Reign of Error by Diane Ravitch

Richard Smaby


Diane Ravitch addresses what she calls “the hoax of privatization” on the American educational system. She details the players in the privatization process, how they have mounted an extensive media campaign to gain a foothold into the educational system and how they have misused the facts to convince the American people that there is a crisis in the educational system. Contrary to their media campaign rhetoric, test scores in reading and mathematics have been increasing steadily and significantly over the past 40 years when measured by a uniform test. Ravitch analyzes the arguments for privatizing education, finds them lacking and goes on to explain how privatization accompanied by testing is destructive of democratic society. The reader will want to pay close attention to what is unfolding in Pierce County and Washington State as a result of Initiative 1240.

Most people are unaware that there is a continuous and well-financed media campaign to privatize public education, which means using taxpayer dollars to pay private corporations to manage or subcontract education. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and others financed the film “Waiting for Superman." The film attempts to persuade the viewer that public education is failing by citing poor test results. It argues that throwing more resources at public education won't solve the problem. The only way to improve education, it claims, is to create charter schools, to fire ineffective teachers and to weaken teacher unions. [Chapter 17]

This media campaign has been effective. Consider this editorial in the Tacoma News Tribune endorsing charter schools. Thomas Friedman also supports them in his editorial about how we can do better in our educational system.

Who is financing the privatization movement? The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation supports charter schools and test-based teacher evaluation. The foundation gives hundreds of millions of dollars every year to education projects with heavy emphasis on testing and merit evaluation of teachers. The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation supports charter schools and training of superintendents in their managerial philosophy. The Walton family supports charter schools and voucher programs. These are just the largest. [Chapter 3]

The privatizers make the following claims. American public schools are failing. Test results prove this. Charter schools can turn failure into success by firing teachers who are ineffective and paying the rest according to test results of their students. Schools with low test scores should be closed. Bickering school boards get in the way of change. A strong executive is imperative for solving the problems in public education. [Chapter 4]

Ravitch analyzes the claims of the corporate reformers. There is no evidence that merit pay improves outcomes. Firing teachers whose classes fail to improve on tests doesn’t improve outcomes. Closing schools doesn’t help. Schools have improved steadily in the past without an emphasis on testing. The charter model introduces schools that are deregulated, unsupervised and unaccountable.

She demonstrates that poverty is the major reason for poor performance on tests. It is necessary to address poverty, as well as work to improve the schools. Charter schools are not the answer to improving education. They have the same range from excellent to awful as in the public schools. [Chapter 10]

She argues that charter schools foster racism. At first glance that seems far-fetched. After all, the charter school proponents are claiming to help African-American and Hispanic students by focusing on these students in many instances. But Ravitch explains with persuasive documentation that the charter schools encourage segregation. She argues that integration in the schools is essential to all students and to our society. [Chapter 6]

Ravitch provides a list of what to look out for if there is a charter school in your district. She provides example after example of unfounded claims of success, exorbitant profits for contractors, embezzlement and other diversion of the public coffers by unsupervised business entities. [Chapter 17]

Ravitch is resigned to the fact that charter schools are part of the educational landscape. But she is not resigned to the uses of testing to close schools and fire teachers.

She agrees our educational system needs to improve, but it is not broken. It will not be improved by teaching to the test. Other countries, including some that emphasize testing and are tops in test scores, are studying our educational system to figure out why our engineers and scientists are the most innovative in the world.

Summarizing some of Ravitch's points doesn't do justice to the book. It is important to read her book to experience the persuasiveness of her arguments. She shows no mercy in her dismantling of the arguments of the privatization movement. It is a must read!

Armed with this new knowledge, attend one of the hearings on charter school applications by various organizations. See the TNT article and the KUOW report.