Reign of Error: the important new book by Diane Ravitch

This is crossposted from Daily Kos at the request of Aaron Barlow:

The testing, accountability, and choice strategies offer the illusion of change while changing nothing. They mask the inequity and injustice that are now so apparent in our social order. They do nothing to alter the status quo. They preserve the status quo. They are the status quo.

Those words appear on p. 225 of Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, the new book by Diane Ravitch. The words are a summary of what has been wrong with recent educationl They appear in Chapter 21, titled “Solutions: Start Here” which is where Ravitch begins to offer a different vision for how to improve public education.

Ravitch’s last, blockbuster, book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education thoroughly exposed the emptiness of the so-called reform movement and what it is doing to American education, as I noted in this review.

While the first part of this new volume, officially published on September 17, Constitution Day, revisits the problems with the approaches of the “reformers” and adds to what she had previously written, this volume has a different purpose. As Ravitch begins in her introduction, on p. xi:

The purpose of this book is to answer four questions.
First, is American education in crisis?
Second, is American education failing and declining?
Third, what is the evidence pf the reforms now being promoted by the federal government, and adopted in many states?
Fourth, what should we do to improve our schools and the lives of children?

I believe that Diane Ravitch is uniquely qualified to answer those questions. First, she is America’s foremost educational historian. Second, having served on the National Assessment Governing Board (which oversees that National Assessment of Education Progress, often called America’s education report card), she is well-positioned to explain what the data from NAEP really means, which is not how it is (mis)used by many of the “reformers.” Further, she writes clearly, enabling the non-technical reader, the person who not a professional in education or policy or statistics, to understand what the data means. As a careful scholar, she provides copious citations. As one who has attempted to stay up with the literature in both the professional and general press, I am amazed by how much she has consumed, processed, and presented – CLEARLY – to enable the reader to grasp what the situation really is.

That was true of her last book, at least as far as diagnosing what was happening and what it foretold for American education. What is different about this book is that she offers in her answer to the fourth of the questions she poses, solutions to the REAL problems confronting our schools, our teachers, our students, and thus our society. Just as she provides copious citation for her analysis of the wrongness of much current “reform” policy, what she suggests is evidence-based: it has been tried and has succeeded.

To be clear, it is not that Ravitch believes our schools are fine as they are, or were before the recent generations of “reform.” Far from it, she points at many places where changes are needed. But she starts from an understanding that seems to escape many on the other side of the educational debate, an understanding also found in the introduction, on p. xii:

Schools need freedom from burdensome and intrusive regulations that undermine professional autonomy. They need the resources to meet the needs of the children they enroll. But they cannot improve if they are judged by flawed measures and continually at risk of closing because they do not meet an artificial goal created and imposed by legislators.

Let’s examine the book more closely.

Ravitch does not deny that there are problems with American education: she titles her first chapter “Our Schools Are At Risk.” She explores the narrative that has become the foundation for so much of the public discussions and making of educational policy in the past three decades, a narrative that has appeared in statements by politicians and the wealthy (PaceBill Gate), in movies, in editorial statements, and has resulted in policies designed to fix “broken” public schools. But as Ravitch writes on p. 4

There is only one problem with this narrative.
It is wrong.

To be more specific, she writes on the same page

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.

In this first chapter she lays out her purpose in writing:

In this book, I will show why the reform agenda does not work, who is behind it, and how it is promoting the privatizing of public education. I will then put forward my solutions, none of which is cheap or easy, none of which offers a quick fix to complicated problems. I have no silver bullets – because none exists – but I have proposals based on evidence and experience. (p. 6)

She tells the reader that she offers a summary of her proposals so that they will not have to wait until later in the book, starting with the assumption

schools and society are intertwined. The supporting research comes later in the book. Everyone of these solutions works to improve the lives and academic outcomes of young people. (p. 7)

Since Ravitch offers a brief exploration of her proposals up front, allow me to summarize them now:

