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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
[ncsm-members] Review of Diane Ravitch's Reign of Error
Posted: Apr 13, 2014 7:34 PM
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From education review // resenas educativas [[a
multi-lingual journal of book reviews]
editors: david j. blacker / gustavo e.fischman /
melissa cast-brede / gene v glass
April 12, 2013 Volume 17 Number 3 ISSN 1094-5296
Education Review/Reseñas Educativas is a project
of the College of Education and Human Services of
the University of Delaware, the National
Education Policy Center, and the Mary Lou Fulton
Teachers College, Arizona State University
Unmasking the Reformers: An Essay Review of Ravitch's Reign of Error

By Connie Schaffer
University of Nebraska Omaha

[Citation: Schaffer, Connie. (2014 April 12)
Unmasking the Reformers: An Essay Review of
Ravitch's Reign of Error. Education Review,
17(3). Retrieved [Date] from ]
[Ravitch, Diane. (2013) Reign of Error: The Hoax
of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to
America's Public Schools. NY: Alfred A. Knopf
[Pp. xii + 396. ISBN 978-0-385-35088-4]

Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization
Movement and the Danger to America's Public
Schools invigorates the ongoing debate
surrounding the reform of K-12 public education.
Author Diane Ravitch does so by interfusing
quantitative and qualitative evidence related to
a number of significantly contested issues
including standardized testing, high school
graduation rates, school and teacher
accountability, and the privatization of public
schools. Those who criticize charter schools,
vouchers systems, merit pay for teachers, and the
increased testing of elementary and secondary
school children will find their perspectives
affirmed and validated throughout the book. In
contrast, those who support the national, state,
and local educational policy shifts of the past
several years and advocate for the continuation
of this trajectory will find their adversaries'
arguments clearly articulated.

Readers should not be intimidated by the
compendious nature of the book or the author's
esteemed reputation within the field of
education. Ravitch skillfully and persuasively
leads her audience through myriad statistics,
intricate complexities of educational history and
policy, and the nuances of politics and power.
Throughout the book, she candidly and
consistently reiterates her most salient points,
making it impossible for a reader to
misunderstand her impassioned beliefs.

However, is it necessary for one book to occupy
396 pages of textual real estate and employ an
arsenal of 41graphs to craft a convincing
argument that the American public school system
is in jeopardy not because of ineffective
teaching or leadership, but rather because of
ominous external forces? Given (a) the power and
influence of those leading the educational reform
movement and making the rebuttal to this
argument, (b) the profound importance of the
debate regarding public education, (c) the author
is Diane Ravitch - the answer to this question is
a prodigious YES!

The Power and Influence Leading the Reform Movement

Ravitch's extensive arguments are warranted given
the power and influence of the reform movement
and the wealth of financial and political
resources behind it. In the first fifteen
chapters of the book, Ravitch withholds few words
in her analysis of those influencing and leading
the current external factors threatening
America's public schools. She describes numerous
and well- recognized government leaders from both
major political parties, business

kingpins, venture capitalists, media moguls, and
several of this generation's philanthropic icons
as purveyors of a fear-driven rhetoric motivated
by political and economic ambitions. In her
words, they are "speculators, entrepreneurs,
ideologues, snake-oil salesmen, profit-making
businesses, and Wall Street hedge fund managers"
(p. 31).

Her extensive list of individuals includes
political heavy-hitters such as George W. Bush,
Barack Obama, Jeb Bush, Bobby Jindal, Scott
Walker, Chris Christie, Andrew Cuomo, Michael
Bloomberg, and Arne Duncan among many others.
Prominent and deep-coffered foundations such as
the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Walton
Family Foundation, and Eli and Edythe Broad
Foundation receive repeated mention by Ravitch as
do media personalities Rupert Murdoch and David
Guggenheim. Ravitch reserves her most pugilistic
comments for educational leaders Wendy Kopp
(Teach for America CEO) and Michelle Rhee (former
chancellor of the District of Columbia Public
Schools). Rhee, described as the "quintessential
corporate reformer" (p. 146) is centered in
Ravitch's crosshairs for an entire chapter (pp.

