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The Death and Life of Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education [Hardcover]

Diane Ravitch


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9 Feb 2010 0465014917 978-0465014910
A passionate plea to preserve and renew public education, The Death and Life of the Great American School System is a radical change of heart from one of Americas best-known education experts. Diane Ravitchformer assistant secretary of education and a leader in the drive to create a national curriculumexamines her career in education reform and repudiates positions that she once staunchly advocated. Drawing on over forty years of research and experience, Ravitch critiques todays most popular ideas for restructuring schools, including privatization, standardized testing, punitive accountability, and the feckless multiplication of charter schools. She shows conclusively why the business model is not an appropriate way to improve schools. Using examples from major cities like New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Denver, and San Diego, Ravitch makes the case that public education today is in peril. Ravitch includes clear prescriptions for improving Americas schools: * Leave decisions about schools to educators, not politicians or businessmen * Devise a truly national curriculum that sets out what children in every grade should be learning * Expect charter schools to educate the kids who need help the most, not to compete with public schools * Pay teachers a fair wage for their work, not merit pay based on deeply flawed and unreliable test scores * Encourage family involvement in education from an early age The Death and Life of the Great American School System is more than just an analysis of the state of play of the American education system. It is a must-read for any stakeholder in the future of American schooling.


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"NYSun.com" "Public education is a tough enterprise. It won't be fixed overnight. But if we stick with a back to basics approach, saturated with the solid American democratic values that Ms. Ravitch advocates, we won't be so prone to fall for the silver bullets that never seem to find their mark." "Los Angeles Times" ""The Death and Life of the Great American School System" may yet inspire a lot of high-level rethinking." Valerie Strauss, "Washington Post" "Her credibility with conservatives is exactly why it would be particularly instructive for everyone--whether you have kids in school or not--to read "The Death and Life of the Great American School System."" "Booklist," starred "For readers on all sides of the school-reform debate, this is a very important book." Library Journal, starred "[A]n important and highly readable examination of the educational system, how it fails to prepare students for life after graduation, and how we can put it back on track...Anyone interested in education should definitely read this accessible, riveting book." Howard Gardner, Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education "Diane Ravitch is the rarest of scholars--one who reports her findings and conclusions, even when they go against conventional wisdom and even when they counter her earlier, publicly espoused positions. A 'must' read for all who truly care about American education." Linda Darling-Hammond, Charles E. Ducommon Professor of Education, Stanford University, and Founding Executive Director, National Commission for Teaching & America's Future "Diane Ravitch is one of the most important public intellectuals of our time. In this powerful and deftly written book, she takes on the big issues of American education today, fearlessly articulating both the central importance of strong public education and the central elements for strengthening our schools. Anyone who cares ab

About the Author

Diane Ravitch is Research Professor of Education at New York University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. From 1991 to 1993, she was Assistant Secretary of Education and Counselor to Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander in the administration of President George H.W. Bush. President Clinton appointed her to the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees federal testing. She is the author or editor of over twenty books, including "The Language Police" and "Left Back," and her articles have appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines. A native of Houston, Ravitch graduated from the Houston public schools, Wellesley College, and Columbia University. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  169 reviews
280 of 296 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Destined to Become the Most Influential Book on Education Reform in Memory 3 Mar 2010
By Andrew Wolf - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
No silver bullets. This is the simple premise of Diane Ravitch's new book, "The Death and Life of the Great American School System," which is being brought out this week by Basic Books. Written by one of our nation's most respected scholars, it has been eagerly awaited. But it has also been, at least in some quarters, anticipated with a certain foreboding, because it was likely to debunk much of the conventional -- and some not so conventional -- wisdom surrounding education reform. This is a fabulous book that may well become the most widely read volume on education reform in memory.

Much of the publicity and controversy over the book has to do with changes in public policy positions Dr. Ravitch has taken recently - away from choice and testing. And while she has evolved in her thinking, to my mind she has been remarkably consistent. As she always has, Dr. Ravitch believes in high standards, a rigorous curriculum, treating teachers with respect and never straying from the truth - which is why she has become critical of testing programs that have fostered a culture of lies and exaggeration. And she backs up her positions - old and new - with convincing data and perceptive analysis.

"The Death and Life of the Great American School System" is a passionate defense of our nation's public schools, a national treasure that Dr. Ravitch believes is "intimately connected to our concepts of citizenship and democracy and to the promise of American life." She issues a warning against handing over educational policy decisions to private interests, and criticizes misguided government policies that have done more harm than good.

