by Diane Ravitch, 396 pages, Knopf, September 2013
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For some, the notion that there are still people who don’t know the name Diane Ravitch is absurd. But I can only use my own experience as a guide, and three months ago, I had never heard of her. A friend of mine posted a video on Facebook that was slamming the Common Core, and it caught me off guard. I had worked with the Common Core standards for several years already, I liked them, and I was completely unaware that they had become so controversial.
Once I started researching, it didn’t take long for me to find Diane Ravitch, and that was the day my education on policy issues really began. A historian, professor, and former U.S. assistant secretary of education, Ravitch has devoted all of her energy in recent years to documenting the changes in American public schools. Her most recent book, Reign of Error, outlines the whole arc of the reform movement, starting with the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983, through No Child Left Behind, all the way to Obama’s Race to the Top. She names every significant player in this decades-long drama and explains each one’s connection, with direct quotes and references to their most significant moves. And she uses data to measure the success of every major reform in the past 20 years, demonstrating exactly why most of them have been really bad ideas.
If you’re anything like me, you shy away from talk of politics, current events, or any kind of legislative issues for two reasons: fear of sounding ignorant, and fear of being attacked. To learn enough for full, confident participation seems impossible. And practicing classroom teachers, who have the most up-to-date, relevant experiences with how policy plays out, and who will be among those most impacted by educational policy, are least able to participate in the discussion. Most teachers just don’t have the time to keep up.
This is why I’m recommending Reign of Error to teachers. It’s not a quick read, but even if you just cover a page or two a day, you’ll likely find yourself understanding things you never quite had a handle on. And the next time talk of policy comes up, you’ll find that you can participate better. Although lots of teachers are already out there, debating these issues, more informed voices are needed.
Besides reading Reign of Error, make it a habit to check Ravitch’s blog on a regular basis. She keeps it updated with breathtaking frequency: Today, she has already posted seven times. Yesterday, twelve times. Most of her posts provide by-the minute updates on things that are happening in every state – small victories by groups organizing against standardized testing or pro-charter laws, links to op-ed pieces and blog posts that weigh in on reform issues, and laws and lawsuits that are popping up all over the country from opposing sides on every educational policy issue that matters. If you ever want an update on the most important thing happening in education right now, go to her blog and it will be there.
Although I have some concerns about the movement that has grown around Ravitch, which I’ll get to in a moment, I would say without reservation that no teacher can claim to be a fully informed professional if they do not have Diane Ravitch on their radar.
The Short Version
Because you all are busy, and because this information is too important to wait, I’m going to try to give you the abridged version of Reign of Error. Nothing can replace actually reading the book, but here’s the basic gist:
Over the past several decades, a message has been sent to the American people that our public schools are failing. Most of this idea is based on how our students perform on certain standardized tests. By studying those scores more closely, Ravitch shows that those who interpret them have made some pretty big leaps to perpetuate the failure myth. Although a portion of our students — mostly low-income — are struggling, many more are doing just fine.
Nonetheless, the myth of failing public schools prevailed to such a degree that it spawned No Child Left Behind, which threatened to close schools that did not move 100 percent of its students to proficiency on standardized tests, a goal that Ravitch shows is basically impossible. As more schools faced government closure, charter schools moved into communities with the promise of saving their children and offering families “choice.”
Understanding the concept of a charter school, and how it has changed over time, is the most important thing I got from reading this book. Originally, the charter school concept looked like this: Small groups of public school teachers who wanted to try new strategies in order to reach struggling students would be permitted to start their own public schools for a defined period of time, sharing what they learned with their original school. What ultimately happened was quite different: For-profit companies produced chains of charter schools that operated under a profit-driven model, which meant hiring the least expensive teachers, not requiring teaching credentials, and making the bottom line, not students, their top priority. They are run mostly from outside the communities they serve, and their profits go there, too. For each child they teach, they receive public money, which effectively drains funds from the local public schools and makes them more likely to perform poorly, and yet, with key laws put into place, most charters are exempt from any public oversight. Public money without any public rules. Sounds fishy, doesn’t it?
In a few cases, charters have succeeded, but Ravitch shows that most perform the same as — or worse than — the public schools they replaced. For some government officials, who often have financial ties to the same corporations that fund the charters, this lack of results doesn’t matter. Armed with the failing public schools myth, they press on, closing public schools and funneling millions of tax dollars to private companies that haven’t proven their worth.
While the reform movement has targeted teachers as the source of student failure, it has completely sidestepped the issue of poverty, which has a much stronger correlation with poor school performance. In the second half of the book, Ravitch details what she thinks should be happening instead of privatization: more investment in public schools, better services for low-income families, a broader and richer curriculum, and testing that only serves to help teachers diagnose the needs of their students. Her vision is more complex and costly than our current model, but it is one that values community, the expertise of well-trained teachers, and the responsibility we all share to educate our children.
