The new book by education historian and activist Diane Ravitch, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, has debuted on The New York Times bestseller list in the non-fiction hardback category at No. 10. The book is, like Ravitch herself, highly controversial, praised by her supporters and attacked by her detractors.
Here’s a Q * A I did by e-mail with Ravitch, the leader of the national movement that opposes corporate-influenced school reform, about why she wrote her new book, what she learned researching and writing it, and what she thinks about being called “mean” by her critics. If you want to read an excerpt of the book, click here.
Q) Why did you decide to write another book on education reform? How much further does this book take us from your 2010 bestseller, The Death and Life of the Great American School System.
A) The new book goes beyond what I wrote in “Death and Life.” D&L explained why I changed my mind about testing, accountability, competition, and choice after having supported them during the 1990s and until about 2006-07. I tried to document the evidence that persuaded me that these strategies were actually harming education and children. In the book, I open with a conversation I had with David Denby of The New Yorker. He said to me in April 2012, “Your critics say you have no solutions.” I responded, “But David, you just heard me lecture. You know I do have solutions.” He said, “Write a book about it.” And I did.
So there are two elements in “Reign of Error” that, in my humble opinion, are game-changers. First, I assembled documentation from the website of the U.S. Department of Education to demonstrate that the central narrative of the corporate reform crowd is wrong. Contrary to what we have heard from Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, and others, American public education is not failing. In fact, test scores have never been higher for white students, black students, Hispanic students, and Asian students. Graduation rates are not falling. In fact, they have never been higher for white students, black students, Hispanic students, and Asian students. Similarly, for all of these groups, the dropout rate is the lowest ever in our history. Instead of celebrating the progress of our public schools, we have a movement dedicated to tearing them down.
The second game-changer is that the book contains a dozen proposals to improve the lives of children that are based on solid research, not on theory or hunches or hopes.
Q) What does the “hoax of the privatization movement” mean? And please explain what corporate education reform means.
A) The central hoax of the privatization movement is that our public schools are failing. They are not, for all the reasons stated above. Then there is the hoax of [president George Bush’s] No Child Left Behind. NCLB has been a failure; plenty of children are still left behind. [President Obama’s] Race to the Top is a hoax. It offered billions of dollars to incentivize states to engage in activities for which there is no research or evidence, like evaluating teachers by the test scores of their students. RTTT is hardly different from NCLB, and it demoralizes educators while encouraging the establishment of more privately managed schools. Replacing experienced teachers with young college graduates who have five weeks of training is a hoax. Pouring billions into testing instead of addressing the needs of children is a hoax. And the biggest hoax of the privatization movement by far is that replacing our nation’s public schools with vouchers and charters is the “civil rights issue of our time.”
Q) Did you learn anything while researching the book? And what do you think will be the most surprising thing that readers who don’t follow your work on a regular basis learn from reading the book?
A) I learned how a number of states have allowed campaign contributions to determine their education policies without regard to the well-being of children. Two classic examples are Ohio and Pennsylvania. I document in the book how wealthy entrepreneurs have created businesses to run charter schools that get terrible results but are never held accountable because they are major campaign contributors. I found that shocking.
The big news takeaway from the book, I believe, is the discovery–I didn’t realize it until I started my research on the website of the U.S. Department of Education–that our schools are doing very well indeed in terms of test scores, graduation rates, and dropout rates. This flies in the face of everything we have heard in the national media since “A Nation at Risk” in 1983.
Do we have problems in American education? Of course we do! Our single biggest problem is that our policymakers have ignored the toxic effects of poverty and segregation. Our inner-city kids have low academic performance because they are poor, and worse, their schools are being stripped bare by budget cuts. The kids who need small classes are getting larger classes; the kids who need guidance counselors and social workers are in schools where they got laid off. The kids who need the joy of the arts are in schools that can’t afford them. What they can afford is more and more testing.
So, let me be clear. I am not at all happy with the state of American education. I think our kids are overtested, and our teachers and principals are demoralized. Beloved community schools are being closed because their kids have low test scores. Our school system, once the pride of our nation, is beset with terrible policies and impossible mandates. And at the same time, we are failing to address the real needs that children and families and communities have, wasting billions on testing and consultants and opening new schools that will, in their turn, fail because we did not do anything that met the needs of the students.
