Reign of Error, by Diane Ravitch is a powerful work by a woman who is one of the most articulate voices in the field of education in America. On one hand she is dead on in her assessment of many of the current reform initiatives from privatization of education; to reliance on competency testing as the primary assessment tool of students, teachers, and their schools: and, the practice heaping the majority of the blame for the problems of education in America on teachers and schools. She offers eloquent rejections of privatization of schools, the concepts of charter schools, vouchers, Common Core, as well as the head long dash to implement broad and largely untested reforms initiatives. Thank you, Dr. Ravitch.
When it comes to helping us determine what we should do differently, I came away disappointed. What a missed opportunity and she comes so close to the truth; so close to utilizing her remarkable platform to provide the dynamic leadership our nation so desperately needs. While I will continue to hold her in high esteem, she is caught, as are so many of her colleagues, in what I like to think of as a paradigm rift in which she is constrained by her assumptions and preconceptions. This is surprising in someone who was able to look back to a prior and quite popular work and recant her “earlier support for what is now known as the “reform” agenda.” Not an easy thing for a writer of any ilk to do, let alone someone of Ravitch’s stature. It is a testament to her character.
My hope is that this review will prompt Ravitch to take a few additional steps back to where she can view our systems of education as an integral whole and, then, challenge her underlying assumptions about why so many American children are failing and what we need to do to alter that reality.
Let us examine a few examples of how simple truths can escape the scrutiny of even the best and brightest of our stars.
Ravitch starts out with the statement that “Yes, we have problems, but those problems are concentrated where poverty and racial segregation are concentrated.” This is conventional wisdom in its purest form. We have been blaming the problems of our society—not just our schools—on poverty, racial segregation and discrimination, and deteriorating neighborhoods for so long that we that it has become an unspoken truth; a unalterable given.
What I want to suggest to Dr. Ravitch and others is that while there is, indeed, an interdependent relationship between poverty, racial segregation, deteriorating neighborhoods, fractured families, drugs and violence; that relationship is not causal. Consider the idea that educational failure, poverty, and deteriorating neighborhoods and all of the associated problems are symptoms of the same pathology; one that transcends race and relative affluence.
Is it not true that there are many children from families who are not poor whose academic performance is as bad as their impoverished classmates? Is it not true that, even though the single greatest disparity with respect to academic performance is the gap that exists between white and black students, there are many African American students who pass their state competency exams and excel academically? Conversely, is it not true that there are children from affluent families living in vibrant, middle class neighborhoods who are performing just as badly as their classmates from deteriorating urban and rural communities? Is it not true that there are many children from intact families who are failing just as miserably as their classmates from families that are, in some way, fractured?
Consider the possibility that there may be forces at work below the horizons of conventional thinking that are influencing all of these demographic groups; forces that transcend them all.
In my own book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge of Twenty-First Century America, a book in which Ravitch is quoted several times, I suggest that the problem with education in America is a burgeoning population of American citizens who have lost hope and faith in the American dream. These men and women have become effectively disenfranchised. By this I mean that these men and women, many of whom are mothers and fathers, live under a blanket of hopelessness and powerlessness. They no longer believe that they possess the power to control the outcomes in their lives. The American dream does not exist for these citizens and, therefore, it does not exist for their children. This is a cultural phenomenon.
These mothers and fathers are products of the same dysfunctional education system to which they are asked to send their children. They send their children willingly, not because they believe education to be a ticket to the American Dream rather because it gives them eight or more hours a day, 36 to 40 weeks per year when they are relieved of the obligation to be responsible for their children. These mothers and fathers do not teach their children that education is a path to a better life and is worthy of their hard efforts and sacrifices. As a result these youngsters show up for their first day of school with precious little preparation and little or no motivation to learn. In spite of our best intentions, the American educational process is poorly prepared to handle the challenges that these children and their apathetic parents present, placing teachers in an almost impossible situation.
In spite of what experts like Dr. Ravitch and so many of our policy makers wish to believe, no matter how diligently we strive and how much money we spend, we cannot undo for this expanding population of children the damage that results from a culture of hopelessness and powerlessness. Our existing educational process is not only poorly prepared to respond to the challenges these students present but it sets children up for failure and humiliation. The result is that by the time these kids reach middle school, if not before, they are as turned off and apathetic as their parents. In a few years, these youngsters will be sending their own children off to school with the same lack of motivation and commitment.
