By now, I’m about the only slowpoke who hasn’t taken a stand on Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error. Those who object to her indictment of “corporate reform” have had time to catch any possible error of fact or logic. If there is a rebuttal to Ravitch’s statement that “it is difficult to find education organizations that have not been funded by the Gates Foundation,” surely it would have been made by now.
I never expected Reign of Error to convert true believers in accountability-driven reform, but it is a shame that they have not engaged in a debate over Ravitch’s evidence or arguments. Their public relations “echo chamber” has labeled Ravitch as a flamethrower and orchestrated a call for a more temperate “middle ground.” If she had not used the words “corporate reform” or “privatization,” perhaps, data-driven reformers would have calmly joined a discussion on the merits of Ravitch’s book ...
Seriously, I’ve been slow to review Reign of Error because I have been preoccupied recently with attempts to seek common ground with liberal and conservative reformers on state and local levels. So, rereading her masterful documentation of the dangers of privatization, I kept returning to the only passages, from page 34 to 41, that bother me. If the wording of much of the chapter on “The Language of Corporate Reform” was toned down, would supporters of the contemporary school reform movement have any reason to be offended?
My problem is with the part of Ravitch’s thesis that, “the education reform movement must be defined in terms of its ideology, its strategies, and its leading members.” It seems to define everyone who believes in output-driven accountability with the ideologues who have led the reformers’ assault on teachers, unions, and the free expression of ideas. It could be read as implying that the rank-in-file who support data-driven methods are as culpable as Bill Gates, Eli Broad, Michelle Rhee, and Arne Duncan. On the other hand, each scholar can articulate her own thesis and Ravitch presents her case with the same meticulous scholarship that has characterized her entire career.
Chapter Three, “Who Are the Reformers” persuasively connects the dots. I’ll admit to being intimidated by the implications of her evidence. It is undeniable, however, that there has been a history of waves of education reform, but now there is “an astonishing development.” During this era of corporate reform, “liberals, progressives, well-meaning people have lent their support to a project that is antithetical to liberalism and progressivism.” Whether you agree with Ravitch or not, it would be hard to challenge her statement that “the corporate reform movement has co-opted progressive themes and language in the service of radical purposes.” Reformers may not like to hear the conclusion that their solutions “have had a destructive impact on education as a whole.” But, if they disagree, they could try to marshal evidence to the contrary.
As anyone who is crafting a history of the contemporary reform movement would need to do, Ravitch then tackles the way that it hired state-of- the-art public relations experts to spin its “well-honed” message. So, she recounts their claims and parses their meanings. In doing so, she shows that many reform leaders have funded an effort that “is not meant to reform public education … it is a deliberate attempt to replace public education with a privately managed, free-market system of schooling.”
I fear that Ravitch will be read as lumping the consumers of the corporate media message with the most craven funders of that propaganda. I worry, for instance, that teachers employed by charter schools will be turned off and not listen to the way that she documents how “those who held the levers of power at the U.S. Department of Education, in the big foundations, on Wall Street and in the major corporations agreed on how to reform American education.” I worry that educators who agree with much of that model will feel like their integrity is being challenged.
Sadly, Ravitch convinces me that “TFA is not just a beneficiary of the privatization movement but one of the central drivers of the movement.” Maybe I’m being illogical or inconsistent, but I would still like to distinguish between Teach for America alumni, like Michelle Rhee and Kevin Huffman, who would destroy every educational value that I love, and 23-year-old idealists who may or may not approve of the Rhees and Huffmans.
A similar problem is occurs when Ravitch challenges school choice. She is on solid ground when arguing that the public relations spin has allowed them use the “C word” and, also, “to transcend its tarnished history as an escape route for southern whites who sought to avoid court-ordered desegregation in the 1950s and 1960s.”
Like Ravitch, I do not believe that choice is the path towards school improvement, and neither do I have faith that competition will result in improved student outcomes. If parents choose to send their own children to schools that nurture competition, however, that is their own business. The problem, as Ravitch documents, is that NCLB and also the Obama administration encouraged a pervasive climate of competition. They incentivized metrics for keeping score. In doing so, they crossed a line and promoted a destructive and competitive culture in charters, as well as traditional public schools.
Unless I miss my guess, most supporters of test-driven accountability, like most parents, students, and educators, realize that “reform” has gone terribly wrong. While many citizens and most reformers embrace choice, most are horrified by the competitive culture that has been imposed on all of our schools – not just those schools that hyper-competitive parents and entrepreneurs might choose for their own kids.
I do not believe that Diane Ravitch’s counter-attack against the ideology, the funders, and the leaders of the corporate reform movement is meant as an indictment of everyone who listens to or believes their political message. She carefully parses the language of reform to show how it “has co-opted progressive themes and language in the service of radical purposes.”
Ravitch pulls no punches in making the case that the elites’ faith in competition could “sound the death knell for urban public education.” And, she is right. For that reason, I hope that readers who are inclined to support school reform will carefully contemplate Reign of Error.