Palo Altans are as lucky as people who live in Dr. Seuss's mythical city of Solla Sollew, "where they never have any troubles, at least very few," education historian Diane Ravitch told an audience at Palo Alto High School Monday.
Ravitch, who was a top education official in the George H.W. Bush administration and advocated school choice and the testing regime of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, radically broke with her past positions in 2010. She's now promoting her newest book, "Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools."
In a talk to about 40 teachers in the Paly library, Ravitch said an "obsession with standardized testing" and the choice-oriented education reforms advocated by Bill Gates and others are contributing to a dangerous trend toward privatization of public education.
Poverty -- not low test scores -- is the real problem, she said.
"We have 23 percent to 25 percent of kids in this country living in poverty," Ravitch said.
"It should be a national scandal, yet we've been distracted with the idea that schools are causing kids to be poor, to not have high test scores, and if we could just get high test scores everyone would have a job, stay in school and we'd have a utopian society."
The testing labels under the No Child Left Behind Act "don't mean anything," she said.
"They're trying to squeeze us into boxes made by people in Congress who literally don't know what they're doing and didn't read the legislation," she said.
"It was stitched together largely by education aides who don't know anything about education... and it's causing many schools to close."
Ravitch called for a nationwide boycott of standardized testing.
Standardized testing and the so-called accountability movement have enriched armies of consultants while kids in low-income school districts go without instruments for their marching bands, she said.
"Everyone who wants to take their wackadoo ideas public is called a reformer today," she said, including conservative Republican governors such as Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Scott Walker of Wisconsin.
"The big myth is that education is failing, national security is at risk, when in fact my graphs show that test scores and graduation rates have never been higher for black, white, Asian and Hispanic kids, and dropout rates have never been lower.
Many so-called reformers, she said, are "corporate leaders who just echo what the Chamber of Commerce has told them. The more you say that schools are failing the more the public is willing to accept any 'cure' you're offering."
Quoting Mario Savio, the student leader of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement in 1964, Ravitch said, "There comes a time when the machine becomes so oppressive that you have to throw your body at the machine, stop the levers and make the machine stop.
"Here I am, 75 years old, and I'm throwing myself on the machine. It's actually making me younger. My body may be aging but inside there's a raging 25-year-old."
Ravitch was introduced by Paly English teacher David Cohen, who said he had invited teachers from throughout the district to the gathering.
She took few questions because she had to leave for her next speaking engagement at Stanford University.