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Proponent of Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind Law: “I Was Wrong”

In her new book, Diane Ravitch—one of the leading thinkers behind the controversial Bush-era law—explores how the faulty logic of high-stakes testing, charter school expansion, and privatization hinders education.
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Diane Ravitch is a household name—for households where EdWeek, Rethinking Schools, and #edreform are standard reading. For most Americans, though, her newest book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, probably didn’t jump off the shelf or raise eyebrows. But it’s important information at a time when everyone needs to be thinking about and rethinking education.

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Ravitch, an assistant secretary of education under George H.W. Bush, was a leading proponent of the George W. Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind law. She is among the few national public figures in education who have shown the courage to acknowledge publicly that the policies she promoted were wrong. Ravitch now has one of the strongest followings and loudest megaphones among teachers and education activists who want an end to high-stakes standardized tests and other tools of the “accountability era”—what she now sees as a “corporate education reform agenda” aimed at breaking public education as we’ve known it.

This reversal leaves her open to challenges of her change of head and heart. I witnessed such a moment this fall at Dartmouth College, where Ravitch addressed a room full of Vermont school board members and superintendents.

The first question after her talk was, “What I most want to hear about is how this Diane Ravitch came to be. A very different Diane Ravitch was for all the things you now call hoaxes and was part of putting them in place. What journey did you go on—and what can you tell us if we might need to go on the same journey?”

Ravitch responded with palpable emotion, “I was part of this. I believed in those things because they didn’t yet exist and sounded good in theory. Now they have [been tried]. I reviewed the evidence. I realized I was wrong and wrote a book about it. I decided the rest of my life would be committed to reversing course and correcting what I got wrong.”

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The extended mea culpa is in Ravitch’s prior book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. In Reign of Error, Ravitch looks at evidence that debunks using high-stakes standardized testing to evaluate schools and teachers, and to allocate federal funding. She examines charter school expansion, virtual schools, and how the application of the free market principles of competition and accountability hinders more than it helps.

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In Reign of Error, Ravitch focuses on sounding the alarm and documenting what’s gone wrong. She now believes these reforms are “the most serious challenge to the legitimacy and future of public education in our nation’s history.”
Agree or disagree, her warnings offer us an opportunity to stop and pay attention to what’s happening in schools and to what we want the future of education in our democracy to be.

What we need next are maps and discussion about the journey ahead—directions for those not here to bury public education but to raise it up, redefine it, and reclaim it.
And there’s good news: Across the country, educators, young people, and communities are avoiding the pitfalls of privatization while making schools into centers of community that are more equitable, more honest, more relevant, more welcoming, and more powerful. To meet the challenges of the present and future, we need to name and nurture these efforts in as much detail and with as much attention as Reign gives to the myths of the accountability movement.

Correction: This article originally referred to Diane Ravitch as "a leading architect" of the No Child Left Behind law. Ravitch was a proponent of the bill, but she was not a member of the George W. Bush administration and did not participate in drafting the bill that become No Child Left Behind. Modified May 16, 2014.

Scott Nine wrote this article for Education Uprising, the Spring 2014 issue of YES! Magazine. is executive director of the Institute for Democratic Education in America and has spent three years traveling, listening, organizing, and learning about the state of education across the United States and Puerto Rico.

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