In 2010, the venerable education historian Diane Ravitch galvanized educators when she formally recanted her long-time advocacy of center-right and right-wing education ideas in her stunning book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. As I wrote in my review at the time in the Washington Monthly, the book provided a “bracing and courageous corrective to the Washington conversation about education reform,” which had mistakenly come to see democratically elected teacher union leaders as the central impediment to school improvement.

Three years later, Diane Ravitch’s provocative new book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, affirms her critique of wrong-headed ideas such as school vouchers but goes significantly further, to articulate a positive plan for reform. She lays out eleven important and constructive ideas—from better pre-K programs to smaller class sizes—but I was particularly struck by two reforms: addressing school segregation and improving charter schools.


Tackling School Segregation

Whereas Death and Life barely mentions the issue of school segregation, in Reign of Error, Ravitch devotes an entire chapter to this long-neglected but highly significant problem.

Although desegregation raised thorny political issues, Ravitch notes, it was an unabashed education success. The years in which the nation made progress desegregating schools were those which saw the most significant narrowing of the achievement gap. Moreover, citing the work of U.C. Berkeley economist Rucker Johnson, she notes that blacks who experienced five years of desegregated schooling earned 25 percent more as adults.

Yet efforts to integrate today by race and class are “no longer au courant” among education reformers, Ravitch notes. “Now the media unthinkingly celebrate the seemingly miraculous (and isolated) success of all-black or all-minority schools without questioning whether racially segregated schools should exist.” President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, Ravitch notes, is “silent on the subject” of school integration and offers none of the leverage provided in support of center-right ideas such as pay for performance and charter schools. While reformers say they believe that education is the civil rights issue of the twenty-first century, Ravitch counters that “claiming to be in the forefront of a civil rights movement while ignoring poverty and segregation is reactionary and duplicitous.”

Backers of integration have learned a lot since the 1970s about how to make programs politically palatable, through incentives like magnet schools. And while the U.S. Supreme Court has recently made it harder for school districts to employ racial integration efforts, there are no legal barriers to integrating by income. Indeed, some 80 school districts educating 4 million students have embraced this approach with quite positive results, as Century’s 2012 volume, The Future of School Integration outlines.


Improving Charter Schools

In Reign of Error, Ravitch also calls for a new type of charter school, resurrecting the notion originally championed by Albert Shanker, the long-time head of the American Federation of Teachers: charters as laboratories in which teachers are empowered to experiment with new ideas. Ravitch and I share a strong admiration for Shanker (full disclosure: she blurbed my 2007 biography, Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race and Democracy) and we both see great potential in Shanker’s original vision.

But that will require significant changes to the existing culture of the charter school movement. As Ravitch notes, Shanker grew disenchanted with charter schools as they became more segregated than regular public schools, and were championed as a vehicle for crushing collective bargaining. (Only 12 percent of charter schools are unionized.)

Still, she says, “with two million students now attending charter schools, charters are here to stay.” So Ravitch backs reform rather than abolition. She would support nonprofit charters and ban for-profit operators. And she would back charter schools that cooperate, rather than compete, with traditional public schools.

As my colleague Halley Potter and I note in a forthcoming book on charter schools for Teachers College Press, there are a small number of charters that are furthering Shanker’s original vision of promoting teacher voice in schools that educate students from all walks of life.

I don’t agree with everything in Reign of Error. I disagree with Ravitch’s repudiation of the Common Core State Standards, which promote the same high standards in Alabama as New York. And I don’t agree with Ravitch’s suggestion that we ban all charter chains, which would seem to include successful programs like KIPP and Green Dot. But, overall, the new book is a double treasure—knocking down a collection of fashionable bad ideas, but also lifting up a set that could help deepen learning, improve social mobility, and strengthen our democracy.

TCF hosts Diane Ravitch September 23, 2013 to discuss her new book and her plans for the future of education.


Photo credit: Christopher Sessums