– access to medical care, nutrition for all pregnant women

– pre-kindergarten for all children, more to learn basic social skills, the opportunity to begin to develop background knowledge and vocabulary through the integration of joyful learning and play

– in early elementary grades, teachers setting age-appropriate goals

– in upper elementary and middle school, a balanced curriculum that includes science, literature, social sciences and foreign languages, with a rich arts program and access to physical education every day

– teachers who write their own tests, and limiting standardized tests primarily to diagnostic purposes

– a commitment to building a strong education profession

– schools having “the resources they need for the students they enroll” (p.8)

– as a society, committing through goals, strategies and programs to reducing poverty and racial segregation

On this last point Ravitch notes something critical:

Those who start life with the fewest advantages need even smaller classes, even more art, science, and music to engage them, to spark their creativity, and to fulfill their potential. (p. 8)

The thrust of her argument is outlined in a series of blunt statements that begin in the middle of page 8 and continue through the conclusion of this chapter on page 9. Allow me to offer several of those:

There is a solid research base for my recommendations.

My premise is straighforward: you can’t do the right things until you stop doing the wrong things.

Stop doing the wrong things. Stop promoting competition and choice as answers to the very inequality that was created by competition and choice.

Public education is a basic public responsibility: we must not be persuaded by a false crisis narrative to privatize it.

I noted above that the publication date is the anniversary of the adoption of our national Constitution by the Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. As I look at the last of the “blunt statements” I have just offered, I think of words from another, older American constitution, that of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, written in 1779 and into effect in 1780. Ravitch offers two quotes at the beginning of her book, one by John Dewey about what the best and wisest parent wanting for his child being the standard of what he should want for all children. The other is by John Adams, author (along with his cousin Samuel and James Bowdoin) of that oldest continuous written constitution in the world. The quote Ravitch uses, from 1785, is about the responsibility of the whole people taking upon themselves the education of the whole people. Now place that quote about education in the context of this broader statement about public good from the Massachusetts Constitution, Part the First, Article VII:

Government is instituted for the common good; for the protection, safety, prosperity, and happiness of the people; and not for profit, honor, or private interest of any one man, family, or class of men; therefore, the people alone have an incontestable, unalienable, and indefeasible right to institute government; and to reform, alter, or totally change the same, when their protection, safety, prosperity, and happiness require it.

It is tempting as a reviewer to want to go through the book in great detail. Since my purpose is to persuade people to read the book, I will pass on that temptation, even as I acknowledge that this review will be longer and in far more detail than are most book reviews.

I will also limit my comments about Chapters 2-20, which include identifying the context of corporate reform and who the reformers are, through providing facts about test scores, achievement gaps, international test scores, graduation rates in high school and college, and the impact of poverty on academic achievement. That takes the reader through Chapter 10, and in each chapter Ravitch provides detailed, clear explanations of the relevant data.

She then proceeds to examine the various proposals of the “reform” movement and deconstruct them, often with devastating effect, primarily by summarizing what the research actually shows. Allow me simply to list the titles of the relevant chapters:

11. The Facts About Teachers and Test Scores
12. Why Merit Pay Fails
13. Do Teachers Need Tenure and Seniority
14. The Problem with Teach for America
15. They Mystery of Michelle Rhee
16. The Contradictions of Charters
17. Trouble in E-Land
18. Parent Trigger, Parent Tricker
19. The Failure of Vouchers
20. Schools Don’t Improve if They Are Closed

I suspect that the strongest push-back against this book from those on the side of what has been the “reform” movement in education will be because of the material in these chapters. Even before I finished writing this review that process had begun, as one can see in this vitriolic piece in the New York Post, which I note is inaccurate (Ravitch was never a Neo-Conservative although she shared SOME views with SOME people who were part of that movement), offers nothing which provides a basis for dismissing the extensive evidence Ravitch has marshaled in support of her criticisms, and relies heavily upon ad hominem attacks. It bespeaks a panic that if people truly examine not merely Ravitch’s dissection of the agenda of the “reformers” but also the data that supports it, the willingness of people to accept that agenda will quickly begin to diminish.