Once you read Reign of Error, you’ll have a much better understanding of how things got the way they are, why you’re spending so much time on test prep, and why your job has gotten so much harder over the last few years. And once you see the whole picture more clearly, you’ll be better able to participate in the push toward something different.
Along with my strong recommendation for Reign of Error, I do have a few concerns about the movement surrounding Ravitch that I think are worth mentioning.
First, the tone of the debate can get really nasty. Just follow any of the links from Ravitch’s blog to other articles and you’ll find yourself in a sea of sarcasm, low blows, and personal attacks. This makes participating in the conversation a scary prospect. Anyone who expresses an opinion that deviates at all from the general consensus is mocked, called a sell-out, or hung out for public humiliation. Ravitch herself isn’t the one doing this; it’s others in the community that has developed around her, especially down in the comments section of her blog and those of others in the same movement. Right now, I’m actually kind of scared to post this because I’m expressing some concerns. The kind of vitriol that I’ve seen surrounding this issue is understandable to some extent, because we’re talking about pretty serious stuff, but I don’t think it’s healthy, because it marginalizes anyone who doesn’t follow what can sometimes feel like a party line. And that ultimately limits the richness of the conversation and its potential to educate those who arrive late, armed with all of our “stupid questions.”
Another concern is the fact that somehow, the far right is starting to move into the same territory as those who follow Ravitch. I’m sure this was never her intention, but my first entry into her world came from an anti-Common Core video which was being publicized by none other than Glenn Beck. A different kind of anti-Common Core movement is stirring, except this one opposes it for its “socialist” undertones. This group is most definitely not pro-public schools, and the fact that the distinction between this group and Ravitch may get blurred is, in my opinion, not a good thing.
A third concern is that the “us” vs. “them” mentality of the movement could put a real damper on innovation and problem-solving. Once an organization or a person gets blacklisted as part of the privatization movement, anything they touch is tainted. This makes it hard for a teacher to navigate all the new resources that appear every day. Just last month I reviewed Educanon, a free and really useful online tool that was developed by a former Teach for America teacher. Once I started reading Reign of Error and Ravitch’s blog, I learned that Teach for America has been identified as being kind of part of the problem – on the naughty list, so to speak, and I thought, crap. Now anyone who sees that review is going to think I’m on someone’s payroll. In October, I urged readers to go to Teaching Channel – turns out that’s funded by the Gates Foundation, another member of the “other” side. I wondered if, by promoting the channel, I was already picking teams. We can’t do that – start viewing every great idea or innovative product with suspicion, wondering who is behind it and whether we “should” like it. And the creative people whose ideas end up getting scooped up by the wrong side shouldn’t be punished, either, because my guess is, they know about as much as I did three months ago.
My final concern is my biggest, and it’s the one I will probably take the most heat for: I think teacher quality is getting shoved aside in all this, and because the reform movement has wrongly demonized teachers, then anyone who suggests that some teachers do, in fact, need improvement are lumped in with the reformers. I have worked with some exceptional teachers, but I have also experienced poor teachers from nearly every angle: as a student, I had some teachers who had no business being in the classroom. As a teacher in two different states, I worked alongside some who fit that same description, and at times their negativity nearly crushed me. As a teacher educator, I stood by as my institution gave diplomas to a few people I thought were overwhelmingly unqualified to teach. And as a parent, I’ve seen how differently my own kids experience school from year to year, depending on who is leading their classroom. Less than four pages of Reign of Error really focus on strengthening the teaching profession. I believe Ravitch when she says that teacher quality matters, but much of the conversation that surrounds her seems built on the assumption that every teacher in every classroom is excellent, and that’s just not true. Granted, we have bigger fish to fry at the moment; I just hope that once the tide against privatization gains more momentum, we can get back to improving the work of teachers.
A Worthy Investment
Even if you never get around to reading all of Reign of Error, invest in it anyway. For one reason, you’ll have at your disposal a great reference tool for understanding education policy and history. If you come across a news story about Chiefs for Change, you can look them up in this book and get some idea of their history. If you want to know who Michelle Rhee is and why so many people are so angry at her, look it up in Reign of Error.
You’ll also be making an investment in Ravitch herself, and I would say that’s money well spent. Few people have her background knowledge, her experience, her singular focus, and holy crap, her persistence to so carefully document and disseminate this knowledge, seemingly at all hours of the day. I want her to keep going, because in the end, I trust that she absolutely has our best interests in mind. ♦
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