National Edition

Author argues state of American education

Published: Thursday, Sept. 26 2013 7:00 p.m. MDT

A new book by Diane Ravitch, one of the leading voices behind the reform and testing regime that culminated in No Child Left Behind, now argues we got it all wrong.

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Once a leading critic of the state of American education and arguing for more rigorous testing, teacher merit pay and related reforms, education historian Diane Ravitch argues in her new book, "Reign of Error," that we got it all wrong.

This is not the first time Ravitch has taken this tilt, having reversed her original position in a 2010 book attacking "testing and choice."

But in her new effort, as Trevor Butterworth memorably puts it in a Wall Street Journal Review, Ravitch now sees enemies all over:

"If there is a crisis in American education, Ms. Ravitch writes, it is only 'because of persistent, orchestrated attacks' on teachers and principals. 'These attacks,' she writes, 'create a false sense of crisis and serve the interests of those who want to privatize the public schools.' In Ms. Ravitch's telling, these interests represent not reform but a new status quo in education, one created by a vast bipartisan alliance encompassing everyone from the American Legislative Exchange Council to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, from Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal to the Bezos Foundation, from the Hoover Institution to Hollywood. At the top of the pyramid sit Bill and Melinda Gates, who make the Koch brothers look like amateurs at advocacy funding. Because there is no crisis in American education, in Ms. Ravitch's view, all these people are destroying the public-school system over an illusion."

A key part of Ravtich's argument, according to Nina Rees at U.S. News & World Report, is that the crisis mentality over U.S. educational performance is misplaced.

"Her read of the data is that American students are doing better than ever," Rees writes, "and that poor performance is due to poverty, out-of-wedlock births, diversity (or the presence of immigrants for whom English is a second language) and the fact that U.S. students don't take tests like the NAEP and PISA seriously."

Rees strongly contested the notion that American education is doing better than we think, citing work by Jay Greene at the University of Arkansas. Greene, Reese writes, found that "'students in suburban public school districts were not only trailing their international peers, but … they were barely keeping pace with the average student in other developed countries.' Greene also observed that 'out of the nearly 14,000 public school districts in the U.S., only 6 percent have average student math achievement that would place them in the upper third of global performance.'"

But for every critic the new Ravitch has acquired, she has an equal number of fans. "Think of her as one of us," writes Mercedes Schneider, a public school teacher, in the Huffington Post.

"Ravitch's clear presentation is a powerful weapon for fighting reformers, whose signature moves include withholding and shaping data results to suit their fiscal ends regardless of the collateral damage caused to students, teachers, schools, and districts," Schneider writes.

"Her critics attack her personally because they cannot dent the substance that is Ravitch's 'Reign of Error,'" Schneider concludes. "She has pulled their reformer pants down in public. There they stand, red-faced and embarrassed."

Email: eschulzke@desnews.com

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