Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error, A Journaled Review by Mel Hawkins, 2nd Installment

Ravitch’s Chapter 1 “Our Schools are at Risk”

Ravitch begins this monumental work by staking out the battlefield and categorically rejecting the assertions of “leading members of our political class and our media elite” that public education is broken.

They say that our children are not learning enough and that the “crisis is so profound that half measures and tweaks will not work. Schools must be closed and large numbers of teachers fired. Anyone who doubts this is unaware of the dimensions of the crisis or has a vested interest in defending the status quo.”

They are wrong, Ravitch says!

They say that teachers, principals, and teachers’ unions must “shoulder the blame” for low test scores. They must be held accountable on the basis of objective evaluations.” These reforms, Ravitch continues, insist that “Students must be given choices other than traditional public schools, such as charter schools, vouchers, and online schools.”
They consider themselves, Ravitch continues, to be “championing the cause of minorities . . . the civil rights movement of our day.”

She notes that these advocates appeal “to values Americans have traditionally cherished—choice, freedom, optimism, and a latent distrust of government.”

Ravitch declares, emphatically, “There is only one problem with this narrative. It is wrong.”

“Public education is not broken.” Ravitch explains. “It is not failing or declining.” She adds that the solutions of what she terms as “the corporate reformers” are wrong. She explains that “our urban schools are in trouble because of concentrated poverty and racial segregation.”

She says that “the solutions proposed by the self-proclaimed reformers have not worked as promised. They have failed even by their own most highly valued measure, which is test scores. At the same time, the reformers solutions have had a destructive impact on education as a whole.”

Ravitch continues her attack with such statements as, “strike at the heart of our nation’s most valued institutions.” “Liberals, progressives, well-meaning people have lent their support to a project that is antithetical to liberalism and progressivism. By supporting market-based ‘reforms’ they have allied themselves with those who seek to destroy public education.” She sites, “implacable hostility toward the public sector” advocating “the transfer of public funds to private management and the creation of thousands of deregulated, unsupervised, and unaccountable schools have opened the public coffers to profiteering, fraud, and small entreprenuers.”

Let me say, emphatically, that the “reformers” she is attacking are absolutely right at the outset of what they say, when they identify as the scope of the problem and they are terribly wrong on the other. Public education is broken and it does threaten our very future as a society. It might work well for an elite component of the population of American children but it works counter to the best interests of a significant portion of our children, and is a disaster for the rest.

Let me add with equal emphasis that they are absolutely wrong in what they are asking us to do to fix it.
On the other hand, although Ravitch comes tantalizingly close, she misinterprets the reasons for the problems with public education, which just happen to be the same problems facing our society as a whole. As a result, what she would have us do is to continue to make the same mistakes we have made for the last half century or more.
Ravitch insists, as do so many others, that the problems with education in America are rooted in poverty and racial segregation and in this she is wrong.

Poverty is not a cause it is a symptom very much like the failures of public education are a symptom of underlying cultural forces sweeping across our society. Similarly, racial segregation is as symptom of those same forces. Segregation is no longer decreed by law rather it results from choices that are made by American men and women, no doubt by default, in the face of the cultural forces to which we refer.

At the risk of over-simplifying, I can say that those cultural forces transcend both race and affluence. The first of these destructive forces is a blanket of hopelessness and powerlessness that is smothering a burgeoning population of Americans who are white, black, and every color in between. These men and women are poor to be sure but poverty is just a condition of their existence. It is the hopelessness and powerlessness that led them into poverty and that keeps them there. Sadly, they teach their children to feel hopeless and powerless and as a result, their children are unable to alter the condition of poverty in which they have been reared. Poverty is a condition, hopelessness and powerlessness are states of mind.

The second of the forces is that many American men and women, or more specifically, mothers and fathers, many of whom do not live in poverty have succumbed to a sense of hopelessness and powerlessness with respect to their ability to maintain control and influence over their children. The children of these people have fallen under the influence of their peers and of the powerful forces of a diverse menu of media that exert far more influence over the minds and attitudes of these young people than do their parents.

These kids can be found in any public school in the U.S. Just ask teachers to point them out for you. They are bright youngsters whose parents have thrown up their hands in figurative despair because they can’t make them behave, cannot get them to take school seriously, cannot get them to bed at a decent hour, cannot control whom they choose for friends, cannot control the amount of time they spend playing video games, surfing the net, or talking, texting, tweeting, facebooking, and sometimes even emailing their friends. When these kids get to school, the teachers, working without the support of the parents, struggle to get them to behave, pay attention, or take their school work seriously. Even though some of these kids earn passing grades, they perform so far below their potential that opportunity cost of what they should be learning has drastic consequences for the balance of their lives.

We have been striving to solve the problem of poverty for generations. President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty to no avail. We have created welfare laws intended to provide the basics for families but instead created an entitlement mentality.

Concerned professional in all of the social sciences have spent enormous energy just as federal and state government have spent trillions of dollars trying to “extend the advantages” to the poor that are enjoyed by the affluent. This is exactly what welfare has been trying to do for generations, now, with disastrous results.

We all know an adage that has become so cliché they we ignore its wisdom. “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

It is absolutely imperative that we shift the emphasis of everything we do and every dollar we spend way from “extending advantages” and focus those resources, instead, on attacking the hopelessness and powerlessness that are the true root causes of poverty, racial segregation, the failure of our systems of public education, and of the violence that has converted many urban neighborhoods to war zones.

If Ravitch were to step back and re-examine her assumptions what a powerful force she could be given the platform at her command.

As we continue through Reign of Error, we will strive to point out what a difference this alternate perspective would make and what opportunities it would create.

The other noteworthy and troubling phenomenon that his occurring is that both sides of the great educational debate are engaged in a dangerous exchange of slogans and catch phrases that blind us to the truth. In following Ravitch’s blog which has so much traffic that I have had to create a separate location on my computer to store the emails announcing the latest posts and comments; what I am seeing is that the words “reform” and “reformer” are becoming what I like to refer to as “trigger bytes” to which Americans react with prejudice with Pavlovian consistency. It is similar to such words as “socialism,” “communism,” and “socialized medicine.” When people hear these trigger bytes used in the attack of an idea, their minds shut down with stunning abruptness, and they no longer listen to what those with a different point of view have to say.

We are faced with some of the most important choices in the history of our nation and we need to keep our wits about us if we hope to weather the challenges of the Twenty-first Century and beyond.

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