Early Learning

Diane Ravitch's new book criticizes 'reform' movement


Diane Ravitch discussing her book, Reign of Error, on stage in Stanford's Memorial Hall. Credit: Barbara McKenna, SCOPE

Diane Ravitch discussing her book, “Reign of Error,” on stage in Stanford’s Memorial Hall. Credit: Barbara McKenna, SCOPE

Diane Ravitch was at Stanford University on Monday to discuss her most recent book, Reign of Error,” which argues that American schools are doing better than public discourse suggests.

Ravitch told a standing-room-only crowd at Stanford’s Memorial Auditorium that the school reform movement focused on creating charter schools and pushing school choice is a hoax.

“Somehow reform has turned into a process that includes … closing public schools, turning public dollars over to private entrepreneurs and pretending test scores are the most important part of public schooling,” Ravitch said.

Ravitch, an education historian, emerged as a prominent figure in education policy in the early ’90s when she worked as an assistant secretary of education under then-President George H.W. Bush. At the time, she thought charter schools could be a useful laboratory for trying out new ideas that could then be incorporated into public schools. That has not happened, Ravitch said, citing studies showing that charter schools perform, on average, about the same as public schools. Instead, Ravitch said the “root cause” of poor student performance is poverty, which she said isn’t a problem schools can fix.

See Jonathan Kozol’s New York Times review  of “Reign of Error.”

“I think this conversation that we’ve been having about school reform is just a great distraction from the fact that we are seeing the greatest income inequality that we have seen in the last 100 years,” Ravitch said.

In her book, Ravitch lays out a series of “hoaxes” she says reformers have foisted on an unsuspecting public. Among these are standardized tests, charter schools, a reliance on technology in classrooms, teacher evaluations based on student performance, and laws that allow parents to turn a traditional public school into a charter. Ravitch argues that these “solutions” don’t work and, further, have been created to fix a problem that doesn’t exist – namely, a substandard public education system.

“Public education is not broken,” reads the first chapter of “Reign of Error.” “It is not broken or declining. The diagnosis is wrong, and the solutions of the corporate reformers are wrong.”

During the first portion of the Stanford event, Ravitch, speaking to frequent applause from a supportive audience, summarized many of the arguments in her book. She took at aim at the people, organizations and ideas she says are turning public education into a private enterprise meant to benefit corporations, not help children. After blasting Bill Gates and his Gates Foundation, which supports linking teacher evaluations to test scores and other measures of student performance and Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy’s recent move to buy an iPad for every Los Angeles Unified high school student, Ravitch noted that she’d often been criticized for not offering solutions – and went on to offer some.

She listed universal prenatal care for expectant mothers, preschool for all public school students, health care clinics at schools, school psychologists, and a curriculum that included art, music, physical education and foreign languages as additions to the public school system she thought would help boost student performance. She also said teachers should be paid more and assigned smaller classes.

Ravitch said she wanted to fight the perception that because she believes American schools are performing better then they get credit for, she’s opposed to change and happy with the status quo.

“I hate the status quo,” Ravitch said. “When the education department puts their might behind these (testing and charter school) policies, it’s not reform, it’s the status quo.”

Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education and chair of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, and Eric Hanushek, an education economist at the Hoover Institution at Stanford who supports many of the reform efforts Ravitch opposes, joined Ravitch on stage after her opening speech for a panel discussion moderated by longtime California journalist Peter Schrag.

In Hanushek’s recent book, “Endangering Prosperity: A Global View of the American School,” co-authored with Paul Peterson and Ludger Woessmann, he argues that the country’s economic future is in jeopardy if it doesn’t fix problems in the education system, such as poor teacher quality.

Schrag’s opening question was to Hanushek: Did the economist think teachers were to blame for poor student performance?

“Just because you say teachers are essential (to boosting performance), doesn’t say you’re blaming them,” Hanushek said.

Hanushek said he thought top-quality teachers were the best solution to increasing the rigor of American public education. That, he argued, means better training of teachers and better pay for teachers whose students show the most academic growth.

For an overview of Hanushek’s arguments, read this Wall Street Journal article.

Hanushek and Ravitch debated different interpretations of how well American students are faring compared to others around the world.

Hanushek, as in his book, argued that America is behind too many other nations academically, an argument Ravitch dismissed.

Diane Ravitch, Linda From left, Darling-Hammond, Eric Hanushek, Channa Mae Cook

From left, Diane Ravitch, Linda Darling-Hammond, Eric Hanushek, Channa Mae Cook and Peter Schrag on stage in Stanford’s Memorial Hall on Monday, September 30. Credit: Barbara McKenna, SCOPE

“Here we are, the most powerful nation in the world, the largest economy in the world, the hugest military in the world and we’re saying we’re losing,” Ravitch said. “Who are we losing to? I don’t think we’re going to be taken over by Singapore, they aren’t going to run the world.”

One attendee at the discussion, education convention organizer Peggy Young, said she agreed with much of what Ravitch said, though she wished there’d been time to hear more from Hanushek during the panel discussion because she valued the airing of multiple opinions.

“I think these kinds of public forums are part of our civic duty,” she said.

Lillian Mongeau covers early childhood education. Contact her or follow her @lrmongeau.

Filed under: Early Learning, Reforms

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5 Responses to “Diane Ravitch's new book criticizes 'reform' movement”

  1. CarolineSF said

    on October 2, 2013 at 5:37 pm

    Hoover Institution folks were sitting behind my party, and they were making unsupportive cracks, so not everyone was supportive.

    I would say that Ravitch thoughtfully discussed Hanushek’s ongoing claim that U.S. students are behind other nations.

    He touched on the current theme among “reform” voices, which is to claim that our privileged students — not just our high-poverty students — are behind other nations’ too. It’s not clear whether telling middle- and upper-middle-class parents that their kids are stupid is a theme that will win their hearts and minds, but time will tell.

    • navigio replied

      on October 2, 2013 at 7:11 pm

      I think it’s intended to scare them, not win their hearts

      Was there a transcript published? I looked on the event’s site but did not see one.

      • CarolineSF replied

        on October 2, 2013 at 8:37 pm

        Of course it’s intended to scare them, but if it offends and outrages them instead (or as well), will that be effective? Discuss among yourselves.

        I saw that David Cohen, the teacher-leader from Palo Alto High who introduced Ravitch, posted HIS speech somewhere, but I haven’t seen a transcript of Ravitch’s or of the free-flowing panel discussion afterward.

  2. Lillian Mongeau said

    on October 3, 2013 at 4:45 pm

    I will ask about a transcript.

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