I’m late; I’m late, for a very important. . . Review of Diane Ravitch’s new book “Reign of Error”

I’m late; I’m late, for a very important. . . Review of Diane Ravitch’s new book “Reign of Error”

If you’re like me, you’re late to everything. For instance, my mom is fond of telling me I was late to my own birth. In my defense I always remind her that my brother was three weeks lake and I was only about one week, so relatively speaking I was early. No matter what else happens in life, I will always have that to hold over my brother. Perspective is very important.

For instance, if I surrounded myself with skinny fit people I would feel very fat and unhealthy all the time. That’s why I make it a point of distancing myself from anyone who becomes too obsessed with P90X or Cross fit programs. That type of association would not be good for my mental health. I also make it a point of only befriending folks who are larger than me, especially if they with more physical limitations like a hook for a hand, or a patch over one eye. (Yes. I have a lot of pirate friends.) I also really like to befriend really bald people because they are very jealous of my unruly mop of hair – which I find annoying, but they find enviable. Perspective is what Diane’s book, Reign of Error, is all about.

Reformers and privatizers (not to be confused with my pirate compadres) like to frame their pseudo-successes in a context that makes them look good, and the things they are opposing look bad. For instance, they like to point to the performance of the poor and minorities on standardized tests and show the current achievement gap between them and the wealthy is not closing. They characterize this as bad, and evidence that our education system is failing. Diane provides some context for this claim. While it is true that the poor perform poorer on standardized tests than the well off (which is true and has always been true in every nation on earth), it’s also true that over the last 20 years their scores have increased on the NAEP test to where their wealthier counterparts were. The reason the achievement gap is not closing is that all students are doing better, not that the poor and minorities are doing worse. Because poverty is directly intertwined with performance, that’s like saying 20 years later the average height of US citizens is greater, but sadly we have not been able to close the altitude gap. Tall people are still taller than short people.

Reformers point to the results of other nations like China and Sweden to say we are falling behind in the world because they did better on the 2010 PISA (Program for International Assessment) tests than we did. Diane brings perspective there as well showing that the Chinese students have a culture of preparing for the test but not learning the material and that all of China was not tested, only one city, the city of Shanghai which is not representative of all of China, much of which is still very poor and very rural (pg64). Reformers point out that countries like Sweden do better, but they fail to put those results in the proper perspective as well, that most of Sweden is middle class, and the United State has more income inequality and poverty than any other industrialized nation. When students of similar economic backgrounds are compared US students, US students do just as well or better than any other country in the world. The real issue is poverty, which is now the primary determining factor of student performance. It’s no coincidence that wealthy Americans, who are against equitable taxation and income equality, are pretending poverty is not a determining factor and actively funding research and solutions to deny this in much the same way Tobacco companies funded research to say smoking is good for you, and coating your lungs in tar makes your lungs happy and durable like Goodyear tires.

Diane’s perspective setting and record correcting does not stop there. She also points out that Reformers like Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee commonly misquote President Barack Obama by saying that teachers are the most important factor for determining the education level and achievement of a child. This is a self-serving mischaracterization to support their misguided agenda of putting a what they say is a highly effective teacher (as determined by standardized tests) in a classroom. Obama stated that a teacher was the most important component of the equation within a school. This does not mean poverty, family, health, mental conditions, disabilities, language difficulties, and school climate are not factors, nor does it mean a teacher is the primary factor. That statement is conveyed by those who want to attribute the “failings” of our public schools (which is untrue) to the ones they say are responsible, the teachers (which is also untrue). This is done in a bid to eliminate teachers, public schools, and unions and replace them with a substandard, poorly trained and compensated, temp teaching force that will help maximize profit for profiteers, while permanently harming our children and shattering the foundation of our democracy, an educated populace.

Just like everything else I suppose, I came later to the battle to fight the privatizing charlatans reaping our children and our tax dollars for their private jets and seedy agendas. This book will very likely become my anti-reform bible. It has allowed me to catch up on a lot of the background I knew only vaguely. If you are coming to suspect something is wrong in the way our education system us being attacked and run into the ground, once you read this book you will have no doubts left. A Nation at Risk did correctly identify a problem that our nation will face in the future, a poorly educated, poorly prepared population. However it was a little ahead of its time. Our nation is at risk for being dumbed-down and privatized into obscurity by the wealthy and greedy forces (from both political parties) lining up at the public trough to gorge themselves on education dollars earmarked for our children. Diane’s book helped me see the bigger picture and larger context for our fight to save our society from those who would rape, pillage and enslave our children as the barbarian tribes ravaged the Roman Empire – when it reigned supreme. I dog-eared many a page while reading this book, for future blog posts and supporting references. If you are looking for a historical perspective on where we have been, how we have come to where we are, and where our education system is going if we fail to intervene, this is the book you need to own.

So me and Diane Ravitch were chillin’ today in Baton Rouge discussing some education stuff. . . .

So me and Diane Ravitch were chillin’ today in Baton Rouge discussing some education stuff. . . .

So me and Diane Ravitch we chillin’ today in Baton Rouge discussing some education stuff. . . .  🙂

I figured I’d start off my post that way since it sounds much cooler than Diane came to town and gave an awesome speech at a luncheon (and Chas Roemer was also there as the comic relief) and I was fawning over her like an obsessed anti-reform education groupie (do they have those?) But I digress.

