A book every parent (and taxpayer) should read: “Reign of Error”

Fri, 11/15/2013 - 4:24pm

With a title like “Reign of Error,” one might be expecting a spy novel or a history of some oppressive government. But the sub-title of this book is “The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s public Schools.” Who could imagine that a book about education in America could be both at once?

Written by education historian Diane Ravitch, “Reign of Error” was published in mid-September and opened in the 11th spot on The New York Times bestseller list. As many are aware, education reform is a hot topic across America these days and as one of the earlier recipients of the federal “Race To The Top” (RTTP) funds, Rhode Island is finding itself front and center in the current “reform” movement. (In this case “reform” is put in quotation marks in the satirical sense. You will certainly find out why if you read this book.)

That we must strive to make our schools better is always a popular rallying call for a politician. A free and public education for all has been our collective responsibility as a nation and important driver of our American democracy. Lately, we have been hearing a lot about how we are failing at this task. But are we really?

The constant barraging narrative of how our schools are terrible, or not competing with those of other countries, along with how that could endanger our economic future has become a tale of Chicken Little — the sky is falling. But Ravitch actually turns it into case of the emperor having no clothes.

In the first part of the book she addresses the somewhat invented crises, or the “hoax” that our schools are failing. She has carefully backed this up with data from U.S. Department of Education. The graphs utilize data from the NAEP (National Assessmant of Education Performance) tests, which are administered on a federal level to all states. This test is considered to be the gold standard, and comes with no incentives to either cheat or teach to the test.

Next Ravitch addresses the methods of the incremental privatization of our public schools. Finally, she has recommended solutions for addressing the problems that our schools really do have: the problems of poverty and racial and ethnic segregation.

Ravitch served in the U.S. Department of Education when No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was put into effect during George W. Bush’s administration, and was one of its early architects and supporters. But she has acknowledged the problems that those policies created and unlike most policy makers, she has been willing to look back and analyze what worked and what didn’t — what morphed into unintended consequences.

NCLB mandated that every child in the United States would reach proficiency in reading, writing and math by the year 2014. This was clearly an impossible task that ignored the fact that intelligence falls along a bell curve. Each state would develop its own tests to measure its students’ progress and thus the era of high stakes testing began. Schools that failed to meet the goals of adequate yearly progress would be labeled as failing themselves, and would face turn-around measures including the firing of principals and teachers. One turn-around method was to close the school completely and give it over to a privately managed charter school.

Many fervently hoped and believed that President Barack Obama would scrap the program. Instead, he and Education Secretary Arne Duncan came out with “Race To The Top,” which is often referred to as NCLB on steroids.

Ravitch alerted us to the follies of the Department Of Education’s (DOE) ways, and her own, in her 2010 book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education.” She was then widely criticized for not offering any solutions.

“Reign of Error” addresses those criticisms. She reiterates her then-dire warnings — just a fleck on the horizon for most states back in 2010 — before the requirements of RTTT and waivers from NCLB kicked in. Now we are seeing the consequences of those policies creeping into our own states and local schools.

Privatization of the school system in this country has been a subtle thing, and here’s how it works. Unlike suddenly privatizing the running of prisons or municipal snow-plowing, privatization of the schools is like the spending-creep that appears on your phone bill. There is a certain well-deserved suspicion when we think of our public education money going to private companies, hence the need for subtlety.

It’s not as obvious as the mayor of a large city announcing that a school will be closed because it’s failing. First, you announce school closings because of dire budgets, lack of enrollment or perhaps the administration has neglected repairs and maintenance for so many years that the building is unsound. The school closes. Children are displaced. Teachers are displaced. An integral part of the community has been yanked from the neighborhood as if it were a mere weed. Then about a year later, (if one is truly subtle) that same mayor may announce a shiny new charter school, or two or three.

Charters have traditionally targeted high urban areas. The public schools there are bound to be labeled failures under NCLB and RTTT because of their high proportions of English language learners and children living in poverty. The deck is stacked against these schools when it comes to all children meeting “proficiency.”

Another subtle form of privatization is in the use of the tests themselves. Fifty states all developing their own tests comes at great cost, not to mention the cost of administering and grading of those tests. How is this privatization? More and more of the school’s budget goes to the corporations, such as Pearson, that develop and grade the tests, leaving less money for instruction.

And then there is technology. The new tests that are coming in to replace the old tests will be administered online. That means there must not only be adequate numbers of computers, but an adequate number of internet connections or wifi in every classroom. If one recalls, a ballot referendum was passed in Rhode Island during the 2012 election calling for $75 million in bonding to equip each and every classroom in the state with wifi access. It was all put forth as being “for the children,” but somehow it appears that it was perhaps really all for the testing companies. Block Island alone was slated to receive approximately $71,000 for this purpose.

My favorite chapter of the book is called: “Trouble in E-land.” Blended learning? (A concept promoted recently for Block Island School.) Flipped classrooms? Personalization? It’s all about plunking a kid in front of a computer. But what is most troubling are the scandals that have come about as entrepreneurs take advantage of the new technology brand and take their places at the public trough full of taxpayer dollars. They’re like the witch in Hansel and Gretel who entices the lost children into her candy house. Nothing there is substantially nutritious.

In the final section of the book, Ravitch offers up her solutions. Number one is to stop pretending that poverty doesn’t matter. “Every child can achieve” is a popular cry of the modern education “reformers.” But Ravitch argues that economic background does indeed matter, and we as a county need to not turn our back on the currently 1-in-22 children who live in poverty. Children who are hungry can’t learn. Children who are sick can’t learn. Children who can’t see the board or hear the teacher will not learn. And children who attend schools where test prep and test results have become the only important thing, to the exclusion of arts, music, counselors, nurses, will quickly become discouraged and fall even further behind.

This is an important book that everyone should read. It will arm you with the facts that can help displace the myths and allow one to truly “follow the money.” It can help you make sense of the changes currently being promulgated on our schools and give you the tools to evaluate those changes for yourself. I felt that if I had a highlighter in hand while reading the entire text would end up being in neon. So, towards the end, I decided to just earmark some of the pages by turning under the corner. Guess what happened?

In this book, Ravitch’s voice is candid and succinct. One knows that underneath, Ravitch would perhaps like to blow like a boiling tea kettle, but she retains a sardonic sense of humor as well as a sense of calm. If you would like an alternative to reading the book, this fall Ravitch took part in the University of Rhode Island’s Honors Colloquium, a series of weekly lectures on education. A link to the video of her talk can be found on URI’s web-site: www.URI.edu.