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Diane Ravitch Says Public School Reformers Have Got It Wrong in Reign of Error

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Reign of Error
Random House
Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools
By Diane Ravitch
Random House
416 pages
$27.95

A war is being fought that may change the future of public education as we know it. Invective has been spewed and divisions have been drawn. On one side are the self-proclaimed reformers, who push a foreboding narrative: Our public schools are in crisis. U.S. test scores are abysmal, they say. Reformers are quick to blame this decay on incompetent teachers and the unions that protect them, whose failure, reformers say, threatens American economic supremacy, national security, our very way of life.

You’ve inevitably heard or seen this narrative, maybe in the popular documentary Waiting for Superman, maybe on The Oprah Winfrey Show or in Time magazine. After frightening you, the reformers will implore urgency. The system needs an overhaul—right now. Luckily, they have the solution: Judge teachers based on their students’ test scores, fire bad teachers and give merit pay to good ones. Close low-performing schools and funnel public money to privately run charter schools.

The reformers say their disruptive changes will inject free-market efficiency into the public-education marketplace. Their ethos combines the traditionally right-wing concepts of vouchers (public funds subsidizing private-school tuition) and school choice with test-based accountability and charter schools. They season this stew with liberation rhetoric. “Education reform is the civil rights struggle of our time” is a common reformer refrain.

This narrative, according to education historian and Houston native Diane Ravitch, has one problem: It’s dead wrong. In her new book, Reign of Error, Ravitch emphatically refutes the reformer thesis. Public education is not in decline. Graduation rates and test scores are higher than they’ve ever been, and the achievement gap between minority students and white students is closing, albeit slowly. Ravitch spends the first two-thirds of her book carefully examining reformers’ claims, then poking gaping holes in each with statistical and historical evidence.

The reform movement, according to Ravitch, comprises opportunists of all sorts: misguided philanthropists and politicians, financiers out to make a buck, ideologues opposed to public education, and self-promotion artists. Among these opportunists are many of the politically powerful and financially elite, including Bill Gates and Rupert Murdoch, a host of right-wing governors and big-city Democratic mayors, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and President Barack Obama. Education reform proves the old adage that politics makes strange bedfellows.

These reformers anger Ravitch. Her book negotiates that anger by echoing the exasperation of a growing coterie of students, teachers and parents who have coalesced against the reform agenda. In Reign of Error, this group finds its manifesto.

Ravitch excoriates the reformers from a unique position. In addition to being a preeminent education scholar, she served as assistant secretary of education for the first President Bush, and once favored testing and school choice herself. Diane Ravitch is a reformed reformer. What changed her mind? The havoc wreaked by high-stakes testing under George W. Bush’s 2001 No Child Left Behind Act.

According to myth, Bush’s gubernatorial focus on standardized testing and teacher accountability raised test scores in Texas. Boston College researcher Walt Haney has since proved that the “Texas Education Miracle” was more statistical manipulation than reality. Regardless, the federal No Child Left Behind push was Texas-style testing and accountability writ large. According to the law, 100 percent of students would be required to pass standardized state tests by 2014. Schools not progressing toward that goal would be labeled failures and punished. Schools that repeatedly failed would face closure.

Not surprisingly, poor schools serving mostly poor students underperformed. Ravitch explains: “Poverty matters. Poverty affects children’s health and well-being. It affects their emotional lives and their attention spans, their attendance and their academic performance. Poverty affects their motivation and their ability to concentrate on anything other than day-to-day survival.” Despite the abundantly documented correlation between poverty and low test scores, in the eyes of No Child Left Behind poverty might as well not exist.

As schools started to focus intently on tests, other insidious consequences became apparent. “Teaching to the test”—formerly considered poor pedagogy at best, unethical at worst—became commonplace. The all-consuming focus on preparing students to pass standardized tests has narrowed curricula and subverted the purpose and promise of public education as Ravitch sees it: building character and preparing students to become productive, thoughtful and informed citizens.

In 2006 Ravitch realized No Child Left Behind was a failure. She considered the law’s results: poor students often labeled failures, teachers incentivized to avoid high-poverty schools, a rash of schools slated for closure, and no demonstrable school improvement attributable to the law. She recognized that the carrots and sticks of test-based accountability were misguided, but the stage was already set for the reformer narrative.