Let’s take the example of the Parent Trigger laws (where a majority of parents currently with children in the school can vote to turn it over to a charter operator), which were proposed as a mean of bypassing the normal reluctance of parents to see their schools taken away from local control. Ravitch notes that a major mover in this effort, Parent Revolution, is heavily funded by among others the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation (all organizations that heavily fund the agenda of the reform movement, and in the case of Gates apparently attempts to undercut opposition by also funding some initiatives of the teachers’ unions). Parent Revolution succeeded in getting a trigger law through the California legislature. In one school where it was attempted, the effort wound up in court, and when the charter chain behind the effort opened up a nearby charter school, only about 1/3 of the parents who had actually signed the parent trigger petition enrolled their children there. In the other, while the effort succeeded, when it came time to choose a charter, only those parents who signed the petition were allowed to vote, and ultimately

Only fifty-three parents in a school with more than 600 hundred students chose the new charter operator. (p. 200)

The parallel attempt in Florida did not get that far. No Florida parent organization backed the effort. Ultimately, an equally divided state senate (in a legislature where both chambers are heavily Republican) killed the effort. They had similarly defeated an effort to privatize prisons, and Ravitch notes that a major newspaper (the Miami Herald had written that they were

“a band of renegade senators” who “argued that public education, like public safety, is a core mission pf government and shouldn’t be outsourced to private vendors.” (p. 202)

The force of Ravitch’s writing is not only does she support her arguments with data, but she expresses it in a common sense fashion that will speak to ordinary people. For example, on Parent Trigger laws, when she questions why some mayors seem to support such legislation, she writes

Would they feel equally enthusiastic about encouraging the tenants in public housing to seize control and privatize their buildings? How would they react if riders on a public bus decided to seize control and give the bus to a private company? What about the patrons who use a public park and are organized by a private park-concession corporation to demand control so they can turn it over the concessionaire? Or the patrons of a public library? Would the mayors support them too? (p.203)

Or as she notes later on the same page:

The theory of parent empowerment makes no sense. If the cure rate in a hospital were low, one would not expect the patients to seize control and fire the staff.

Ravitch notes that the public seems to understand this far better than many politicians. After all, Won’t Back Down, which glorifies parent trigger laws, was heavily promoted by NBC’s Education Nation, shown at both national political conventions, had its stars Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal appearing on the talk show circuit, yet it bombed at the box office.

A real strength of this book is the detailed evidence Ravitch offers for the effectiveness of the proposals she does make. The very first of these is to Begin at the Beginning, to provide good prenatal care for every pregnant woman. Ravitch writes

It is far less expensive to prevent learning disabilities at the beginning of pregnancy than to remediate those disabilities for many years into the future (p. 228).

Related to this are the issues of providing quality age-appropriate early childhood education to all children and providing wrap-around services (including medical) as well. When writing about early childhood education, Ravitch notes:

Early intervention not only enhances the life prospects pf children but also has a high benefit-cost ratio and rate of return for society’s investments. (p. 231)

When I read those words, I immediately thought of former US Senator Ernest “Fritz” Hollings of SC, who was the proud co-author of WIC, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, which is describe by the US Department of Agriculture as providing

Federal grants to States for supplemental foods, health care referrals, and nutrition education for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding, and non-breastfeeding postpartum women, and to infants and children up to age five who are found to be at nutritional risk.

Hollings, who had a reputation as a very blunt speaker, used to opine that is was “better to feed the child than to jail the man.”

A further parallel to this can be seen in the arguments over class size. Ravitch relies on evidence, citing among other things a report from the Institute of Education Sciences of the U. S. Department of Education

which had identified class size reduction as one of the few evidence-based reforms that has been proven effective. (p. 245)

She also noteds that

Longitudinal research shows that the benefits of having smaller classes in elementary school last into adulthood. (ibid.)

