Review of “Reign of Error,” by Diane Ravitch, Chapter 4

[My apologies to my readers for the delay in fulfilling my commitment to review Reign of Error, by Diane Ravitch, chapter by chapter. My holidays were sandwiched by bouts of illness that played havoc with all of my efforts to achieve a long list of goals and objectives.]

Ravitch notes that students of forty to fifty years ago did not get the “high quality of education that is now typical in public schools with Advanced Placement courses or International Baccalaureate programs or even in regular courses offered in our top city and suburban schools.” She goes on to note the increase in special needs students, students that do not speak English, and children who from troubled families. . . . “

Ravitch is correct that the world has changed and I have no doubt that the schools of fifties and sixties would never be able to respond to the challenges with which present day public schools must contend.

In response to the claim of critics who say that our public schools are in decline, Ravitch notes “there is a tendency to hark back . . . to the mythical good old days. But few people realize that there was never a time when everyone succeeded in school.

She continues, “. . . corporate reformers insist that the public schools are in an unprecedented crisis. They tell us that children must be able to ‘escape’ their ‘failing public schools.’ They claim they are “for the children,’ unlike their teachers, who are not for the children.”

In almost all of this, Ravitch is absolutely correct and we concur with her that all of the things these reformers say they want to do for our children are based upon a flawed understanding of what is really happening within our schools. The contention of these reformers that they possess some magical insight and tools and resources that will transform our schools is blatantly false and the unbridled enthusiasm and zeal with which they will rush forward will not change the reality that they are simply wrong. What is very clear, and I concur with Ravitch. is that these reformers can do great harm to our children and to our communities.

The reformers are correct, however, when they say that our “public schools are in an unprecedented crisis.” Here it is Ravitch who is wrong and the enthusiasm and the zeal with which she counters these reformers will not change this reality. Her powerful advocacy also masks the reality that our current schools, policy makers, administrators, and teachers have no more clue what must be done to salvage education in America than do the reformers.

While “corporate reformers play to our anxieties” in claiming that our society and future is at risk, Ravitch and her supporters, which includes the overwhelming majority of public school educators, play to our defensive mechanisms and our blind prejudices. They fight the battle in much the same way opponents of healthcare reform do when these ardent advocates cite the “dangers of socialized medicine” with the full knowledge that mainstream Americans will salivate, in response, with Pavlovian predictability.

While the reformers “scare us with warnings of dire peril [and] mask their agenda with rhetoric that is soothing and deceptive” according to Ravitch, “preservers of the status quo” lull us with the soothing and deceptive elixir of “traditions and stability.”

Let us not, however, be too critical of Ravitch who details, in point after salient point, the fallacy of the reformers agendas. She is so very right in so many cases that one almost feels disloyal to challenge the other half of her argument.

Here are just a few:

“When they speak of ‘reform’ what they really mean is deregulation and privatization.

    Ravitch is correct.

When they speak of ‘accountability’ what they really mean is rigid reliance on standardized testing as both means and the end of education.

    Ravitch is correct.

When they speak of ‘effective teachers’ what they mean is teachers whose students produce higher scores on standardized tests. . . not teachers who inspire their students to love learning.

    Ravitch is correct.

When they speak of ‘innovation’ they mean replacing teachers with technology to cut staffing costs. Here Ravitch is incorrect in defending the assertion that innovations utilizing technology pose a threat to the teaching profession.

    This plays on the fears and misconception on the part of teachers who struggle to envision that such technology can, if properly designed, empower them to do more for their students. Such technological advancements arm educators with powerful tools. The reader is reminded to think about how smartphones have empowered Twenty-First Century people, allowing them to do so much more with less effort.

When they speak of ‘no excuses’ they mean a boot-camp culture. . . .

    Again Ravitch is incorrect. While a few of the most ardent advocates may envision a “boot-camp culture,” most are addressing the compelling need to rid American classrooms of disruptive behavior that diminishes the quality of the classroom experience as well as the quality of the outcomes. This can be accomplished without resorting to drill instructor tactics.

When they speak of ‘personalized instruction,’ they mean putting children in front of computers with algorithms that supposedly adjust content and test questions to the ability level of the student but actually sacrifice human contact with a real teacher.

