Diane Ravitch on the great education-reform swindle

This country's schools aren't failing. In fact, students are performing better than ever.

Public-school advocate Diane Ravitch came to the Memorial Auditorium last Friday, supporting her new book, Reign of Error. The local press decided this wasn’t newsworthy. Sure, Ravitch is a major figure in education policy right now, and, sure, Reign debuted at No. 10 on The New York Times Best Sellers list.

And, sure, there’s a strong local connection. The book includes a whole chapter on Sacramento’s own self-styled “radical” reformer Michelle Rhee. Mayor Kevin Johnson appears in the book as well, when Ravitch explains how he pushed charter schools at the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

The Sacramento Bee had more important things to cover last week, however. For example, Bites counted at least five Bee bylines all over Shaquille O’Neal’s visit to the Capitol. Rather than covering Ravitch, the Bee instead gave a chunk of opinion-page space to the CEOs of two charter-school advocacy groups, so they could pan the book and tell readers how great charter schools are.

Not surprising then, that Ravitch finds the media are mostly terrible at reporting on education issues. By her lights, they are actively perpetuating the hoax thatour schools are failing” and must therefore be turned around, shut down, privatized, charterized and otherwise given over to the politicians, consultants and businessmen to do with what they will.

In fact, our schools are not failing, as Ravitch shows over several chapters. On national assessments, reading and math scores have never been higher than they are now. High-school graduation rates have never been higher. On international assessments, U.S. students have historically lagged behind high achievers like Finland, Canada, Japan and Australia. But those countries have child-poverty rates that are a fraction of those in the United States. And when you look at scores in low-poverty schools in this country, they are similar to those in the low-poverty, high-performing nations.

The achievement gap in the United States between white students and students of color is similarly misinterpreted or distorted by the ed reformers. In California and elsewhere, reading and math scores for African-American and Latino students have been climbing steadily. But scores for white students have been climbing almost as fast. The academic literature is clear: Race, family income and family education level are still strongly correlated with test scores. The achievement gap persists, but not because public schools are failing to educate kids.

It’s because poverty and inequality persist.

But it’s hard for charter-school operators and education consultants to drum up business if school’s aren’t failing. And nothing has ginned up the perception of failure like the No Child Left Behind Act and the Race to the Top Fund, both of which Ravitch condemns. NCLB “was a hoax from day one.” Closing schools for bad test scores, she says, “is like saying you can cure someone with a toothache by shooting them.” Evaluating teachers based on test scores is “junk science.”

Ravitch explores the reform movement’s ties to corporate America, including the Walton Family and Broad foundations, which also figure into Sacramento’s schools and politics. The Waltons of Wal-Mart are big donors to Rhee and Johnson’s political and ed-reform efforts. The ideologically similar Broad Foundation is also a big donor, and runs the Broad Superintendents Academy, of which Sacramento City Unified School District’s chief Jonathan Raymond is a product.

Ravitch spends the last third of her book outlining a set of reforms that are very different than the ones being pushed by Rhee and Johnson and Wal-Mart and Broad. It includes smaller class sizes, and a full curriculum with arts and daily P.E. She stresses the need for good prenatal and medical care, school psychiatrists, counselors and librarians. She calls for better teacher training, principals who are master teachers and superintendents who are experienced educators as well.

“We are in the midst of a tsunami of bad ideas, like making people superintendents because they were good at business,” Ravitch said on Friday.

If it wasn’t a shot at Raymond, the teachers in the audience seemed to appreciate it as such.

Ravitch was joined onstage by other education-policy notables, including Linda Darling-Hammond, once on the short list to be President Barack Obama’s Secretary of Education (what if?), along with State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson. Earlier in the evening, teacher and blogger Anthony Cody remarked, “Sacramento is ground zero for corporate-education reform.” The themes of Reign, the battles over testing and school closures and charter schools are playing out in big cities like Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles, but also in our own backyard.

Ravitch is no Shaq, but her visit seemed worth a few column inches of newsprint. If you want to understand the forces at work in Sacramento schools, the book is worth your time as well.