The Education Deform Fraud

Against the Current, No. 170, May/June 2014

Debby Pope

Reign of Error
The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and
the Danger to America’s Public Schools
By Diane Ravitch
Knopf, 2013, 396 pages, $27.95 hardback, $16.95 paper.

WHO IS DIANE Ravitch? Those not absorbed in the world of K-12 education may well not remember her as a mainstream professor tapped to serve as Assistant Secretary of Education in the administration of George H.W. Bush. (Born in 1938, she is an educational specialist teaching at New York University who got her political start at the Social Democratic New Leader.)

During the ’90s and early 2000s Ravitch was an academic exponent of the burgeoning corporate education reform movement… a movement that has increasingly made a mockery of the term “reform” as it is generally understood. In a courageous move, following the implementation of the 2001 federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation, Ravitch broke rank.

For those of you who may be listeners to “Prairie Home Companion” and the Lake Wobegon chronicles therein, NCLB’s premise will be quite familiar; all children can be “above average” and, if your school can’t make it happen by a certain date, draconian action will be needed to get rid of the staff (principal, teachers, lunchroom, custodians) who are standing in the way of children’s achievement.

A woman of integrity, Ravitch saw that consequences of the law were harming public schools, hurting children and punishing their teachers. Those were not the reforms Ravitch advocated.  Her brave change of perspective and her articulate voice and research on behalf of public education have made her a person whom tens of thousands of teachers across the country admire and respect.

Reign of Error is a carefully researched and thorough but eminently readable treatise on the state of U.S. education. If education is not your area, you’ll learn a great deal and come away with many useful talking points on this crucial issue. The first section of the book is factual and descriptive; the next focuses on debunking the corporate reformers’ solutions; and the final section is prescriptive, explaining what Ravitch believes actually should to be done to improve our schools.

Ravitch documents the forces behind the “reform” movement including some of the wealthiest corporations and individuals. Names such as Eli Broad, Bill Gates, the Walton (Wal-Mart) Foundation and some others are likely familiar to many. She also describes the nefarious politics and actions of ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the shadowy but extremely powerful coalition of anti-union, anti-teacher and anti-public school politicians, legislators and their super-wealthy benefactors.

We are all familiar with the consequences to the Iraqi people of the G.W. Bush administration’s successful perpetuation of the myth (lie) of Saddam Hussein’s alleged Weapons of Mass Destruction. According to Ravitch’s treatise, the conservative deformers have been perpetuating an equally destructive myth: that U.S. schools are failing and that teachers and their unions are the cause.

Ravitch attacks this myth on multiple fronts. She documents that most schools are not, in fact, failing and that there has been a slow but steady rise in achievement over the last several decades nationwide.
She also documents, in great detail, how the standardized tests that the right-wing relies on for their “proof” of failing schools are severely flawed. Many of these tests are not used for the purpose they were intended, and are willfully distorted by those who seek to discredit public schools.

The Causes of Failure

We know, as does Ravitch, that the main cause of failing schools in the United States is extreme poverty and lack of resources. While the book could have benefited from more attention to the impact of racism, she does have a chapter on the achievement gap where she explains what actually could be done to narrow the achievement gap: early childhood education, smaller classes, greater educational and economic opportunities for African American families.

She correctly points to the one time in post-World War II America that the achievement gap actually narrowed as a result of the civil rights movement and the programs of the Great Society. Did those programs privatize schools or set up a voucher system? No, they focused on research-based solutions such as smaller classes, extra funding for high poverty schools and pre-school (Head Start).

In the section focused on the proposals of the corporate deformers, Ravitch effectively counteracts their rhetoric about educational “choice” as the civil rights movement of the 21st century.

She provides research demonstrating that their favored solution, charter schools, despite some innate advantages, have not done any better than regular public schools. She shows how these schools are, in many ways, public only in name with minimal oversight of their private boards and hiring practices, and minimal accountability for what they teach and how their students fare.

Ravitch also documents their role as “cash cows” providing a wide range of profit-making opportunities for major corporations and wealthy individuals, many of whom own large chains of charters in multiple states. She cites numerous examples of for-profit “distance learning” schools where one teacher can “service” hundreds of children, cash cow technology contracts, and exorbitant salaries for administrators of charters funded by public tax dollars.

A similar chapter exposes the utter failure of voucher programs which provide public money to fund attendance at private and religious schools; this is another darling of the education reformers who allege, contrary to evidence, that these schools provide a better education for poor children.

Despite efforts to frame vouchers as an issue of civil rights choice, the concept has not flourished in many locales because most voters don’t believe in siphoning their hard earned tax dollars directly to private or parochial schools.

In the case of charters, the education deformers have been more successful in duping the public into believing that these schools are truly public whereas with vouchers, the draining of public funds is virtually undeniable.

What Can Be Done?

Ravitch also includes a clear and thoughtful attack on the concept of merit pay and its utility in improving public education. She asks the right questions: Are most teachers not trying to do their best? Really? If they are already doing their best, how can merit pay make them do better?

She also discusses the importance of the school as a community working together and shows how merit pay can pit teachers against one another, thus destroying that sense of community.

In her chapter on programs such as Teach for America, she explains the importance of a multi-generational community of educators learning from one another and provides evidence that novice teachers are not as effective; not surprisingly, experience improves teacher performance.

She stresses the importance of developing high-quality teachers, giving them the resources and the supports they need and, importantly, she acknowledges this as a process, not an overnight miracle accomplished in six-weeks of summer training.

This generally excellent book, in my view, falls short only in its political conclusions, or rather lack thereof. Ravitch clearly describes the bipartisan nature of the neoliberal attack on public schools. She cogently attacks the Race to the Top legislation put forth by the Obama/Arne Duncan Democrats for its overly competitive, money-driven win-or-lose approach. She details the benefits that members of the 1% are reaping from their successes in undermining quality public education for all.

What she does not talk about is what needs to be done to counter these forces. Her chapters on solutions indicate a belief that there is a “we” in America, although the preponderance of evidence she so eloquently cites instead demonstrates that there are sharply contradictory interests in our country based on class and race.

Despite her praise of events such as the Chicago Teachers Union strike, her attacks on the bipartisan policies being implemented don’t seem to lead her to consistent lessons about the need to mobilize, the need for working people and their unions to unite, or the need for independent political action to counter the bipartisan attack on our children and our schools.

Ravitch concludes her book with a quote that I think summarizes its essence: “We must extend the promise of equal educational opportunity to all the children of our nation. Protecting our public schools against privatization and saving them for future generations of American children is the civil rights issue of our time.” I agree.

May/June 2014, TC 170