“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.
T. Rees Shapiro
is a Washington Post education reporter covering Fairfax County public schools.