Diane made a very excellent speech summarizing all the ways Louisiana’s education system is dead set and hell-bent on a road to ruin. The counterpoint or rebuttal was made by current BESE (the state board of education) President Chas Roemer. I would like to to say that Chas’s points were simply less eloquent and and passably adequate, but they were actually pretty insulting for most parents – about 98% of them to be exact.  I had every intention of listening politely, until he responded to a question about the low voucher (private school) participation percentage this way.

“Rather than question why the participation in the voucher program is only 2%, I would question why only 2% of parents care about their student’s educations.”

This of course was after making much ado about providing “choice” to parents, but I think it reveals his true feelings. If you don’t send your kids to a creationist teaching, revisionist history teaching, private school, then you are a bad parent and don’t care about your children. Until this point I was simply happy to be at the Drusilla Seafood gathering, where they served chicken. (It was decent chicken, but really, if you invite people from out of state to a restaurant with “seafood” in the name you’d think there would be some?) Chas Roemer concluded his speech by describing something he said he likes to call his “money back guarantee.”

“If charters don’t perform well, they get shut down.” – ( and new charters perpetually open in their place (until one succeeds I presume?)

Some folks at my table shouted out, “when do we get our money back?”

When indeed? I suppose this is the “exceptionalism” that one can expect from someone who is a product of the private school system, like Chas.

Suffice it to say I was not about to let these statements go without redress, but alas, the person right in front of me, the esteemed professor and researcher Barbara Ferguson, was the last to get a volley off, and I was left with my question unasked.

Whenever I see her from now on I will say “Ferguson!” under my breath as an homage to Jerry Seinfeld and his arch nemesis Newman.

So I present to you my readers, my question(s).

Maybe one of you can forward it to Chas to see if he has a response?

Hi. My name is [redacted], and unlike Chas, I was not surrounded by politics and career politicians my whole life. I am a parent of public school students in Baton Rouge that attend [redacted] Elementary. My wife is on her second year of PTA president for the [redacted] Ducks, and we volunteer for many of the school functions and field trips as chaperones. For years I’ve volunteered as a mentor to work with children through the Big Buddy program in Baton Rouge. I am a product of the Baton Rouge Public school system and my wife was a teacher in this schools system for several years.

I would like to first say that as a parent I am deeply offended by the comment Chas made in response to the low participation rate in the voucher school program “he wonders why only the 2% of parents that applied for private school vouchers care about the education of their students.” I want my kids to go to public schools because I care about them, and because I don’t want them artificially sheltered from their peers in racial and social class silos like Chas’s kids. That is a choice he has made, but by defunding and overburdening public schools Chas is eliminating “my choice,” to have my kids attend a vibrant, robust, communal public education system.

Chas’s statements reveal his true feelings, he doesn’t believe public schools are a valid “choice” and so he is trying to eliminate them so I am forced into conforming to his choice. Reform is about convincing you that you made the wrong choices and guilting you into choosing something else that is unproven and often worse.

Chas, charter schools and voucher/private schools are not subject to the same oversight and reporting that public schools are. You claim your objective is to offer parents choices, but how can parents reasonably be expected to make informed choices when you don’t report the same statistics for them as you do for the public schools you denigrate? The department website was recently revamped to remove most historical data and the department routinely refuses to provide data – to researchers it deems unfriendly. I know this because I am a witness in a case against the Louisiana department of education involving the sharing of basic student data to a researcher in Orleans. That data already exists and has been given to other “friendly” researchers! I know this for a fact, because I am a former Louisiana Department of Education employee and I worked in the data management department and I actually prepared the data being requested – but for other groups!

We were instructed by John White and Erin Bendilly (a Jindal appointee assigned to ram through the charters at LDOE) to leave charters alone when their data was incomplete or obviously wrong, and many reporting requirements were not “requirements” for charter operators and virtual schools (like attendance). Schools in New Orleans that are “taken over” by the state are not assigned SPS (School Performance Scores) for 2 years after they are handed off to another operator.

How can parents make informed, real “choices” without data? Charter schools are like random TV dinners, but without any nutritional information. Could you plan a nutritional healthy family meal without any information on calories, preservatives, vitamins and minerals or sodium content? How would you choose between all the offerings: based on the look of the package, the taste? That is what charter schools and voucher schools are, unlabeled, mislabeled, or attractively labeled TV dinners that you expect us to feed our family for 2 years and “Believe” that they are good. Sure, we might be able to figure out after a while what is offered is crap, after our kids start getting fat or having heart attacks, but is that a fair choice to make, or to force us, as parents, to make? The free market has shown that Doritos and donuts are more popular that bananas and yogurt, but that doesn’t make them better, and providing those choices does nothing for our children but put them at risk for obesity and diabetes. Charter schools and voucher schools are the junk food of the education system, but without the proper labeling.

Fresh charter school choices, just heat, Believe and serve!
Fresh charter school choices, just heat, Believe and serve!

If you truly believe that charter schools and voucher schools are “better” choices, and not just additional ones, why does BESE and John White not encourage proper reporting of data and free access of data to researchers that request it? Surely if we are concerned about parents and students making informed choices, this is common sense?

As a parent, I find it hard to believe even you and your political sponsors believe this is about students and parents when you fight proper and timely disclosure of data that could be used to properly evaluate these “choices” and misrepresent failure (like the perpetual closing and rebranding of charter schools) as success.

And by the way, how much money has the state gotten back on your “Money Back Guarantee” for failed charters? When people sell you a shoddy product and they get to keep the money and walk away and open up shop somehwere else, that is not a money back guarantee, that is just a robbery (to which you are an accessory), and sadly only half the story.  How have you reclaimed the lost educational years for the students you allowed to be experimented on, only to find the experiment was a failure?