REIGN OF ERROR: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. By Diane Ravitch. Knopf. 416 pages. $27.95.
For many years in the United States, we have been warned that we are a “nation in crisis” whose public schools are failing our children. A new book, “Reign of Error” by Diane Ravitch, convincingly refutes this notion.
Ravitch brings many years as an educator and historian to the subject. She earned a Ph.D. from Columbia University in Education History. She was appointed to public office by presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton and served as assistant director of education in the George W. Bush administration.
She was asked by then-Secretary of Education Richard Riley to serve as a member of the National Assessment Governing Board.
Ravitch’s basic, and some would say counterintuitive, premise in “Reign of Error” is that public schools are not in fact failing our children but, rather, providing students with a better education than ever before, judging by graduation rates and other factors.
She contends that the federal government’s involvement in public schools has been a detriment to education and she cites the No Child Left Behind law implemented under President George W. Bush and the Race to the Top initiative advanced by President Barak Obama as two examples of programs with unrealistic expectations that cannot meet set goals.
This is a 180-degree change of philosophy since when she was personally involved in the creation of NCLB. She gives no proof, however, when she states that educational programs such as the one administered by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the charter school movement are mostly interested in corporate profits and tend to undermine public schools. She does give a more compelling argument against the misuse of standardize tests, especially the way they are used to evaluate teachers, administrators and entire schools.
In many districts, schools and teachers are judged solely on test scores and teachers’ jobs are put in jeopardy unless improvement on these scores is evident. There are even instances where entire faculties lose their jobs and are required to reapply, as happened in Charleston at four elementary schools: Burns, North Charleston, Sanders Clyde, and Memminger.
Ravitch insists that testing is grossly misused, that it results in teachers teaching to the test and thus forfeiting creativity, autonomy and liberated exploration in the classroom. Through the use of graphs and statistics, she counters the perception that American students score poorly on standardized test compared to students in other countries. In fact, she shows that American test scores have risen over the past 10 years for all students, including minorities.
It might have been helpful if she had suggested that test scores of nations with homogeneous populations should be compared only with similar populations in the U.S. To make broad comparisons between our diverse ethnic population and other countries can be like comparing apples to oranges.
Low scoring schools are traditionally in poverty areas where students come to school with much baggage that hinders learning. This is not so much an educational issue as a societal one.
Ravitch states that schools in low-income areas often are rundown buildings with obsolete equipment. Yet in any given school district, because of federal Title 1 funding, the expenditure per student is usually higher in high-poverty schools than anywhere else in the district. In Charleston, beautiful new schools have been built in high-poverty areas and equipped with the latest and best technology.
Ravitch’s most powerful comment concerning testing is that it should be used diagnostically, not to hand out rewards or punishment. Any other use undermines the creative, innovative and entrepreneurial spirit that have made our economy and society successful.
Three especially interesting facts shared by Ravitch:
17 percent of people surveyed said that public schools are in crisis, but 70 percent said they were pleased with the school their child attended.
90 percent of students graduate from high school, the highest rate in our history.
Students who have taken honors or advanced placement courses, or who apply themselves in all curricula, graduate today with a better education than high school graduates 50 years ago. (She bases this on the numbers and variety of high-level courses offered as well as the rigorous curricula compared to public schools in the past.)
Ravitch addresses many myths about education, in addition to the erroneous claim that standardized testing is an essential way to assess student and teacher performance. She focuses on poverty, merit pay, tenure and seniority, and provides much data that support the contention that public schools generally are performing well.
She also offers proof that charter schools, on average, are no more successful than public schools based on test scores and graduation rates. She does not address the fact, however, that charter schools in poverty areas are a viable alternative to the neighborhood schools because parents who choose a charter school are more likely to be involved in their child’s education.
Ravitch does not mince words when she says that “virtual schools” are cash cows for their owners but poor substitutes for real teachers and real schools. She says there is no evidence to support many of the contentions, including that firing faculties and administrations en masse will improve a school.
Ravitch offers some solutions that are not necessarily in the domain of public schools. Medical and social services for poor children and prenatal care, for example, are community responsibilities. She might have explored better the question of “family values” in her book, though in a recent interview she did address the important influence of parent involvement and a stimulating home life.
“Family is far more important than anything that happens in the school, and when family is economically secure and when parents are educated and when they pay attention to what happens to their children, their children get higher test scores,” she said. “When families live in poverty and their kids don’t get medical checkups, and they have eye problems, ear problems, asthma, they have lower test scores. That’s a reality, not an excuse.”
One of her sweeping statements rings especially true in this educator’s ears: “Every school should have a full, balanced and rich curriculum, including the arts, science, history, literature, civics, geography, foreign language, mathematics and physical education.
A recent research study published by the Music Educators National Conference found that students engaged in the arts during their public school career score an average of 60 points higher on the SAT than students with no arts background.
Schools should be charged with educating the whole child, which means a broader focus than just reading and math. Ashley River Creative Arts Elementary and the School of the Arts, both in Charleston County, are proof that a strong, creative and diverse curricula with an emphasis on the arts, result in test scores at or near the top among Charleston County schools.
Ravitch has experienced a complete change in her thinking about public education since her days in the Bush administration. It is refreshing to read an experienced and highly regarded educator defend the much maligned public school system in such a thoughtful and well-researched book, even if her reasons and solutions are not necessarily politically correct. Her book should be required reading for every educator, parent, government official and anyone else with a vested interest in our public school system.
Reviewer Barry Goldsmith served as a teacher, language arts consultant, elementary school principal and supervisor of fine arts for the Charleston County School District. He retired in 2001.