Book Reviews: ‘Reign of Error’ by Diane Ravitch & ‘The School Revolution’ by Ron Paul

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In the debates over reforming public schools and promoting privatization, there’s precious little middle ground.

    • By Trevor Butterworth

We are, by now, familiar with the sense of a crisis in American education. Where America’s public schools once helped to power the economy, they now drag the country down: groves of apathy, stripped of rigor, suffocated by local and federal bureaucracy and self-serving unions. To Diane Ravitch, perhaps America’s best-known educational historian, the rot was there from the beginning: In books such as 2000’s “Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms,” Ms. Ravitch portrayed public schools as playgrounds of progressive-education theorists, frenemies of promise, who loosened children from the grip of knowledge and lowered educational expectations. She became one the most passionate critics of American education, a mixture of W.B. Yeats and a Marine Corps drill sergeant, and an inspiration for supporters of school reform, school choice and rigorous testing—ideals enshrined in No Child Left Behind, the George W. Bush administration’s signature educational initiative, which was built with committed bipartisan support.

And then, having diagnosed a crisis and marched the country up the hill of school reform, Ms. Ravitch had second thoughts: None of this is working, she said; NCLB has turned out to be a mess; accountability, whether of teachers or children, was implemented with all the finesse of a Viking raid on a monastery; and charter schools don’t deliver children into the promised land of innovation and effectiveness. Let’s all march back down again.

Reign of Error

By Diane Ravitch
Knopf, 396 pages, $27.95

Flash Quiz A Washington, D.C., student is drilled on multiplication as part of the Singapore Math curriculum, based on that of the Southeast Asian city-state.

“Reign of Error” ostensibly takes up the question that her previous book—2010’s “The Death and Life of the Great American School System”—failed to address: What should we be doing about American education and what should we avoid doing? Yet much time is expended on restating the same themes, without the humility that accompanied having to originally explain why she had soured on a movement she had done so much to push forward. Ms. Ravitch is no longer writing to explain herself. She is writing for victory, which means crushing a phalanx of enemies, real and imagined.

If there is a crisis in American education, Ms. Ravitch writes, it is only “because of persistent, orchestrated attacks” on teachers and principals. “These attacks,” she writes, “create a false sense of crisis and serve the interests of those who want to privatize the public schools.” In Ms. Ravitch’s telling, these interests represent not reform but a new status quo in education, one created by a vast bipartisan alliance encompassing everyone from the American Legislative Exchange Council to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, from Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal to the Bezos Foundation, from the Hoover Institution to Hollywood. At the top of the pyramid sit Bill and Melinda Gates, who make the Koch brothers look like amateurs at advocacy funding. Because there is no crisis in American education, in Ms. Ravitch’s view, all these people are destroying the public-school system over an illusion.

The School Revolution

By Ron Paul
Grand Central, 224 pages, $23

It’s certainly provocative to say that there is no crisis in American education. But the crisis/no crisis frame is unhelpful, particularly when it comes to understanding the debate regarding student achievement. Consider American students’ performance in math. In introducing “The Facts About the International Test Scores,” Ms. Ravitch argues that these data are used by critics “to generate a crisis mentality, not to improve public schools but to undermine public confidence in them.” Of the 2011 results from TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study), which is seen as the gold standard for international math comparisons, Ms. Ravitch says that the American media presented the results “in a negative light, reflecting the reformers’ gloomy narrative. . . . But the media were wrong. American students performed surprisingly well in mathematics and science, well above the international average in grades 4 and 8.”

Yes, the U.S. performance on grade four wasn’t bad—84% of test takers were able, for example, to do basic addition, as opposed to an international average of 73%. But look more closely at the eighth-grade data and a chasm opens: 49% of Taiwanese students taking the test reached an advanced benchmark and 73% reached a high benchmark; for the U.S., these figures were 7% and 30%, respectively. The U.S. isn’t in the top group of math countries, and we are closer to the bottom scorers. Perhaps this isn’t a crisis, but is it not concerning?

