Sunday, September 22, 2013

My Unedited Review Of Diane Ravitch's Reign Of Error

The edited version of my review can be found at WHYY's NewsWorks New Jersey. Quotes from Diane Ravitch and Helen Gym were cut from my original for length.

Diane Ravitch's Reign of Error May Awaken the Sleeping Giant in the Education Reform Debate -- Public School Parents

It wasn’t long ago that I had never heard of Diane Ravitch.

I had kids in New Jersey public schools, a teacher husband, and even worked a brief stint in the for-profit education world as the Director of two different Sylvan Learning Centers in New York City, but my depth of knowledge about public education was embarrassingly shallow. 

All that changed in 2010 when an application for a charter school was submitted in my small New Jersey town.  At first I was dimly aware of what a charter school would mean to the schools my daughters would attend.  But the more I learned, the more concerned I became.

Then in April of 2011 I happened to catch WHYY’s Terry Gross interview Dr. Ravitch on Fresh Air.

And suddenly everything made sense.

She explained that charter schools had veered significantly from their original intent. She warned that charters had morphed into “an enormous entrepreneurial activity” and that charters no longer saw “themselves as collaborators with public schools but business competitors.”

This was exactly what was happening in my town. A charter was moving in and it seemed there was nothing we could do to stop it.

I reached out to Dr. Ravitch via social media for help and advice. With her encouragement, I rallied my entire community, and neighboring communities as well, and before I knew it we had defeated the charter.

It was an incredible journey from everyday parent to public education advocate. I am quite certain that were it not for Dr. Ravitch, and her belief that ordinary parents have the power to turn the tide on the corporate reform movement, my daughters’ schools would now be financially devastated by a charter my town didn’t need or want.

I asked Dr. Ravitch for her thoughts on the role of parents in districts like Philadelphia, districts facing the destructive effects of years of failed reforms.

“Parents are the sleeping giant in the current debate about the future of public education. So-called reformers discredit and silence the voices of teachers, unfairly claiming that they are more interested in their pension than their pupils. But no one dare question the desire of parents to demand good schools, properly funded by the state, for their children. Philadelphia's biggest problem is the deliberate neglect by the state, which has ignored its constitutional obligation to fully fund a good education for all children.”

There is no better example of the decimation wrought by hapless reform than the current crisis in Philadelphia. And there is no better example of a parent advocate fighting for the educational rights of all children, not just her own, than Philadelphia’s Helen Gym of Parents United for Public Education.  I wanted to know her opinion on how the corporate reform agenda has impacted Philadelphia’s public schools, and how Dr. Ravitch has influenced her own advocacy work.

“Over the last decade of state control, we've seen reckless reform efforts churn their way through the Philadelphia public schools, leaving chaos and broken promises in their wake. Diane Ravitch has been the voice of many of us who live with and pick up the pieces of failed reform, a voice that rings with the outrage and fierce passion to uphold a collective responsibility for our nation's schools and children and for those who educate them. In the midst of a relentless assault on public education, Dr. Ravitch brings all her weight, influence, and experience to push back against the mindless acceptance of too much of the corporate reform agenda.”

In Reign of Error, The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to Our Public Schools, Dr. Ravitch makes it clear that the current reform agenda, consisting of high-stakes standardized testing, charters, vouchers, parent trigger legislation and school closures, does little more than privatize our public schools and the money that flows through them. The reform agenda does nothing to address the actual problem plaguing large, urban districts like Philadelphia.

It does nothing to address poverty.

Dr. Ravitch makes it quite clear that school reform alone will not lift children out of the cycle of poverty that plagues their communities. “The reformers’ belief that fixing schools will fix poverty has no basis in reality, experience, or evidence,” Ravitch writes in Reign of Error. “It delays the steps necessary to heal our society and help children.”

She presents real solutions, not only to improve our public schools, but also to improve the lives of the children who walk their halls. She focuses on the whole child, calling for prenatal care for women to reduce pre-term births, high-quality early childhood education, a rich curriculum for all children, smaller class sizes, and the elimination of high-stakes standardized testing.

These are all common sense reforms that resonate for parents.  This is the kind of societal shift that parents truly want to see for their children, and their children’s children.

Reformers have sold parents a narrative of public school failure that has allowed them to seize control of the conversation regarding how to “fix” our children’s “broken” schools. But Dr. Ravitch demonstrates quite clearly in Reign of Error that our schools are actually stronger than they've ever been, with higher achievement and graduation rates for children across all demographic groups.

“Public education is not broken” she says, “It is not failing or declining. The diagnosis is wrong, and the solutions of the corporate reformers are wrong.”

The current state of the Philadelphia school system should serve as a testament to the fact that the last decade of corporate reform has left the majority of Philadelphia’s public school children without the resources they need to succeed. Without a doubt, it is time for a more balanced approach. 

“The public is beginning to understand, to see the pattern on the rug, and to realize that they are being fooled into giving up what belongs to them.”

Parents, don’t be fooled by the rhetoric and empty promises of the reform movement. We intrinsically know that strong, healthy children thrive in a safe, clean neighborhood school with small classes and a rich curriculum. This is what all children deserve, and we as parents should accept nothing less for our own children, and want nothing less for each and every child.

Dr. Ravitch’s appearance this evening at the Philadelphia Free Library coincides with the release of Reign of Error. I encourage parents to go hear her, to grab a copy of her book and to read it from cover to cover. If you are concerned with the current state of the Philadelphia public schools, and want to do something to effect positive change, then really listen to what she has to say. 

I can almost guarantee that if you do, she will awaken the “sleeping giant” within.

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