Education reform? Or “reign of error”?

Reign of Error on Chromebook
(Photo credit: mahlness)

By Robert Mann

Like so many business leaders, the Indiana ice cream executive was sure he knew what ailed his state’s education system. Schools weren’t being run like corporations.  “If I ran my business the way you people operate your schools,” Jamie Vollmer told a group of teachers in 1991, “I wouldn’t be in business for long.”

Vollmer explained that schools, themselves, were antiquated and that educators were loath to accept accountability for their actions. His proposal: ruthlessly operate schools the way he ran his business: “Zero defects! TQM [total quality management]! Continuous improvement!”

In a remarkable new book on U.S. education “reform” — Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Schools — Diane Ravitch tells what happened next.

When he finished his speech, a teacher innocently asked about his company’s method of making the best ice cream.  He boasted of its “super-premium” ingredients, nothing but the best. Then she asked a question:

“Mr. Vollmer,” she said, leaning forward with a wicked eyebrow raised to the sky, “when you are standing at the receiving dock and see an inferior shipment of blueberries, what do you do?

“In the silence of that room, I could hear the trap snap,” Vollmer later said. “I was dead meat, but I wasn’t going to lie.”

“I send them back,” Vollmer answered.

The teacher jumped up. “That’s right! And we can never send back our blueberries. We take them big, small, rich, poor, gifted, exceptional, abused, frightened, confident, homeless, rude, and brilliant. We take them with ADHD, junior rheumatoid arthritis, and English as their second language. We take them all! Every one! And that, Mr. Vollmer, is why it’s not a business. It’s a school!”

Vollmer recalled that when the teacher finished, the room exploded. “All 290 teachers, principals, bus drivers, aides, custodians, and secretaries jumped to their feet and yelled, ‘Yeah! Blueberries! Blueberries!'”

From that day, Ravitch tells us, Vollmer changed his tune. Now, reflecting on his epiphany, Vollmer says “the most important thing I have learned is that schools reflect the attitudes, beliefs and health of the communities they serve, and therefore, to improve public education means more than changing our schools, it means changing America.”

There, in that simple-but-compelling story, is Ravitch’s fine book summarized: Schools are not a business. They are a community enterprise. We don’t teach kids because we wish to make a profit from their work; we teach our kids and dedicate ourselves to their schools’ success because educated children create a stronger society. Treating education like a business only undermines that goal.

While it might be wise to close a struggling store and encourage creativity to thrive in the chaos of the marketplace, Ravitch argues, “there is nothing creative about closing a school that is a fixture of its community. If it is struggling, it needs help. It may need extra staff, extra resources, and expert supervision. It doesn’t need to be shuttered like a shoe store. No school was ever saved or improved by closing it.”

Ravitch, a renowned education historian at New York University, was once an U.S. assistant secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush. She does not contend that everything is just fine with public education in America. Schools and teachers always need to improve and adopt high standards.

But Ravitch strongly rejects the notion that U.S. schools are in crisis — at least the kind of crisis the so-called education “reformers” bemoan.

Our schools “are in crisis,” Ravitch writes, “because of persistent, orchestrated attacks on them and their teachers and principals, and attacks on the very principle of public responsibility for public education. These attacks create a false sense of crisis and serve the interests of those who want to privatize the public schools.”

The problem with American education, Ravitch forcefully argues throughout the book, is that the public refuses to confront the poverty that pervades communities across the country.  “Our corporate reformers insist that we must ‘fix’ schools first,” Ravitch writes. “But the weight of evidence is against them. No serious social scientist believes that rearranging the organization or control or curriculum will suffice to create income equality or to end poverty.”

In several compelling chapters, Ravitch demonstrates that despite the alarms of the reformers, American schools are doing very well, as compared to the rest of the world. She presents strong evidence that test scores aren’t declining across the board.

The real problem, she proves again and again, is poverty. “American students in schools with low poverty — the schools where less than 10 percent of the students were poor — had scores equal to those of Shanghai and were signficantly better than those of high-scoring Finland, the Republic of Korea, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, and Australia.”

Not surprisingly, Ravitch believes the solution to our education “crisis” is not to remake the schools, but remake the communities from which the students come.  “Poverty persists not because schools are bad and teachers don’t care,” she writes, “but because society neglects its root causes. Concentrated poverty and racial segregation are social problems, not school problems.”

Fix poverty — no easy job — and you’ll “fix” our schools, Ravitch is telling us.

While she does an impressive job marshalling the evidence to debunk the corporate reformers spin about public education, Ravitch’s best contribution to the public debate about public education are her recommendations, which make up almost a third of the book. Too many researchers are very good at identifying the problems and the culprits, but never offer solutions.

No so with Ravitch.

She devotes chapters to the need for good prenatal care for every pregnant woman; making high-quality early childhood education available to every child; requiring that every school “have a full, balanced, rich curriculum, including the arts, science, history, literature, civics, geography, foreign languages, mathematics, and physical education”; she suggests reducing class sizes; she proposes banning for-profit charter schools and charter chains; and, she recommends providing medical care and social services “that poor children need to keep up with their advantaged peers.”

Most significantly, she calls for a ban on high-stakes standardized testing, suggesting we “rely instead on assessments that allow students to demonstrate what they know and can do.”

Ravitch, who once strongly supported standardized testing, now believes “[t]he overemphasis on standardized testing in the past decade and more has undermined the quality of education and demoralized professional educators.” But that doesn’t mean Ravitch believes in lowering standards. To the contrary, she believes the testing itself actually represents lower standards.