Now, let us think about some of the exceptions that every professional educator has seen, where a student from poor and often fractured families, living in the midst of the most dreadful poverty in America, who show up at school with a seemingly inexplicable motivation to learn and to get the best possible education. We can recognize these boys and girls not only because they, themselves, stand out from the midst of their classmates but also because they almost always have a mother, father, or grandparent who encourages them to work hard and who shows up for parent/teacher conferences, who accepts responsibility as partners in the education of their children, and who support the teachers of their children.
More than anything teachers and schools can do it is the partnership of these remarkable caregivers and the motivation of their sons and daughters that are the difference makers in education. Add a dedicated teacher to the equation and magical things happen and it makes not the slightest difference whether buildings and classrooms in which these forces come together are modern or antiquated. Modern, attractive, and well-designed facilities might help but they are not the difference-makers in education.
Somehow, we need to carry a message to all mothers, fathers, and caregivers that their children can benefit from the same magic.
We acknowledge that this is not an easy sell and it is especially difficult if all we have to offer these skeptical guardians is the same dysfunctional educational process from which they emerged, battered, bruised, and beaten. Somehow, we must offer these parents and their children something new and exciting.
Here again, Ravitch comes so tantalizingly close to the secret. She recognizes that “what works are the very opportunities that advantaged families provide for their children.” She goes on to identify “. . . with adequate resources, children get advantages that enable them to arrive in school healthy and ready to learn.” And she mentions the importance of “Discerning, affluent parents demand schools with full curricula, experienced staffs, rich programs in the arts, libraries, well maintained campuses, and small classes.”
These few sentences point to the incredibly subtle yet profound logical leap that diverts us from the truth. We allow ourselves to get hung up on the importance of “affluence” when the relative economic status of families is almost totally inconsequential.
What is most important is that these parents demand substance and, to a lesser extent, that they have been taught to “discern” the difference between things that are consequential from those that are not. Yes, affluence makes life easier for both parents and children but the percentage of children who do well in school with parents who care and accept responsibility will be far higher than the percentage of students who do well because their parents are affluent.
Most important of all is the idea of parents demanding excellence. We do not demand things that we do not value no matter how affluent we might be. Neither will we value things that seem unimaginable or impossible. Without hope and faith, the power to create our own outcomes will elude us.
It is absolutely improbable to believe that we can give every parent in the U.S. the affluence to create an advantage for their children. We have neither the resources nor the necessary mechanics to make such things happen. We do have the power, however, to do something that is even more important. Even if it is too late for the parents, we can help every mother, father, and legal guardian learn how to hope; to believe in the possibility of something better for their children. Although it would certainly help to have sufficient resources at our disposal, all we really require are two things, 1) the willingness to believe that giving hope is possible, and 2) the commitment to make it happen.
Hope, faith, confidence, commitment, energy, determination, and momentum—as powerful as they can be—can melt into a puddle of self-doubt and timidity if not rewarded, consistently. Somehow we must create a reality in which our children can learn how to be successful. In the business world, we structure organizations to produce the results we need. In education, the process is structured with a focus on failure.
Ravitch identifies the importance of setting age-appropriate goals; blending work and play, art and academics; creating an intimate learning environment in which students get the attention they need; limiting focus on testing to diagnostics to determine next steps; and rejecting the concept of judging educators on the basis of test scores. While all are worthy objectives, the system as it is currently structured is not set up to support these priorities.
If we are to have any chance of turning our systems of education around so that our nation can compete in the ever-more demanding world marketplace of the Twenty-first Century we must change the way we think about education. With a new vision in place, we must re-structure the educational process to:
• Establish pulling parents into the process as full partners with the teachers of their children as our top priority;
• Assess the unique starting point of every child that arrives at the door of our schools;
• Tailor a unique educational path for each child;
• Commit to helping these children progress along that path at the best speed of which they are capable;
• Never push them ahead before they are well-prepared to be successful on subsequent subject matter;
• Abandon our senseless practice of expecting children to move forward at the same pace and measuring their performance against the performance of other classmates,
• Commit to teaching these children that success is a process which each of them can master,
• Eliminate reliance on standardized competency examinations given once a year, in favor of small quizzes given often throughout the school year to assess not only their mastery of the material but also their readiness to move on,
• Create a structure that makes it easier for teachers to forge close, long-term, personal relationships with both students and parents.
Each of these things is possible if only we structure the educational process in a manner that fosters these objectives. In Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream, I offer the reader a detailed action plan to accomplish these and other objectives designed to transform our educational process while preserving the important relationships between schools and their community.
As I go back to reread Diane Ravitch’s, Reign of Error, I will continue to review the work using a journaled approach offering an ongoing commentary. You are cordially invited to follow along.