Reign of Error

Dear readers,

Definitely go out and buy Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to Americas Public Schools by Diane Ravitch, which just been launched with proper publicity. She is a phenomenal woman—sending out a half-dozen e-mails a day, two books in the last decade, and traveling to speak throughout the USA. And….while she’s younger than me, she’s old enough to have rested on her laurels. Maybe it helps to change your mind, because my exhaustion comes (in part) from feeling it’s all been said before (including by me).

reignReign of Error lays out step by step the relentless thirty year drive to either centralize the education of the young—on one hand—or divest it entirely into privatized hands on the other. Finally, the two sides have joined forces on a strategy that simultaneously does both. While this coalition has many old roots, in its current form it began with the fanfare around the publication of A Nation at Risk (1983). Ravitch was, at that time, a supporter of this bold statement that more or less accused America’s teachers and school boards of a plot to undermine American health and welfare of the international scene. We were, said the signers, at risk of becoming a second rate nation if we didn’t take this crisis seriously. I asked my colleague on the NBPTS, AFT leader Al Shanker, why he had signed on. He said it was a good strategy because only in a crisis is the nation willing to put the money into schooling needed to make it really first-rate. He said—as I recall (paraphrased), ‘It’s true our schools are not as bad as the report suggests, but we are entering a new period and they either have to change dramatically or what the report accuses them of will become true. We need a smarter citizenry.’

The trouble is that crying “wolf” has never been a great way to make sensible policy. Sometimes there is no choice (like Pearl Harbor). But the continuous claims that our public education system is destroying our nation has almost entirely led to bad policy.

And in the past few years Diane’s change of mind has been a particular blessing. She hasn’t, as her preset opponents claim, done a complete switch at all—she was always pro-union, pro-public education and always for standards. Fairly traditional ones. (In fact, her criticism of Progressive educators was that so many had abandoned all standards, she believed.)

Then lo and behold: no one has pulled it all together better than Diane—over and over again in the past few years she has led the challenge to the corporate reformers—right , center and left.. Her last two books Reign of Error and The Death and Life of the Great American School System (2010) pull it altogether.

In Reign of Error she spends the first 20 chapters laying out the case, and the last 13 offering some obvious and do-able responses to the oft-heard, “but what else can we do?” She’s more supportive of the “way things were” than many other educators (like me) have been, relying subliminally perhaps on the fact that if we eliminate the scores of children in poverty on international tests, the USA does quite well. Yes, Massachusetts scores put it number one in the world, or close, if it were a nation (like Singapore?) rather than a mere state of the union. But I think neither of us is truly satisfied with what has passed for a good education in its highly regarded school districts, much less the districts that served the least advantaged schools. She also overestimates, in my view, the degree to which Americans ever attended “common schools” That’s another story which all this crisis talk leaves untouched—or actually exacerbates as she ably documents, and where the promising fledgling progressive reforms of the 60s through 80s had focused attention on. As my mentor, and author of a study of American high schools, Ted Sizer said, “using one’s mind well” is the essential unexplored task facing the high schools for democracy. We have barely skimmed the surface of making either our schools or our democracy “belong” to everyone.

Thanks, Diane. We all need to keep this book handy so we can whip out the citations to make our case for the kind of reform America really needs, in your own words: “to prepare citizens with the minds, hearts and character to sustain our democracy into the future.”

6 Responses

  1. Thank you. You have added a fresh take on Diane and on the new book. Your schools look like the ones my children attended in their early formative years. Unfortunately, this urge to produce hard data has taken some of the spark out and it was a surprise to me to step outside my cocoon and enter the world of a top down, “numbers please” environment.

  2. […] was thrilled to receive Debbie’s wonderful review of the book. Her response means a great deal to me. I look up to her as a champion of children, a […]

  3. Deb and Diane will go down in education history as having held the most civilized, fascinating, transformative dialogue in print EVER.

  4. I have a problem with the penultimate paragraph.

    I would have hoped that it would be left to Diane’s detractors to pick at scabs (including the impact of poverty on international test scores and discounting whatever might be right about our “highly regarded school districts”), not someone who is a supporter. Personally, I’m very disappointed by this review.

  5. Thank you. Kudos to Diane R. For keeping us on our toes and for telling the truth, things as they really are, and not yet another story that allows us to think that all is well in my little world while the rest of the world struggles. Thank you Deborah and Diane, you do make it real and spot on.

    • What Maya Angelou and Walt Whitman say above is, perhaps we have lenared a lot from the reformers, those that dispute our passage with us. Have we not lenared indirectly from the reformers what is most important in the classroom? It’s not merit pay, it’s not tests and more tests, it’s not evaluations of myself, it’s not the principal or Gates or Broad or Rhee or anyone else outside of the classroom. What’s most important is what happens in the classroom between me and my students. Perhaps the reformers have taught me that there can be many distractions that can get in the way of what happens in my classroom, if I allow them to. Perhaps the reformers have showed me that my self-esteem and how I feel about my teaching can’t depend on what the reformers think of me as a public school teacher. Perhaps the reformers have inadvertently taught me that my kids will tell me how I am teaching, if I listen to them every day. Perhaps the reformers have inadvertently reminded me that I, not them, have the opportunity every day to make a difference in a child’s life. I’ll take that over anything the reformers have to offer.

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