“Our standards and expectation for our students must be much higher and more complex than the skills needed to pass a standardized test,” Ravitch argues. “If we want students to be creative, if we want them to be ingenious, if we want them to be thoughtful and serious of purpose, then we must realign our means and our ends.”

If you want to be surprised by what’s really the matter with American education today, Ravitch’s excellent book is a very good place to start.

10 thoughts on “Education reform? Or “reign of error”?

  1. Reblogged this on The Daily Kingfish and commented:
    Education Reform? Or Reign of Error?


  2. John Bel Edwards October 31, 2013 — 5:04 pm

    John Bel

    John Bel Edwards
    Edwards & Associates Law Firm, L.L.C.
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    I have believed for years, at least 30 plus years, that education is not a “pragmatic” science or discipline, as maintained by those in the educational and political field, but a “social” science. The successful educating of any human being at any socioeconomic level is dependent on effective motivation and productive communication between the teacher, the parents and the student. This is the “missing” dimension in the educational field. Above all other characteristics, successful teachers, as in business, professional sports, medicine, etc, are individuals capable of motivating other individuals. Successful teachers literally provide their students with a will to achieve, a burning desire for continued learning, basically an insatiable digestion of education. The archaic “bull whip” methodology practiced and promulgated by educational systems throughout the country is proof the educational dichotomy demands “revamping” and improving. Those seeking improvement in education must recognize the fact that standardize testing, teacher evaluations, and such are the “ontological” equivalent of recognizing the cancer but doing little or nothing in the way of prevention. Until educators, politicians and parents mature to the point that learning is predominately a “social” experience and the forces effecting education support such an approach, education in Louisiana and the country will fail to improve and our children and society in general will continue to suffer.


    1. Greg – You appear to have your own “reality” TV show going on in your head. .


      1. The key word


      2. Yes, the key word in your reply is “reality”. The “reality” of education in Louisiana and the country is education fosters, pampers, promotes and functions for those students with the capability of succeeding with or without a school or the school system. Educational does not operate to support or forward the abilities of the average or below average students that constitute roughly 90% of the students. Since the late 70’s and early 80’s educators have employed a wall of “professional excuses” such as ADHD, under achievers, slow learners, etc., to ostracize those students that require the extra effort for educational advancement. The function of education is that of educating and advancing all of society, not just the students in the top 10% percentile. The goal of education is to uplift and provide advancement for all students with the ultimate aim of making society an overall better place to live. I guess to some people this could qualify as a “reality show”. From my standpoint it is simply REALITY, plain and simple. I you fail to identify with this concept, as simple as it is, that’s fine. You’re not alone. There are thousands more failing to realize the problems in education can not be “tested away”. The problem in education is “systemic” in both administration(the way our teachers are told to teach) and mechanics(the way our teachers are trained to teach). This problem has existed since the father of education, Horace Mann, pronounced his Six Principles of Education in the early 1800’s. Since that time, much has changed in society but the basic tenet that education is a pragmatic based discipline instead of socially based discipline, remains the predominate, prevailing administrative and operational approach in the educational field. Until education matures, advances into a “source base” format and places the “performance, achievement based” format on the back burner, the educational system will lose more and more human beings, otherwise called students, in the “black hole” and “malaise” characterized as education but is really anything but.


  4. I’m betting that neither Bobby Jindal nor any of his staff have read this book.


  5. Absolutely super! I attended a conference in Montana 14 years ago where these very things were discussed. Among the presentations was one of actual brain scans that showed the effects of deprivation on the physical structure of the brain. Ignoring poverty and its consequences is the biggest mistake any country can make. Walking away from its public education system has to come in second. By the time the tea partiers and their ilk realize this it may be too late.


  6. Reblogged this on lablouisianaboy and commented:
    I yet to read this work by Diane Ravitch, but I encourage everyone to read this excellent review written by Professor Bob Mann of LSU. My rearing instilled the necessity to try and see things from multiple perspectives, especially the one most directly opposite my own. Symptoms of problems are often so easy to see that the root is overlooked, and a focus on the symptoms can become akin to trying to patch a leaking water tower with chewing gum. It’s a quick fix, but the problem remains and will get worse if ignored.

    I brag and feel blessed by all that I learned growing up in the Hungarian Settlement in Livingston Parish. I’ve asserted many times that my Grandfather without any formal schooling and my Dad with his diploma from Hammond High School was in the case of Grandpa and is with Dad as intelligent as any of the PhDs, MDs, or JDs with whom I have worked and know from different schools including Johns Hopkins and Ivy League Institutions.

    In Albany and over in Springfield, we had some highly qualified teachers K through 12. What made it work, however, was that our teachers actually knew us and our families. They cared because they were a part of the community just as we were. The residents of those small communities cared about the schools as the school held a prominent position. You respected the teachers, the principals, and anyone who worked at the school. We knew our classmates and tried to help each other when we could.

    The teachers knew their material, but they and the community took responsibility for being these lanterns for us kids so that we could see pathways and opportunities which would have remained hidden in the darkness. Then as we struck our own lights to venture forth on these passageways those lanterns behind us did not go dark. They continued to shine, and we received encouragement by words and often by either a pat on the back or when appropriate and necessary a swift kick in the rear. The adults cared and that resulted in the kids caring.

    Every accomplishment I have made in my career was possible in part from the efforts of those back in the Hungarian Settlement. I thank the Good Lord for the public school system I experienced. Of course there were problems and I am not blinded by sappy nostalgia to not acknowledge that all was not a “bed of roses” without hazards, but the positives outweighed the negatives and often when I got stuck by a thorn it was through my own lack of action and my responsibility.


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