Pardon my flippancy, but didn’t NYU professor Diane Ravitch already tell you what to do in The Death and Life of the Great American School System?
When I was asked to do a review of this book a month ago, I had just started reading a few chapters of her last page turner, soaking up every word while getting mentally ready for the new school year. Bulletin boards needed posting, school cabinets needed stocking, and this book needed reading. I know, I was supposed to read it back when it came out, but … well, no excuses, right?
I was so late to the last party that I almost missed this one. Then again, like pre-emptive strikes on foreign territory, her detractors came out of the woodwork, droning her blog, her tone on Twitter, her allies, and her person before she even got a chance to announce the book to the general public.
If you read the last two Ravitch books back-to-back, you get the sense that, yes, she’s tired of telling pseudo-reformers where to take their nonsense. Reign of Error, a progressive educator’s playbook for debunking the current set of myths tattooed on the well-toned arms of everyone from StudentsFirst founder Michelle Rhee to U.S. Secretary of Education’s Arne Duncan, was written for the haters as well as her choir and congregation.
Her last chapter in TDALOTGASS, “Lessons Learned,” was a culmination of looking at the landscape of education policy from the mid-20th century to present-day and presenting her recommendations from an education historian’s perspective. In it, she deftly conveys solutions amenable to any education researcher and the public at large about the things we need to do to get our education system in shape, using wisdom from contemporaries and adversaries (at least the ones she respects) alike and parsing through what works and doesn’t.
Reign of Error is what happened because people weren’t reading and she got annoyed at people trying to pee on her leg. She takes the approach that someone on a debate team would. She writes out all the arguments extensively and gets to the core of those arguments before tearing them apart. The animated tone is notably different in urgency and activism. Rather than trying to engage even the doubters in a factual conversation about the lay of the land, she’s telling us in no uncertain terms where her priorities lie and why she can’t stand it anymore.
For instance, she seems to be writing to those who believe American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten and Ravitch are somehow racist for pointing out poverty in Chapter 10, where she says:
It is easy for people who enjoy lives of economic ease to say that poverty doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter to them. It is an abstraction. For them, it is a hurdle to be overcome, like having a bad day or a headache or an ill-fitting jacket.
But for those who live in a violent neighborhood, in dingy surroundings, it is a way of life, not an inconvenience. Children who have seen a friend or relative murdered cope with emotional burdens that are unimaginable to the corporate leaders who want to reform their schools or close them.
From there, she dedicates paragraph after blazing paragraph excoriating via statistics the claim the poverty is somehow an excuse.
Anyone with a sharp eye for societal dynamics understands that our current wave of education reform is code for “getting the Black and Latino kids educated,” and Diane Ravitch spends an appropriate amount of time speaking about the dynamics of race, speaking on the effects of segregation and immigration in a way that makes her sound, yes, reasonable and hip to the way the education landscape currently operates. In fact, she makes the case that all children can succeed and have raised their success rate across the board, but the gaps exist due to poverty and not race.
To accuse Ravitch of racism is a far stretch.
I’m asking you to read this book and keep it somewhere within arms length for the next decade or so. She sets the record straight, rolls up her sleeves, and pulls up research from Richard Rothstein, Paul Krugman, and Linda Darling-Hammond to boot. Asking for rich, full curriculum, a path to eliminating child poverty, and decreasing the impact of standardized testing aren’t radical concepts in the vein of the socialist redistribution of wealth, universal health care, and the dissolving of the military industrial complex (I advocate for the latter trio, if you must know).
But if you hear her detractors tell it, she’s asking for too much too quickly while they have no problem throwing in a catalog of initiatives at a school district in a summer’s time, before we get acclimated to our students, our communities, our ever-changing world. In fact, that did happen. In that state of mind, I’d probably ask people to take their time doing education right, not with ephemeral patch-ups and sloppy stitches.
Diane Ravitch apparently sees this the way many classroom educators do, and based on some of the conversations I’ve had with others, we’re all getting a little tired of this … crap we call education reform.
p.s. – I didn’t read the other reviewers because a) there’s a lot of ‘em, b) they’re probably good, and c) they didn’t swear. At least I hope not. Cuz mine did.
p.p.s. – I know she doesn’t curse publicly. So? Buy the book.