From the Headmaster's Bookshelf
This review of Reign of Error by Diane Ravitch, written by Timothy Donahue, is the first in a series focusing on books chosen by Headmaster Frank J. Carnabuci.
The numbers are beginning to look familiar: on the latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test, offered to fifteen-year-olds in the world’s 65 most developed nations, the U.S. ranked 31st in math, 24th in science and 21st in reading. All scores reflect a downward turn since 2009, despite the fact that we regularly spend more per pupil than any other developed country, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. As we know that our own lot is somehow linked to this collective vessel of blame, we are scrambling to avoid sinking any further.
In her Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, Diane Ravitch argues that against the swelling societal question, scourge, and challenge this creates, we have launched an arsenal of leaking ships. No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, merit pay, tenure, school closings, Michelle Rhee, vouchers, non-profit charter schools, for-profit charter schools, e-learning—all receive their numbers-drenched shakedown from Ravitch, the former Assistant Secretary of Education for President George H.W. Bush. Her literacy with charts and trends makes for the kind of book you’d be likely to retrieve from the shelves during a heated debate when indelible evidence is needed.
In her early chapters, which bear the straight-hammer titles of her writing style, she disabuses the reader’s common bias: “The Facts about Test Scores,” “The Facts about the Achievement Gap,” “The Facts about High School Graduation Rates,” “The Facts about Teachers and Test Scores.” The upshot is a statistical portrait of a nation doing much better than we might otherwise think. Citing the “one authoritative measure of academic performance over time,” the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), Ravitch reveals that, in fact, reading scores have risen slightly since 1992, and math scores have improved dramatically. “The critics may find this hard to believe,” she states about these lesser-known assessment results, “but students in American public schools today are studying and mastering far more difficult topics in science and mathematics than their peers forty or fifty years ago.” She ought to know how challenging the NAEP is—under the appointment of President Bill Clinton, she served on the bipartisan National Assessment Governing Board, which administered this assessment.
She also debunks the notion that graduation rates are sagging. Consider, for instance, that it wasn’t until 1940 that half of all students made it through high school. By 2010, the Department of Education announced that the four-year graduation rate had reached 78.2 percent, its first significant increase in three decades. Factor in all those who graduate in five or six years, or receive a GED, and the graduation rate shoots to 90 percent, with dropout rates decreasing among all ethnicities. And, more of these high school graduates move on to college. In 1975, about half of all high school graduates enrolled in college; by 2009, the rate had increased to 70 percent. “We can’t keep crying wolf when we are making progress,” writes Ravitch.
Among all these numbers that show the trends and comparisons, and reveal the business aspect of bottom lines, Ravitch sometimes loses sight of the qualitative values of education. It takes nearly 100 pages before she defines that education is really and truly about deepening one’s appreciation of the arts and emerging with a wider understanding of the world. “Perhaps our policy makers have oversold the economic returns of higher education and lost sight of the value of education for personal, civic, aesthetic, and social purposes,” she writes. Perhaps she spends so much time on the charts and stats of the boardroom because education and business have become so closely aligned.
And she despises that. Ravitch’s reader is barnstormed with an unwavering thesis—that the privatization movement abolishes the democratic purpose of schools, which only exacerbates the nation’s common, core problem: the achievement gap between rich and poor. In a torrent of case studies, she holds no punches. She rips the administrative fees of charter schools; she rips the staff turnover induced by Teach for America, and the exclusive, inconsistent nature of charter schools. She rips the insulting role and pay of teachers in the land of e-learning, and the notion that merit-based pay can fairly evaluate the quality of teachers, as if they are so many widgets in the uniform machine. She rips the litany of testing needed to make all the consequential decisions based on testing, and she laments the loss of wonder and curiosity all this testing replaces. She even rips misinformed educational philanthropists like Bill and Melinda Gates, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, WalMart’s Alice Walton and tennis star Andre Agassi, whose own charter school lost six principals in its first decade of operation, was rocked by a middle school cheating scandal, took 37 Advanced Placement tests, but passed only four in its first three years, and whose cheerleading coach was arrested on suspicion of running an international prostitution ring. If you like this level of salacious detail, Ravitch will not disappoint!
Two-thirds of the way through the book, her tone changes as starkly as her chapter titles: “Solutions: Start Here,” “Begin at the Beginning,” “Class Size Matters for Teaching and Learning,” “Measure Knowledge and Skills with Care.” It is amid these last logical pages that she includes the timeless wisdom of John Dewey, who connects democracy and education:
A democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily amode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience. The extension of the number of individuals who participate in an interest so that each has to refer his own action to that of others to give point and direction to his own.
In this spirit, it is hard to disagree with Ravitch, who takes it all the way back to the importance of prenatal care, diet, reading during infancy, and universal access to preschool. Raised in small classes that honor open discussion, students can spend their early years considering the role of character and responsibility. “A good education steps outside the world of textbooks and worksheets and introduces students to worlds that they never dreamed of and to ideas that change their way of thinking,” she writes in a language that opens to inspiration, underscoring school as a place for mental, physical, and ethical development.
She uses the momentum of all this to again rail against the misplaced reliance upon tests, which “are only one metric, the one that is easiest and cheapest to obtain, but they say more about the background of the student body than about the quality of the school or its teachers.” While the circling of bubbles on tests comes quickly, she says, true learning comes slowly, through a process of understanding, questioning, and independent thinking. It is hard to get around the fact that Ravitch’s formula takes hard work—for students, teachers, parents, and administrators. Exactly how this will get done and paid for? This is the only test Ravitch seems to favor: the test of democracy.