Reign of Error by Diane Ravitch; the 3rd Installment of my Journaled Review

In her second chapter of this monumental work, Ravitch begins by providing an historical overview of Federal initiatives in response to what many believe to be an urgent need for massive reforms in our systems of public education,leading up to the George W. Bush administration. Under Bush’s administration the “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) legislation was introduced and it was to have a far-reaching adverse impact on our systems of education, according to Ravitch, many others in the field of education, and of this author/blogger. The NCLB declared that all students in grades 3 – 8 should be tested annually; that states were to monitor schools re: their performance; and, that “failing” schools were to be labeled and face consequences up to and including closure. She notes that, given the unreasonable standard many schools, even some of our very best, failed year after year. She also notes that schools with high proportions of poor and minority students “were the likeliest to be labeled as failing.”

Ravitch writes “Let’s be clear: 100 percent proficiency is an impossible goal.” She makes a wonderful comparison to applying this standards to an expectations that cities were to become crime free and that cities that failed to rise to such expectations would see the closing of police stations and the firing of police officers. She writes “the first to close would be the police stations in the poorest neighborhoods, where crime rates were the highest.”

As I stated in my book, Reinventing Education, Hope and the American Dream, referencing teachers, “it’s like blaming the soldiers for the war they were asked to fight.” What it shows is just how dreadful is the understanding of legislators and policy makers with the problems facing education in America.

What seems to most concern Ravitch is that NCLB demands utilization of testing to assess the performance of both schools and their teachers and also that it “opened the door to huge entrepreneurial opportunities . . . .” It also “encouraged the growth of the charter sector by proposing that charter schools were a remedy for failing schools.”

She notes that when the concept was first introduced, charter schools were envisioned as a way for teachers to find “innovative ways to ignite the . . . Interest in education” speaking specifically of “lowest performing students, the dropouts and the disengaged.” She points out that it was also envisioned that the lessons learned in charter schools were to have been applied to our most challenging public schools.

She notes that the earliest proponents of charter schools never “imagined a charter school sector that was 90 percent non-union or one that in some states presented profit-making opportunities for entrepreneurs.”

The federal government, Ravitch tells us, promoted the concept of charter schools as a way to “compete with neighborhood public schools for higher test scores. . .” absent any evidence that the concept would work.

What has resulted, she suggests, is that the “incessant” focus on testing, creative ways to incent and fund charter schools, the use of vouchers, and privatization have had and continue to have a devastating impact on our neighborhood public schools, the teachers that populate those schools and the most vulnerable population of American school children that is served by those schools and their teachers.

Ravitch argues that, just as “this unnatural focus on testing produced perverse but predictable results; it narrowed curriculum; many districts scaled back time for the arts, history, civics, physical education, science, foreign language, and whatever was not tested.” She cites the widespread cheating that we are seeing; wasting huge sums of money on test preparation and administration; and “teaching to test” by teachers who feel pressure “to save their jobs and their schools.”

As a substitute, I have seen this occur where teachers are introducing material as “these are the kind of questions or problems you are likely to find on ISTEPs (the State of Indiana’s student competency examinations).

Anyone who does not agree with Ravitch’s concerns about the fraud and mismanagement of funds as a result of the privatization of education should think for a moment about Medicare and Medicaid fraud where doctors (supposedly the most trusted professionals in all of American society) and other health professionals and institutions are being charged for manipulating the system for their own financial interests. When there are big dollars at stake it seems to bring the greed and larceny out of even the best of us, and as Ravitch shows, dollars amounts being utilized to provide incentives and grants for these reforms are enormous.

The election of President Obama, Ravitch suggests, raised hopes of new directions in federal education policy that were quickly dashed. She cites what amounts to little more than a feeding frenzy as states and others compete for huge sums as a result of Obama’s Race to the Top, Common Core, et al.

Ravitch writes, “By picking a few winners, the Race to the Top competition abandoned the traditional idea of equality of educational opportunity, where federal aid favored districts and schools that enrolled students with the highest needs.”

We have seen it in other venues where the sudden availability of incentives through federal funding has spawned spectacular growth in the number of consultants and other for-profit entities that carve out enormous chunks of scarce dollars that will never, ever be spent in the direct benefit of a single American boy or girl.

Ravitch is absolutely correct that “reformers support testing, accountability and choice.” and that this blind commitment to unproven ideas is leading to the destruction of the public school systems on which Americans have depended for generations.

She concludes this chapter by saying that “the debates about the role of schooling in a democratic society, the lives of children and families, and the relationship between schools and society were relegated to the margins as no longer relevant to the business plan to reinvent American Education.”

Her last line is an unfortunate choice of words, from the perspective of a writer who has entitled his own book about educational reform as Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream; The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America. I suspect that just the word “reinventing” has rendered my book as valueless in her mind, assuming she has even glanced at the correspondence I have sent inviting her to read the book or at the comments I have made in response to posts on her blog, as well as the posts on my own blog.

I agree with her completely that the direction of these national reform efforts is placing the very future of our nation and its children at risk. We seem to disag

The reinventing that I advocate is designed to come from inside of our schools reaching out to our community not the other way around. They are ideas that demand that the links between our schools and their teachers and the communities that they serve are strengthened rather than weakened. They are ideas that cherish the vital role that teachers play in the lives of their children and that are meant to improve the ability of those teachers to make a difference in those lives.

They are ideas that reject reliance on standardized competency assessments as a dangerous intrusion that not only distracts teachers from their purpose but puts emphasis on the “timed regurgitation of facts, figures, and formulas” rather than on sustained, meaningful mastery of subject matter that the men and women whom these children become will carry and utilize throughout their lives.

They are ideas that borrow from things we have learned, from an operational perspective, in a business environment and not from the boardrooms and their focus on financial incentives, investments, and entrepreneurialism. The lessons from which I challenge educators to learn have to do with things like problem-solving, teamwork, integrating quality assessment into the learning process, and giving the people on the production line the tools and resources they need to help them do the best job of which they are capable.

They are ideas at risk of being branded as more of the same by the real educators who are being forced to defend themselves and the important work they do when, in fact, these ideas will empower educators rather than bind and restrict them.

The author and the readers of Reign of Error are urged to have faith that not all re-inventers are out to do them harm and to give Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream a chance to open their eyes to a new way of looking at what they do.

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