The reformers can wait for Superman all they want. We’ve got Wonder Woman.
‘Reign Of Error: the Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools,’ released today, is what Arne Duncan would call a ‘game changer.’ This will bring a new and wider audience to Dr. Diane Ravitch’s analysis of the current fads in education which will, I expect, get her air time on mainstream television to spread the truth even further.
Education ‘reform,’ she describes in the first pages of the book is based on the narrative that our country’s schools are, in general, ‘failing’ and are in a wild free fall from the unspecified ‘glory days’ of public education. The situation, the reformers say, is so desperate, that the public has been convinced that it is, indeed, time to panic and to be willing to try radical and untested remedies. The problem with all this is that schools, though not perfect, are not truly ‘failing’ and the reckless strategies now called ‘reform’ are not making things any better and are, in many ways, making things worse.
The average reader will be shocked by chapters 5 through 9 in which Ravitch uses data to demonstrate that there is no international test score comparison crisis, high school graduation rates are at an all time high, and that NAEP test scores are also at an all time high. No, this does not mean that we don’t keep working to make schools better, but it does mean that the initial motivation for the radical reforms sweeping the country are based on a false premise.
The book was preemptively critiqued by former US DOE employee Peter Cunningham in The Huffington Post who predicted:
She will say that a big part of the problem is poverty — which no one disagrees with. She will call on America to invest more in fighting poverty, as if we have not spent tens of trillions of dollars fighting poverty since the New Deal and the Great Society and will spend tens of trillions more. She will even attack a president who started his career as a community organizer fighting poverty in low-income Chicago neighborhoods and whose core beliefs stem from his faith in education to provide a pathway out of poverty. Can’t remember the last president with a similar background. Worst of all, she will use poverty as an excuse to avoid any responsibility on the part of the federal government, states, districts, schools and educators — collectively — to somehow do a better job of educating poor kids.
The whole ‘poverty is not destiny’ vs ‘poverty is destiny’ argument is something that reformers have been using as a talking point for years. Throughout the book Ravitch acknowledges that of course some kids born into poverty will escape from it. It is really amazing that her critics have been so unified in spreading the message that she doesn’t believe this so that it is necessary for her to remind people that she is not the straw man they accuse her of being. But, yes, a central theme of the book is that poverty is the root cause of the achievement gap (really should be called the test score gap). Reformers will be licking their chops on page 62 when Ravitch writes:
The schools did not cause the achievement gaps, and the schools alone are not powerful enough to close them. So long as our society is indifferent to poverty, so long as we are willing to look the other way rather than act vigorously to improve the conditions of families and communities, there will always be achievement gaps.
It is a shame that this sentiment is often characterized as defeatist. Would a medical doctor be criticized for saying that an approach for dealing with Cancer that just treats the symptoms is very limited while actually curing Cancer is the only way for it to actually get cured?
Ravitch, in a chapter called ‘How Poverty Affects Academic Achievement,’ continues this line of thinking with quotes from reformers like Bill Gates, Wendy Kopp and Geoffrey Canada demonstrating how they really seem to believe that good schools have the power to reverse the cycle of poverty. On page 92 she quotes Bill Gates saying “We know you can have a good school in a poor neighborhood, so let’s end the myth that we have to solve poverty before we improve education. I say it’s more the other way around: Improving education is the best way to solve poverty.”
On pages 95 through 97, Ravitch explains the tremendous cost of premature births, a seemingly tractable problem, on our economy and also on our education system. She will revisit this idea at the end of the book as the first of her eleven research based solutions.
The book is filled with pithy paragraphs, characteristic of Ravitch’s writing style, like this one from the same chapter:
The reformers’ case is superficially appealing. It ought to be easier to “fix” schools than to “fix” poverty, because poverty seems so intractable. Our society has grown to accept poverty as an inevitable fact of life, and there seems to be little or no political will to do anything about it. It should also be cheaper to fix schools instead of poverty, because no matter how much it costs to fix schools, it will surely be less than the cost of significantly reducing poverty in a society with great economic inequality like our own. The problem is that if you don’t really know how to fix schools, if none of your solutions actually improve education, then society ends up neither fixing schools nor doing anything about poverty.
From chapters 11 through 15, Ravitch explains why most of the fads of education reform, like standardized test based accountability, Teach For America, and even Michelle Rhee got her own chapter, have not done much to improve education and if allowed to continue to grow will surely make things worse. These 56 pages serve as a nice summary of Ravitch’s last book ‘The Death And Life of the American School System’ with updated information about what has happened with these fads over the past three and a half years since that was published.
