Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Review of Diane Ravitch's The Death and Life of the Great American School System

Diane Ravitch;s book The Death and the Life of the Great American School System is one of those rare books that will either ignite some long-needed, introspective discussion by the educational establishment about testing, accountability, and charter schools, or it will simply be brushed aside by politicians, business and media as the usual excuses made by an educational system that just does not want to change. Back in the 1990s when all the politicians and media were bewailing the failure of our schools because of the decline in SAT scores, I remember purchasing David Berliner's book The Manufactured Crisis which very clearly pointed out some of the flaws in the logic using SAT scores to decide whether public schools were failing or not. I thought then that his book made a great case for not using SAT scores to judge the effectiveness of schools. Yet, the media and politicians continued to harp about SAT scores and about which schools and states were failing because of low scores. It was as if David Berliner's book had never been written. Even though, by well-reasoned and logical arguments, Diane Ravitch's points out that the culture of testing and accountability is destroying our public schools, I am afraid her book may suffer the same fate. I just hope the victims of these political games are not the children of this country and our beloved public school system.

Ravitch carefully points out in
 The Death and the Life of the Great American School System how the push for national standards metamorphosed into the testing and accountabilty movement, and she also describes how the original charter schools movement has been hijacked by those who originally sought vouchers and other ways for government to fund private and sectarian schools. With example after example, statistics, and logic she explains how both of these movements became entrenched in our public schools. According to Ravitch, what is behind these two movements is the mistaken belief that opening public schools to free market reforms will force reform in the entire American educational system. This belief in the ability of the free market to force reform is not only held by some of the most wealthy educational foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, The Walton Family Foundation, and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, but it is now firmly held by both political parties. The Democratic party which was once the party that espoused many of the same beliefs held by the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers and endeared itself to teachers in general, now has bought into the free market reform strategies that has been pushed by the Republican party as far back as the Reagan administration. Ravitch makes a reasoned argument why these reforms will not work in public schools. The ultimate result of the testing and accountability movement is the dumbing down of the curriculum because states have lowered their standards to meet the impossible-to-reach everybody-is-proficient deadline of 2014. This same overemphasis on test scores is also forcing teachers to "teach to the test" which is not creating well-rounded, educated graduates. With President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan's "Race to the Top" initiative which for the first time pushes to tie student test scores to teacher evaluations, one can only imagine that "the test" will become even more important. Teachers will spend even more time on test preparation than ever before.
Ravitch also points out some of the flaws in the arguments regarding increasing the number of charter schools. The same large education foundations that have convinced the Obama administration to adopt draconian policies regarding tying testing to educator job performance, are also pushing for increased numbers of charter schools. According to Ravitch, the reasoning that charter schools are more effective is just not true. She quotes several studies, and most point out what common sense would tell you, "There are good charter schools and there are bad charter schools," and logic would also tell you that the same thing is true for public schools. The studies, according to Ravitch, just do not support that charter schools do a better job at increasing student achievement. Ravitch also points out that one of the end results of charter school movement are charter schools that siphon off the best students, refuse to admit special needs students like special education or English as a second language students. These students and those whose parents do not take the initiative or interest to apply and pursue charter school admission languish in regular public schools now void of the better students. The end result is a dual education system that distributes students based on haves and have nots, and in some cases, on race and ethnicity.

Diane Ravitch's book has the potential to ignite honest discussion about what the testing and accountability reforms and the charter schools reforms are doing and will do to our American system of education. It also has the potential to cause conversations about what she thinks will do more to reform education, which is the development of a more complete and comprehensive curriculum that will create well-rounded, highly-educated graduates. Her mantra that "There are no quick fixes, no magical solutions to fix education" should resound loudly to educators everywhere that have had to suffer through educational fad-after-education fad during the course of their careers. Though, perhaps this time with these two reform measures, the stakes are higher. The public education system we have come to love may not survive she warns us. Who are the ones who really lose? Our kids.

I highly recommend this book for all educators. It should be discussed and its ideas debated by teachers, administrators, politicians, and government leaders. It really does have the potential to foster serious debate and discussion regarding the culture of accountability and testing and the push to increase the number of charter schools.

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

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