Monday, October 7, 2013

Reign of Error by Diane Ravitch: A Fairy Tale Review

What if Chicken Little had 70 billion dollars? Would his comical error in believing the sky is falling have been dismissed so quickly? Would the acorn of truth have been discovered and Chicken Little disgraced? Instead of making Chicken Little the laughingstock of the barnyard, would we instead be drawing up plans for “sky proof” shelters and evaluating them with standardized quality control measures all financed by Chicken Little’s largesse? Perhaps Chicken Little would decide that the public barn on the farm was substandard and he would contract out to have charter barns built. Perhaps he would finance a project to bring Common Corn to the barnyard feed, so that chickens in Mississippi would be fed the same stuff as those in Wisconsin. Perhaps Chicken Little would be lionized in the media as the great fowl hope for the future of barnyards everywhere.

In Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, Diane Ravitch, highly respected author, professor and former Assistant Secretary of Education, has discovered the acorn in the so called education reformers’ barnyard. What is the truth?

1.    Our schools are not failing.
2.    Test scores are higher than ever.
3.    Genuine progress has been made in narrowing achievement gaps.
4.    High school dropout rates are at an all-time low.
5.    Poverty is not an excuse for ineffective teaching; poverty is highly correlated to low achievement.
6.    Test scores are not the best way to determine teacher effectiveness.
7.    Merit pay has never improved achievement.
8.    There is no evidence that schools will improve if tenure and seniority are abolished.
9.    Teach for America which began as a noble experiment has lost its way and is now a tool for the corporate reformers.
10. Charter schools run the gamut from excellent to mediocre to awful and are no more innovative or successful than public schools.
11. Virtual schools are a poor substitute for real teachers and real schools.
12. Vouchers are a major step toward privatization and most Americans do not favor them.
13. Firing teachers and principals and closing schools will not improve learning.

Ravitch backs up each of these assertions with the kind of strong narrative story telling one would expect from America’s premiere education historian. But she also provides a wealth of charts and graphs that demonstrate each of the points she makes. It is in this hard data that the acorn of truth is to be found. The data make a compelling argument that the American public has been sold a bill of goods by the reformers.

And why has this bill of goods been so easy to sell? First of all, there is the incredible amount of money that has been invested by Bill Gates, Eli Broad, the Walmart Family and others. Second of all, powerful politicians like George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal are vocal, in power, and on board with the reform rhetoric. There is no loyal opposition here, the Democrats have basically adopted the Republican plan and doubled down on it. Finally, the reformers have a seductive message: the schools are failing and we know how to fix them.

Ravitch sees the reform movement as a privatization movement. Charter schools like to say they are public schools, but many are run by for profit companies. When challenged to provide the kinds of data required of any public school, they refuse on the basis that they are not public. Many have harsh discipline policies that would never fly in public schools. Apparently they are only public when feeding at the public trough. Vouchers have lead in Louisiana to the growth of many fly by night schools looking to turn an easy profit by attracting desperate parents with promises they can’t keep. Charters, vouchers and the entire reform movement is seen by Ravitch as an existential threat to one of the most bedrock of all American institutions – public education.

Ravitch does not believe that our schools are failing, but she does not believe that all is well either. She sees the reformers denial of poverty as a major factor in low achievement as absurd. Without dealing with poverty and improving the conditions by which poor children arrive at school, we will never be able to achieve our social contract with American children. Her specific recommendations are as follows:
1.    Provide good pre-natal care for every pregnant woman.
2.    Make high quality early childhood education available to all children.
3.    Ensure a full balanced and rich curriculum, which includes the arts, science, history, literature, civics, geography, world languages, mathematics and physical education for all children.
4.    Reduce class sizes, particularly in schools with large numbers of struggling children.
5.    Ban for-profit charters and charter chains and ensure charter schools work collaboratively with public schools.
6.    Provide the medical and social services that poor children need.
7.    Eliminate high stakes standardized testing and rely instead on assessments that allow students to show what they know and are able to do.
8.    Insist that teachers, principals, and superintendents are professional educators. Work to attract capable students to the profession and provide them with a rigorous training program.
9.    Protect democratic control of the public schools through elected local school boards.
10. Devise strategies to reduce racial segregation and poverty.

Will implementing these strategies be easy? Of course not. Will implementing these strategies cost money? Certainly. If we don’t find the will to do these things that might actually make a difference in students’ lives; however, then we are abandoning them to the drudgery of a test driven business model of education that will raid the public coffers for money and leave every child behind.

Buy the book. Read it. Get angry. And then get busy spreading the word that Chicken Little has gotten it wrong again.

Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, by Diane Ravitch. New York: Alfred A.Knopf.