Q) A lot of people had hoped President Obama would change direction on education policy and get away from the test-driven accountability systems of No Child Left Behind. His critics say he actually made them worse. Did he? Do you have any thoughts about what motivated him?
A) Many people, including me, hoped that President Obama’s election in 2008 signaled an end to the era of obsessive testing. Unfortunately, Race to the Top deepened and worsened the reliance on standardized tests. The very concept of a “race to the top” showed that the Obama administration bought into the foundational ideas of NCLB: testing, competition, choice, accountability. There was no new thinking, just more money to push states to engage in harmful policies, like evaluating teachers by student test scores. The overwhelming body of research says this is counterproductive. It leads to ratings that demoralize teachers. It does not identify the best teachers or the worst teachers. It is unstable and the ratings bounce around. Teachers have no idea why they were effective one year and ineffective the next.
Linda Darling-Hammond, who was Obama’s education advisor in 2008, says that these ratings show who was enrolled in the class, not teacher quality. The annual Metlife survey of the American Teacher shows that teacher morale began dropping in 2009, when Race to the Top was revealed, and has dropped sharply since then. Race to the Top is strongly committed to “market” mechanisms, to carrots and sticks as motivators, to encouraging for-profit businesses to become involved in the “education industry.” None of this makes schools better or improves education.
Q) Your critics say you have become increasingly strident and even mean in some of your writings – on your blog and Twitter, for example – including a blog post where said there was “a special place in hell” for the leader of a reform group. How do you react to this?
A) Critics make personal attacks against me because they can’t refute the data and documentation in my book about the harm done by testing and choice to our nation’s public education system. My blog has three rules only: One, civility, and I hold myself to that standard; two, no insulting the host on her own blog (that’s me); and three: no conspiracy theories (that was because I was getting comments on the blog claiming that the Sandy Hook massacre was staged; I deleted all such comments). I have made no personal attacks on anyone, and anyone who spends time reading my blog (which has had over 6.5 million page views in the past 17 months) will discover that I try to model civility, even when writing about those with whom I disagree.
You refer to a blog post where I said that there was a “special place in hell” for the group that used their vast resources to get rid of a highly respected principal of a school in Los Angeles. The particular incident involved the so-called “Parent Trigger.” The organization that wrote the legislation (Parent Revolution) has received millions from the far-right Walton Family Foundation, but also the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and other foundations. This handsomely funded corporate reform group circulated petitions among parents of a low-scoring inner-city school, asking that the principal be fired. Read the story here. According to the Los Angeles Times, the principal Irma Cobain, was so respected and admired by her staff that 21 of 22 teachers resigned to protest her ouster. Read the story in the Los Angeles Times. The story says:
More than two decades ago, Cobian walked away from a high-powered law firm to teach. The daughter of Mexican immigrants, she said she was inspired by a newspaper article about the low high school graduation rates of Latinos and wanted to make a difference. Her passion for social justice led her to Watts in 2009.
It describes how crushed she was when she heard she had been removed. This was not a bad principal. This was a woman who was doing a good job trying to turn the school around. Members of the staff said they felt devastated by the attack on Cobain. Cobain’s turnaround plan for the school was praised by the city’s Superintendent of Schools and approved by the parents. As I read about how this billionaire-funded group targeted this hard-working, dedicated educator and managed to get her fired, it made me angry. I wrote “There is a special place in hell reserved for everyone who administers and funds this revolting organization that destroys schools and fine educators like Irma Cobian.” Ben Austin was very offended by my comments, and this was my reply to his open letter.
It is not often–indeed, it is rare–that I lose my temper. But I couldn’t help feeling outraged at the way that the billionaires treated Irma Cobain. I hate to see people bullied. I confess that I react badly when powerful people pick on weak people. All I have to help them is my voice–not funding–and I do my best to speak up for those who are powerless.
Q) If you had the power and resources to do one thing to change public education right now, what would it be?
A) I have a dozen research-based solutions, all of which are of great importance, so it is hard to pick just one. I might suggest that we do what other nations do, and give external tests to kids only two or three times in their school career, and let teachers write their own tests. I might suggest universal high-quality pre-K. I might suggest a dynamic wonderful, fully funded arts program in every school. I might suggest a health clinic attached to every school in a low-income neighborhood. And that would be just a start!