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Charles M. A. ClarkApril 09, 2014
Reign of Errorby Diane Ravitch

Knopf. 416p $27.95

When John Maynard Keynes said that the world is ruled by the ideas of economists and political philosophers, “both when they are right and when they are wrong,” he left out that often it is not evidence or logic that determine which ideas “rule the roost”; it is Karl Marx’s dictum that the ruling ideas would be “nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships.”

In Reign of Error, the historian of education Diane Ravitch documents how the material interests, and the ideology that best represents them, are reshaping public education, transforming it from a public good based on the civic virtue of the common good and transforming it into a commodity to be chosen by consumers and a profit center of corporations. At stake is more than public unions, tenure and test scores; it is Lincoln’s hope for a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Using test scores as their primary metric, the corporate reformers of public education argue that inefficiencies in the running of schools, including tenure and pay based on seniority and education, have created a crisis in education and that turning schools into businesses (charter schools) and treating teachers as workers motivated mostly by financial gain (merit pay) will improve public education (raise test scores). Ravitch calls into question both the diagnosis of the problem and, more important, the efficacy of their remedies. We should not fail to see the financial interests of those who would like to privatize public education. Like the movement to privatize social security, the ultimate goal is for business to redistribute a large share of public education spending away from students and providers of education and toward capital (Wall Street and corporations). The main inefficiency from their perspective is that economic activity is taking place that they are not profiting from.

The first two-thirds of Reign of Error reviews the many claims that public education is in crisis (which is often reduced to declining test scores and the education gap between the United States and our economic competitors). Each of these chapters starts with a review of the rhetoric of government failure (and the need for privatization) and then moves to a review of the actual evidence. An illustrative example is the gap in test scores between American students and those from other rich countries. A study in 2010 of 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Development ranked the United States 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in mathematics. The evidence shows that our low ranking is due to U.S. willingness to allow nearly one in four of its children to grow up in poverty. American students in school districts with low poverty rates in fact score at the top of international rankings.

The privatization movement in education seems to assume that poor test scores are the cause of poverty and that reversing test scores is the best way to eliminate poverty. Michelle Rhee, Bill and Melinda Gates and others in the corporate reform of education movement pose the question: Should we wait to end poverty before we improve schools in poor neighborhoods? This is a false choice. The evidence (laid out by Ravitch and many others) clearly shows that poverty (or the income of parents and environment) is the most important variable in determining student outcomes. Teachers, good or bad, have a much smaller influence on student outcomes. Using merit pay to incentivize teachers to raise test scores in poor school districts as the primary anti-poverty and education policy is like trying to reduce lung cancer deaths by only improving cigarette filters. Poverty, like all social outcomes, is complex, and reducing poverty will require both changing economic and social institutions and improving schools in high poverty areas. It is both/and, and not either/or. Reducing poverty will require reducing inequality, which means less money for those behind the privatization movement.

Furthermore, the proposals that the corporate reformers are implementing (charter schools, merit pay, elimination of tenure, etc.) do not work. The privatizers rely on Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness” to defend their war on public education. While there are examples of charter schools that are successful, on average they are no more successful than public schools. It is worth noting that one of the biggest successes in Michelle Rhee’s experiment with Washington, D.C., schools involved an improvement in one school’s passing rate on reading tests to 84 percent from 44 percent in two years. This earned the principal and teachers high bonuses.

Later it was discovered that on the answer sheets for these tests, an average of 12.7 answers had been changed by the teacher from wrong to right (compared to the city average of one erasure from wrong to right.) With pecuniary reward as the main incentive and test scores as the main metric, we should not be surprised that stories of cheating on standardized tests have become all too common. If we view public education as just another market activity, then we should not be surprised when educators become more like bankers.

As with all institutions, public education is not perfect and has many areas in which it can be improved, yet to undertake improvement it is imperative to know what the actual problems are and their causes. The last third of Reign of Error presents a series of reforms designed to improve education based on evidence. Part of real reform of education requires lessening the impact poverty has on students’ ability to learn, starting at the very beginning with universal prenatal care and continuing with better trained teachers and more resources for schools in low income communities.

While the market mechanism and profit motive can be useful social institutions for providing private goods we consume as individuals, they have never been able to provide the public goods that bind us together as a community. In a modern economy, these include health care and education. The essential attribute of a private good is the ability to exclude others from using it (this is necessary for market efficiency). Education and knowledge are the last things we should be privatizing. The application of the “market mentality” to public goods like education is transforming the Unites States into an association of consumers rather than a nation of citizens. The distinction, I think, is fundamental, for it may leave us with government for the people, but it will not be of the people and by the people.

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