Ideas such as choice, utilizing a "business model" structure, accountability based on standardized tests and others, some favored by the left, others by the right are deemed as less, often much less, than advertised. Dr. Ravitch doesn't oppose charters, but rather feels that the structure itself doesn't mandate success. As in conventional schools, there will be good ones and bad ones. But charters must not be allowed to cream off the best students, or avoid taking the most troubled, as has been alleged here in New York City.

Her main point, however, is broader. "It is worth reflecting on the wisdom of allowing educational policy to be directed, or one might say, captured by private foundations," Dr. Ravitch notes. She suggests that there is "something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public educational policy to private foundations run by society's wealthiest people." However well intended the effort, the results, in her telling, have not been impressive, in some cases doing more harm than good.

These foundations are beyond the reach of the voters' will, and they themselves, "are accountable to no one," Dr. Ravitch writes. "If their plans fail, no sanctions are levied against them. They are bastions of unaccountable power." Dr. Ravitch questions why we're allowing the relatively small financial contributions made by the foundations, dwarfed by the hundreds of billions America spends on public education, to leverage the entire investment? And she asks who, when there is no accountability, will take the fall if things go horribly wrong?

My experience, writing about public education in New York City, suggests that many of the prescriptions imposed by the foundations have indeed resulted in spectacular failures. But I can't recall a single press conference at which a somber foundation head, flanked by the local superintendent and mayor says, "Sorry, pupils, we really bollixed that one."

The Gates Foundation has pumped billions into the creation of small high schools, facilitating the destruction of hundreds of existing larger high schools. So unsuccessful has this strategy been that Mr. Gates has now abandoned it throughout the nation. Many experts, Dr. Ravitch among them, could have told Mr. Gates that the problem wasn't the high schools. It is that the students were arriving at these schools ill prepared to do high school level work.

What of the once-great comprehensive high schools, institutions with history and in some cases a track record of success going back generations? As time moves on, it is fast becoming clear that the new small schools, many with inane themes (how about the School of Peace and Diversity?), can never substitute for a good neighborhood high school, which can become a center of communal life and pride. Dr. Ravitch's report underscores the fact that the trick is to fix the neighborhood schools beset with problems, not destroy them.

The involvement of charitable foundations in education is familiar ground to Diane Ravitch. She came to prominence as the nation's leading historian of education with the publication of her acclaimed book, "The Great School Wars, New York City 1805-1973." The final chapters in that book are an account of the controversy over community control of the city's public schools that began during the 1960s, facilitated by the Ford Foundation, resulted in a bitter teachers' strike, and delivered a clunky, partially decentralized restructuring.

Had it not been for these events, her history of New York City's public education system might have quickly been forgotten, gathering dust on library shelves. But history is not just the distant past, but the news of yesterday as well. By putting events, still fresh in our memories, into relevant context, Dr. Ravitch demonstrated their importance in the larger historical context and made her reputation.

An article she wrote more than 40 years ago, entitled "Foundations: Playing God in the Ghetto," sounds like something from the front pages of today's news. No other observer of the events surrounding our schools brings such a deep perspective to the events of today in our schools, always different but so much the same.

If the Broads, Waltons and Gates really want to fix America's schools, a good place to start would be by purchasing a copy of Dr. Ravitch's book for every Washington bureaucrat, senator, representative, state legislator, mayor, school superintendent, school board member, and principal. That could set the whole system moving in the right direction.

It is not only the foundations that Dr. Ravitch blames for the current crisis: government has also failed in the attempt to reform the schools from above, lacking a clear perspective of how schools work on a day-to-day basis. Thus, the major federal initiative, No Child Left Behind, well intentioned as it may have been, ended up damaging the quality of education, not improving it.

While the federal government declares schools as "failing" and prescribes sanctions for schools not meeting its goal of "annual yearly progress," it is the states that are allowed to write and administer the tests. This has led to a culture of ever-easier tests and more test preparation rather than real instruction. More ominously, it led to such scandals as the New York State Education Department lowering the "cut scores" that define the line between passing and failing.

Dr. Ravitch suggests that the proper roles of the states and federal government have been reversed under NCLB. Maybe the standards for achievement should be set in Washington, which, after all, administers the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and the solutions found at the local level, using the accurate data provided by Washington. Instead of moving in a different direction from the failed NCLB model of the Bush Administration, the Obama administration has adopted and expanded on them.

