Once again, just as she did in her last book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education, Diane Ravitch has written clearly, plainly, and astutely about the problems facing public school education and public school educators today. She has not only researched her subject exhaustively, she demonstrates her knowledge of education history, her awareness of the many various public education detractors, and her understanding of the issues that lie at the heart of the current debate about which is better—public education or privatization of public schools giving free market full, unbridled reign.
Not only does she offer a clear and cogent outline of the various issues, problems, and dilemmas facing public educators today, she offers ideas for how to remedy those issues, problems, and dilemmas. And she has clearly struck a cord with some of the more notable “reformers” because they have been quick to criticize her work and to dismiss it out of hand. Indeed, just recently, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan referred to her and others who have the temerity to criticize Race to the Top and other initiatives with his thumbprints on them as “armchair pundits.” The irony, of course, of that criticism is that most of the “armchair pundits” are educators like myself—either still practicing or retired—who know more about the needs of children and what works and doesn’t work for public schools than Mr. Duncan could ever possibly know. But I digress.
In Reign of Error, in Chapters 1-20 Dr. Ravitch lays out the problems facing public education today. She offers clear and indisputable research to support each and every one of her assertions. She has not “cooked” the research the way many reformers do these days. She is a researcher and she doesn’t have to distort the data to find the disturbing trends that she identifies here. Chapter 5, for example, is entitled, “The Facts about Test Scores;” Chapter 6’s title is “The Facts about the Achievement Gap;” and so on. She writes brilliantly about “The Facts About Teachers and Test Scores” in Chapter 11; and she even includes a chapter about the disturbing new trend toward virtual schools in Chapter 17, which is entitled, “Trouble in E-land.”
After methodically laying out all of the various issues, she then outlines her proposed solutions in Chapters 21-33, starting with “Solutions: Start Here” in Chapter 21. Unlike many education “experts,” she doesn’t just harp on the problems…she offers possible solutions based on research and her own understanding of what public education represents to our country as a democracy.
In Chapter 24, for example, she writes “The Essentials of a Good Education.” In Chapter 25, she writes about why “Class Size Matters for Teaching and Learning.” Each chapter offers a specific recommendation for how we might go about fixing the problems that face us. But never does she suggest that fixing those problems will be easy or cheap. Instead, she points out the fallacy in the thinking of those who seem to believe that education reform is easy OR can be delivered cheaply.
Starting in the “Introduction,” Dr. Ravitch outlines what her book is intended to do which is to answer four questions:
First, is American education in crisis? (Answer: Yes).
Second, is American education failing and declining? (Answer: No).
Third, what is the evidence for reforms now being promoted by the federal government and adopted in many states? (Answer: None).
Fourth, what should we do to improve our schools and the lives of children? (Answer: Things that are complex and expensive starting with suspending the war on teachers and their unions; providing smaller class sizes; offering wraparound services; eliminating excessive testing; forgetting about merit pay as a panacea; etc., etc., etc.)
Dr. Ravitch then goes on to answer each and every of those questions using research and data from a variety of sources including NAEP, the U. S. Department of Commerce, the Census Bureau, the U. S. Department of Education, OECD, and numerous citations from individuals on both sides of the education debate, both the so-called “reformers” and the proponents of those who argue that we need to keep our public schools public.
I could go on and on, but you must be getting the drift by now. This is a must-read for any public school educator, for any parent who still cares about public schools and their role in the community, for the administrators who haven't been so brainwashed that they have forgotten why they went into education in the first place, and many, many more. I cannot recommend this book more highly. If I were writing a review for Amazon (which I may do come to think of it) it would definitely get a five-star rating. For teacher leaders and parents who are concerned about what is happening to their communities because of the demise of the neighborhood school, I urge you to read it as soon as possible and start using the information inside its covers. More importantly, I urge you to get involved in the grassroots movement that has already started in some parts of the country. There are a number of groups around the nation where the push back has begun. Some of these groups have been founded by parents, some by students, and of course, teachers have started some. It isn’t too late, but time is ticking away. We need to start speaking out and organizing now.
I will offer the disclaimer that I am writing this review on the third day of the government shut down, and I have to admit that the idea that anything can be done legislatively to fix the problems we currently face, not just on the education front but in every aspect of our government, seems pretty dim at the moment. The prospect of getting legislators, Governors, and even the President to change their minds about these important issues seems to be pretty daunting, frankly. But I am reminded of the well-known quote by Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”
If we as educators, parents, administrators, and caring adults don’t take up this fight individually and collectively, the result will be a dual system of education that will serve no one, least of all our children and certainly not our country. I urge you start reading this important book today. You won’t be sorry you did.