It’s time to start a new narrative about public education

Published on Monday, November 4, 2013

Diane Ravitch 

In Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools, Ravitch (shown at the 2011 NJEA Convention) documents the false narrative that has been used to attack American public education and identifies the major players in the reform movement.

Critics of public education love to pose the loaded question “What should be done to improve our failing public schools?”

The query itself limits possible responses because it presupposes that our schools are failing. We know that is not true, and have the data to prove it. Still, the fallacy of the question forces educators and policymakers to answer in such a way that suggests we agree with its premise.

Thanks to a new book written by education historian Diane Ravitch, the motives of these self-proclaimed education reformers have been revealed. In Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools, Ravitch documents the false narrative that has been used to attack American public education and identifies the major players in the reform movement.

“The ‘reform’ movement is really a ‘corporate reform’ movement,” writes Ravitch, “funded to a large degree by major foundations, Wall Street hedge fund managers, entrepreneurs, and the U.S. Department of Education.” She warns that some who want to privatize public education have idealistic reasons, but many are simply hoping to make a profit. Either way, this manufactured crisis distracts all of us from steps that should be taken to strengthen our public schools.

In her book, Ravitch presents the facts about test scores, the achievement gap and high school graduation rates. She dismantles the arguments of those who call for vouchers, virtual schools and other schemes that would undermine public education. The New York University professor also explains how No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Race to the Top have failed America’s students.

Now that Race to the Top (RTTT) has been in place for three years, its failures are becoming evident. A landmark new study of the program finds few successes and many more missteps in the implementation of the Obama administration’s signature education initiative. In the report, Elaine Weiss, national coordinator of the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, argues that RTTT has done little to help most states close achievement gaps and may have exacerbated them.

This report, titled “Mismatches in Race to the Top Limit Educational Improvement: Lack of Time, Resources, and Tools to Address Opportunity Gaps Puts Lofty State Goals Out of Reach,” concludes that by continuing NCLB’s obsession with school and teacher accountability, many of the major problems limiting student and school success remain unaddressed.

The next time someone asks you “What should be done to improve our failing public schools?” don’t fall into the trap.

Fortunately, Ravitch offers solutions to these problems in Reign of Error, and she calls for educators to lead the charge. From strengthening the profession to overhauling our high-stakes standardized testing programs, it is up to those of us who work in public schools to bring sanity back to the education reform dialogue. Furthermore, our society can no longer bury its headsin the sand when it comes to the effects of poverty on academic success. Hunger, abuse and violence cannot be overcome by firing teachers and closing schools.

“The way forward requires that education policy be shaped by evidence and by the knowledge and wisdom of educators, not by a business plan shaped by free-market ideologues and entrepreneurs,” Ravitch concludes. “We need solutions based on evidence, not slogans or reckless speculation.”

So, the next time someone asks you “What should be done to improve our failing public schools?” don’t fall into the trap. Our public schools work, and any improvements that need to be made must be based on research, not rhetoric. Now is the time to begin a meaningful discussion about public education on our terms, not those of politicians and self-appointed education experts who prefer simplistic, sound-bite solutions.

See for yourself

  • “Mismatches in Race to the Top Limit Educational Improvement: Lack of Time, Resources, and Tools to Address Opportunity Gaps Puts Lofty State Goals Out of Reach” can be found at www.boldapproach.org/report.

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