In December 2008, President-elect Barack Obama picked former Chicago Public Schools chief Arne Duncan to be secretary of education and announced the decision at the Dodge Renaissance Academy in the city’s East Garfield Park neighborhood.
Obama’s choice of Dodge as the backdrop to introduce Duncan proved significant. The elementary school had undergone a transformation during Duncan’s stewardship of Chicago’s public schools and served as one of the centerpiece examples of Duncan’s brand of education reform. In 2002, Duncan boldly closed the chronically low-performing school, fired the teachers and handed the keys to the building to an outside nonprofit group. Opened again a year later, the school’s academic performance saw near-miraculous gains on state standardized tests, despite the fact that more than 90 percent of the students came from low-income families.
Presenting Duncan at Dodge, Obama made clear his intention as president to promote reforming America’s public schools as part of his education agenda.
“When faced with tough decisions, Arne doesn’t blink,” Obama said from the Dodge gymnasium (also fitting, since the pair shared a passion for basketball). “He’s shut down failing schools and replaced their entire staffs, even when it was unpopular. This school right here, Dodge Renaissance Academy, is a perfect example. Since the school was revamped and reopened in 2003, the number of students meeting state standards has more than tripled.”
Education historian Diane Ravitch recounts the moment in her new, deeply researched book, “Reign of Error,” and adds this twist: The Dodge Renaissance Academy has since shut its doors.
In recent years, Ravitch has become perhaps the most outspoken advocate against school reform, including initiatives from Obama and Duncan. According to Ravitch, reformers seek to tie teacher salaries to student test scores, recruit young and inexperienced college graduates to teach in struggling schools, and fund programs to allow students to use tax dollars to attend private schools.
Ravitch writes that the “the transfer of public funds to private management and the creation of thousands of deregulated, unsupervised, and unaccountable schools have opened the public coffers to profiteering, fraud, and exploitation by large and small entrepreneurs.”
The public school system, Ravitch argues, is under attack from corporate interests and Wall Street crusaders seeking to make a buck off the American taxpayer. The reformers, Ravitch writes, are an insurgency in America’s schools, “a deliberate effort to replace public education with a privately managed, free-market system of schooling.”
Scores of critics of the reform movement have said such things before. But what makes people listen to Ravitch, what makes many of her arguments compelling, is that she was once a reformer, too. She served as an assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush and later helped develop national learning assessments under President Bill Clinton. She advocated for charter schools — institutions run by private entities, sometimes for-profit companies, that receive public money — and she promoted using student test scores to measure teacher performance.
In other words, she backed many of the tenets now supported by leading reform activists, including Bill and Melinda Gates, the Walton family of Wal-Mart, News Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch, and Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and new owner of The Washington Post.
“How many people actually admit that they’re wrong?” Ravitch said in a 2012 interview with the New Yorker. “Reign of Error” is an extension of the mea culpa she began in 2010 with her book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.” Three years later, American public schools still face a dire threat, Ravitch writes.
“The reformers are putting the nation’s children on a train that is headed for a cliff,” she writes early on in “Reign of Error.” “If you insist on driving that train right over the cliff, you will never reach your hoped-for destination of excellence for all. Instead, you will inflict harm on millions of children and reduce the quality of their educations. You will squander billions of dollars on failed schemes that should have been spent on realistic, evidence-based ways of improving our public schools, our society, and the lives of children.”
What follows in 325 repetitive pages of text is a vicious assault on reformers. The arguments are reinforced with plenty of data, including 41 charts. The biggest problem with the reformers, Ravitch writes, is that there’s largely nothing to reform: High school graduation rates are at an all-time high, and reading scores for fourth-grade white, black, Hispanic and Asian students were significantly higher in 2011 than they were in 1992.
Ultimately, however, Ravitch’s book seems to lack punch and coherence. Instead of focusing her arguments on one aspect of school reform, she attacks the entire sprawling movement and its top players. She writes admirably from an underdog’s perspective, and she’s up against considerable foes. They include Richard Barth, chief executive of the Knowledge is Power Program chain of charter schools, which receive funding from the Walton and Gates foundations, and Barth’s wife, Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp, who is close allies with former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, herself a TFA acolyte.
Ravitch also links the reformers to the shadowy and influential American Legislative Exchange Council, which was responsible for drafting the “stand your ground” laws that came under scrutiny in Florida during the trial of George Zimmerman, who fatally shot Trayvon Martin. The council, Ravitch writes, helped write legislation in several states to ease the introduction of new charter schools.
By her account, Ravitch is battling the most powerful forces infiltrating public schools. But it’s important to note, as she does, that 90 percent of American students in kindergarten through high school attend public schools. Only about 4 percent are enrolled in charter schools, she writes.
Ravitch ends the book with a list of solutions to America’s education woes. She proposes placing a physician or nurse in every public school to help poor students achieve optimal health for learning. She wants to start summer and after-school programs to keep at-risk students in the classrooms and off the streets.
“Are all of these changes expensive?” Ravitch writes. “Yes, but not nearly as expensive as the social and economic costs of crime, illness, violence, despair, and wasted human talent.”
Despite the “danger” of privatization, Ravitch even admits that certain private schools may be models for public schools. She points to the rich and diverse curricula at Sidwell Friends in Washington, Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and the Lakeside School in Seattle, alma mater of none other than Ravitch’s antihero Bill Gates.
Occasionally, Ravitch’s hyperbolic language gets her into factual trouble. For instance, she writes that in Finland, a country with a model public education system, “all teachers belong to a union; all principals belong the same union.” According to the Finnish OAJ trade union Web site, about 95 percent of teachers are members.
And what about the Dodge Renaissance Academy? Ravitch was right that the building was closed, but the school is still around: It moved to a new facility about a mile down the road.
REIGN OF ERROR
The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools
By Diane Ravitch
Knopf. 396 pp. $27.95