Ravitch's assertion is clear. Flush with cash and
clout, the objectives of this formidable
line-up are to first privatize America's K-12
public schools and then to capitalize on the
profit opportunities this will create. To reach
these objectives, they have purposefully reframed
"privatization" as "choice" and "vouchers" as
"opportunity scholarships." They have
semantically cloaked their true intent and
orchestrated a well-honed social message by using
terms such as "innovation" and "accountability"
and business-influenced phrases such as
"free-market competition." Ravitch presents this
as an insidious hoax, when she writes,

If the American public understood that reformers
want to privatize their public schools and divert
their taxes to pay profits to investors, it would
be hard to sell the corporate idea of reform. If
parents understood that the reformers want to
close down their community schools and require
them to go shopping for schools, some far from
home, that may or may not accept their children,
it would be hard to sell the corporate idea of
reform. If the American public understood that
the very concept of education was being
disfigured into a mechanism to apply standardized
testing and sort their children into data points
on a normal curve, it would be hard to sell the
corporate idea of reform. If the American public
understood that their children's teachers will be
judged by the same test scores that label their
children as worthy or unworthy, it would be hard
to sell the corporate idea of reform. If the
American public knew how inaccurate and
unreliable these methods are, both for children
and for teachers, it would be hard to sell the
corporate idea of reform. And that is why the
reform message must be rebranded to make it
palatable to the public (p. 35).

Chapter by chapter, Ravitch methodically refutes
the claims of the reform movement. In doing so,
she resituates this crusade from one spurred by
low standardized test scores, poor high school
graduation rates, frustrated parents, and dismal
international rankings threatening national
security, to a movement driven by greed and
power. In her opinion, the progress of public
education has been "slow and steady" and "moving
in the right direction" (p. 78). To support her
contention, she reports select categories of
scores from the National Assessment of
Educational Progress (NAEP) which appear to
dispute the claim that performance on
standardized tests have been declining. She also
discounts the four-year graduation rate used by
the U.S. Department of Education and substitutes
alternate parameters to demonstrate graduation
rates are actually increasing.

Ravitch acknowledges the achievement gap,
(variances related to performances on
standardized test scores as well as other
educational outcomes; often most pronounced and
persistent for students of color, living in
poverty, and with limited English skills) as a
serious issue facing the country. The reform
movement repeatedly references these differences
as shocking indicators of the failure of
America's public schools and attributes the
achievement gap
to ineffective teaching. Ravitch again reframes a
central tenet of the reform movement. Rather than
"fixing the schools" (p. 93) and focusing on the
achievement gap, she argues that closing the
social and economic disparities between society's
advantaged and disadvantaged children should be
at the epicenter of educational reform.

While socio-economic factors are not absolute
predictors of children's academic performance,
Ravitch tells readers, "We know what works. What
works are the very opportunities that advantaged
families provide for their children. In homes
with adequate resources, children get advantages
that enable them to arrive in school healthy and
ready to learn" (p. 6). In contrast, children who
are from disadvantaged homes are more likely to
experience stress and disruptions to their lives;
be homeless; live in dangerous neighborhoods with
inadequate housing; have asthma; be exposed to
lead; have untreated vision, hearing and dental
issues; and have an incarcerated or uneducated
parent. They are "dragged down by the
circumstances into which they were born, through
no fault of their own" (p. 94).

Widely referred to as opportunity gaps, these
disparities are caused by the realities of
poverty and disempowerment (Carter & Welner,
2013; Gorski, 2013); and from Ravitch's view
point, are currently as entrenched as they are
ignored in the United States. According to
Ravitch, "Our society has grown to accept poverty
as an inevitable fact of life, and there seems to
be little or no political will to do anything
about it" (p. 93).

Ravitch believes opportunity gaps and the
improvement of schools and teaching practices are
both important issues which must be addressed.
However, for her the critical choice becomes
which of the two will take priority.

Rather than address poverty and other difficult
social issues, Ravitch maintains that the power
elite have chosen to minimize the impact of
opportunity gaps. Instead of trying to enact
policies to equalize the opportunities of
children and families, they divert the public's
attention to closing the achievement gap by means
such as incentivizing teachers to improve their
performance, punishing teachers who have the
lowest-performing students, creating
unconventional routes to teacher licensure, and
closing low-performing school. Ravitch, again
painstakingly counters each of these reform
approaches with facts, figures, and anecdotes.

