On Reign Of Error

I just finished reading the next book on our reading list, within the Houston Nonfiction Book Club that I am part of, Reign of Error – The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools by Diane Ravitch.

While one might not agree with every argument advanced by the author, your view about the education system will definitely be challenged by this book regardless on your current stance with respect to the public vs. private education debate. This book invoked within me similar feelings of transformation as did Naomi Klein‘s highly recommended, The Shock Doctrine, a few years ago.

The purpose of this book is in essence to answer four questions about education:

First, is American education in crisis? Second, is American education failing and declining? Third, what is the evidence for 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?

Diane begins, by setting the background for her work:

In Hollywood films and television documentaries, the battle lines are clearly drawn. Traditional public schools are bad; their supporters are apologists for the unions. Those who advocate for charter schools, virtual schooling, and “school choice” are reformers; their supporters insist they are championing the rights of minorities. They say they are leaders of the civil rights movement of our day. It is a compelling narrative, one that gives us easy villains and ready-made solutions. It appeals to values Americans have traditionally cherished—choice, freedom, optimism, and a latent distrust of government. There is only one problem with this narrative. It is wrong. Public education is not broken. It is not failing or declining. The diagnosis is wrong, and the solutions of the corporate reformers are wrong. Our urban schools are in trouble because of concentrated poverty and racial segregation. But public education as such is not “broken.” 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. The solutions proposed by the self-proclaimed reformers have not worked as promised. They have failed even by their own most highly valued measure, which is test scores. At the same time, the reformers’ solutions have had a destructive impact on education as a whole.

Her premise to advance education is to reverse our current path:

Stop doing the wrong things. Stop promoting competition and choice as answers to the very inequality that was created by competition and choice. Stop the mindless attacks on the education profession. A good society requires both a vibrant private sector and a responsible public sector. We must not permit the public sector to be privatized and eviscerated. In a democracy, important social goals require social collaboration. We must work to establish programs that improve the lives of children and families. To build a strong educational system, we need to build a strong and respected education profession. The federal government and states must develop policies to recruit, support, and retain career educators, both in the classroom and in positions of leadership. If we mean to conquer educational inequity, we must recognize that the root causes of poor academic performance are segregation and poverty, along with inequitably resourced schools. We must act decisively to reduce the causes of inequity. We know what good schools look like, we know what great education consists of. We must bring good schools to every district and neighborhood in our nation. Public education is a basic public responsibility: we must not be persuaded by a false crisis narrative to privatize it. It is time for parents, educators, and other concerned citizens to join together to strengthen our public schools and preserve them for future generations. The future of our democracy depends on it.

The language being used to drive the privatization effort is intentionally misleading:

If the American public understood that reformers want to privatize their public schools and divert their taxes to pay profits to investors, it would be hard to sell the corporate idea of reform. If parents understood that the reformers want to close down their community schools and require them to go shopping for schools, some far from home, that may or may not accept their children, it would be hard to sell the corporate idea of reform. If the American public understood that the very concept of education was being disfigured into a mechanism to apply standardized testing and sort their children into data points on a normal curve, it would be hard to sell the corporate idea of reform. If the American public understood that their children’s teachers will be judged by the same test scores that label their children as worthy or unworthy, it would be hard to sell the corporate idea of reform. If the American public knew how inaccurate and unreliable these methods are, both for children and for teachers, it would be hard to sell the corporate idea of reform. And that is why the reform message must be rebranded to make it palatable to the public.

The movement towards privatization of education is a bi-partisan effort:

Perhaps the most curious development over the three decades from A Nation at Risk to the 2012 report of the Council on Foreign Relations was this: what was originally seen in 1983 as the agenda of the most libertarian Republicans—school choice—had now become the agenda of the establishment, both Republicans and Democrats. Though there was no new evidence to support this agenda and a growing body of evidence against it, the realignment of political forces on the right and the left presented the most serious challenge to the legitimacy and future of public education in our nation’s history.

While there has been an increased focused on more testing and standardization, the quality of education has suffered:

Surely, there is value in structured, disciplined learning, whether in history, literature, mathematics, or science; students need to learn to study and to think; they need the skills and knowledge that are patiently acquired over time. Just as surely, there is value in the activities and projects that encourage innovation. The incessant demand for more testing and standardization advances neither.

Diane then goes on to outline, sixteen claims/fallacies that the reformers have been promoting to advance their privatization agenda, and below I will highlight three of them:

First, the fallacy surrounding high school graduation rates:

CLAIM: The nation has a dropout crisis, and high school graduation rates are falling. REALITY: high school graduation rates are at an all-time high…If college completion is important as an investment in the knowledge and skills of our population (and not just as a credential), then we must encourage and enable students to persist. If we treated education as both an economic good for the ongoing development of our nation and a basic human right, then public higher education would be subsidized by the state and freely available to all who choose to pursue a degree. That’s about as likely to happen as becoming first in the world in degree completion by 2020, but it would move us closer to the latter goal.

Second, the fallacy around the academic challenges in poorer schools are attributable to the ineffectiveness of their teachers:

CLAIM: Poverty is an excuse for ineffective teaching and failing schools. REALITY: Poverty is highly correlated with low academic achievement…The reformers’ belief that fixing schools will fix poverty has no basis in reality, experience, or evidence. It delays the steps necessary to heal our society and help children. And at the same time, it castigates and demoralizes teachers for conditions they did not cause and do not control.

Third, the fallacy that charter schools are the solution to the educational challenges of America:

CLAIM: Charter schools will revolutionize American education by their freedom to innovate and produce dramatically better results.REALITY Charter schools run the gamut from excellent to awful and are, on average, no more innovative or successful than public schools.

Before transitioning from the fallacies, to the solutions, the author reminds us again that poverty is not a problem that education alone can address:

There is no example in which an entire school district eliminated poverty by reforming its schools or by replacing public education with privately managed charters and vouchers. If the root causes of poverty are not addressed, society will remain unchanged. Some poor students will get the chance to go to college, but the vast majority who are impoverished will remain impoverished. The current reform approach is ineffective at eliminating poverty or improving education. It may offer an escape hatch for some poor children, as public schools always have, but it leaves intact the sources of inequality. The current reform approach does not alter the status quo of deep poverty and entrenched inequality…We need broader and deeper thinking. We must decide if we truly want to eliminate poverty and establish equal educational opportunity We must decide if we truly want to build a society with liberty and justice for all. If that is our true purpose, then we need to move on two fronts, changing society and improving schools at the same time.

Diane, then goes on to detail an eleven point action plan, of which I have highlighted six below:

  • Provide good prenatal care for every pregnant woman.
  • Make high-quality early childhood education available to all children.
  • Every school should have a full, balanced. and rich curriculum, including the arts, science, history, literature, civics, geography, foreign languages, mathematics.  and physical education.
  • Reduce class sizes to improve student achievement and behavior.
  • Insist that teachers, principals, and superintendents be professional educators.
  • Devise actionable strategies and specific goals to reduce racial segregation and poverty.

On a concluding note:

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 human 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 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.

A very highly recommended read.


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