Archives for category: Reign of Error

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos repeats the hackneyed and erroneous claims that American public schools are failing.

She says the Obama ideas (testing, charters, and accountability) have failed, so she wants to impose her own ideas, which sound no diffferent from the failed ideas of the status quo.

American schools could use some support, not another four years of carping and disruption.

I explained in my book “Reign of Error” that the “Failing Schools” narrative is a hoax.

As of 2013, test scores on the federal tests called NAEP were the highest in 40 years of testing. For whites, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians.

The graduation rate was the highest in history, for all groups.

The dropout rate was the lowest ever recorded.

Scores on NAEP went flat from 2013-2015, possibly because of Common Core or because the test-and-punish approach had gone about as far as it could go. The flatline showed the failure of the NCLB-RTTT policies, not the schools.

We have the greatest economy in the world and the most productive workforce. Our public schools built our economy. Stop bashing our public schools, our teachers, and our students!

Please tweet @betsydevos and urge her to read “Reign of Error” or send her a copy.

I will send her an autographed copy.

Her address:

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos
U.S. Department of Education
400 Maryland Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20202

The Brookings Institution was once known as a reliable source of thoughtful, informed analysis of important policy issues. In the past decade, it has turned its education commentary over to rightwing ideologues, who are driven by ideology and indifferent to facts that they ought to know.


On behalf of Brookings, Jonathan Rothwell, economist for Gallup, complains that the U.S. spends more on education, has seen no improvement in decades, and is seeing no gains in productivity. He ends by saying that low-income families can’t afford private tutors or home schooling, as though these were viable ways to improve education for the poorest children .


I can’t unpack all this in a short space, but I would like to show you in a few paragraphs why this is an uninformed article. To begin with, Rothwell cherrypicks the data on test scores. This makes his analysis misleading and wrong. Test scores are the highest they have ever been on the only longitudinal measure we have: the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). He selectively quotes one version of the NAEP, while ignoring the other.


There are actually two versions of NAEP. One is called the “Long Term Trend” (LTT) data, the other is main NAEP. The LTT is offered every four years to samples of students at age 9, 13, and 17. Main NAEP is given every other year to students in grades 4 and 8.


LTT contains questions that are unchanged since the early 1970s and have no relation to what students are taught today. Occasionally, questions are deleted because their content is obsolete (e.g., a question that refers to S&H Green Stamps). The data for 17-year-olds is especially dubious because this group has no incentive to take the NAEP tests seriously.


The National Assessment Governing Board is aware of the problem of low motivation among 17-year-olds. When I served on the board, from 1994-2001, we devoted a large part of one of our quarterly meetings to this problem. There was talk of incentives, pizza parties, cash, but it was not resolved. The bottom line, however, is that any data about the test scores of 17-year-olds must acknowledge that this group doesn’t care about the test because they know it doesn’t matter. What the board learned when we discussed it is that some 17-year-olds doodle on the answer sheet or answer every question by checking the same letter. They don’t care.


I recommend that Rothwell read Chapter 5 of my book Reign of Error. He would learn there that the scores on the main NAEP reached their highest point ever in 2013 (they were flat for the first time in many years in 2015). This was true for every group of whites, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians. He would also learn that the graduation rate was the highest ever for these groups, and the dropout rate was the lowest ever. He would see a different reading of the LTT data, showing a dramatic rise in test scores in math for black students and Hispanic students in all three age groups, and for white students at ages 9 and 13, from 1973 to 2008. Even white 17-year-olds saw a gain, but it was small.


If I may quote my analysis, based on a review of both versions of NAEP, “NAEP data show beyond question that test scores in reading and math have improved for almost every group of students over the past two decades: slowly and steadily in the case of reading, dramatically in the case of mathematics.”


I would also urge Rothwell to read chapter 7, which reviews the international test scores. It shows that we were never #1 in test scores on international tests. In fact, when the first international tests were given in 1964, we were last among 12 nations. Yet over the half century that followed, we outpaced all the other 11 nations by every measure.


I know that Brookings uses Google or some other search engine to find anything that quotes its articles and research. I hope that they find this article and bring it to the attention of Jonathan Rothwell.


More important, I can only hope and wish that Brookings would make the effort to employ genuine education researchers to write and declaim about this important subject. Over the past decade, its education spokesman was Grover Whitehurst, George W. Bush’s former research director, who turned Brookings into a cheerleading think tank for school choice. This is unworthy of a once-great and once-trusted institution.


Lynn Stoddard, a retired educator, writes about the damage done by trying to standardize what is inherently non-standard: a human being.


His solution: Let teachers teach. Encourage them to recognize and magnify individual differences. Standardization doesn’t work for unique human beings, which each of us is.


He writes:


Perhaps the largest damage to our culture is the countless people who have died with their music still in them because they attended schools devoted to standardizing students. An eighth-grade boy in Farmington composed music for full orchestra, with 29 instruments — brass, woodwinds, percussion and strings — a piece that was so good it was chosen to be played at the State Music Educators Conference. Sadly, he did not go on to become another phenomenal composer like Mozart or Andrew Lloyd Webber, because he had to spend so much time with higher math and other required subjects.


What would American culture be like if teachers had been respected and trusted enough to determine the learning needs of each student and help him or her develop unique talents and use them to benefit society? What would have happened if, instead of trying to make students fit a standardized curriculum, teachers had helped students magnify their positive differences?


