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Diane Ravitch Reign of Error

Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools will undoubtedly be the best-selling book on school reform released in 2013. Ravitch’s 2011 book The Death and Life of the Great American School System was a bestseller, turning on the compelling story of her own apostasy as a former assistant secretary of education under George Bush the elder and a former supporter, now vital opponent, of testing and choice.

The new book contains no such personal story and few surprises, especially for those who have been reading Ravitch’s blog and following her on Twitter and in the media these past two years. Her argument can be summarized as follows:

1. Testing, accountability and choice together constitute a single “corporate reform movement” whose underlying aim is “privatization” of America’s public schools a la Milton Friedman; the dismantling of public schools and teachers unions and their replacement with charter schools and vouchers to the direct enrichment of a variety of private actors.

2. Contrary to the corporate reform narrative of failure, American schools are actually doing just fine.

3. “We must work both to improve schools and to reduce poverty, not to prioritize one over the other or say that schools come first, poverty later.” Racial segregation, like poverty, should be tackled directly.

4. Improving education means going back to basics. Chapters 21-32 are a long list of solutions, ranging from prenatal care for poor women, early childhood education, and wraparound social services to small class sizes, a broad and varied curriculum, extracurriculars, and better training and professional development for teachers. Restore local and democratic control of schools. Ban for-profits and charter chains. Replace high-stakes standardized tests with a “responsibility” model perhaps including national inspections.

It’s hard to argue with #3 and most of #4. #2 is curious. Ms. Ravitch spends a chapter attacking standardized tests yet turns around and points to one of the tests, the NAEP, as evidence of student progress. The NAEP is probably a better test to look at than most state tests, since it is the same everywhere and is given to random samples of students. Yet as Daniel Koretz, author of Measuring Up:What Educational Testing Really Tells Us, recently explained to me, the overall increase in student testing will alone usually cause scores to go up over time; when applied to IQ this is known as the “Flynn effect.” Similarly, Ravitch points to rising high school graduation rates as a sign of progress at a time when schools were being extensively scrutinized and judged on these same metrics. Yet in New York City, the nation’s largest public school district, even as graduation rates were rising, last year four out of five high school graduates required remediation when they got to the city’s community colleges.

Finally, if corporate school reform is such a disaster, how is it that schools are getting better?

Anyway, I agree with Ravitch that we have to look beyond metrics like test scores or even graduation rates when deciding whether schools are in fact doing just fine. There’s a reason that the reformers’ calls of “failure” and “broken” resonate so broadly with people. It’s because we’re living in a time of real anxiety about rapid change in the world.

Our economic system in the United States could do much more to abate or cushion that anxiety. I am for redistribution of wealth and basic economic protections enjoyed by the rest of the developed world like single-payer health care. May they come to pass in our time, Amen. But coming back to education, narrowly considered. Most of the jobs our children will be doing do not exist today. Nearly half of all current jobs may be replaced by technology and automation in some estimates. Our school system appears inadequate partly as a result of rising demand placed upon it. The real education reform debate of today is, how will our systems and methods of schooling evolve to meet these changes?

It is here, at #1, where I think Ravitch really misses the boat in a way that makes this book much less compelling than it could have been. When I look at the “corporate reform” coalition she identifies: “Major foundations, Wall Street hedge fund managers, entrepreneurs, and the U.S. Department of Education,” p.19, I don’t just see corporate capitalists on that list. (In fact, technically there are no corporations on that list.) I see technocrats and technophiles. These are people, Democrats and Republicans, executives and bureaucrats, who fundamentally believe that technical expertise rules supreme and that technological innovation is the engine of prosperity and all that makes America great.

Curiously, I think Diane Ravitch believes this too. At least, she pays lip service to this idea. “American technological innovations changed the way people live around the globe,”p.39…”the world’s leader in science and technology, the nation with the most powerful economy in the world.” p.72

I know there are hard-core right-wing Republican Tea Party/Grover Norquist/ALEC privatizers within the education-reform complex. I agree with Ravitch that the governor of my hometown state, Bobby Jindal, is probably one of them. I also agree that there are always plenty of people out to make a buck who need to be reined in.

But I think the big tent, the big umbrella, the unifying force here is a fascination with technology and innovation, not privatization per se. Bill Gates, to choose an example that Ravitch returns to often, was a ruthless CEO, but first he was a brilliant software engineer. Is it so hard to believe that in his third act, spending his personal wealth to try to tackle the world’s biggest problems, he’s influenced as much by the latter experience as by the former?

Technophilia explains why the ed-reform complex loves tests so much. It’s all that data, the number crunching that really gets them going. That is why they love charter schools: to pilot new ways of doing things. That is why they love to give tax money to private business owners; they believe that innovation thrives among private entrepreneurs and not in the public sector. That is why they love software and computers in classrooms and online teaching and learning.

It’s to the rightful role of innovation in education and computers in classrooms that I want to turn in part 2.

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