When appointing Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the president cited Mr. Duncan's record of "improving" test scores in Chicago. Dr. Ravitch points out that these improvements were rejected as exaggerated and "not real student improvement" in a study by the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago. She notes that the Obama administration is linking increases in federal funding to mandated adoption by other districts of the same programs that have already failed Mr. Duncan and the children of Chicago.

Teacher-bashing, so in vogue among the "reformers" dominating the national discussion, is rejected by Dr. Ravitch. How could the unions be responsible for so much failure when, she asks, traditionally, the highest scores in the nation are posted by strong union states such as Massachusetts (best results in the nation) and the lowest scores in the south, where unions are weak or non-existent?

The mania for closing "failing" schools also comes under the Ravitch microscope. To her mind, closing schools should be reserved for the "most extreme cases." Virtually alone among those discussing educational policy, Dr. Ravitch appreciates the value of schools as neighborhood institutions. To her mind, closing schools "accelerates a sense of transiency and impermanence, while dismissing the values of continuity and tradition, which children, families and communities need as anchors in their lives."

I saw this at work recently with the closing of a high school in my old Bronx neighborhood, a school from which both my mother and wife were graduated. Will the replacement hodge-podge of a half dozen unrelated "theme schools" drawing conscripted students from all over the city, ever mean as much to the local community, or have the potential to contribute to its renaissance?

If there is no silver bullet to fix the schools, Dr. Ravitch reassures us that the public schools can be greatly improved, even without miracles, the heavy hand of government or direction from the mega rich and their powerful foundations. What does Dr. Ravitch suggest instead?

She advocates a clear vision of what we should expect our schools to accomplish for our children, and a "well conceived coherent and sequential curriculum" designed to fulfill that vision, declaring our intention "to educate all children in the full range of liberal arts and sciences and physical education." Dr. Ravitch notes that one state that has a particularly well-regarded curriculum, Massachusetts, routinely outperforms the other states on national and international measures.

Once a quality curriculum is in place, we can recruit and train teachers who fully comprehend what is expected of them, and develop programs to overcome the real deficits that many students in our most at risk communities bring to their academic careers. Similarly students must understand what standards of behavior and academic commitment are demanded of them. Testing should again be used as a device to help students in a diagnostic way, not to punish adults or stigmatize schools.

Public education is a tough enterprise. It won't be fixed overnight. But if we stick with a back to basics approach, saturated with the solid American democratic values that Dr. Ravitch advocates, we won't be so prone to fall for the silver bullets that never seem to find their mark. Read this book!
168 of 180 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A book of warning and wisdom 17 Feb 2010
By Diana Senechal - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a wonderful book. With precision and soul, Diane Ravitch shows why our present-day education reforms are likely to do more harm than good: they are based on ideas extraneous to education and too often ignore its content. Closure, breakup, privatization of schools, rigid pedagogical models, teacher evaluations based on test scores--none of these reforms addresses why and what we are teaching in the first place. No Child Left Behind gave us accountability without substance; worse, it gave us "a timetable for the demolition of public education in the United States." Charter schools in themselves are no solution; they vary widely in quality and as a whole have not outperformed public schools. Small schools are no solution; they may lack many of the resources of larger schools, and some small-school initiatives have proven disastrous.

In chapter 1, Ravitch writes, "School reformers sometimes resemble the characters in Dr. Seuss's Solla Sollew, who are always searching for that mythical land `where they never have troubles, at least very few.' Or like Dumbo, they are convinced they could fly if only they had a magic feather. In my writings, I have consistently warned that, in education, there are no shortcuts, no utopias, and no silver bullets. For certain, there are no magic feathers that enable elephants to fly."

Through fascinating analyses, narratives, interviews, and descriptions, Ravitch shows how our education reformers miss the mark again and again. But the book is far from despondent. There is much we can do, Ravitch argues, if we honor the substance of education and give our schools the support they need. This book should long outlast the reforms criticized in its pages. Its prose and principles stand strong against the times.
40 of 42 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Indispensable Read about American Public Education 11 Mar 2010
By Steve Koss - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
There was once a time when evolution and refinement of one's thinking, even the changing of one's views, was considered the mark of a cultivated mind. Ongoing observation, collection and synthesis of information, formulation of new (or revised), experience-based theories and conclusions -- all were respected as the rightful path to truth for the well-trained mind. In more recent years, particularly in today's hyper-partisan America, such intellectually commendable behavior as come to be considered a sign of weakness, of a craven caving-in to "the other side," sometimes viciously castigated as cowardly, traitorous, or just "selling out." It was Billy Joel, however, who wrote (in "Shades of Grey") that "...the only people I fear are those who never have doubts."

