The United States of America, whether observed through the filters of its print, broadcast or social media, is not the easiest place in which to enjoy a robust debate or even a civil conversation about matters that are even slightly contentious. The prefix “hyper” can easily be used before any number of words―partisan, sensitive, patriotic, active and ventilate―and it will not long go amiss. Even people of certified intelligence such as those armed with PhDs and holding positions of grandeur in both the public and private sectors can quickly become irate, incoherent and just plain spitting-mad when confronted with a firmly held opinion other than their own. The range of topics that can prompt rhetorical rage is immense: immigration reform, health insurance, social assistance programs, banking and finance, religion, evolution, illicit drugs, crime and punishment, gender relations, climate change, what the “Founders” really meant when they cobbled together The Constitution of the United States and especially The Bill of Rights, and, of course, war and peace in the ever more claustrophobic global village.
One of the enduring theatres of division and dissent is education, which brings its own inventory of issues―equity of access, rising tuition and student debt, the alleged failure of public schools, the alleged need for more vocationally relevant colleges, the role of technology in classrooms, core curricula and common standards in elementary and secondary schools, academic freedom and tenure in postsecondary education and the merits of private education.
When entering the fray of public discourse on anything from fracking to food prices or from GMOs to guns in schools, it is well to take several deep breaths, count to at least twenty and maintain a solid grip on any penchant you might have for glib retorts. Tolerance for dissent (no matter from which of the sometimes several sides of any given issue) can be limited. This warning must be particularly well heeded if you are about to express a view that contradicts something you previously said. Tolerance for ambiguity is not much permitted, but tolerance for apostates is in very spare supply.
Enter Diane Ravitch.
By any sensible account, Ms. Ravitch was and remains an extraordinarily successful character. She won a doctorate from Columbia University in New York City in 1975. She travelled in elevated academic and political circles―her former husband, Richard Ravitch, being a future Lieutenant Governor of New York. In 1991, she was selected by President George H. W. Bush as Assistant Secretary of State for Education and distinguished herself sufficiently well to receive government positions after the election of President William Jefferson Clinton and also under President George W. Bush. She also put in ten years as the prestigious Brown Chair in Educational Studies at the much respected (or reviled, depending on your politics) Brookings Institution.
Diane Ravitch’s CV shouldn’t be closed without mention of her more than twenty books, one of which received at least a lukewarm review in these pages/pixels (Doughty, 2007), her more than five hundred scholarly and popular publications and her early concern with excellence in education. This concern took the form of her endorsement of private and especially “charter” schools and her support for President Bush the Younger’s No Child Left Behind Program―an innovation that has been re-branded as Race for the Top, but remains much the same under Arne Duncan, President Barack H. Obama’s “Education Czar.” And this is where the story gets interesting.
Not so many years ago, Ms. Ravitch rethought some of her policy positions and emerged as one of the feistiest critics of right-wing “reform” in the United States. Her change of heart does not seem to have been “hyper-ideological” (so to speak), but the result of a rational consideration of the available evidence and consequently a better understanding of the material motives of the institutions and organizations that had previously advocated budget cuts to public education and followed them with outraged claims that the public education system was failing.
Ravitch learned that charter schools, testing reform and the virulent anti-union movement promoted by right-wing think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation did not deliver the promised goods. She came to understand that for-profit schools were usually no better and more often worse than their public school counterparts. She also came to appreciate that the goals of the school reform movement in its turn-of-the-twenty-first-century iteration had more to do with profits than with people and everything to do with ideology and propaganda. Her main conclusions at the end of this personal re-evaluation were that poverty and not poor teachers was the best predictor of student failure and that not only did school reform not provide success for students, but it also fundamentally undermined the quality of education. As she put it: pressure groups have “wrested control of the language and content of textbooks and standardized exams, often at the expense of the truth (in the case of history), of literary quality (in the case of literature), and of education in general.”
Living in the United States, Ravitch also sees a danger from what Americans call the “political left” and makes sure that she plots a middle course so as, perhaps, not to unduly upset the people whose views she now opposes. Unless by the “left,” she means representatives of feminists, ethno-cultural minorities and others concerned with demeaning language in course materials, I cannot imagine who she could be talking about. In any case, I have yet to witness any damage from the putative left that comes close to the damage that has come from the right.
