Ever since the growing attacks on public education and the focus on “testing accountability” from corporate education reformers, there has been a dire need for a response from insiders. Diane Ravitch’s book, Reign of Error, a book that skewers the “Waiting for Superman” understanding of teaching children and exposes the corporate education reformers’ agenda promoting for-profit charter schools, fills that role perfectly. Ravitch was once not only a strong advocate of neoliberal education reform but also, as assistant secretary of education under the first Bush administration in the early 1990s, helped craft and promote the policies she now so bitingly criticizes. “The transfer of public funds to private management and the creation of thousands of deregulated, unsupervised, and unaccountable schools,” she writes, “have opened the public coffers to profiteering, fraud, and exploitation by large and small entrepreneurs.”
In her carefully researched and argued book, Ravitch finds that the testing craze in the United States is less a plan to improve education than it is a means to tear down the public school system and open up state coffers to business interests eager to cash in on the new education gravy train represented by charter schools. As teachers and parents prepare for the Common Core testing system, known as the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), schools districts today are attempting to figure out the best way to use the results not to drive the instruction or figure out the needs of the individual students, but to target the teachers, schools, and districts where the tests are conducted. Ravitch helped develop the high-stakes testing systems of the Northwest Evaluation Association’s Measurements of Academic Progress (infamously known for being boycotted in Seattle) and other accountability systems in states all over the country. She now rejects high-stakes testing.
One of the testing systems Ravitch accepts as legitimate is the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). She explains that the NAEP is the only assessment system that is not high stakes and is anonymous. Only samples of students take the test. No one knows who takes the test or how well they did but, most importantly, schools are not threatened to be “reconstituted” by firing their entire staff, and school districts are not threatened with funding cuts based on how well their students do on the test. Moreover, because of the anonymity of the NAEP, teachers are not fired if their students perform badly on the test, and newspapers cannot publish individual teacher test scores to identify “The Worst Teachers” for their city.
Ravitch explains that students have actually made significant improvements in math and reading on the NAEP and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) over the course of the last two decades. Since the 1970s, almost all groups of students across the country have made “tremendous gains” on the NAEP even during the period of time when the districts were changing policies to accommodate to the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation that was premised on how poorly public schools were performing. On the TIMSS, American students have shown huge improvements in science and math and, as Ravitch points out, Black students in Massachusetts performed as well as students from Israel and Finland—both internationally recognized for high-performing education systems. But because this story runs counter to corporate education reformers’ claims about public education, it finds no traction in the public discourse about how to evaluate children.
Ravitch dismantles a series of claims made by reformers, carefully rebutting each. For example, a claim commonly made by the likes of corporate education darlings like Michelle Rhee, Michael Bloomberg, the Gates Foundation, and Joel Klein is, “Schools will improve if tenure and seniority are abolished.” Ravitch responds that the states where teachers have strong unions and job protections have higher test scores. She demonstrates that stronger unions and better working conditions for teachers translate into better learning conditions for students.
Another claim made by the reformers is that poverty is an excuse for ineffective teachers and schools. However, as Ravitch shows, poverty is “highly correlated with low academic achievement.” Offering an international perspective, she shows that in countries around the world and in high-performing nations, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds fall short of their advantaged peers. Instead she suggests that to improve educational results, families should be provided with a whole host of “wraparound” services that address the needs of low income students, from prenatal care and ongoing healthcare services to nutritional programs and childcare services.
Ravitch exposes the social disadvantages that most public school students still face. While acknowledging the gains that followed the civil rights movement and the Brown vs. Board of Education decisions, Ravitch recognizes that these reforms did not go far enough to redress generations of racial inequities.
Despite significant progress in expanding educational access, educational attainment, and economic opportunities for black citizens in the past half century, blacks continue to be disproportionately poor, to attend racially segregated schools, to experience high rates of incarceration, and to live in racially isolated communities where children are likely to be exposed to violence, gangs, and drug use.
The last third of the book explains her vision of public education reform. From common sense solutions like reducing class size and abandoning standardized testing, to her call for wraparound health care and social services, Ravitch bases her proposals firmly on the understanding that public education should be treated as a public responsibility rather than a commodity. Providing a rich curriculum that includes literature, civics, geography, foreign languages, mathematics, and education would offer students a reason to enjoy their education rather then drain their time in school preparing for tests. She also calls for a ban on for-profit charters and charter chains.
In her final chapter, “The Pattern on the Rug,” Ravitch pays homage to the amazing efforts of the Chicago Teachers’ Union which “Shone a bright light on the essentially elitist indifference of the mayor, the school board and by implication the Obama Administration. But the CTU’s main victory was the example of unity and militancy that it offered to dispirited educators across the nation.” She also understands the importance of bringing parents and educators together to bring the solutions she proposes to fruition.
Reign of Error is an important contribution to the growing number of books that challenge the education policies of both political parties. It should be used as a handbook for educators to expose the corporate education reformers and to argue with their colleagues and parent organizations about what a real vision of education is and how to go about making that a reality.