    As noted above, Ravitch demonstrates her own inability to envision a utilization of technology that can actually enhances the interface between teachers and students because they are not distracted by activity that that eats up valuable time while contributing no instructional value. If one of our most accomplished advocates for quality education cannot open her mind to new possibilities, how can we expect open-mindedness from the men and women who must stand at the head of our classrooms?

When they speak of ‘achievement’ or ‘performance’ they mean higher scores on standardized tests.

    Here Ravitch is correct even though the problem is with standardized test scores and not with ever-rising expectations, the performance against which can be measured in any number of creative and positive ways if we arm teachers with the right tools.

When they speak of ‘data-driven instruction,’ they mean that test scores and graduation rates should be the primary determinant of what is best for children and schools.

    Ravitch has a point but, oddly, relies on test scores and graduation rates to support her own argument that school performance is improving.

When they speak of ‘competition,’ they mean deregulated charters and deregulated private schools.

    Once again, Ravitch is correct, up to a point. Sadly, the advocates of privatization do envision that competition will result in a clear delineation between schools that are effective and those that are not. What is odd, is that traditional educational practices are set up in a way that students must compete with their classmates, to the great disadvantage of the majority of American public school students and most educators, apparently Ravitch included, seem oblivious to the fact.

When they speak of ‘a successful school,’ they refer only to its test scores, not to a school that is the center of its community, with a great orchestra, an enthusiastic chorus, a hardworking chess team, a thriving robotics program, or teachers who have dedicated their lives to helping students with the highest needs (and often the lowest scores).

    Ravitch is correct.

The reformers define the purpose of education as preparation for global competitiveness, higher education, or the workforce. They view students as ‘human capital’ or ‘assets.’ One seldom sees any reference in their literature or public declarations to the importance of developing full persons to assume the responsibilities of citizenship.

    While Ravitch is correct that the “reformers” to whom she refers may seem to be placing too much emphasis on students as a “resource-in-development” for American producers of goods and services, traditionalists seem oblivious to the reality that American society, including the commercial segment, is the end customer of our schools. Schools would do well to be more cognizant of the importance of one’s customer. The reality is that while standardized test scores may be a poor assessment of student performance, employers that depend on our young people to be able to read, apply mathematical and scientific principles competently, and write coherent sentences are the ultimate judges of the performance of our educational systems.

Of equal importance are the topics that corporate reformers don’t talk about. Seldom do they protest budget cuts, no matter how massive they may be. They do not complain when governors and legislatures cut billions from the public schools while claiming to be reformers. They do not protest rising rates of child poverty. They do not complain about racial segregation. They see no harm in devoting more time and resources to standardized testing. They do not complain when federal or state or city officials announce plans to test children in kindergarten or even prekindergarten. They do not complain about increased class size. They do not object to scripted curricula or teachers’ loss of professional autonomy. They do not object when experienced teachers are replaced by recruits who have only a few weeks training. They close their eyes to evidence that charters enroll disproportionately small numbers of children with disabilities, or those from troubled homes, or English-language learners (in fact, they typically deny any such disparities, even when documented by state and federal data). They do not complain when for-profit corporations run charter schools or when educational services are outsourced to for-profit businesses. Indeed, they welcome entrepreneurs into the reform community as investors and partners.

    While Ravitch’s criticisms, here, are fair overall; she misrepresents the value, or lack thereof, of testing children in Kindergarten or pre-kindergarten. The advocacy of such testing, at least on the part people like myself, is not to judge the effectiveness of early educational programs and teachers, rather it is to assess the level of preparedness of children as they approach their first day of school and to help the school prepare an appropriate and unique educational plan for each child.

While Ravitch is often right, she paints everyone who wants to challenge conventional wisdom into the same corner and suddenly the word ‘reform’ takes on the same pejorative connotations as socialized medicine in the context of healthcare reform and triggers a shutdown of the minds of the majority of Americans educators and taxpayers.

Ravitch writes:

The central theme of this movement is that public schools are in decline. But this is not true. The public schools are working very well for most students. Contrary to popular myths, the scores on the no-stakes federal tests—the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—are at an all-time high for students who are white, black, Hispanic, and Asian. Graduation rates are also at an all-time high.

This may be the most inexplicable of Ravitch’s statements. In our review of Chapter 5 of her Reign of Error we will examine her analysis of test scores and challenge many of the conclusions she draws from her own evidence.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Please type the characters of this captcha image in the input box

Please type the characters of this captcha image in the input box