Diane Ravitch is a force of nature and social media. Relentlessly energetic, this scholar of K-12 education is at the heart of a movement and counter-reformation in our school system. Ravitch’s aim is no less than to reshape the national debate on education.
In Reign of Error, Ravitch employs her formidable polemical skills to discuss four big questions: Is American education in crisis? Is American education failing? What is the evidence for the reforms promoted by the federal government and several states? What should we do to improve our schools?
Her answer is that American education is being attacked and needs defense. Her book is a continuation of arguments made by her in earlier works, once she decided that widespread enthusiasm for testing and President Bush’s No Child Left Behind was ineffective, if not destructive. Ravitch believes that Obama’s Race To The Top is equally problematic. These “reforms” are destructive to teachers, student learning, and public education, Ravitch argues. She claims that corporations are behind many of the putative reforms and that profits and ideology work hand-in-hand in driving this agenda. Her argument is sweeping and comprehensive.
At the center of Reign of Error are a series of claims and refutations, which Ravitch calls reality. Taken collectively, they spell out a powerful argument. Ravitch moves from the national to state to local level comfortably. Decades of research into education give her work a very strong foundation. Ravitch always has facts ready and the book is studded with analysis, data, reports, and articles. It is rich with the scholarship of education and she uses that information to her advantage.
CLAIM – Test scores are falling, and the education system is broken and obsolete. REALITY – Test scores are at their 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 national security at risk. REALITY – An old lament, not true then, not true now. (The focus of this chapter is international test scores).
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 sores, and test scores may be used to identify and reward effective teaches 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 American recruits teaches 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.
Ravitch has a debater’s ability to take complicated issues and frame them in a straightforward manner. She also makes sure that there is always evidence for her positions. Recognizing that her critics have asked her for solutions, Ravitch offers some. She looks beyond the classroom, too, to effect broad change.
Solution No. 1 – Provide good prenatal care for every pregnant woman.
Solution No. 2 – Make high-quality early childhood education available to all children.
Solution No. 3 – Every school should have a full, balanced, and rich curriculum, including the arts, science, history, literature, civics, geography, foreign languages, mathematics, and physical education.
Solution No. 4 – Reduce class sizes to improve student achievement and behavior.
Solution No. 5 – Ban for-profit charters and charter chains and ensure that charter schools collaborate with public schools to support better education for all children.
Solution No. 6 – Provide the medical and social services that poor children need to keep up with their advantaged peers.
Solution No. 7 – Eliminate high-stakes standardized testing and rely instead on assessments that allow students to demonstrate what they know and can do.
Solution No. 8 – Insist that teachers, principals, and superintendents be professional educators.
Solution No. 9 – Public schools should be controlled by elected school boards or by boards in large cities appointed for a set term by more than one elected official.
Solution No. 10 – Devise actionable strategies and specific goals to reduce racial segregation and poverty.
Solution No. 11 – Recognize that public education is a public responsibility, not a consumer good.
Ravitch stands ready to debate her book and her critics. Debate, too, is a good forum for her. Her wheelhouse is big strategies and big claims. She narrows down complicated issues to right or wrong, good or bad. That same strength can, at times, make her less attuned to subtleties and complicating factors.
Through her blog and books like Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch has become the nation’s foremost spokesperson for a different kind of educational reform. She is playing a big role in the movement to end the common core. Knowing how many friends and colleagues read her blog, and her formidable skills, I wouldn’t bet against her.