention to Ravitch's arguments.

This invasion of private interests into our public school system has been made possible in large part by the widespread belief that our public schools are failing. You've probably talked with people who believe this. You may believe it yourself, and indeed there is a plethora of data and anecdotes that make this view plausible. But plausibility does not mean certainty. Education and the systems that deliver are necessarily complex, and that complexity demands careful, critical thinking that is, of course, the product of good education.

Along with most of us, Ravitch acknowledges that our nation's schools need improvement. But that does not mean that schools are failing wholesale. Reign of Error smacks down one myth after another that have whipped us into a frenzy of believing that we are in the grip of a true educational crisis. This crisis-driven thinking pushes us into ceding common sense and with it, democratic control of our schools and school systems. The resulting reforms have produced narrowed curriculum, reduced staffing and services, demeaned teachers, a relentless effort in our nation's cities to close schools, draconian and relentless high-stakes standardized testing regimes, reduced district and school budgets and other such ills. Moreover, these reforms have not produced any meaningful solutions to real problems such as the achievement gap.

At Reign of Error's heart is the insistence that we comprehend the effects of poverty on the lives of students and on the schools that they attend. No matter how much we truly believe that demography is not destiny, Ravitch persuasively argues that poverty primarily determines the results of standardized testing. We cannot attempt to fix schools without addressing the devastating effects of poverty; these efforts must be conducted not only simultaneously but in coordination. Schools should be centers of support in kids' lives, linked to social services and health care. Without a systematic focus on addressing the root causes of poverty, we are holding children, teachers and schools accountable for that which they cannot control. Again, Ravitch reminds us how complex the task of measuring academic achievement truly is. Despite the temptation of hard data's easy answers, don't ever look at a child, school or district's test scores without thinking about the myriad uncontrollable factors that influenced those “results.”

Reign of Error's second half offers a comprehensive set of solutions to guide our nation's schools back to their original purpose – “to prepare everyone to assume the rights and responsibilities of citizenship in a democracy.” Ravitch's suggested solutions are comprehensive. She recommends providing good prenatal care for all pregnant women and high quality early childhood education for all children, and proceeds to outline specific policies and practices that could provide meaningful educational experiences for all students, support for children and families in need, a strengthened teaching profession and a healthy mix of in-district public schools and charter schools that truly serve their communities. Her suggestions are – you guessed it – necessarily complex and based on evidence, drawing on what we already know what works reliably to build a strong system of public education that offers students more than basic skills.

For those of you who believe yourselves to be politically opposed to Ravitch: read the second half of Reign of Error first. No matter what your political stance, it's difficult not to be compelled by her suggestions for change. How ironic, and unlikely, that Ravitch, with her polarizing reputation, would have the effect of compelling us to get over our differences, get past the rhetoric and unite to do better for our children.

Jill Davidson can be reached by email.