Reign of Error, by Diane Ravitch, a Journaled Review by Mel Hawkins, Entry #1

This is the first installment of what will be a journaled review of Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, by Diane Ravitch; her latest and possibly most important work.

In her Intro, Diane Ravitch says that her purpose is to answer 4 questions:

1. Is American Education in crisis?
2. Is American education failing and declining
3. What is the evidence for the reforms now being promoted by the federal government and adopted in many states
4. What should we do to improve our schools and the lives of children?

Ravitch says that American education is in crisis “because of persistent, orchestrated attacks on them and their teachers and principals, and attacks on the very principle of public responsibility for public education.” She adds that “these attacks create a false sense of crisis and serve the interests of those who want to privatize the public schools.”

This statement begs the question of why did the orchestrators of such attacks find it necessary to attack public education in the first place? While I agree with her that the evolving focus on privatization is a bad thing, there must be some acknowledgement of responsibility for the outcomes to which these unidentified forces are reacting.

While it is natural for educators to be defensive and feel unfairly blamed while in the midst of the criticisms raining down on them, claiming the criticisms to be unfair without addressing the outcomes about which the critics are concerned is simply not acceptable. Educators are no more able to fairly judge, unilaterally, the efficacy of their product than members of a production line in a manufacturing operation are able to judge the performance of the goods they produce outside the context of the customer who pays for those goods.

The only people who can fairly judge the value of education are the people who rely on the ability of public school students to perform in the marketplace upon completion of their schooling. As a former employer, I can tell you that it became increasingly difficult to find young men and women who have the minimal academic skills necessary to do the work for which we were prepared to pay them. Employers have a right to pass judgment on the performance of our public schools.

As an tester responsible for administering the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), I am in a position to judge the efficacy of an educational system that produces so many young men and women who are either unable to meet the minimum requirements for enlistment eligibility or who, if eligible, are able to perform the work required of them after induction in only the lowest career areas.

If teachers, particularly of middle and high school students, were able to set aside worries about who is to blame for the problem, they would be in a great position to tell us that far too many students are either unwilling or unable, either, to do the academic work on the one hand or display good citizenship on the other.

The question is not whether or not our systems of public education are in crisis, because it most surely is, rather it is what and who are responsible for the crisis.

Sadly, most of these critics assign responsibility for the poor performance of our public schools on the wrong things. We blame poverty, we blame racial discrimination and segregation, and we blame our teachers and our schools.

As was noted in my initial review of Ravitch’s book, as well as in my own book and blog, we misinterpret the causes of the disappointing performance of our public schools. Because of our incorrect assessment, we fail to see that teachers, rather than bearing the brunt of the responsibility for what is clearly a crisis in public education, are as much victims of the system as are their students.

As is always the case, if we are unable to come up with an accurate diagnosis of the problem, we are rarely able to identify meaningful solutions.

Were we able to discover and agree on the true causes of our educational crisis we would know, with a high degree of certainty that testing, privatization, vouchers and other tools to give parents more choices are not the solution to the problems of public education. These things make it more difficult for teachers and schools to do their important work rather than easier.

The true causes, as we have so frequently pointed out, are 1) a growing cultural disdain for the value of education on the part of far too many American parents and the resulting lack of a strong motivation to learn on the part of their children, and 2) that the educational process that has evolved, over the last century or more, is poorly designed and structured to produce the outcomes we so desperately need. The American educational process is the equivalent of early twentieth-century design and technology striving to compete in the Twenty-first Century. No amount of tinkering with the system with incremental modifications will work. The system must be reinvented to produce the outcomes we need from it.

Let us return to Ravitch’s purpose which was to answer her four questions. The American systems of public education are clearly in crisis and it is failing to meet the needs of both American school children and the society which will someday depend on their contributions.

As far as question number three is concerned, there is no evidence for the reform initiatives being promoted by the federal government and other policy-making forces as they are all premised on faulty logic. Any solution constructed on a faulty foundation must, inevitably, crumble.

The answer to question number four is that we must do nothing “to improve our schools and the lives of our children?” until we take the time to understand the root causes of the problems of public education in America. For that reason, finding the root causes is the categorical imperative of our time.

It was for this very purpose that my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America was written.

Ravitch, correctly, goes on to say that our schools are not “fine just as they are.” She then lists what she believes “American education needs,” and while none of these things are bad for our public schools, not a single one of them addresses the root causes for our system’s problems. As a result, they will not only make no appreciable difference, they will be harmful because of the opportunity cost they engender as they keep us from doing what we should be doing.

The sad thing is, that we already have the capability to fix public education in America even though it will be a formidable challenge.

Ravitch is absolutely correct, however, when she says that “The purpose of elementary and secondary education is to develop the minds and character of young children and adolescents and help them grow up to become healthy, knowledgeable, and competent citizens.”

She is also correct that the solution is to give schools and their teachers the resources that they need to do their jobs. We simply must rethink what those resources are.

Another area where Ravitch and other opponents of many of the “privatization” reform initiatives are wrong is in seemingly suggesting that schools and teachers should not be held accountable through the independent measurement of outcomes. As we will discuss later on, we need to develop an integrated quality system much like modern business organizations have done. What the skeptics will discover, if they make an effort to understand how such systems work, is that such quality systems actually help rather than hinder the worker’s ability to do his or her job. The same will be most assuredly true for teachers.

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