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BOOK REVIEW: "Reign of Error": The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools

Forget low test scores, says one of the nation's foremost education experts in her new book. The privatizers are the real threat to America's schools.
 
 
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Photo Credit: DianeRavitch.com

 

When faced with the many competing narratives of the religions of the world, comparative myth/religion scholar Joseph Campbell explained to Bill Moyers that Campbell did not reject religion, as some scholars have, but instead reached this conclusion:

Every religion is true one way or another. It is true when understood metaphorically. But when it gets stuck to its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble.

Following the unveiling of Ravitch 2.0 in  The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, Diane Ravitch now offers Ravitch 3.0 with her newly released  Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools.

Since Ravitch is a respected historian of education, a brief history seems appropriate for context.

Ravitch 1.0 established herself as a leading scholar of the history of education. She also wrote best-selling and influential books on education beginning in the mid-1970s. During the 1970s and into the early 2000s, Ravitch was associated with conservative politics (notably because of her public service from 1991 to 1993 as Assistant Secretary of Education and Counselor to Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander under President George H.W. Bush) and traditional educational philosophy. Ravitch 1.0 was a strong advocate for standards, high-stakes testing, accountability, and school choice.

With the publication of Death and Life, however, Ravitch 2.0 unveiled a stunning and powerful reversal of positions for Ravitch, who detailed in this popular book how she had come to see that the mounting evidence on the accountability era revealed that standards, high-stakes testing, and market forces were doing more harm to public education than good. In the following year, Ravitch became a highly visible and controversial public face on a growing movement to resist the accountability era and champion the possibility of achieving the promises of universal public education in the U.S.

An additional significant commitment from Ravitch, along with her relentless speaking engagements, was that she began to blog at her own site, creating a public intellectual persona that gave her more latitude than her traditional commitment to scholarship allowed. Ravitch’s blog now stands as a vivid and living documentation of how Ravitch has informed the education reform debate and how Ravitch herself has been informed by the experiences and expertise of an education community that has been long ignored by political leaders, the media, and the public.

Ravitch 2.0, however, remained tempered, often withholding stances on key issues in education, such as the debate over Common Core State Standards, that frustrated some of her colleagues teaching in the classroom, blogging about education, and conducting research on education and education reform.

Now, with Reign, we have Ravitch 3.0, displayed in a comprehensive work that in many ways echoes not only her own blog, but the growing arguments among educators and scholars that much of the reform agenda lacks evidence and that alternative commitments to education reform need to address poverty, equity, and opportunity.

In her Introduction, Ravitch explains her motivation for this book:

[David Denby] said to me, “Your critics say you are long on criticism but short on answers.”

I said, “You have heard me lecture, and you know that is not true.”

He suggested that I write a book to respond to the critics.

So I did, and this is that book. (pp. xi-xii)

Like Campbell, Ravitch confronts competing narratives about the state of education in the U.S. and the concurrent calls for reform. I have labeled these competing agendas as “No Excuses” Reform (NER), the dominant narrative driving policies at the federal and state levels, and Social Context Reform (SCR), a broad coalition of educations, academics, and scholars among whom I’d place Ravitch.