Diane Ravitch’s new book, Reign of Error, takes reformers to task


by Jersey Jazzman. Jersey Jazzman is the pen name for a New Jersey music teacher, an NEA member, and a blogger focusing on education policy and politics. You can follow Jersey Jazzman on his blog, on facebook, and on twitter.

The resistance to corporate education reform is, as the kids say, a “hot mess.”

There are the teachers unions, simultaneously trying to advocate for their members while mounting a defense of public education itself. There are the scholars, as busy batting down think-tanky nonsense from well-heeled wonks as they are conducting their own research. There are the parent groups, struggling to make their voices heard as they are supplanted by inauthentic Astrotufers.

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And then there’s the social media set: bloggers, tweeters, frienders, memers, commenters, all screaming into a digital echo chamber that gets noisier by the hour.

Who could possibly pull all this together? Who could filter out the snark and the invective and present a cogent, clear argument: at once against corporate reform and for a progressive, enlightened, research-based set of education policies?

It turns out the woman best able to state the “real reform” case is an historian: Diane Ravitch, whose Reign of Error stands as the quintessential takedown of the “reformy” agenda foisted on us by the likes of Arne Duncan, Joel Klein, Wendy Kopp, and a host others.

Understand that Ravitch’s book is firmly planted in the here-and-now: she is a devastating social critic who is well aware of the current political environment in which what she calls “corporate reform” exists. But I got the sense while reading Reign of Error that Ravitch is able to skewer this agenda so efficiently because she’s seen it all before: “corporate reform” is merely the latest iteration of the age-old practice of blaming America’s schools for problems that they didn’t create and won’t be able to solve on their own.

Diane Ravitch NEA award
Ravitch receiving the 2010 NEA Friend of Education Award.

The book is divided into two parts: the first is a point-by-point takedown of the mythology of reforminess. No, America’s students aren’t falling behind; the data actually shows they are making slow, steady progress. No, our schools don’t suck compared to the rest of the world, and education is not a “national security crisis.” No, merit pay has never worked. No, unions and tenure and seniority and local school boards aren’t the problem. No, charters don’t get better results; in fact, cyber-charters are an unmitigated disaster. No, closing schools doesn’t improve education; as Ravitch says, “Schools don’t improve if they are closed.”

Ravitch devotes a chapter to each of the two biggest icons of corporate reform: Michelle Rhee and Teach For America (TFA). Ravitch holds Rhee, the former Chancellor of Washington, D.C.’s schools, to account for her record as an educator, and it ain’t pretty. The sad truth is that Rhee, contrary to her self-promotions, didn’t close the “achievement gap.” Academic gains under her leadership were unremarkable, and a cheating scandal continues to dog her legacy to this day. Ravitch is somewhat kinder to TFA, if only because she won’t question the intentions of the “bright young people” who enter the program. But her examination makes clear that TFA is hardly the panacea it markets itself to be.

The second half of Reign Of Error is a response to the corporate reformers who insist that critics of their agenda must offer counter proposals of their own. Ravitch offers eleven solutions for real education reform. To be honest, nearly everything here is to be expected: better prenatal care, a balanced and rich curriculum, end the privatization of schools, use tests wisely…

Ravitch Texas rallyWhere Ravitch succeeds is in using research and data to build the case for each of her proposals. Her chapter calling for wraparound services, for example, is full of rationales for after-school programs, parental engagement programs, health services in schools, and more. Ravitch points to examples of successful programs that have made a real difference in the lives of children. Will they require investment? Of course – but how can we afford not to spend the money?

There is one chapter in this part of the book that caught me by surprise: “The Toxic Mix,” as frank a discussion of race, inequality, and segregation as I have read in some time. Ravitch’s candor stands in stark contrast to the bromides of the corporate reformers, who have pretty much left any attempts at integration out of their schemes:

But the wounds caused by centuries of slavery, segregation, and discrimination cannot be healed by testing, standards, accountability, merit pay, and choice. Even if test scores go up in a public or charter school, the structural inequity of society and systematic inequities in our schools remain undisturbed. For every “miracle” school celebrated by the media, there are scores of “Dumpster schools,” where the low-performing students are unceremoniously hidden away. This is not school reform, nor is it social reform. It is social neglect. It is a purposeful abandonment of public responsibility to address deep-seated problems that only public policy can overcome.

This may be Ravitch’s best accomplishment in Reign of Error: in defending public education, she forces the conversation back toward the structural deficiencies of our society. Real education reform can only happen when we reform America itself.

Ravitch book tour dates

Tuesday, September 17:


7:30 pm: Philadelphia Free Library event in Montgomery Auditorium, 1901 Vine St. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19103.

Wednesday, September 25:


6:30 pm: North High School, 2960 N. Speer Blvd., Denver, CO 80211. (Co-sponsored by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association).

Thursday, September 26:


7:00 pm: University of Washington, location TBA

Friday, September 27:


6:30 pm: Memorial Auditorium, 1515 J St., Sacramento, CA 95814. (Co-sponsored by the Sacramento City Teachers Association).

Saturday, September 28:


7:00 pm:  Martin Luther King Middle School, 1781 Rose St., Berkeley. (Co-sponsored by KPFA, Berkeley Federation of Teachers, and Oakland Education Association).

Monday, September 30:


Schedule TBA

Tuesday, October 1:


7:00 pm: Occidental College, Thorne Hall, 1600 Campus Rd., Los Angeles, CA 90041.

Wednesday, October 2:


7:00 pm: College of Education at California State University, 18111 Nordhoff St., Northridge, CA 91330.

Tuesday, October 8:


7:30 pm: Brooklyn By the Book, Congregation Beth Elohim and Community Bookstore, 274 Garfield Place, Brooklyn, NY 11215. (Diane will be in conversation with David Denby of the New Yorker).

Thursday, October 10:


7:30 pm: Northern Michigan University in Marquette, MI 49855.

Tuesday, October 15:


6:30 pm: University of Rhode Island School of Education, Kingston, RI 02881.

Friday, October 18:


7:00 pm: Politics & Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20008.

Friday, November 1:


Schedule TBA

Monday, November 4:


8:00 pm: Princeton University

Schedule TBA

Wednesday, November 13:


7:30 pm: Women & Children First at First Free Church, 5255 N. Ashland Ave., Chicago, IL 60640.

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