Ravitch devotes an entire chapter to the most effective peddler of this narrative, former Washington, D.C., schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. Rhee became a media darling during her three-year tenure in the nation’s capital. Waiting for Superman features her as a take-no-prisoners reformer ready to fix schools by any means necessary. Rhee blamed the low test scores of the district’s predominantly poor students on bad teachers and pledged to make D.C. the highest-performing urban district in the nation. In reality, when she resigned the chancellorship after three and a half years, Rhee left a less-than-glowing legacy. Ravitch summarizes it: “little or no gains on test scores, high turnover of teachers and principals, lowest graduation rate of any big city, largest achievement gap of any big city, a truancy crisis, big increase in spending, a bloated central office staff, and declining enrollments.” To top it off, shortly after Rhee left, USA Today reported evidence of widespread educator-led cheating on standardized tests in the district.

Some say Ravitch paints the reformers with too broad a brush, both in Reign of Error and on her oft-updated blog and Twitter account. Certainly there are reformers who have improved educational outcomes for some students. Many reform supporters are quick to point out the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) chain of charter schools as an example of reform success. KIPP started in inner-city Houston and, judging by test scores, KIPP schools tend to outperform comparable traditional public schools. But KIPP schools are the exception rather than the rule. And, importantly, KIPP does not take over failing schools and miraculously raise test scores. KIPP starts schools from scratch. They succeed not only because students and teachers work grueling 10-hour days, Saturdays and mandatory summer school—but because of the specific students they enroll. To attend a KIPP high school in Houston, prospective students and their parents must complete a lottery enrollment form and an eight-page “High School Common Application,” and submit a teacher recommendation. Only then will the student be entered into an admissions lottery.

In other words, KIPP benefits from self-selection. The schools effectively serve the most motivated and supported poor students. Add a high rate of attrition among black students—a fact disputed by KIPP but clearly documented by University of Texas professor Julian Vasquez Heilig—and it is obvious that KIPP’s results are not scalable to entire school districts.

If even the best charter schools do not have a solution to the challenge of educating large groups of poor students on a district-wide level, then how can we improve the lives of our nation’s poor children? Ravitch devotes the last third of her book to that problem.

Her proposals—quality early-childhood education for all, medical and social services for needy children, reducing class size and minimizing segregation—aren’t new. They aren’t cheap and easy, nor will they completely eliminate the achievement gap between poor and affluent students. But they have proved effective, they are scalable, and they can help give poor students a fighting chance at success.

Public schools are the bedrock of our democracy, Ravitch writes. “The public schools have made real the promise of e pluribus unum, without sacrificing the pluribus or the unum.” If Americans learn that the current reform movement is more about unfounded dogma and profit motive than improving education, they will fight the privatization of our public schools. Ravitch knows this. With Reign of Error, she exhorts us all to start paying closer attention.

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  • T Ross

    “Public education is not in decline.” Really? Did Ms. Ravitch talk to any employers? Any college remedial english and math instructors? Any parents forced to pay school taxes while having to pay tuition for private schools or big mortgage payments to get into the neighborhoods of the better performing public schools?
    If you torture the data long enough, it will tell you what you want it to say until reality hits you in the face!

  • SraVigi

    @T Ross: college remedial instructors have students who never would have been in college 30 yrs ago– victims of the employer-driven narrative that ‘everyone must go to college’ as they sent mfg jobs to developing countries & had nothing left to offer but engrg & mba jobs (for which they import cheap foreigners via H1b visas) & hi-tech mfg jobs they don’t want to train apprentices for. Consequently votech disappeared from public schools & we have a couple generations missing from the trades (replaced by immigrants many illegal). I don’t hear complaints from today’s employers of [overqualified] BA’s who have taken the jobs that would have gone to hs grads yrs ago, the mgrs. at McD, big-box stores, Starbucks, restaurants. Parents of better students have to pony up extra $ for private school in the many areas where cities have made huge cuts to public schools. And in those areas where per-pupil costs have risen, the $ is all going to admin bean-counters, ed-corp test & testprep publishers, &/or CEOs of privately-run charters plumped up by public funding. Why is all this happening? Not about education. About a gov turning tail & running from globalization for 40 yrs– instead of innovating (or even ‘making-work a la depression by maintaining infrastructure)– making it legal for pols & financiers to finish off the carcass of a once-thriving economy.