Though the concept of ‘privatization’ is weaved throughout the book, on page 156, nearly halfway through the book, Ravitch has a sixty page, four chapter, section that delves deeply into the concept. Before reading this book, I was a bit anxious about how Ravitch would present this. If you search all my blog entries, you will notice that I never once have used the word ‘privatization’ in any of my posts. It isn’t that I doubt that it is true that there are some forces out there that truly want teachers to not have unions and to have teachers not teach long enough to earn pensions, it is just that I never thought that it was the strongest argument against the reformers, while the arguments about how none of their ideas work was decisive. I felt that it was too tough to prove that privatization was a large part of the motivation of some reformers. So I was very pleased with the sixty pages outlining the corruption that is currently going and and facilitated by privatization. Some charters have found ways to make their founders very rich through shady real estate arrangements. Virtual charters are particularly lucrative despite have little proven success. Vouchers have also been a disappointment wherever they have been tried. I don’t doubt that there are also abuses and swindles going in in regular public schools, but it does seem like there are a lot more loopholes and ways for people to game the system to get their hands on that public money. I’d say I learned the most from these pages.
Within this section was one of my favorite, extremely ‘tight’ explanations, in this case of the parent trigger fiasco in Los Angeles:
The next candidate for the parent trigger was Desert Trails Elementary School in the Adelanto School District, about eighty miles from Los Angeles. Parent Revolution worked with dissatisfied parents, and in January 2012 parent leaders presented a petition with the signatures of nearly 70 percent of the parents. The Parent Revolution community organizers had circulated two petitions, one demanding changes in the school, the other calling for a charter school takeover. But only the latter petition was presented to the school board. Some parents sought to withdraw their names from the petition, and the school board invalidated their signatures, dropping support to 37 percent. The matter went to court, and a county judge ruled that parents were not allowed to rescind their names once they signed the petition. Victorious, the parent leaders — with Parent Revolution’s help — invited charter operators to apply to run the school. When it came time to choose between two charters that stepped forward, parents who did not sign the original petition were not allowed to vote. Only fifty-three parents in a school with more than six hundred students chose the new charter operator.
A few pages later, this passage about the folly of shutting down schools is done with similar brevity:
Arne Duncan had initiated the strategy of closing low-performing schools in 2002. At that time, he closed three elementary schools, fired their staffs, and started over. Two years later, he and Mayor Richard M. Daley made this strategy the centerpiece of their reform plan, called Renaissance 2010. President-elect Barack Obama chose one of the three schools, Dodge Elementary (renamed Dodge Renaissance Academy), as the place to announce his selection of Arne Duncan as secretary of education in 2008. He said of Duncan, “He’s shut down failing schools and replaced their staffs, even when it was unpopular … This school right here, Dodge Renaissance Academy, is a perfect example. Since this school was revamped and reopened in 2003, the number of students meeting state standards has tripled” But somehow the miraculous turnaround evaporated. By 2013, Chicago school officials closed Dodge Renaissance Academy again, along with the other two elementary schools that Duncan had closed and “revamped” in 2002.
In the final 100 pages of the book, Ravitch presents eleven research based solutions to improving education in this country. In chapter one, she tells us “I will then put forward my solutions, none of which is cheap or easy, none of which offers a quick fix to complicated problem. I have no silver bullets — because none exist — but I have proposals based on evidence and experience,” and her eleven solutions are presented beautifully. The first one is to “Provide good prenatal care for every pregnant woman.”
In these very short eleven chapters Ravitch truly puts her heart into explaining why these strategies are so essential. Reformers, of course, will say something like “Sure, those things are great and all, but as education reformers that’s not our job and even if nobody ever works on problems like that, we still have a job to do.” But I think that this book is not really targeted at trying to ‘convert’ reformers. Much more important is to inform people who have been duped by the reformer lies.
For me, my favorite section was an eight page chapter, chapter 24, called ‘The Essentials of a Good Education.’ In this section Ravitch writes poetically about what the purpose of school is. In contrast to ‘raising test scores’ the ultimate goal of reformers, this section reminds us that schools is not about beating other countries, but about raising citizens who will one day vote and serve on juries. This chapter which would make Dewey proud and would probably make Michelle Rhee nauseous, really resonated with me. As I was reading it just before beginning my new school year, it really helped me put things back into perspective as I mentally prepare for what I am trying to achieve with my students this year. I expect this eight page section to be excerpted, maybe someplace like Reader’s Digest, and to be widely read and contemplated.
The ‘voice’ in this book is quite different from what we see on Ravitch’s blog each day. It is much more objective, often having expressions like “some critics say” before presenting counterarguments. Though Ravitch’s point of view is clear, I think the tone is very respectful, though I’m sure that some of her critics will still accuse her of not being respectful enough. I’m sure in the coming days we will see reactions from reformers where sentences from the book will be taken out of context to prove one desperate point or another. I think, though, that they will still be fighting a losing battle. If timing really is everything, then this book is going to sell a lot of copies. Just as the public is beginning to get the sense that something strange is going on in education, this book will open a lot of eyes and a lot of mouths.
As a side note, I am extremely proud that my name appears four times in the book. I’m mentioned and quoted twice in the chapter about Teach For America, once in the index, which made me feel pretty good, and then — the one I’m most proud of — I’m one of about thirty people mentioned in the acknowledgments as one of the people Ravitch “relied for ideas, inspiration, reflections, research, and suggestions.” That my work over the past few years may have helped this book to be as good as it was, is something that has made all the late night blogging, all the searching through public state data systems, all the thinking about these issues even more worth it.