Education historian Diane Ravitch has produced a book that could make anyone from parents to policy wonks think twice about the direction American public schools are going.
Ms. Ravitch, 75, a former assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush and now research professor of education at New York University, was once a proponent of testing and school choice, but she had an epiphany in 2006 when she realized the school choices she had been supporting didn't work.
"REIGN OF ERROR: THE HOAX OF THE PRIVATIZATION MOVEMENT AND THE DANGER TO AMERICA'S PUBLIC SCHOOLS"
By Diane Ravitch
That epiphany resulted in the 2010 book "Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education."
This time, Ms. Ravitch has written "Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools."
"Reign of Error" focuses on what she sees as hoaxes aimed at winning private control of education and suggests solutions, many of them addressing the challenges of racial segregation and poverty.
"Public education is not broken," she writes. "It is not failing or declining. The diagnosis is wrong, and the solutions of the corporate reformers are wrong. Our urban public schools are in trouble because of the concentrated poverty and racial segregation. ... Public education is in a crisis only so far as society is and only so far as this new narrative of crisis has destabilized it."
The book's chapters address the major "reforms" in education, including high stakes testing, corporate and foundation donations aimed at setting policies, teacher evaluation, merit pay, online education, parent triggers, vouchers, school closings.
Ms. Ravitch also criticizes Teach for America, which puts non-certified teachers into urban classrooms, and Michelle Rhee, who started Students First after serving as chancellor of public schools in Washington, D.C.
"The issue for the future is whether a small number of very wealthy entrepreneurs, corporations and individuals will be able to purchase educational policy in this nation, either by funding candidates for local and state school boards, for state legislatures, for governor and for Congress or by using foundation 'gifts' to advance the privatization of public education," she writes.
Ms. Ravitch argues that public schools cannot be operated like businesses because they need to educate all students and provide full programs and are a community asset. Rather than regarding schools from a consumer viewpoint, she views them as an integral part of a democratic society.
Of course, businesses made money from schools long before the first No. 2 pencil was sold, but in recent years the opportunities have expanded. Ms. Ravitch blames the federal No Child Left Behind Act enacted in 2001-- which required schools to achieve certain test performance or face sanctions -- and the Obama administration's Race to the Top program, which awards money if states and schools agreed to certain conditions that emphasize testing.
Ms. Ravitch believes schools were showing more improvement before No Child Left Behind when more effort was made to address poverty and racial segregation.
Under No Child Left Behind, all students are expected to be proficient in math and reading by 2014. The Obama administration has given most states, including Pennsylvania, waivers so they do not have to have all students proficient. But those waivers rely heavily on testing, including requiring student test scores to be a part of teacher evaluations.
She compares setting a goal of 100 percent proficiency and punishing schools which don't make it with setting a goal of crime-free communities and taking away police and resources from those that still have crime.
For Ms. Ravitch, testing and privatization of public schools are not the solution. She says the best tests do not have stakes attached to them. She would like to ban for-profit charter schools and charter chains.
Calling poverty the most important factor contributing to student achievement, she says U.S. poverty rates are a "national scandal," with nearly one in four children living in poverty. She says more medical and social services are needed.
"If we don't act to remedy the social and economic conditions that cause disadvantage, we are unlikely to see any large-scale changes in the achievement gaps," she writes.
She views poverty and racial segregation as a "toxic mix." She says school segregation is increasing, in part because of the expansion of charter schools and notes, "Sadly, desegregation is no longer a priority for the federal government."
No matter what side of the debate the reader is on, Ms. Ravitch provides a thought-provoking look at some of the major challenges facing public education today.
Education writer Eleanor Chute: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1955 or Twitter @Eleanor_Chute. First Published October 12, 2013 8:00 PM