The Profound Importance of the Debate

Ravitch's expansive investigation is also
necessary given the critical importance of the
debate regarding public education, a debate that
extends well be on any single classroom or
school. W.E.B. DuBois (1902) warned of threats to
public education when he stated, "The ideals of
education, whether men are taught to teach or
plow, to weave or to write, must not be allowed
to sink into sordid utilitarianism. Education,
must keep broad ideals before it, and never
forget that it is dealing with souls and not with
dollars" (p. 81). Like DuBois, Ravitch expresses
the crucial role of America's public education
system and the dangers of opening it to
profit-making endeavors with the following

Also forgotten is that public schools were
created by communities and states for civic
purposes. In the nineteenth century, they were
often called "common schools." They were a
project of the public commons, the community.
They were created to build and sustain democracy,
to teach young people how to live and work
together with others, and to teach the skills and
knowledge needed to participate fully in society.
Inherent in the idea of public education was a
clear understanding that educating the younger
generation was a public responsibility, shared by
all, whether or not they had children in the
public schools, whether or not they even had
children. (p. 207)

The profound importance of public education
resonates in chapters 16-21 in which Ravitch
characterizes charter schools, vouchers, school
closings, and privatization as direct assaults on
the American public school system. She scoffs at
the reform movement's claim that their agenda
represents the next great civil rights issue of
our time. According to Ravitch, charter schools
are touted for using innovation to teach the
neediest students with financial efficiency, yet
they have found it difficult to meet these
expectations. In reality, charter schools can
turn away the most vulnerable students including
those with disabilities and those who have
limited English skills. Their per-student costs
are often higher than those for comparable public
schools. More importantly, the costs of charters
are covered by extracting funds from traditional
public schools. In her grim appraisal of the
effect of charter schools, Ravitch concludes that
public schools "have already suffered damage that
may be irreparable" (p. 179).

Ravitch addresses other reform topics such as
vouchers and parent-triggered seizures of public
schools. Presented as hopeful indicators that
America is not ready to abandon its public
schools, Ravitch notes that although
parent-trigger laws have passed in several
states, the concept has not received wide-spread
grassroots support. Similarly, vouchers, which
she believes are a means to re-segregate schools
and "represent a major step toward privatization"
(p. 213), have been introduced in several
locations. However, in her analysis of vouchers,
Ravitch found scant evidence that they result in
dramatic improvements in educational outcomes or
that the American public broadly embraces the

Finally, Ravitch challenges the reform practices
of merit-pay, de-selecting (firing) teachers and
principals, and closing public schools. Reformers
present a seemingly simple process to turn around
what they deem to be failing schools. Reward
educators whose students score well on
standardized tests. Remove teachers and
administrators and close schools whose students
perform poorly. To rebut this idea, Ravitch
recounts the highly-publicized, one billion
dollar "turnaround" program of the Chicago Public
Schools, a school system she depicts as the
"playground of corporate reform" (p. 318).

According to Ravitch's interpretation of the
evidence, the successes specific to the Chicago
turnaround effort and lauded by the reform
movement are far from definitive. In the general
context, she finds the evidence connecting
improved test scores to turnaround practices as
questionable. What is indisputable to Ravitch is
the damaging impact these practices have on
students, teachers, public schools, local
communities, and society. As she states earlier
in the book, "levels of inequality will deepen if
teachers are incentivized to shun students with
the highest needs. Schools in high- poverty
districts already have difficulty retaining staff
and replacing them. Who will want to teach in
schools that are at risk of closing because of
the students they enroll" (p. 109).

In the final portion of her book, Ravitch poses
solutions to protect and improve public education
and its fundamental contributions to democracy.
These include confronting systemic social issues
external to schools. Unless addressed, a number
of isolated issues, but most certainly the
interaction between them, will continue to impact
the educational outcomes of America's public
education system. Ravitch calls for reducing the
"toxic mix" (pp. 291- 299) of poverty and racial
segregation as well as improving access to
pre-natal and medical care, out-of-school
enrichment opportunities, and parental support

In addition to social issues, Ravitch provides
suggestions to improve factors internal to
schools. This includes enriching and enhancing
the K-12 curriculum, reducing class size, and
strengthening the preparation of educators.
Rather than increasing the number of tests given
to students, she advocates for improving the
understanding and application of educational
measures. "Tests are not scientific instruments"
and are "not designed to measure school or
teacher quality" (p. 264). However, Ravitch
believes they can be useful when implemented in
program evaluation, for diagnostic purposes, or
to establish trends.

