Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Diane Ravitch: Public Schools' Modern-Day Dewey

Three years ago, a colleague of mine kept telling me I just had to read Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System. Admittedly, I knew little about Ravitch then and was less enthused to take on the read, realizing Ravitch previously served in President George W. Bush’s administration. My colleague, however, was relentless in getting me to take on the book. The persistent pestering paid off and her book instantly became one of my favorite professional reads.

Two pages into Ravitch’s reflection on her life’s work, I was hooked. She jumped right into a courageous mea culpa for formerly supporting failed education reforms--such as accountability, high-stakes testing, and school choice. At the time of her conversion, Ravitch was already well-past retirement. Instead of looking back nostalgically, Ravitch reflected critically on her former support for competition-based education reforms. Ravitch asked herself, “What should we think of someone who never admits error, never entertains doubt but adheres unflinchingly to the same ideas all his life, regardless of new evidence?” I was and still am impressed with Ravitch’s open-mindedness and authenticity. Since then, I have soaked up almost all that she has written. 

Ravitch was a renowned education historian long before The Death and Life of the Great American School System, but has emerged in the past three years as the most respected, modern-day defender of public education. She is refreshingly authentic in an educational world saturated with self-serving reformers. She is as critical of President Obama’s test-based education policies as she is of Republican plans to dismantle public education. She stands for public education. Her style is direct. Her work is reasoned and researched. She courageously takes on the corporate education reformers determined to inject free market ideology into public education. She thinks critically and is a prolific writer. She is the John Dewey of our era.

Today, Ravitch’s much-anticipated new book, Reign of Error, hits Kindles, Nooks, mailboxes, libraries, schools, and bookstores across the country. While the title smacks of sensationalism, Reign of Error is actually a methodical dismantling of the many myths degrading public education and a detailed historical account of the privatization movement fueling the myths. Ravitch was soul searching in The Death and Life of the Great American School System. In Reign of Error, Ravitch has found her voice. She is unapologetic in her defense of public schools and takes on the reformers intent on injecting their free market ideology into public education.

While Ravitch is a superhero to many discouraged public educators, she rejects superhero solutions to public education problems. “I have no silver bullets--because none exist--but I have proposals based on evidence and experience,” writes Ravitch. A life lived looking at schools certainly affords her this perspective. Reign of Error spells out the comprehensive, community-wide solutions required to support public schools plagued with socioeconomic problems larger than what public educators can handle by themselves. 

For those of us who have regularly followed Ravitch’s recent work, we do not find anything in her new book shocking. Many of my own blog postings have piggy-backed off Ravitch’s thoughtful work. Ravitch calls for tried-and-true reforms focusing on equity, improving early childhood care, ending high-stakes testing, expanding middle class-like enrichment to needy students, developing and respecting educators, reducing class sizes, fully funding public education, and more. 

Reign of Error will hopefully serve as an antithesis to the 1983 Nation at Risk, which was the catalyst for thirty years of misplaced blame put on public schools for what in reality are problems caused by trends. Ravitch calls for a re-do on school reform. As Ravitch stated, “You can’t do the right things until you stop doing the wrong things.”

Public education advocates will also not be surprised to see the free market reformers lash out with well-funded, emotional messages attacking Ravitch. Reign of Error outs the reformers trying to raze public education. Their typical defense is to speak loudly and attack the messenger. This is, after all, just part of the free market process. For market-focused reformers to get ahead, government-run education must not succeed. Free marketeers pretend to be reforming when they are actually focused on destroying. Sadly, America’s neediest kids get pinned under the rubble.

In coming weeks, I plan to share more from Reign of Error and how its many themes play out in Janesville and across Wisconsin. The larger lesson learned from Ravitch’s research is how widespread and consistent the attacks on public education are across this nation. In reading Reign of Error, I recognize more than ever how Wisconsin and Janesville are pawns in a larger game designed to discredit America’s government-run schools and their teachers. 

More public education supporters must understand the bigger game. Be a player. Be informed. Read Reign of Error.

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