  • [email protected]

    Platforms and catering to hero – led groups of future voters, obviously clutter both and all sides of concepts and priorities here. May our brains not function as if rationalizing platform compromised policies in terms of trying to justify or sell anything. Schools always need improvement, but the religions of parents and archaic structures always need change. But within partially failed concepts only small compromises can be achieved, one at a time, always imperfect asour constituencies grow. The roles of ancient clutter in our laws influence households trying to survive within archaic structures which serve the cross-purpose of when such legal concepts were designed. “It’s the schools!” state those who run state education and old PRI dynasty concepts, when being very specific in simply referring to just only war and genocides at large, currently. Justifying hostages taken is the usual take. It has been a long traditiin, for those who were apprehended for violent assaults against cure – based teams, to get on the radio and continue the hold-ups there. So, it has become a policy and a religion of sorts, over time.

    take, page 8, Tyrant ‘ s foe. Finally, a replacement. For many years, there was a tradition based on a list of homes not to burglarize, handed to those obviously buying from burglars. But should it have become a tradition then? If a convenience store hold up career person escalates to jewelers, should they identify those they harmed, to continue to make it up to?

    That is the question on many bases. A long tradition. If a politician asks burglars to avoid the homes of those who found cures for many things, should those in prisons be organized to take their children hostage as a policy? That depends on the roots from the old hard line of very old Soviet policies their parents taught them. Many celebrities fundraise for cures. So those in roles on cure teams become hostages, especially their elderly, children, as a whole. “Get them, get them!” on the air, so, became a tradition. Or, as Reforma dramatized locally on the air, radio was used to organize breaking in many systems, many languages, Voice of America’s war traditions, too.

    • [email protected]

      The tight combinations of immigrant groups of the old Soviet mindset, used against the JFK and Kennedy confusion, still has cluttered out culture, because Kennedys nearly always love to become very intent, but love to be lied to and soak that up. We are not doing a very good job at calming down those whose strict old Soviet roots obsessed them with Kennedys. Of course, if they initially had the support of those of Soviet roots, family planning policies would have been declared wholesome by many popes of the Vatican since 1961, when that stood the best chances, as the kennedys already turned the Vatican to family planning, as they were good at, but, greedy people still crash that.

  • [email protected]

    Many of those who love to hear themselves talk, on the radio, when not high on one thing or another, who have loud voices because of growing up deaf, develop platforms for parents to believe in. And eventually take the platform of the announcer, over time, becoming like them, as in terms of a cultist religious fetish.

    One thing tends to dominate though. To justify private schools in their sometimes ruthless scrambles for funding sources. “It’s the schools!” recently stated one totally over such and looks like a lot will be in their hands. But specifically, what part of the Daniel Rocha fiasco, was the one statewide over schools, more specifically referring to, so intently then? Its inner circle in the history of rising notables, as launched Ashe, recently?

    It is nearly impossible to find someone in a chair role over schools who has a wider view than just platform muscle for their side of their wars. “I don’t realize which nation I live in,” basically state many on the state level, and more, to fathom, that maybe there is a chief Justice Roberts influencing law in new orleans fed. Cts., too. Nor that there are international policies, too. But, the power of surveillance and law enforcement has turned a lot to the old Soviet models. Those who came from Russia together as a team, sometimes still remain the feistiest against family planning of any sort. And of course, local older Soviet roots are still a major force in pushing and dictating China’s enormous human rights abuses.

    Almost all in state education, point a finger directly at the issues and results of war causing genocide. Then say, well, the schools did that on the local, instead of overseas levels. Go watch just about any speech by a state education role top person. “It’s….!” The word, “it’s.” And then, get a deeper description about more specifics, totally objectively. So, they speak of the child of a victim of overseas war and genocide, close to those who also lived through that, “it’s just the schools!”, especially Hispanics here forever, who won’t go to understand what on earth is INS detention, citizenship classes, etc.