Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Reign Of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Schools

Today is the official release date of Diane Ravitch's new book Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Schools. Go buy it and then read it. I intend to spend the rest of this week writing on the issues raised in this book, but that will not be a replacement for reading the book yourself. This is important if you, like me, are interested in joining the fight to keep public schools public, and actually educating children, rather than turning them into obedient test-taking automatons.

For those who don't know, Ravitch is our nation's leading historian of education and a research professor at New York University's School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. She was appointed to office by both Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton and has served as US Assistant Secretary of Education as well as a member of the National Assessment Governing Board. Most importantly, however, she is one of the vital national voices speaking out against the "corporate eduction reform movement."

As a blogger who has written over 100 posts on various aspects of this drive to remake America's schools in the image of corporations, I can't tell you how grateful I am for this book. In very clear, non-academic language, Ravitch has methodically dissected this "reform" movement, showing the lies at the heart of each of their arguments, dismantling them to reveal that this is a faith-based effort, not one founded upon what we actually know about educating children. Chapter by chapter, naming names, she calmly dismantles their arguments to reveal the ideological core of what they are all about: wresting control of our public schools from the American people and turning them over to the so-called free market.

She starts with the manufactured "crisis" at the heart of the reformer's arguments, the idea that our public schools are a disaster, showing that while our schools are far from perfect, they are not by any means broken, that there are legitimate solutions to the problems we do have, and that the corporate reformers not only might be wrong, but have time and again been proven 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 buy 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.

What I love most about this book, I think, as someone who is trying in his own smaller way to make a difference in this debate, is that it is based on massive amounts of research, every assertion is supported, which is what you would expect from an historian and researcher. I know I will be a frequent user of the appendix and index as I continue my own efforts. And I enjoy the way her chapters are headed by simple claim-reality statements that she then goes on to fully support. The reality, in many cases, may surprise even those of us already on the bandwagon.

Claim: Test scores are falling, and the educational system is broken and obsolete
Reality: Test scores are at the highest point ever recorded.

Claim: The achievement gaps are large and getting worse.
Reality: We have made genuine progress in narrowing the achievement gaps, but they will remain large if we do nothing about the causes of the gaps.

Claim: We are falling behind other nations, putting our economy and our national security at risk.
Reality: An old lament, not true then, not true now.

Claim: The nation has a dropout crisis, and high school graduation rates are falling.
Reality: High school dropouts are at an all-time low, and high school graduation rates are at an all-time high.

Claim: Our economy will suffer unless we have the highest college graduation rate in the world.
Reality: There is no evidence for this claim.

Claim: Poverty is an excuse for ineffective teaching and failing schools.
Reality: Poverty is highly correlated with low academic achievement.

Claim: Teachers determine student test scores, and test scores may be used to identify and reward effective teachers and to fire those who are not effective.
Reality: Test scores are not the best way to identify the best teachers.

Claim: Merit pay will improve achievement.
Reality: Merit pay has never improved achievement.

Claim: Schools will improve if tenure and seniority are abolished.
Reality: There is no evidence for this claim.

Claim: Teach for America recruits teachers and leaders whose high expectations will one day ensure that every child has an excellent education.
Reality: Teach for America sends bright young people into tough classrooms where they get about the same results as other bright young people in similar classrooms but leave the profession sooner.

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.

Claim: Virtual schools will bring the promise of personalized, customized learning to every student and usher in an age of educational excellence for all.
Reality: Virtual schools are cash cows for their owners but poor substitutes for real teachers and real schools.

Claim: If parents seize control of their school, they can make it better.
Reality: There is no evidence for this claim.

Claim: Students who receive vouchers for private and religious schools will experience dramatic success.
Reality: There is no evidence for this claim.

Claim: Schools can be dramatically improved by firing the principal, firing half or all of the teachers, or closing the school and starting fresh.
Reality: There is no evidence for this claim.

Even while Ravitch is dismissive of the full-on "crisis" mentality of corporate reformers, she is not blind to the very real challenges facing our public schools. The final third of the book is about solutions.

As I mentioned, I intend to spend the next week going into more detail about this important book, but in the meantime, I urge you to get it on your own nightstand.

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