Ms. Ravitch, it should be noted, chooses to characterize the TIMSS data rather than provide the reader with the actual numbers, despite the presence of numerous graphs in the appendix. She also quotes Yong Zhao, a Chinese-born American academic, at length, warning that the Chinese have perfected the art of test-taking and that if America strives to emulate or beat China or any of the nations that do better than us at math, we may “sacrifice the qualities of individualism and creativity that have been the source of our nation’s economic, social, and technological success.”

Really? The TIMSS advanced-math benchmark reflects mathematical reasoning, not rote-learning, skills. Does Ms. Ravitch want us to believe that the better kids are able to reason with numbers, the less creative they will be and the worse our economy will do? The labor market has increasingly paid a premium for analytic and quantitative skills, and, as Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz argued in “The Race Between Education and Technology” (2008), American schools haven’t been able to meet the demand.

When Ms. Ravitch comes to charter schools, she writes that advocates “claim they produce better academic results than traditional public schools and cost less because of lower overhead. Neither of these promises has been fulfilled.” Except, she adds, some charter schools do get consistently high scores, without gaming out weaker students, while providing a refuge for teachers from “overscripted, hyper-regulated, and over-tested public schools.” Before you think that might be a good thing, she warns that these successful charters “seem determined to reinvent the schoolhouse of a century ago” with their “no excuses” discipline. But what’s wrong with that? The evidence from the Harlem Children’s Zone and the Knowledge Is Power Program is impressive—and there is some evidence that these successes can be replicated in the public system. When nine underperforming schools in Houston adopted a no-excuses model, they saw similar gains in achievement (although they did ax half the teaching staff before beginning the experiment).

It is vital to hold the charter movement accountable. The most recent report from the Center for Research and Education Outcomes (Credo) at Stanford University has noted that, while the sector is improving, it needs to raise standards further and close down more underperforming schools. All of which sounds reasonable. But success can’t really win with Ms. Ravitch. You are at best tolerable if you are a nonprofit charter, but you are still contributing to the destruction of “an essential element in our democracy”—that is, the public-school system.

Ms. Ravitch’s mixture of stridency, selectivity and spin is unfortunate because she has many important things to say: Any reform movement that trades with for-profit education puts public money on the line and needs to be scrutinized; a constellation of well-intentioned philanthropies shouldn’t be treated with kid gloves; and the rhetoric of crisis—a default tone for advocates of all stripes—risks burying a complex issue in simplistic thinking. But so does defending public schools at all costs.

Unlike “Reign of Error,” there isn’t much data to untangle in Ron Paul‘s “The School Revolution.” There is, instead, a first principle from which we can deduce the best way to educate our youth: freedom. Freedom teaches personal responsibility; but, warns Mr. Paul, “if the curriculum teaches Keynesian economics, if it reinforces welfare state politics, if it teaches the principle of the autonomous sovereignty of the state, then it undermines” parents who believe in freedom. Ergo, they must home-school—at least until children are able to teach themselves through the Internet.

This view will seem quixotic to many: Given the staggering amount of time and resources expended on remedial education in college, surely we should be more concerned about basic literacy and numeracy than whether America’s children are uncritically respectful of John Maynard Keynes. But Mr. Paul seems uninterested in the hard work of shaping minds. Instead, he is dazzled by the prospect of the Internet providing an end-run around the failed public-school system, something largely intuited from looking at the way kids appear adept at using technology compared with adults and from the spread of e-learning and cyber charter schools. This is painfully naïve, as Ms. Ravitch shows with brutal but reliable data on virtual schooling. A four-year Credo analysis of cyber charters in Pennsylvania, for example, found 100% of attendees performing significantly worse in math and reading than students in public schools.

But why would Mr. Paul read Ms. Ravitch? Why would anyone read these books who didn’t already agree with them? There once seemed to be middle ground in the education policy—indeed, No Child Left Behind was originally co-sponsored by none other than Edward Kennedy. Today the participants in the debate are at war over first principles, about which there can be no compromise. For the reader, this is the political, the ideological, the Manichaean problem with the education debate that education itself can’t seem to fix.

—Mr. Butterworth is a contributor to Newsweek and editor at large for STATS.org.

A version of this article appeared September 21, 2013, on page C5 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Trying to Teach From First Principles.

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