Given this current state of affairs, Diane Ravitch opens her latest book, THE DEATH AND LIFE OF THE GREAT AMERICAN SCHOOL SYSTEM with a defense (bordering on apology) of her evolved thinking on the subject of public education in America. An education historian of national repute with a deep background in the Bush/Clinton/Bush era of school reform, Ms. Ravitch freely confesses that many of the reforms she had enthusiastically espoused and supported in the 1980s and 1990s -- "testing, accountability, choice, and markets" -- are simply not working. Her present assessment is actually rather worse than that, as evidenced by her book's subtitle: "How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education."

THE DEATH AND LIFE OF THE GREAT AMERICAN SCHOOL SYSTEM is a simply masterful work: articulate but highly readable, addressing complex subject matter with depth and clarity, authoritative but not dryly academic. Ms. Ravitch combines historical perspective with the results of numerous foundation studies and judiciously constrained use of statistics to argue her case that American public education has gone seriously off-track since roughly the time of the first Bush Presidency in 1989. She faults both Democrats and Republicans for this situation, relegating much of their behavior to political posturing around quick fixes coupled with an under-informed infatuation with corporate business models and free market thinking as the answer to the country's education issues. As a result, the ideal of a liberal education, encompassing not just multiple subject areas (science, math, history, geography, English writing and literature, foreign language, art and music) but also such traits as curiosity, passion, persistence, risk-taking, self-learning, empathy, and tolerance, has been supplanted by "measurables," especially test scores in math and reading/English.

Ms. Ravitch's book follows a loosely chronological arc from NYC's District 2 and San Diego in the 1990s to NCLB and the NYC business model for education implemented under Mayor Michael Bloomberg in the early 2000s. She retraces her temporal steps somewhat to address school choice and its transformation from a Friedmanian espousal of vouchers to support for charter schools. In the latter third of her book, she addresses three other, important points of contention: the problems introduced by slavish devotion to quantifiable accountability as the only measure of school success, the definition of "great teachers" and how they are measured under current systems, and the role of publicly unanswerable major foundations (Walton, Gates, and Broad) and how they are almost single-handedly dictating the path of public education reform in the U.S. For this reader, the chapter on these foundations (aptly titled "The Billionaire Boys' Club") was the most revealing and disturbing one in the entire book.

In her final chapter, "Lessons Learned," Ms. Ravitch makes her case for what needs to be done at this point. She begins this exercise with the absolutely correct question, the very one that punches an enormous hole in NCLB: "What does it mean to have (i.e., offer to children) a good education?" She then proceeds to argue for a national curriculum (or alternatively, strong, state-defined curricula), assessments that are "as good as the curriculum," multiple measures of school quality, support for rather than closure of struggling schools, well-educated and well-paid teachers, increased family involvement, and increased expectation of civility in schools. Unfortunately, these prescriptions come across as vague and rather idealistic, not nearly forceful or specific enough to stem the current tides against which she herself has turned.

No matter one's political or educational persuasion, THE DEATH AND LIFE OF THE GREAT AMERICAN SCHOOL SYSTEM is essential reading. Those who agree will find in this book a reasoned, history- and evidence-based justification of their views (and rejection of many current education reform initiatives). Those who disagree should, at the very least, consider the case being made and reevaluate the strengths and weaknesses of their own positions.

Hopefully, Diane Ravitch's book will give a few moments' pause for reflection to national leaders who seem swept up by the lavish promises of reform via data analysis, accountability, and free market (read, privatization) of our public education system. For anyone who wants to understand what has happened to American public education in the past two decades, THE DEATH AND LIFE OF THE GREAT AMERICAN SCHOOL SYSTEM is an indispensable read.
71 of 79 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Widening Perspective on School Reform 22 Feb 2010
By Sophie - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
In this unique and necessary book Diane Ravitch, the dean of historians of American education, offers new and convincing ways of looking at the received wisdom about how to remake our urban schools. With the courage of character and the understanding gained from years of both scholarly and government experience, she asks the simple question, "What works?" She takes a good hard look at the various paths followed by school reformers--policymakers, business leaders, foundations, and government--with their various emphases on markets, accountability and incentives, testing, charter schools, and voucher plans. These attempts, largely structural and managerial, have failed to address what Ravitch has come to see and convinces us her readers is the cornerstone of education in a democracy--the public school system that holds us all together in a common culture. Its subject matter, history and civics, literature and the arts, has been all but lost in the frenzy of test preparation that has taken over classrooms everywhere in the country.

