Reign of Error

Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools by Diane Ravitch


This is by far the best book I’ve ever read about education. If you’ve ever wondered what’s wrong with our public schools and how they can be fixed, this book will answer every question you could possibly have on the topic. If I could force every lawmaker in the country to read a single book, this would be it.

Diane Ravitch was Assistant Secretary of Eduation under Bush and one of the architects of No Child Left Behind. But she changed her mind about that law and the changes it set in motion when she saw the results come in. She wrote another book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, about that reversal, then wrote this one in response to critics who said she criticized NCLB without presenting alternatives or solutions.

Ravitch criticizes the current education reform movement, naming leaders like Michelle Rhee and organizations like Teach for America as contributing to the problem. She dismantles many myths about American education; the most heartening chapter might have been the one about how test scores are not really bad at all, if you read them in the correct way. I also enjoyed the chapter about the limited effect teachers have on test scores, and the one that destroys all arguments in favor of merit pay for teachers. (The biggest study she cites is from Vanderbilt, which seems ironic considering MNPS’s recent flirtation with merit pay.)

The philosophy behind most of Ravitch’s criticism of charter schools and other movements to privatize schools is the basic idea that education is a public good, benefiting everyone in a community. When parents have the choice to enroll kids in charter schools or use vouchers to send them to private ones, only the families with the most resources exercise these options, so that the neediest students are left behind in public schools that have been drained of money. A vicious cycle begins: test scores plummet, schools are threatened with closure, more good students leave, repeat until the school is closed or “fresh-started.” Many arguments in favor of charter schools, standardized testing, and teacher evaluation use metaphors from the business world and the free market. But education cannot and should not work as a business in this sense. Competition, Ravitch argues, only hurts children by destabilizing an institution that should give structure and certainty to their lives. She also uses John Dewey’s ideas about democracy and its need for educated citizens, and I’m a sucker for a good Dewey quote.

Ravitch presents a comprehensive list of solutions for all of these problems, and if they seem unrealistic, that’s a sign of how messed up things are right now, not a sign that she’s wrong. Her solutions begin with prenatal care and early childhood education, keep going with a full liberal arts curriculum, reduced class sizes, elimination of for-profit charter schools, and professionalization of teachers, and follow through with a full complement of medical and social services provided in schools, and summer and after-school programs for all students. Is there anyone who would honestly argue that a widespread implementation of all of these common-sense solutions would not result in vast improvement in our education system? Sadly, I’m afraid most of these solutions will never even be tried because they’re too expensive.

I especially appreciated Ravitch’s critique of the overuse of data in education: “The things we treasure most are the very things that cannot be measured with a yardstick or a scale or a test.” I’ve realized that nothing I care about in teaching can be measured with a test. You can’t quantify a student’s growth in self-confidence, or their increased ability to appreciate multiple points of view. If standardized tests didn’t impact my job security (thanks to policies Ravitch and I disagree with), I wouldn’t give them a second thought in my teaching. They are meaningless as learning experiences because we don’t get the results in time to even discuss them with students.

What I wish Ravitch had included was a list of things that ordinary people can do to change this situation, besides voting wisely. As a classroom teacher, what can I do about excessive standardized testing in my school, and about larger structural issues like charter schools, poverty, and segregation? Should parents pull their children out of testing? What organizations are working to strengthen public schools and support students and teachers? I really enjoyed this book because I felt validated to read an expert reaching the same conclusions I have and arguing for many of the same solutions I’d like to try. But without an action plan, the experience of reading this book was also somewhat frustrating.

5 thoughts on “Reign of Error

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