The Missing History of Reform

Diane Ravitch has published a new book this week called Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. Given that Ravitch is something of a Rorschach test for folks who work in education, the heavily promoted book is sure to attract plenty of opinions.

The one I find most compelling is this review by Jessica Levin at the Huffington Post—I recommend giving it a read.

Jessica is a former colleague of ours here at TNTP. She’s been observing education policy and the evolution of the reform movement from the sidelines while staying home with her young children the past several years. The more she saw, the more dismayed she became. Her own background (she saw the birth of a new phase of reform as a staffer in the Clinton administration) makes her uniquely qualified to put things in perspective.

In her review, Jessica makes a number of astute points. What sticks with me most is her argument that Ravitch reduces a diverse array of issues, players, and trends to one-dimensional caricatures. The book’s depiction of reform’s history and goals certainly doesn’t bear much resemblance to what I’ve experienced in my own work over the last 15 years.

As Jessica points out, there are plenty of good questions to ask about reform. I have some of those questions myself. I certainly don’t think reformers have this thing figured out yet. The generation of reformers in Ravitch’s book has been at this for about two decades and, if anything, we’ve learned that for every step forward that inspires us to keep going, we are humbled by the difficulty of the work and by our setbacks.

The challenges of improving our schools are massive and complex and urgent. But I worry that books like Ravitch’s Reign of Error will not help us understand or solve them. Instead, readers are likely to walk away angry at a phantom conspiracy and at educators who’ve spent their lives trying to make schools work better for students and teachers alike – often with laudable success. I worry that instead of getting us beyond pitched battle between ideological camps, it doubles down on trench warfare.

There’s a better and more useful book waiting to be written, one that probes the history of reform with the depth it deserves. Maybe Jessica is the person to write it?

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

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