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EduSanity: Reign of Error in Your Ways: An Open Letter to Arne Duncan

It is an honor to be invited to review Diane Ravitch’s new book and participate in its national release today. Rather than writing a garden variety book review, we decided that we would share lessons that Ms. Ravitch explores with the current Secretary of Education, Mr. Arne Duncan, in the form of an open letter. We do not write this out of mean spiritedness, we simply hope that he’ll read the book and come to the same conclusion that we did: most of what he’s helped do to American education since 2009 is dead wrong, even the direct opposite of what should have happened.  We also hope the readers of EduSanity will pick up a copy of Reign of Erroras it is an eminently readable account of just how far off course American education has been steered by Duncan most recently and others over the past 30 years. 


Dear Secretary Arne Duncan,

We write to you today with all seriousness and hopes that you come across our letter, read it, and reconsider your own Reign of Error as Secretary of Education.  We are two lifelong educators who currently work, teach, and research together at the University of Arkansas. Through our involvement in the EduSanity website, we’ve read Ms. Diane Ravitch’s latest book, thought of you throughout a good deal of it, and arrived at the conclusion that nobody can benefit from reading this book any more than you. Thanks in advance for reading our letter and considering the points we share.  We strongly urge that you immediately purchase the book and read it yourself. Much of what you apparently stand for is debunked in this book, not necessarily news to us.

Arne Reading to Students

Look kids, a nice lady wrote this book and mentions me OFTEN!

Competition and privatization will not “fix” our “broken” schools, as you so much want the American public to believe. As Ravitch points out in the very first chapter of her book, the standards and national assessments that were supposed to save our schools have, in their other forms, yet to yield positive results in American education.  We assume you don’t know this since you seem to be completely ignorant of the considerable evidence that Ravitch succinctly presents in Chapters 3 through 5 of Reign of Error. Incredibly, you and your friends in the private sector have continued to plunge us forward (backward) into the abyss by requiring even more testing. Instead of reversing course from failed Bush administration policies, Ravitch describes how you got together with leaders from private foundations and doubled down on their bad ideas with the unmitigated disaster of Race to the Top.  Ironically, you seem to believe that competition somehow begets equity despite the fact that competition means one side wins while the other side loses.  This may have worked when you played basketball against Barack Obama back in the day, but it is a horrible injustice when applied to schools where equity is desperately needed, and the poor are forced to compete with the rich for students and federal dollars. Schools are all on the same team.  As Ravitch puts it:

By dangling the chance to win millions of dollars before hard-pressed states, the Obama administration leveraged changes across the nation, aligning state education policies with the requirements of Race to the Top. Among the premises of Race to the Top was that charter schools and school choice were necessary reforms; that standardized testing was the best way to measure the progress of students and the quality of their teachers, principals, and schools; and that competition among schools would improve them. (Ravitch, 2013, pp. 14-15)

Like Dr. Ravitch, we understand the lack of research behind these ideas and that “not one has a strong body of evidence or research to support it” (p. 15).  Knowing this, we can only assume that Race to the Top was a sign that you have “abandoned equity.”

 The very concept of “race to the top” repudiates the traditional Democratic Party commitment to equity; it suggest that the winner will “race to the top,” leaving the losers far behind. But a commitment to equity means that federal resources should be allocated based on need, not on a competition between the swift and the slow. (Ravitch, p. 28)


We don’t have time or space to go into detail on each of the topics Diane Ravitch takes you to task on, but here’s a list of things about which you could possibly learn a great deal if you pick up her book on your way to the next photo shoot in a classroom (like your old classroom, oh wait):

  • Test Scores– Despite what you would have America believe, our test scores are at the highest point ever recorded.  Give Chapter 5 a try.
  • International Test Scores– Ravitch describes how American students are nowhere near as deficient as is portrayed in the media and by corporate reformers.  Read chapter 7 and find out how your diversion of educational resources for the sake of comparing test scores with other countries is sucking the “American” out of an American education.
  • Teach for America– We’ve always wondered why you thought it was a good idea to take our nation’s neediest students and give them the most inexperienced and least prepared teachers, creating a revolving door cycle in their schools.  Ravitch explains in chapter 14 why you might want to reconsider this idea.
  • Charter Schools– While a good idea for their original intended purpose – allowing for local control of schools to meet specific student needs – your move towards allowing private interests to use charter schools to turn a profit puts our kids up for sale to companies that use sneaky tactics to weed out the “undesirable” (i.e. poor) children so that they can claim to be better than public schools is divisive not innovative.  Ms. Ravitch shows you the error of your ways in chapter 16.
  • Vouchers– Voucher programs are a failure.  Period.  The pathetic base of “research” that claims otherwise is systematically dismantled by Dr. Ravitch in chapter 19.

Mr. Duncan, we could go on but you should really just buy Reign of Error and get the information first hand from Ms. Ravitch.  Heck, go ahead and use some of our tax dollars to get yourself a copy; since you’ve already blown about 5 billion on failed accountability and privatization schemes, what’s another 20 bucks? We’ll consider it a savings of about $4,999,999,980 if you read this book and immediately reverse course. Are you really not aware of the extent that the private foundations are influencing your decisions and how wrong that is? Our children aren’t numbers and their education should never be for sale, especially not to large corporations with a long history of holding back certain genders, classes, and races.  Yet, your own chief of staff, Joanne Weiss, shows us just how lucrative your reforms have been, not to mention the real intent, for mega edu-corporations like Achieve Inc. and Pearson:

The development of common standards and shared assessments radically alters the market for innovation in curriculum development, professional development, and formative assessments. Previously, these markets operated on a state-by-state basis, and often on a district-by-district basis. But the adoption of common standards and shared assessments means that education entrepreneurs will enjoy national markets where the best products can be taken to scale. (p. 21)

If we are to believe your rhetoric—and we don’t—the federal government didn’t have anything to do with these standards and they are not curriculum. Have you considered a career in comedy?

When you say that you want better public schools, we would like to believe you are telling us the truth. Unfortunately, the last five years have shown us that you are either completely ignorant of the laundry list of failed policies dismantled in Reign of Error or you are, in fact, a complicit part of the “Hoax of the Privatization Movement” and are yourself part of the “Danger to America’s Public Schools” Diane Ravitch refers to in her title.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of Americans are unaware of what is currently happening in our schools:

The public is only dimly aware of the reform movement’s privatization agenda. The deceptive rhetoric of the privatization movement masks its underlying goal to replace public education with a system in which public funds are withdrawn from public oversight to subsidize privately managed charter schools, voucher school, online academies, for-profit schools, and other private vendors. (p. 31)

Please, Mr. Duncan, read Reign of Error as soon as possible.  Our children, our schools, our teachers and even our American way of life may depend on it. As Ms. Ravitch closes Chapter 21, we encourage you to think very carefully about her advice: “We need solutions based on evidence, not slogans or reckless speculation” (p. 226).





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Christian Z. Goering

Chris Goering is an Associate Professor of Secondary English Education at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. He received his Ph.D. (2007) and M.Ed. in Cu...