Ravitch makes an illuminating case as she uses the experience of New York City to show how political aims trump real learning when test scores are used as indicators of educational progress by leaders looking to their own reputations as they misrepresent the meaning of the numbers that hide what really matters--what students are learning. Yes, it's the curriculum, stupid.

Ravitch's passionate belief in the importance of what we teach our children--what makes a full human life and a good citizen--is inspiring. No one can read this book without gaining a new understanding of how we have been failing and where we should turn now. This wise and lively book should be read by every parent, every teacher, and everyone who cares about the future of our country.
24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Intriguing and Informative, Regardless of Your Political Stance 20 July 2010
By Daniel Murphy - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
To start this review off in a moderately inflammatory way, I'll mention that I first heard of Diane Ravitch's new book when the head of the teacher's union in my school district recommended that the school board (which I'm on) read it. Our school district, which considers itself innovative, has seized upon many of the in vogue ideas that claim to promote student success and achievement: small school initiatives, charter schools, proficiency based learning, data driven teaching, amongst others. Here in Oregon, we are facing the duel specters of the worst financial crisis in the last seventy years, and the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law grinding its inexorable way towards the consequences of setting laudable, but unachievable goals.

A bit of my background that may help frame my comments: I'm a family physician that raised four children (all now adults) with my wife. My wife has been a teacher since 1974, teaching (and loving) middle school for the last 15 years. I come from a conservative background, moderately paranoid of the intentions of unions, pro-innovation, and thoroughly frustrated with the expense and mediocrity of public education. I'm not someone to just complain and criticize from a distance, though: I've been a hard-working school board member for over six years. I've learned a lot. Diane Ravitch's book taught me a whole lot more, much of which I didn't want to know. I'm the better for it.

Ravitch doesn't unleash a focused salvo in her book, instead marshalling a more broad-based reexamination of some enormously popular (with politicians, the public, and business interests) concepts in public education. They also happened to be concepts very popular with me: teacher pay linked to performance, charter schools, consequences for schools, teachers, principals if they don't meet performance goals, data driven education based on test scores.

Ravitch is neither a reactionary, nor a radical. Though she has worked at a variety of highly influential jobs in education, her specialty is the history of education. All of us know what those who don't know history are doomed to do, and it behooves even skeptics (not just skeptical school board members) to turn an attentive ear to what is carefully laid out in The Death and Life of the Great American Education System.

It would be wrong, in this review, to take sides on the issues that Ravitch addresses. It isn't that I don't have opinions (my fellow school board members would howl at that notion), but that voicing them would detract from what I'd like others to know about this book. What I would like to hook a potential reader of this book with is this notion: whether you are an ardent supporter or a bitter opponent of charter schools, pay for performance, NCLB, rigid focus on the basics (reading, writing, math), you will turn the last past page of this book with a far more informed and thoughtful perspective than you had when you turned the first page.

And turn those pages you will, because if a non-fiction book about education can possibly be a page turner, this is the best candidate yet for that designation. It is not an overstatement to say that some of the history that Ravitch recounts about the upheavals in education that have occurred in New York, San Diego, Washington D.C., as well as the results of several billion dollars in grants by organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is gripping, even a bit mind-bending. Ravitch's careful walk through what the press SAID was happening during these upheavals, versus the actual cold hard facts that emerged when all the dust from the tornadoes of hype and opinion surrounding them settled to the ground, is instructive to all conservatives and liberals that lay claim to having an open mind.

My wife, the middle school teacher, says that one of her goals with every student is to make them into a lifelong learner. All of us that are interested in public education should aspire to that same goal for ourselves. Ravitch's approach to what she perceives as ailing in education is a finely crafted and highly personal one, personal enough that few readers are likely to find themselves in complete agreement with her. What almost every reader will acknowledge, though, by the end of the book is that their perspective has been broadened, and their understanding of the issues has been deepened. It is not too often that a book forms a bridge between a school board member and the head of the teacher's union, but this one is capable of doing so (and did).
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