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Diane Ravitch:
The Death and Life of the Great American School System

An Educators' News Feature
March 9, 2010

The Death and Life of the Great American School SystemSeveral weeks ago, I wrote an email of thanks to Diane Ravitch for her postings on the Bridging Differences blog. I wrote:

Hi Diane,

I'm a retired, career elementary teacher who now publishes a news site, blog, or whatever classification it fits, Educators' News, to keep me out of trouble.

I just wanted to write and say thanks for your articles about the current misdirection of many of the Obama/Duncan initiatives.

I've written many times on my site that good teachers are just about maxed out, in reference to the proposed cure-alls of merit pay, more testing, and more charter schools. It was good to see you saying it a bit more eloquently than I, and with a much larger audience. Teachers do write me and thank me for such statements. The "failing schools" and "bad teachers" mantra of many reformers really hurt the morale of our national teacher corps.

Thanks again,

I was surprised when just minutes later, the following reply appeared in my inbox:

Thank you for the good words, Steve. Many friends are teachers and I know how disheartening they find all the teacher bashing.

Be sure to write my publisher and get a review copy of my new book.


I took Diane up on the offer of a freebie and finished up reading The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education over the weekend. A whole lot of other folks must be reading it now as well, as Amazon has apparently sold out its initial stock and now carries the shipping advisory: "Usually ships within 7 to 13 days." (Sold Out? Good news for Diane!) Both Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million appear to have the book in stock.

Diane frames the subject of her book on page one: "Where I had been hopeful, even enthusiastic, about the potential benefits of testing, accountability, choice, and markets, I now found myself experiencing profound doubts about these same ideas." She proceeds across eleven very readable chapters to chronicle the history of modern school reform and address the pitfalls of high-stakes testing, the accountability movement, school choice, and market reforms.

With the Obama administration fully embracing market reforms for education, it's good that as the Washington Post's Nick Anderson put it, "an unlikely national spokeswoman has emerged" for those of us who believe "that performance pay and charter schools pose a threat to public education and that a cult of testing and accountability has hijacked school reform."

Possibly "unlikely" because of her previous support for such school reform plans, but Diane Ravitch definitely has the credentials required to make people in power sit up and take notice. She is Research Professor of Education at New York University and served as an Assistant Secretary of Education during the George H. W. Bush administration and served on the National Assessment Governing Board during the Clinton administration. She's routinely described as "the nation's preeminent educational historian."

For classroom teachers, her observations of the current lousy situation on education "reform" and her common sense suggestions for improving America's schools sound simply too good to be true from someone who hasn't been a career K-12 teacher. She repeatedly makes the point in her book and other writings that the folks currently making education policy and pushing reforms in this country don't have a good understanding of how schools really work. Her grasp of the situation is extraordinary.

She boldly addresses issues that I believe reformers and every administration after LBJ and the Great Society have been afraid to tackle because they have proved so unchangeable:

...the authors of the [NCLB] law forgot that parents are primarily responsible for their children's behavior and attitudes. It is families that do or do not ensure that their children attend school regularly, that they are in good health, that they do their homework, and that they are encouraged to read and learn. But in the eyes of the law, the responsibility of the family disappears. Something is wrong with that. Something is fundamentally wrong with an accountability system that disregards the many factors that influence students' performance on an annual test - including the students' own efforts - except for what teachers do in the classroom for forty-five minutes or an hour a day.

Along with folks like Walt Gardner, Larry Cuban, Valerie Strauss, and the Broader, Bolder Approach group, she's one of the few who gets it. Well, yeah, teachers get it, but no one is listening to us.

Fearing the current direction of education reform may produce "a paradoxical and terrible outcome: higher test scores and worse education," Diane takes on the sacred cows of the education reformers. On market reforms:

Instead of dealing with rancorous problems like how to teach reading or how to improve testing, one can redesign the management and structure of the school system and concentrate on incentives and sanctions. One need not know anything about children or education.

On mayoral control (specifically in New York City) of schools:

School Reform without public oversight or review is contrary to basic democratic principles. In a democracy, every public agency is subject to scrutiny. Removing all checks and balances may promote speed, but it undermines the credibility and legitimacy of decisions, and it eliminates the kind of review that catches major mistakes before it is too late...unchecked power in the wrong hands can facilitate corruption and malfeasance. Even officials of the highest integrity must be subject to checks and balances to ensure that they listen to those they serve.

On charters and the "choice market model:"

The basic strategy was the market model, which relied on two related assumptions: belief in the power of competition and belief in the value of deregulation. The market model worked in business, said the advocates, where competition led to better products, lower prices, and leaner bureaucracies, so it would undoubtedly work in education as well.

So ironically, at the very time that the financial markets were collapsing, and as deregulation of financial markets got a bad name, many of the leading voices in American education assured the public that the way to educational rejuvenation was through deregulation.


But in reality, the regular public schools are at a huge disadvantage in competition with charter schools. It is not only because charter schools may attract the most motivated students, may discharge laggards, and may enforce a tough disciplinary code, but also because the charters often get additional financial resources from their corporate sponsors, enabling them to offer smaller classes, after-school and enrichment activities, and laptop computers for every student.

Charter schools...find it easier to avoid, eliminate, or counsel out low-performing and disruptive students.

The Death and Life of the Great American School System is an interesting read, if not a must read for educators. Beyond poking holes in the current reform agenda, Diane Ravitch also makes some common sense suggestions for starting down the road of true education reform:

  • Leave decisions about education to educators, not politicians or businessmen
  • Devise a truly national or state curriculum that sets out what children should be learning in every grade of their schooling, not what they should be tested on
  • Make sure that our children are learning far more than basic skills and that their education includes history, geography, the arts, the sciences, literature, and foreign languages
  • Attract good teachers with good working conditions and respect for their professionalism, not "merit pay" based on deeply flawed and unreliable test scores
  • Encourage family involvement in education from an early age
  • Pay attention to children's health and well-being
  • Expect charter schools to educate the kids who need help the most, not to undermine public schools by recruiting the most motivated students
  • Recognize that public education is a public service that is essential to our democracy

Note: No, I didn't glean all of those bullet points from the text. Diane's publicist, Angela Hayes, was kind enough to include a cheat sheet with my review copy of the book that pulls together Diane's recommendations for education that appear throughout the book.

One last thing that really struck me in the book was Diane's repeated reference to "lost opportunities." No Child Left Behind has clearly been a lost opportunity. While it did focus attention on the achievement gap, most of the law's effects were negative. With a new administration and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act up for reauthorization, there is another opportunity to address what needs to be fixed in America's public schools. Diane's book reveals that we're well on our way to another lost opportunity if the current Obama/Duncan game plan is written into law.

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©2010 Steven L. Wood