Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Advanced Look at New Diane Ravitch Book

Diane Ravitch is at once the most polarizing and fervent voices in education policy today. Her latest work, Reign of Error is classic Ravitch -- unapologetic, fiercely argued and tough.

Reign of Error picks up where Ravitch left off with The Death and Life of the Great American School System -- her coming out party, of sorts, as the nation's most ferocious defender of its public schools. Ravitch, who served in George H.W. Bush's Department of Education, began as one of education reform's greatest advocates. She pushed Charter Schools, higher standards, and testing as the way to improve America's public schools. However, after years of fighting for those principles, she realized something: They weren't working. So she repudiated her previous stand and has fought tirelessly against what she calls the corporate reform movement.

Do not mistake Reign of Error for an anti-reform screed. It is much more than that. The book calls for all of us to recognize the extreme limitations of judging "achievement" solely through notoriously unreliable test scores. It demands that we raise children holistically, addressing their dietary and health care needs, not just blaming teachers or schools for their children's academic performance when they are unfed and unhealthy. It calls for real investment in education reforms we know work -- the very things that wealthy families demand their own schools provide.

Ravitch provides a warning: None of these solutions are cheap or easy. Nor are they shortcuts to improvement. But the evidence points to these solutions working. Meanwhile, the solutions we are trying (firing "bad" teachers, investing in unaccountable and poor performing Charter Schools, closing neighborhood schools while slashing budgets) aren't working.

Ravitch meticulously picks apart each pillar of the corporate reform agenda from Charter Schools (though she doesn't call for their destruction, just their reigning in) to Virtual Schools to Vouchers.

Full Disclosure: Ravitch uses work I did with Innovation Ohio as the basis for some of her conclusions about Ohio's eSchool experience.

She backs up each critique thoroughly with evidence and detailed analysis. This is a book not easily dismissed, written by one of our country's great thinkers on education policy.

As I read the book, I couldn't help but think of what Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1835 -- that America's commitment to education for all its citizens, not just landed gentry, was "the originality of American civilization." The Land Ordinance of 1785, authored by Thomas Jefferson himself, set aside the heart of every community for "public" education -- a true revolution coming from our founders who were mostly well-to-do landowners.

The thought that every child in our country deserves the same opportunities as the most fortunate among us is a uniquely American gift to the world -- our great legacy. Ravitch's passion is rooted in this understanding. It is what gives her purpose so much strength. And it is what gives her latest work undeniable potency.

I don't agree with everything Ravitch says, just as all of you don't agree with everything I say. But she must be listened to. Her ideas are clear, concise and based in strong evidence. She does not call for the death of all things corporate; she just demands the same accountability for the corporate reformers as traditional public schools have faced.

Here in Ohio, we have seen repeatedly how political power has trumped common sense on education reform, most recently when the state wouldn't even invest barely $150,000 of a $60 billion budget on a dozen high-performing Charter Schools while millions more were dumped into failing Charter Schools run by big political donors.

Ravitch's best single argument remains her simplest: America must stop doing things that don't work before it can begin doing things that do.

On that, I believe, we all can agree.