Adult Books: “Reign of Error”

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Reign of Error by Diane Ravitch

It’s one thing to say we are going to better educate American kids, bringing them all to the top of the pack. While any logical person might wonder how 100% of children can be driven into the top 10% or so, it is possible to argue that all kids can learn more than they are learning. But how to achieve this goal is hotly disputed. Ravitch, a life-long educator, has been in the thick of the battle for over thirty years. When she speaks, people should listen.

Ravitch’s basic argument in Reign of Error is that U. S. public schools are not broken beyond repair. While she freely acknowledges problems and disparities in the quality of schools, she carefully proves that many of the solutions currently being considered can’t work. Those of us in education—who may have years of anecdotal evidence that makes us inclined to agree with Ravitch—now have the data to back our claims when we discuss public education with friends and acquaintances. And while it would be nice to think of the unworkable solutions being proposed as just so much nonsense—as another trend that will pass—Ravitch shows the darker side of the movement to privatize public schools. There’s a lot of money to be made, and unethical people with no concern for children are as free to grab the cash as anyone else.

I think every educator should read Reign of Error with a highlighter in hand. And then add tabs to the pages for easy reference when someone corners you at the family holiday gathering and wonders aloud how someone as smart as you are can’t see why vouchers, charters schools, and the end of teacher tenure are the best things that could happen to public education. Here are some of the topics about which you’ll have research and data:

  •  Just because Bill Gates made a lot of money doesn’t mean that he and his wife should be driving American educational policy (yes—there is data on his record in doing so—and it’s not pretty).
  • No Child Left Behind—just how that worked for you
  • The Race to the Top—just how much worse that’s going to work for you
  • Why American schools can’t be Finnish schools (I’ve made the point in other reviews that many Americans would consider the Finnish way of life as living in a ‘Nanny State’—and friends, you can’t have it both ways.)
  • Major foundations, billionaires, and hedge fund managers often encourage the privatization of America schools because they want the profits (and the children be damned).
  • Which tests scores really—objectively—tell us about the state of public education (hint: NAEP—and the news is pretty good)
  • What international test scores really mean
  • Teacher tenure and whether it affects the quality of students’ education
  • Whether college graduation rates have declined
  • What’s up with Michelle Rhee anyway?
  • What is the real record on charter schools? How can they work better for all students?
  • How poverty affects learning (and why we have to stop pretending that it doesn’t)

There are skeptics who might think that Ravitch’s is just a partisan political argument. To them, I say, Just Read It. Ravitch is no fan of Obama’s educational policies, and does a good job of illuminating Arne Duncan’s history. So although Ravitch has liberal leaning, the fact that she worked in the Bush administration and is willing to (deeply and consistently) criticize a Democratic president shows that what she is truly impassioned about is kids and their futures.

I’d read Ravitch’s previous book on the subject, The Death and Life of the Great American School System (2010). It is still worth reading—it has an excellent summary of the history of public schools in America. (Ravitch is considered the best living historian of public education by many people in the know.) It also summarizes Ravitch’s stint in the George W. Bush administration and her initial belief in the value of No Child Left Behind. She details why she changed her mind and, just as in Reign of Error, she backs her opinions with facts and data, with research. That said, if you only have time for one of these book, read Reign of Error, which has a better play-by-play analysis of the privatization movement and how, while some people are either making a lot of money through it, or stand to make a lot of money, it just doesn’t serve kids—which, of course, should be the goal of public education and its employees.

High school housekeeping: I’m reviewing this book primarily because I want teachers to read it and share it (or at least its findings) with their friends, family, and detractors. With the advent of the Common Core and what I hope will be a new focus on research in high school, you may be interested in the book if you research any topic within the subject of public education—particularly the advantages and disadvantages of standardized testing, teacher tenure, and school evaluation. You could easily use the entire book, or if your research subject is more narrow, just a chapter or two.


About Victoria Waddle

I'm a high school librarian, formerly an English teacher. I love to read and my mission is to connect people with the right books. To that end, I read widely--from the hi-lo for reluctant high school readers to the literary adult novel for the bibliophile.
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