Review: “Reign of Error” by Diane Ravitch

roeReign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools is Ms. Ravitch’s response to critics who claim she is “long on criticism but short on answers.” The book is carefully and logically arranged, with the majority of the book dedicated to outlining how the most highly promoted “solutions” are not producing the promised results.

It is in chapters 2-20 that the reader receives the most valuable information, both about the actual state of public education and the truth about government programs meant to “fix” public schools. The thesis of the book may be summed up in the following quote: “Public education is in a crisis only so far as society is and only so far as this new narrative of crisis has destabilized it.” What Ravitch means is this – before we can close achievement gaps and start to compete with the world’s leaders in education, we need to start working on the roots of the problem, such as poverty and inequality. She argues that the “solutions” implemented under George W. Bush (No Child Left Behind) and Obama (Race to the Top) are misled; test scores are not good indicators of learning and what’s more, there is no evidence that charter schools perform any better on their all-important tests than do traditional public schools.

Ravitch also makes good points about international test scores. Asian countries may consistently take the top spots, but do we really want an education system based on rote memorization in which students never learn how to think critically? I saw this first-hand when I was teaching at a public middle school just outside Shanghai. I can certainly believe that these students would test better than American middle-schoolers; it seemed like they were always taking tests. Yet when I introduced an activity that involved critical thinking or creativity, most of the students were completely at a loss.

I found myself infuriated and disheartened throughout much of this book. Because “school choice” (charter schools and voucher systems) have bipartisan support, it seems inevitable that it will become the rule in the United States. However, before I declare myself a staunch supporter of Ravitch’s solutions, I think I need to some more research on the topic.

She offers 11 specific solutions to the major problems. An entire chapter is devoted to each, but she bullet-points them as the following:

1) Provide good prenatal care for every pregnant woman

2) Make high-quality early childhood education available to all children

3) Every school should have a full, balanced, and rich curriculum, including the arts, science, history, literature, civics, geography, foreign languages, mathematics, and physical education

4) Reduce class sizes to improve student achievement and behavior

5) Ban for-profit charters and charter chains and ensure that charter schools collaborate with public schools to support better education for all children

6) Provide the medical and social services that poor children need to keep up with their advantaged peers

7) Eliminate high-stakes standardized testing and rely instead on assessments that allow students to demonstrate what they know and can do

8) Insist that teachers, principals, and superintendents be professional educators

9) Public schools should be controlled by elected school boards or by boards in large cities appointed for a set term by more than one elected official

10) Devise actionable strategies and specific goals to reduce racial segregation and poverty

11) Recognize that public education is a public responsibility, not a consumer good

Ravitch was interviewed by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show at the end of October, so you can hear about the book straight from its author.

While I found Reign of Error to be less eloquent and revelatory than her 2010 book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, I do think it’s worth reading for anyone concerned about American public education, whether they believe in “school choice” or not. It’s available now from Alfred A. Knopf.

Amazon | Goodreads

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