Ravitch concedes that charter schools are now a
permanent fixture in the K-12 educational arena.
She asserts that if current policies and
practices related to charter schools are left
unchecked, the future of educational equity in
America is tenuous.

Charter schools would recruit and enroll students
who are motivated and willing, while public
schools would serve the rejects, the students who
didn'tmakeitintoacharter school, those who were
unwanted by charters because they didn't speak
English, had disabilities, or threatened in some
other way to lower the charter's test scores. A
dual system is inherently discriminatory,
especially when one sector is privately run,
deregulated, unsupervised, and free to write its
own rules and avoid or eject students it does not
want, and the other must take all students and
abide by all state laws and regulations, no
matter how burdensome and costly. (p. 249)

However, Ravitch believes the development of dual
school systems underwritten by public funding,
based on consumerism, and devoid of community
ties is not inevitable. Her solution to prevent
American education from evolving into two
separate and very unequal school systems is to
regulate charter schools in the following ways:

. prohibiting privatization;
. limiting authorization only to non-profit local entities;
. monitoring financial practices to promote
transparency and reflect per-student funding
similar to
that in the local public schools;
. requiring enrollment criteria to be inclusive
of all children but especially those who have
been unsuccessful in public schools; present
behavioral, physical, and intellectual
challenges; and do not speak English.


Finally, the breadth and depth of the book are
inescapable because Ravitch herself is personally
and deeply embedded in the reform movement she
now criticizes. Her curriculum vitae (Ravitch,
2014) is impressive, but several items included
in it will surprise readers unacquainted with her
professional history. Most notably, she was a
former assistant secretary in the U. S.
Department of Education during the administration
of George W. Bush and was part of the bipartisan
effort to create and pass the No Child Left
Behind legislation in 2001. This act introduced
the concept of
"failing schools" and set initial testing and
accountability standards that by Ravitch's own
admission were unrealistic.

She also served a seven-year term on the National
Assessment Board charged with oversight of the
NAEP, a common standardized test administered in
K-12 education. Ravitch touts the NAEP, when used
appropriately, as "an exemplar" (p. 263) and as
the "one authoritative measure of academic
performance over time" (p. 44). However, she
acknowledges that reform advocates frequently
cite NAEP results to "present a bleak portrait of
what students know and can do" (p. 46). In
addition, to her service in the public sector,
she supported educational reform efforts through
her past association with groups such as the
Manhattan Institute, Brookings Institution,
Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, and Hoover
Institution (Ravitch, 2014).

Much has been said and written about Ravitch's
defection from her past affiliations,
particularly after the release of her previous
book, The Death and Life of the Great American
School System: How Testing and Choice are
Undermining Education (2010). In that book,
Ravitch refuted her former work as an outspoken
proponent of the educational reform movement and
outlined a quite radical deviation from her prior
point of view.

Given Ravitch's background, Reign of Error
readers should not be surprised by the lengthy,
somewhat repetitious, and zealous nature of her
arguments. If The Death and Life of the Great
American Schools System was Ravitch's mea culpa,
Reign of Error is her cathartic attempt to derail
a train she set into motion and engineered along
its early journey. Whether or not the change in
her philosophical position adds to or distracts
from the credibility of Ravitch's arguments is an
important consideration for the reader. More
importantly, whether or not her arguments are
able to alter the course of K- 12 educational
reform is a critical consideration for all of


Carter, P. L. & Welner, K. G. (Eds.). (2013)
Closing the opportunity gap: What America must do
to give every child an even chance. New York, NY:
Oxford University Press.

Du Bois, W.E.B. (1902) The Negro artisan.
Atlanta, GA: Atlanta University Press.

Gorski, P. (2013) Reaching and teaching students
in poverty: Strategies for erasing the
opportunity gap. New York, NY: Teachers College

Ravitch, D. (2014) Diane Ravitch: Curriculum
vitae. Retrieved from

Ravitch, D. (2010) The death and life of the
great American school system: How testing and
choice are undermining education. New York, NY:
Basic Books.

About the Reviewer

Connie Schaffer is an Assistant Professor in the
Teacher Education Department at the University of
Nebraska at Omaha (UNO). She also serves as the
Assessment Coordinator for the UNO College of
Education. She earned her post-secondary degrees
from Kansas State University and
the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She is a
long-time advocate of K-12 public education and
is specifically interested in urban education.
She is a member of Phi Delta Kappa, Kappa Delta
Pi, and the Horace Mann League.


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