We can get some answers from the only teachers who are now allowed to personalize education: athletics coaches and arts teachers. These teachers see benefit in letting students try out for positions on the athletic team or for a part in the school musical. Coaches understand why sprinters should not be required to throw the shot put, or weightlifters to high jump. Choir teachers understand why high tenors cannot sing the bass part.


Let teachers teach, and let every child attain his or her full potential.




Wonderful news!

I just learned from my literary agent that there will be a Japanese translation of “Reign of Error.”

The Japanese people will learn from our mistakes.

Will we?

Almost all of my books have been translated into Japanese. They are eager to improve their excellent public school system.

Joseph Featherstone has been writing about education for decades. He was a progressive back when I was infatuated with accountability and other useless ideas.

In the current issue of the Nation, Featherstone has an interesting and provocative review of my latest book “Reign of Error.”

What was especially gratifying to me is that he understands the dangers of privatization, he sees the larger context of what is happening in our society, and he recognizes the importance of building a movement to reclaim the promise of American public education.

He asks the crucial question: Once the phony reformers have moved on to some other hobby, once they recognize that they have wasted their time and the nation’s money, once they realize that their efforts to demolish the teaching profession is harming children and our society, what then? How will we improve our schools? How can we get the schools we want and the schools our children need?

What comes after freedom from oppression?

That’s a great question, and I hope readers will comment.

I have my ideas but I need to hear from the experienced readers and teachers and parents and students who read this blog.

This reviewer enjoyed the book and says she learned a lot. But she felt turned off by the tone of some of the comments on the blog. Some are nasty, some are sarcastic. I told her that many readers are frustrated and feel powerless because the tiny elite that now controls education doesn’t listen.

As readers know, I don’t censor comments except for cursing and vendettas. When the tone turns vicious, I block the writer altogether.

Otherwise, join in. We need a place where parents and teachers can speak their minds and exchange ideas and opinions, fears and hopes, while getting the latest news

John Savage, a freelance journalist and former teacher, reviewed “Reign of Error” in the “Texas Observer.”

I liked the review for many reasons.

First, because Savage liked the book. That pleases every author.

Second, because the first article I ever published appeared in the “Texas Observer,” a gritty liberal journal that covers Texas politics. The article was called “My Ghetto and Yours,” and it was about growing up Jewish in Houston. It appeared, I think, in 1961. I think I was lamenting how little I knew of the big world outside Houston. I haven’t read it since 1961, so I can’t be certain what I wrote but I feel pretty sure I launched my writing career by stepping on toes. I think that it would be called “juvenalia” if it ever appeared in a collection.

The Nation magazine selected Reign of Error as the most valuable book of 2013, and named it to the magazine’s progressive honor roll for the year.


Just learned this from Victoria Wilson, my great editor at Knopf. “Reign of Error” was selected by Apple as one of the year’s best books in the category “Politics and Current Events”:

Apple announced its 2013 Editorial Picks of the Year this morning.

ONE SUMMER has been named Best in nonfiction for year and TENTH OF DECEMBER Best of the Year in fiction.

Additional Picks by Category are:

Literature & Fiction

Mystery & Thriller

Science Fiction



Science & Nature

Politics & Current Events



Apple would appreciate any sharing of this great news on Social Media. Here are the guidelines they’ve provided:

When talking about the feature in social media, please keep in mind these bullet points:

Include link:

Include the phrase “iBooks Best of 2013”

Include hashtag #Bestof2013

Patrick Walsh teaches in a public school in Harlem. He reviewed “Reign of Error” here.

I love this review!

He writes:

“As I write, historian Diane Ravitch is simultaneously the most feared and revered figure in American education. To the corporate education reformers, a group Ravitch has come to identify as privatizers of our public schools, she is a colossal and authoritative thorn in the side. Composed of billionaires Bill Gates, Eli Broad, members of the Walton family of Walmart fame, more hedge fund managers than can be named, and the most powerful political figures in the country including Barack Obama, these are people who are very used to getting their way. And get their way they have: For the past 10 years the privatizers have utterly dominated educational discourse, successfully forging untested and radical changes upon the system, using their virtually unlimited wealth to purchase anything and anyone who stood in their way while funding front groups by the dozens to block the way of others.

“But Ravitch is a conscience that can’t be purchased. She is also an apostate. While serving as U.S. assistant secretary of education under George H.W. Bush, Ravitch was a proponent of standardized testing and “accountability,” which constitutes the base of much education reform. But in time Ravitch did something unique in the Brave New World of education: She looked for evidence of success in the various reform policies and found fraud and failure. This led her to a period of radical reconsideration.

“Then Ravitch did something extremely courageous and rare: She publicly admitted she had made errors in judgment. Even more, she concluded that some of the policies she had championed were actually harmful.

“To the privatizers, Ravitch represents the authority and integrity they are quietly and desperately trying to discredit or purge altogether.

“To reformers, Ravitch remains more than a problem. As the reforms themselves grow ever more strident, standardized and, yes, totalitarian in structure, Ravitch embodies the institutional memory that no totalitarian system can abide.

“This is but one of the reasons that Ravitch has become so revered by teachers who bear the brunt of the reforms. Teachers bear witness to what the reforms are doing to their profession and to the students in their charge. For teachers, politically orphaned, Ravitch is a crusader who has done what their politicians, and, sadly, even their unions, have refused to do. She has spoken truth to power to the richest people and the most powerful political figures in the United States who have aligned themselves with the ruthless drive to privatize our schools, the most vital public trust in this nation.”

Please read the rest of the review. It is beautiful.