Review: The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education by Diane Ravitch

Posted by Michael Holzman

The Death and Life of the Great American School System is a critique of Federal education policy, the role of business and private foundations in education, and, finally, an impassioned defense of public schools as “intimately connected to our concepts of citizenship and democracy and to the promise of American life.”

Dr. Ravitch has for many years been known as a conservative education historian and commentator, associated with the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and the Hoover Institution, among others. The Death and Life of the Great American School System represents one of the most spectacular turnarounds in recent American intellectual life. In this book she warns against handing over educational policy decisions and schools themselves to private businesses and corporations. She asserts that there is "something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of public educational policy to private foundations run by society's wealthiest people.”

She argues against vouchers, questions charter schools, and emphatically criticizes high-stakes standardized testing as invalid, unreliable, and tending to narrow the curriculum and devalue the practice of teaching. Ravitch believes, on the other hand, in high standards, a broad and rigorous curriculum, treating teachers with respect and good comprehensive neighborhood high schools as centers of community. She refers to studies by Cecelia E. Rouse of Princeton University and Lisa Barrow of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, casting doubt on achievement gains by students receiving vouchers, and by the RAND Corporation, whose research similarly failed to find achievement gains for charter schools.

Ravitch makes the case that government has failed in the attempt to reform the schools from above in part because it lacks a clear understanding of how schools work on a day-to-day basis. She believes that the No Child Left Behind Act has damaged our schools, not improved them. Focusing on the education program of the current administration, Ravitch points out that the improving test scores in Chicago, a major factor in Secretary Arne Duncan’s appointment, were exaggerated. She criticizes President Obama’s administration for offering increased federal funding to school districts that adopt the same programs that she believes have failed the children of Chicago.

In response to perceived anti-union positions of both the Bush and Obama administrations, Ravitch points out that the highest NAEP scores in the nation are achieved in strong union states, such as Massachusetts, and the lowest scores are in the South, where unions are weak or non-existent.

She suggests that while the standards for achievement should be set federally, the paths to the implementation of those standards should be selected at the local level, using data provided by Washington (as opposed to the more easily manipulated state data sources).

Dr. Ravitch delivers a severely negative critique of programs like Teach for America that send well-educated but untrained young people into schools for only a couple of years—just long enough to begin learning how to teach. She believes that once a broad, high-quality curriculum is in place, we must recruit and train teachers who fully understand that curriculum and the needs of their students, teachers who have learned how to teach and who have a long term commitment to the profession. Then we must develop programs to overcome the real deficits with which many students in our most at-risk communities begin their academic careers.

In The Death and Life of the Great American School System Dr. Ravitch articulates a clear vision of what we should expect our schools to accomplish for our children, a vision of educating “all children in the full range of liberal arts and sciences and physical education.” Her remarkable change of course—based on intensive studies of the effects of the policies she criticizes—has been received with astonished approval by many of those who agree with her that the public schools, offering an equitable opportunity to learn to all students, are the foundation of of democracy.

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