This last quote comes at the end of a short paragraph of 7 lines that also discusses higher test scores, better behavior, a greater likelihood of graduating from from high school and of attending college. For those 7 lines she cites more than half a dozen studies, allowing the readers to determine for themselves if she is fairly representing their conclusions.

I said there was a parallel – on the same page, a bit earlier, we read

Schools and districts have a choice: they can reduce class sizes now and reap the benefits for years; or they can increase class sizes and pay the cost of remediation, disruptive behavior, and failure for many years. Both routes are costly, but one involves spending to produce early and lasting success, and the other involves spending to compensate for failure.

I have noted that both in criticizing the current approaches of reform and in advocating for solutions that work, Ravitch relies upon evidence. Beyond the more than 320 pages of text, Ravitch provides 25 pages of an appendix full of charts that demonstrate that American schools are NOT in total crisis, as well as 24 pages of detailed notes for the research upon which she relies. She is a thorough and careful scholar. These parts of the book give her powerful prose the underpinning that is sure to drive her critics more than a little crazy: I seriously doubt that any one critic, or even group of critics, has read and processed all that Ravitch has, nor can I imagine the likes of a Michael Bloomberg, a Michelle Rhee, an Arne Duncan, having the grasp of the issues and the knowledge of the data that Ravitch demonstrates in this book.

What Ravitch also demonstrates is her commitment to the democratic ideal. That includes notions such as local control of public schools. As she writes in her conclusion on p. 323,

Democracy functions most effectively when people from different backgrounds interact, communicate their interests, and participate in shaping the purposes by which the live. Perhaps Abraham Lincoln put it best when described American democracy as that “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

America has become ever more diverse as a society in the 67 years I have trod this earth. I have seen that increase in diversity especially in the schools in which I have spent my teaching career. Thus I strongly affirm an additional statement also found on p. 323:

The public schools have taught us how to be one society, not a collection of separate enclaves divided by race, language and culture.

Two more quotes from the next page also caught my eye as presenting clearly how Ravitch views our current situation:

But no matter how much we improve our public schools, they alone cannot solve the deeply rooted, systemic problems of our society

When public education is in danger, democracy is jeopardized.
We cannot afford that risk.

I find myself very much in tune with the thrust of this book. As important as her previous book was, Ravitch has outdone that with this magnum opus.

In the beginning, she laid out what she intended to do. As should be clear, I believe she more than achieved her goals. It is the opinion of this reviewer, me, a retired teacher who returned to the classroom to make a difference, in part at the urging of Ravitch, that this book is by far her finest work, and is something with which everyone truly concerned about education should read.

I am going to allow Ravitch to close this review, by quoting in their entirety her final three paragraphs, while noting that her final sentence is clearly a push-back at the rhetoric used by some in the “reform” movement.

If you care about the future of public education, and if you care about the future of American democracy (because the two are inextricably intertwined), read this book.

And now, some last words from Diane Ravitch, from p. 325:

Yes, we must improve our schools. Start now, start here, by building the bonds of trust among schools and communities. The essential mission of the public schools is not merely to prepare workers for the global workforce but to prepare citizens with the minds, hearts, and characters to sustain our democracy in the future.

Genuine school reform must be built on hope, not fear; on encouragement, not threats; on inspiration, not compulsion; on trust, not carrots and sticks; on belief in the dignity of the person, not a slavish devotion to data; on support and mutual respect, not a regime of punishment and blame. To be lasting, school reform must rely on collaboration and teamwork among students, parents, teachers, principals, administrators, and local communities.

Despite its faults, the American system of democratically controlled schools has been the mainstay of our communities and the foundation for our nation’s success. We must work together to improve our public schools. We must extend the promise of equal educational opportunity to all the children of our nation. Protecting our public schools against privatization and saving them for future generations of American children is the civil rights issue of our time.

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