Book review: 'Reign of Error'

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Everyone from President Obama to Sen. Rand Paul agrees: education reform is the “civil rights issue of our time.” Americans today view education reformers with the same degree of moral deference we give to the civil rights reformers of the 1960s. Folks imagine that our starry-eyed Teachers For America (TFA) are shock troops in the war for social justice, that our charter schools are no longer letting poverty be an excuse and that the Department of Education is unleashing an unprecedented wave of entrepreneurship to close the achievement gap. According to Diane Ravitch, author of “Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools,” folks are dead wrong. The education reformers are actually modern-day Jacobins, charging ahead with their high-minded convictions entirely insensible to the disaster they are leaving in their wake.

In “Reign of Error,” Ms. Ravitch plays an education Burke, exposing the intellectual follies behind the movement, taking a hard look at the facts on the ground and issuing dire warnings of where the reformers might take us. Her overall diagnosis rings true — there are many reasons to think that education reform is headed down the wrong path. But, unfortunately, her implacably shrill tone ultimately undermines her otherwise compelling argument.

According to Ms. Ravitch, the “crisis” in American education is a myth. The fact is, our test scores have been slowly but surely increasing. The reason we aren’t narrowing the achievement gap is that both black and white students are seeing remarkable progress on their National Assessment of Educational Progress test scores. We’ve been hearing about a crisis of international competitiveness since the 1960s, and we’re still No. 1. Contrary to President Obama, we don’t need more college graduates; we are already producing more college-degree holders than jobs that require them. Yet reformers have declared a “crisis” and jumped in armed with a slew of policies such as merit pay, school-closures and charter schools, none of which had clearly compelling evidence behind them. A decade after No Child Left Behind, the evidence still isn’t clear, but those who point this out are labeled reactionaries, and reformers cry, “Once more into the breach!” — this time with strong federal backup.

Where there was no crisis before, education reformers have brought our schools to the brink. The higher rate of teacher turnover threatens to disband the “little platoons” that hold a school together. The churn of young teachers breaks the traditional transmission of wisdom from veteran teachers to novices. Whereas in 1988 the modal teacher had 15 years of experience, in 2008 she had one. Teachers teach to the test in fear of their career; schools cheat the tests fearing shutdowns. The Burkean in her cries out that the age of good schooling is gone. That of testers, regulators and profiteers has succeeded, and the glory of American education is extinguished forever.

Ms. Ravitch has a strong, common-sense conservative case to make, but it would have helped if she sounded like less of a Robespierre while making it. Page after page, the reader is given no reprieve from Ms. Ravitch’s rage. Reformers are not mistaken folks with good hearts; they actively “seek to destroy public education.” Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan is especially “eager to dismantle public education.” A cardinal rule of “corporate reformist dogma is that teachers should have no job protections.” Ms. Ravitch willfully misrepresents TFA founder Wendy Kopp, accusing her of wanting “to fix schools instead of improving jobs, health care, and housing” when it’s clear to the reader that Ms. Kopp is just saying she’s focusing on one, not dismissing the other three. Ms. Ravitch seems obsessed with the American Legislative Exchange Council, bringing up that “secretive national group of corporations and state legislators,” no fewer than 37 times. She even trips over herself on which Bush to blame for education reform. First, she says that George H.W. Bush “had little appetite for an expanded federal role” with its standards-based high-stakes testing, but 28 pages later says that “the first Bush administration embraced these ideas.”

Ms. Ravitch should know better. She worked for George H.W. Bush’s Education Department. She used to be a star in the firmament of education reform. If anyone were in a position to explain to elites and populists, liberals and conservatives the follies of education reformers, it would be Diane Ravitch. The bipartisan consensus on education reform rests on an uneasy marriage between conservative technocrats and progressive foot soldiers. It’s easy to imagine a populist, bipartisan coalition assembling in opposition to the “reformists,” if conservatives skeptical of federal overreach and liberals unnerved by high-stakes testing were to make common cause. This could have been the book to do just that. But that alliance will only form when the conservative populists aren’t forced to conclude that their liberal counterparts view them as evil. While Ms. Ravitch makes a strong case, her book will ultimately only further postpone the movement she seeks to create.

Max Eden is a research assistant in education policy at the American Enterprise Institute.

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