Reign of Error is therefore a fine example of discrediting the discreditable. She properly links both Republican and Democratic promoters of school reform and takes them both to task for three basic flaws. Bush, Obama and their respective minions alike, all sing from the same hymn book.
They all make the same mistakes. They all rely on market-driven training agendas to govern educational curricula. Both the content and the assessment of academic achievement are determined by an implicit algorithm which weighs customer demand and assigns intellectual value to whatever is deemed important by the consumer base. Education is thereby transformed into a commodity fit for a neoliberal marketplace―nothing less and certainly nothing more. Any notion of personal development and public good is excluded from consideration. What the market decides is merely assumed to be what is good for the individual and the community alike. Quantity replaces quality as a measure of excellence.
They also slavishly rely on technology, which is said to be cheaper than human resources and therefore contributes to the efficiency and economy of the teaching and learning process. Ravitch is less forceful than she might be on this matter. The alleged economies to be drawn from downplaying human labour and relying on mainly electronic technology can, I am sure, be shown to be just as false as the claims for qualitative superiority by private, for-profit education businesses. In fact, online education is notoriously poor at student retention; so, although profitable (students who drop out may be in the majority, but the school/business gets to keep the fees), electronic education is not exactly a social bargain. What's more, since much of the aggregated tuition fees are paid by governments through American Pell Grants, for example, for-profit schools, colleges and universities are guaranteed their incomes while the bill is either delivered to taxpayers or reserved as student debt. (The University of Phoenix, for example, typically receives over $2 billion annually in federal money funnelled through student grants and loans; yet, its default rate on student loans (26%) exceeds its graduation rates of between 5% (Tamar, 2013) and 17% (Marklein, Upton & Kambhampati, 2013). Some savings!
They all rely as well on ideological presumptions that are both explicit in that they wholly disregard critical scholarship and spoon-feed a sanitized version of American history, culture and politics that is―to be generous―biased against anything that does not fit conveniently within the dominant American narrative. The result is not “education for dummies,” but education that makes dummies even dumber. This, of course, is no accident. Compliance as citizens, supplication as consumers and subservience to an economy dedicated to the evisceration of the middle class and the disposability of working-class and poor people is precisely what global neoliberalism as theory and practice is all about.
Now, of course, Diane Ravitch would not use my words. But she has some pretty spirited expressions of her own. Even so, she is demonized as the darling of the teachers’ unions. Arne Duncan, President Obama’s emissary to educators everywhere, disparages Diane Ravitch. David Brooks, the New York Times resident reactionary, excoriates her. Rupert Murdoch and Bill Gates (who probably profits most from the school reformers) haven’t got much good to say about her either. So, although I haven’t always given her a ringing endorsement (from which she seems never to have suffered), Reign of Error is about as good as it gets from a former Washington insider and one-time school reformer.
No matter whether you live in or out of the United States, North America or even the OPEC community, neoliberalism’s assault on education from pre-school to post-doctoral studies is ubiquitous, insidious and I (at least) would go so far as to say iniquitous. If that language is bothersome to you, please read Diane Ravitch’s book. It is a strong book (or as strong as can be expected under the circumstances). It covers most of the important issues with clarity and sincerity as well as with persuasive evidence and argument. Its message is clear and its application not just to the USA, nor to elementary and secondary schools, but to all levels is both relevant and, Ravitch argues with equal amounts of reason and passion, very urgent indeed.
Doughty, H. (2007). Review of EdSpeak: A glossary of educational terms, phrases, buzzwords and jargon. The College Quarterly 10(4).
Lewin, T. (2010, November 23). Report finds low graduation rates at for-profit colleges. New York Times. Retrieved February 1, 2014 from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/24/education/24colleges.html?_r=2&
Marklein, M., J. Upton & S. Kambhampati. (2013, July 2). College default rates higher than grad rates. USA Today. Retrieved February 1, 2014 from https://www.google.ca/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&
Ravitch, D. (2010, March 9). Why I changed my mind about school reform. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved February 1, 2014 from http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052748704869304575
Howard A. Doughty teaches cultural anthropology and modern political thought at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at email@example.com.