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Diane Ravitch: Privatized Education Reform Is a Hoax




Signature Work: Diane Ravitch autographing “Reign of Error.” (Bill Raden)

“Sometimes it seems that eliminating public education itself is the goal of this reform era,” Diane Ravitch told a cheering crowd of public school teachers and education activists who had packed Occidental College’s Thorne Hall Tuesday night.

The audience had come to hear the 75-year-old scholar, author and former Assistant Secretary of Education drive home her message that, contrary to the dire narrative now being sold to Americans by proponents of school privatization, the nation’s public education system is not broken.

Ravitch, who might have been mistaken for the latest college-radio rock sensation rather than the country’s preeminent critic of the education-reform movement, was here as part of a Los Angeles leg of a whirlwind tour to promote the publication of her latest book — and New York Times Best SellerReign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools (Knopf).

Using her book as the evening’s script, Ravitch lambasted the hyperbole, unsupported assumptions and skewed or nonexistent data that such school reformers as Bill Gates, Eli Broad, Condoleezza Rice and Joel Klein have used to push their agenda of charter schools, vouchers and standards-based testing.

In quick succession, the author dismissed as outright hoaxes a long list of school-reform programs and premises. At the top was No Child Left Behind, the bill signed into law in 2002 by George W. Bush, whose stated goal of achieving 100 percent proficiency in reading and math by 2014, Ravitch said, was knowingly unrealistic when the bill was drafted.

She added that this was confirmed by Ravitch’s boss, then-Education Secretary Lamar Alexander, during a panel discussion at Washington’s Willard Hotel. When asked by Ravitch whether he actually believed that all children will be proficient in reading and math by the year 2014, Alexander replied, “Well, no Diane, we don’t actually believe that, but we think it’s good to have goals.”

“That means,” Ravitch asserted, “people have been fired, schools have been closed, based on a goal that no one believed in but was passed — that’s a hoax.”

Ravitch likened Race to the Top, President Obama’s 2009 program in which school districts competed for $4.35 billion in federal money, to a winner-take-all horse race that promoted teaching to the test, demoralized teachers and lacked any supporting research.

“The promise of an American public education was not a race to the top,” she said, “it was — is supposed to be — equality of educational opportunity.”

Other “hoaxes,” she said, included the notion that public school graduation rates have been falling (they’ve never been higher, she asserted); that eliminating teacher tenure will improve the quality of teaching (tenure ensures academic freedom, Ravitch said), and the idea that unions are the source of low academic performance.

Countering this last premise, Ravitch pointed to National Assessment of Educational Progress state scores that consistently show Massachusetts, New Jersey and Connecticut as the highest-performing states in the U.S.

“Now, what do these three states have in common?” Ravitch asked. “They all have very strong unions and almost everybody [in education there] belongs to a union. Where are the right-to-work states? They’re all at the bottom. Could there be a correlation here?”

Ravitch’s next Los Angeles stop will be tonight at California State University Northridge.

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