Bottom line: Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error captures the bulk of concerns that critics voice about the current wave of American school reform. The primary audience includes teachers, and others who hold views similar to Ravitch’s. It also is useful as a quick reference guide to the arguments by reform critics, as most of the chapters address the issues in an accessible way. There are important omissions, and the broad scope of the book leads to some interesting flaws at times. It should be useful for a course on contemporary education politics if combined with other sources, especially those with significantly different perspectives.
Four years after she published the best-seller The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch has a new book on school reform, organized for the most part in short chapters, each focusing on a separate topic. Between the first four chapters and the last two, each chapter either addresses what Ravitch considers a false myth in education reform rhetoric or proposes a solution to the problems of American schools. For those who have followed the public debates over American education policy over the past few years, her views should not be surprising, and they track the views of other writers skeptical of education reform. As David Berliner and Bruce Biddle did almost 20 years ago, she argues that the public rhetoric of school failure is a distortion of the record that underestimates the successes of public schools and misidentifies their problems. As Bruce Baker argues on his blog, Ravitch thinks the claims made for both charter schools and value-added measures of achievement are overblown. She argues that school reformers assume that schools can do more to address poverty than is realistic, that accountability policies encourage narrowing of the curriculum and teaching to the test, that vouchers have accumulated no significant evidence of effectiveness, that “virtual charter schools” are a ripoff of taxpayers, and that there are more effective policy solutions that are far from test-based accountability and “school choice” policies: social services for poor families, early childhood education, protecting the autonomy of teachers and elected school boards, reducing class sizes, eliminating for-profit companies and chains from operating charter schools, and aggressively fighting racial and socioeconomic segregation in schools. None of this will be a surprise to those who follow American education policy debates, and perhaps the greatest achievement of the book is that given the chaos of those debates, Ravitch has collected these arguments in a single volume and explained the perspective of reform critics in a clear and accessible fashion.
How accurate is her presentation?
- In a great number of chapters, the presentation accurately reflects either the bulk of research or the lack of consensus. For example, in discussing the “turnaround” model of closing local public schools and reopening either the same school or using the facilities for one or more charter schools, she describes two locally-published studies of Renaissance 2010, Arne Duncan’s signature policy while head of the Chicago Public Schools.
- Those who know the research in an area might occasionally wince at the material left out of a chapter. While one might wish a complete survey of literature on an individual topic, this book is not a compendium of in-depth research reviews, and that would be an inappropriate expectation (or, rather, the common flaw of book reviewers to complain that the author didn’t write a completely different book). For a general readership, the question is whether it is an acceptable way of looking at a controversy by identifying key arguments and representative studies. In the case of the chapter on turnaround models, Ravitch describes two studies on the same local policy and with differing conclusions, and that is fair.
- In some chapters, though, the omissions are notable. For example, Ravitch’s treatment of the charter-school literature does not mention any of the CREDO studies over the years, which are significant and influential enough that the omission is surprising, and disappointing given her ability to write fairly about the range of research in other chapters. This omission is more than a wince by someone deep into the weeds: the CREDO studies have been used/interpreted in different ways by people with various preconceptions about charter schools, and given her argument about the public distortion of the record, I wanted to see how Ravitch discussed them (and their use by others). Another chapter where important research is omitted is the chapter on vouchers, where Ravitch does not mention David Figlio’s work, which is careful and the best evidence in national refereed research journals documenting positive voucher effects.
The omissions from the charter and voucher chapters sprang out at me clearly. Others may point to other chapters where they would like to hang a caveat lector sign in terms of failing to address counterarguments with important evidence.
However, I think the major weaknesses in the book lie not in the significant omissions but in sloppy reasoning at a few important points. Each of these reflect both the messiness of school politics in general and the lack of coherent, clear arguments among many reform critics.
For example, one deeply-embedded strain among reform critics is the argument in favor of structural opportunities to learn while defending local school boards. The problem? School boards have been the ones to create or defend mechanisms of inequality in many locations. In chapter 30, Ravitch defends the role of local school boards as historic bastions of democracy and argues against centralized school reform. In chapter 31, she speaks of the importance of addressing racial and economic segregation. The problem is that local school boards have been key actors in creating and defending segregation of various sorts. There are very few districts such as Raleigh that have at any point actively tried to desegregate schools by socioeconomic indicators, and the small size of districts in many states makes it impossible in a practical sense to try. School boards trying to maintain enrollment of middle-class families are happy to construct magnet schools, which can create second-generation segregation if structured without thought to the matter. School boards are also vulnerable to local pressures to deny students opportunities to learn, such as through censoring of books. It’s Banned Books Week, and Randolph County’s school board has just pulled Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man from school libraries. This is one of the historical consequences of empowering local school boards; “community standards” as defined by a local school board are not always enlightened. I do not think test-based accountability is the best check on school board misjudgment, but those of us who disagree with test-based control need to explain how else to check problematic or incompetent school boards.
A different kind of confusion appears in the first chapter on charter schools. In a passage starting on p. 160, Ravitch presents the involvement of New York hedge-fund managers in charter schools at the beginning of a messy discussion of colocation of charter schools in New York City, the ties between charter schools and tax credits, similar ties with investment-based visas, real-estate operations with charter-school education as a loss leader, and the ideology of profit-motivated charter-school model laws pushed by the American Legislative Exchange Council. The problem is not trying to figure out what connects these issues; they all do appear sort-of related to private interests and profit perspectives. The problem lies in presenting them as connected without explaining what those connections are precisely. A key hedge-fund involved in DFER recently (and severely) criticized K12’s involvement in virtual charter schools; that would not happen if the presentation of charter-school motives in Reign of Error were really true. What is true is that hedge-fund managers such as Whitney Tilson are biased in favor of charter schools because of their trust in entrepreneurialism. Can we criticize that trust? Absolutely. But that is a different problem from the bald exploitation of charter school laws by Imagine, White Hat, and other ripoff artists.
These flaws are not Ravitch’s alone–they reflect the conversations in which she has been embedded for the past five years. In drinking from the discourse of reform critics, Ravitch has become as uncritical of these views as she once was of center-right arguments for choice and accountability. This is my greatest disappointment in Reign of Error–for the many chapters where she is articulate and clear, the broader framing is confectionary reasoning, clumping different objects together in a sticky mess. In the third chapter, Ravitch presents “corporate reformers” as a large mass of interest groups, foundations, think tanks, and ideologies. When she lumps the Center for American Progress and the Fordham Institute together with the Goldwater Institute and Heartland Institute, and there is no further analysis, my heart sinks. There are problems of putative reformers who do not hold each other accountable (witness the attempted resuscitation of Tony Bennett’s reputation), and there are important issues to raise with philanthropic foundations’ involvement in education reform. But chapter three is not a sophisticated argument, and its folk network analysis is a significant step back from the points Ravitch raised four years ago in The Death and Life of the Great American School System. I understand the attraction of pointing at the connections and saying ,”This is one giant thing that Sure Explains a Whole Lot.” I have on occasion been tempted to call Checker Finn part of a center-right Reformy Blob as a jab at the “education blob” claims he helped spread in the 1980s. But surely Diane Ravitch could have done better than type my unexpressed snark.
In the end, Reign of Error is a mixed bag. The middle chapters are probably going to serve as a useful activist’s handbook for critics of what passes for education reform today. Those who reflexively criticize Ravitch will have enough fodder for continued Ravitch-bashing. And those of us who teach classes about education policy and are constantly looking for interesting, flawed books on education policy are the real winners, as Reign of Error combines a great deal of clear explication of issues with provocative arguments that its readers (such as my future students) can poke holes through.